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Don't Read This! and Other Tales of the Unnatural

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            Don't Read This! and Other Tales of the Unnatural is an anthology of horror stories by award-winning writers from around the world. The book's dust jacket states that the volume was "conceived, created, and published in cooperation with the International Board of Books for Youth (IBBY) . . . [whose] mission is to insure that as many children as possible all around the world get the opportunity to read beautiful books" - horrifyingly beautiful, in this case.  A word to those easily frightened:  "Don't Read This" book just before going to sleep.   As Gebel (2002) noted, this book[i] is "guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of the neck."  I can almost guarantee that you will have nightmares after reading it. (I did!)

            Each of the anthology's stories has a frightening theme.  Margaret Mahy's Fingers on the Back of the Neck deals with a grandson's murder of his grandmother.  The Mountain, The Ravens, and The Eyes all center on terrifying events that happen in the dark of night.  The protagonist in Ghost Story is haunted by a malevolent, vengeful ghost.   In an interactive twist, Don't Read This! unfolds the disturbing history of an evil spell made worse by the reader's continued reading.  The authors of The Mirror and The Ivory Door outline in shocking detail what happens when their characters go through to the other side.  The protagonists in Grandfather's Clock and The Song of the Whales search for mysterious keys - one key for a clock that binds the dead with the living and the other for unlocking a world where dreams come to life.  And Uninvited Guests ­- for me the most terrifying of all - horrifies the reader with a story of uninvited, otherworldly guests in a young boy's brain.

The authors created stories with settings in many countries.  With one exception and several unknowns, most of the stories are set in the countries where the authors live and have few cultural markers.  U.K. writer Susan Cooper's Ghost Story is the exception; Cooper's tale takes place in Connecticut.  The Ivory Door retells "a medieval legend (110)" and has no country setting indicated, nor do Grandfather's Clock and Uninvited Guests.  While character names in these last three stories could be construed as having the flavor of a particular language (e.g., Jorge in Uninvited Guests), the names alone don't lend a strong cultural flavor to the stories.

In fact, the setting is mentioned rather casually in most of the stories.  That is, both the country setting and culture play secondary roles to the scary happenings.  This is seen in Mahy's Fingers on the Back of the Neck and Kordon's The Ravens.  Mahy briefly mentions "Oz" and the "Gold Coast," references to Australia.  The Ravens are encountered when Kordon's protagonist is hiking through the Black Forest (without mentioning the exact location of the Black Forest [73]).

Cultural markers in Zimbabwean Charles Mungoshi's The Mountain  are limited to names  (like Nharo and Umtali, a city whose name bears some resemblance to Umniati, a city in central Zimbabwe) and scary elements - superstition, witches and spirits - that are common to many cultures.  While the names and setting hint at Africa, they don't point to any particular culture.

In opposition to the preceding stories, Piumini's Don't Read This!  is very specific in its settings.  Like a triptych, Puimini's three-fold story has multiple settings.  The first part is setting-specific and owes its horror to an ugly page in history - the religious/ethnic conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovena.  The second part, an environmental disaster in the making, takes place on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean after the ship departs from Liverpool.  The third horrific disaster apparently takes place in Italy, judging by names (Pasquali, Di Sghinopoli, and the Italian word onorevole [honorable], used as a title). The bureaucratic cover-up could, unfortunately, happen with any peoples and cultures.  While the settings are location-specific, cultural markers make a significant addition to the feel of the story only in the first of the three parts.

Culture plays an integral role in only two of the stories, Kadono's The Mirror and Pearson's The Eyes. 

When Ariko's hateful alter ego escapes The Mirror, repercussions are soon felt.  In a society where children are expected to be respectful, the alter ego's defiance, lies, and anger sadden Ariko's parents, causing much household tension.  Ariko's parents argue, and Ariko's mother blames her father for their daughter's change, saying that [in stereotypical fashion] all the father does is "'work, work, work . . . It's no wonder Ariko's started misbehaving (103-4).'"  When Ariko and her alter ego revert to their original places, Ariko notes, "Nothing seemed to have changed.  But I had seen the other side of my mother and father.  I knew that I would go on living with this mother, this father, and that girl who was the other side of myself."  Ariko has seen what lies beneath her society's cultural veneer of respect and conformity.

Kit Pearson builds The Eyes around common Canadian cultural markers - Canada's immense size and European heritage.  Ten-year-old Bernie is afraid of flying.  However, Bernie and her older sister, Michelle, fly from their Nova Scotia home across Canada's vast landscape to visit Aunt Sheila in Vancouver.  There, Bernie meets Grizel (short for Grizelda, "a common [name] in Scotland then [139]"), her great-grandmother Margaret's heirloom doll, whose eyes glow fearfully in the dark.  Bernie's fears are intensified by the fact that her parents are far away, on Canada's eastern coast.  The horror evident in Grizel's eyes reflects a tragic event in the family's heritage:  the burning death of Margaret's younger brother in a fire in Scotland, which both Grizel and Margaret  witnessed but were helpless to avert.

 


[i] Gebel's annotation shows the title, publication facts, illustrator, physical description of the book and ISBN number to be the same as the book I examined.  However, Gebel shows Margaret Mahy to be the editor of the anthology, something that was not stated on the book I read.  Gebel's annotation was also the only thing I could find that came close to being a critical review of the anthology.

 

 

Don't Read This! and Other Tales of the Unnatural. 1998. Asheville, NC: Front Street/Lemniscaat.

Gebel, Doris J. 2002. Annotation of Don't read this! and other tales of the unnatural. In The World through Children's Books, ed. Susan Stan. Lanham, MD; London: Scarecrow Press.

 
This review was written for a graduate class at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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