Today I have a guest review of Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero, a great horror-esque read for fans of Stranger Things, Scooby Doo, or even John Scalzi, by one of my favorite library people and fellow ARRT Steering Committee Member, Bill.
At every ARRT Steering Committee meeting, we always leave time for people to talk about books they think the group should know about. Often these are off the beaten path title suggestions that one of us enjoyed, or had a patron who enjoyed it, and we want to make sure we pass it on, the old fashioned way, by book talking to each other. At our last meeting [September], Bill mentioned loving Meddling Kids and how it would be perfect for fans when Stranger Things Starts back up and for Halloween to give to patron who want a little bit of horror and its tropes but not the full blown thing.
Bill is an excellent book talker always [he is a former student so I know this first hand], but this time he particularly did a great job getting to the essence of why the group needed to know about this title. Meddling Kids is a book I have been meaning to read, but I know I won’t get around to it, so, enter Bill to save the day. Below is Bill’s review and I will be adding it to the Review Index so you can pull it up easily at a later date.
Take it away Bill...
On the surface, Blyton Hills, Ore. is a sleepy backwater burg identical to thousands of other small towns of little significance or occurrence. Yet its topography of mysterious lakes, swamps, caves, abandoned mines and decrepit mansions provide the perfect playground for enterprising amateur sleuths and adventurers. Enter the Blyton Summer Detective Club, a group of four plucky pre-teens (along with their elderly crime-busting canine, Sean), with a penchant for stumbling upon villainous plots hatched by shady creeps who invariably incorporate masks and costumes into their malfeasance (Sheep rustlers? Yes!). It’s 1977 and the Detective Club has just put the kibosh on their biggest caper yet: the case of the Sleepy Lake Monster. And while the case has brought them local fame and notoriety (picture-in-the-paper level fame!), it will also be their last as the four crime-stoppers go about their lives and eventually drift apart.
Fast forward to 1991 and we are introduced to the human wreckage that is what remains of the Blyton Summer Detective Club. Former intrepid tomboy Andy (don’t call her Andrea!) has emerged as a rough-and-tumble drifter wanted in two states, still grappling with the heartbreak from her unrequited love for Kerri, the Detective Club’s brainiac science prodigy. For her part, Kerri has ditched the science for booze, bartending and drinking her way through New York City. The one bright spot remaining in Kerri’s purposeless life is Tim, the not-nearly-as-bright grandson of the Detective Club’s original star pup, Sean. Meanwhile, diminutive tag-along Nate has spent his adult years in and out of mental institutions. Peter, the Blyton Summer Detective Club’s hunky, jocky, golden-boy leader was able to parlay that picture in the paper into a career as a Hollywood movie star, only to be found dead of a drug overdose while at the height of his fame. His ghost may also be haunting poor Nate. All three survivors are tortured by nightmares, leading miserable lives enveloped in fear, doom, and emptiness; all found themselves in this condition after the Sleepy Lake Monster. Unable to continue with the status quo, Andy decides the Detective Club must reunite, return to Blyton Hills, and try and uncover exactly what it was that happened to them during that last case of theirs that has made their lives in the years since the Monster so difficult and debilitating. Back in Blyton, the gang will convene with allies old and new, dig deeper in to the secrets of the town and its history, and ultimately face off with an alien evil from time immemorial.
Okay, let’s confront the 800lb. Great Dane in the room that goes by the name of Scooby-Doo. Could a person read Meddling Kids with no knowledge of the kids in the Mystery Machine and still have a good time? Sure. At its core Meddling Kids is a solid action-horror story and a welcome addition from the School of Lovecraft. The language is salty (often to hilarious effect), the violence is slick with blood and gore, and the sex is, well, sexy. But to not embrace the loving homage to the pillars of childhood pop culture Cantero offers up is to miss the point (and heart) of the book. And it’s not just the Scooby gang that’s in the spotlight. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, Tales from the Darkside, 80s horror movies, 70s Chopsocky, Buffy, and an army of others all get poured into Cantero’s giant mashup cereal bowl. To Cantero’s credit, he plays the story straight with no fourth-wall winks or nods from his characters and no overtly comic goofiness. Any irony or self-referentialism is spawned by the reader’s own nostalgia of Saturday morning cartoons and other youthful pop-culture anachronisms; and with that buy-in comes a heartfelt payoff provided by Cantero, who smartly skips the snark for affectionate wit.
While the initial draw to Meddling Kids is the amusing, if not whimsical, concept of its backstory, the book really takes off due to the deftness of Cantero’s pacing and use of humor. After a reasonably brief character set-up, the team lands in Blyton and the sleuthing commences in full-throttle mode. As the Club unravels more and more of the mystery, the action accelerates accordingly (Big Thunder Mountain-esque ride through a mine, anyone?), climaxing with the very fate of the world on the line. Characters are few, but all serve the story well and are presented with appropriate depth. Is this book Literary? Nah. Is it a good time? Hell yeah! Every once in a while I encounter a book that seems to convey the blast the author seemed to be having while writing it (John Scalzi, Lauren Beukes, Ernest Cline—I’m looking at you lot). Meddling Kids fits that profile for me. Fans of sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, YA, suspense, and humor can all come to this party and leave satisfied, as long as one can make the initial Scooby-Doo buy-in. Hmm. I could go for a snack.
Review by Bill Stephens, Bensenville Public Library