Friday, July 9, 2021

Gustav Gloom and the People Taker

Gustav Gloom and the People Taker
by Adam-Troy Castro
Recommended Ages: 10+

Fernie What and her older sister Pearlie love scary movies, books and stories, even though their father is a professional worrier, paid to spot anything with even the smallest chance of causing injury. Show the girls a haunted house, and they'll be excited. Show him one, and he'll be on the lookout for collapsing staircases and rusty nails sticking out of boards. So when they move into a new house, literally across the street from a scary old mansion, it's dead certain that one or both of the girls will end up exploring the place – especially after Fernie befriends the strange, sad little boy who lives there: a boy named Gustav Gloom.

Gustav never leaves the grounds of the Gloom mansion, a dark, turreted place surrounded by swirling mists. When Fernie chases her cat into the place in the middle of their first night in the neighborhood, she finds out that it's even stranger and spookier on the inside. It's haunted not by ghosts, but by shadows that have become separated from the people (and cats) who cast them. It has a library full of books that could have been written, but never were; a gallery of famous statues, striking awkward poses that the original sculptors missed; a Too Much Sitting Room where anyone who sits on the chairs becomes a permanent part of the upholstery; a jungle-like bedroom alive with the shadows of every dinosaur who ever lived; and yes, a bottomless pit with an evil being named Lord Obsidian at the other end.

You won't meet Lord Obsidian in this book, which is a relief, because the minion of his that you do meet is bad enough to cause nightmares. His name is the People Taker, and he's been taking people and doing things to them too horrible to put into words for far longer than he's been working for Lord Obsidian. But now, the People Taker has made an unprecedented arrangement with his lordship, taking nine people for Lord Obsidian for every one that he keeps for himself. Whatever either of them would want from those people, Fernie has in spades – putting her and her family in freakish danger. But there's also something about Fernie that brings out the power of friendship in Gustav, strange and lonely boy that he is. They've just started getting to know each other, and already they prove that they'll both risk a lot to save each other from the People Taker, his terrifying Beast and the fate that awaits anyone who falls into the pit.

This is a stange, super-dark fantasy for kids. You know it's for kids because of the cute illustrations depicting waifish children – one, a pale, thin boy with a black suit and black hair that sticks straight up; the other, a vivacious girl in werewolf pajamas and Frankenstein's monster slippers. Also, it decorously avoids stating outright what kinds of things the People Taker does to the people he takes. (It keeps putting "take" in italics, which I suppose is meant to make you shiver.) Gustav's home brims with bizarre and often threatening concepts, and exactly who or what he is becomes a puzzle that you'll still be picking at when you reach the end of the book. The book also packs in some endearing family moments, a goodly number of laughs (the first time I laughed outloud was in its second paragraph) and a unique fantasyscape that hints at many fascinating possibilities yet to be revealed.

This is the first of six "Gustav Gloom" books. Subsequent books in the series are titled (Gustav Gloom and the) Nightmare Vault, Four Terrors, Cryptic Carousel, Inn of Shadows and Castle of Fear. Castro, a Florida-based sci-fi/fantasy/horror writer who (if the dedication of this book is to be believed) counted the late, great Harlan Ellison as a personal friend, is also the author of the Andrea Cort space mysteries, the satirical chapter books Z is for Zombie: An Illustrated Guide to the End of the World and V is for Vampire: An Illustrated Alphabet of the Undead, some Spider-Man graphic novels, lots of short stories and novellas (many of them featuring the zany duo of Vossoff and Nimmitz) and several other books, with and without such co-authors as Jerry Oltion. His short stories have some intriguing titles, like "Just a Couple of Ruthless Interstellar Assassins Discussing Real Estate Investments at a Twister Game the Size of a Planet" as well as the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated stories "The Funeral March of the Marionettes" and "The Astronaut from Wyoming."

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