Supernatural Southern Gothic is how Hoodoo, the atmospheric new middle-grade novel from Baltimore author Ronald L. Smith, has been described. It’s the chilling, but ultimately triumphant, story of 12-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher, living in a small Alabama town during the 1930s. Hoodoo’s family is well-versed in a folk magic called hoodoo—so much so that the boy’s grandmama, Mama Frances, names him after the traditional magic when she sees the heart-shaped “red smudge” under his left eye at his time of birth. “That child is marked,” she says. “He got hoodoo in him.”
But when Hoodoo tries his hand at the magic the rest of his family wields with ease, he fails. “Everybody else in my family could conjure,” he says. “Conjuring is using words to cast a spell, if you didn’t know.” Little does he know, though, what’s in store for him when the mysterious and malevolent Stranger comes to town. It all starts with late-night, dug-up corpses in the local cemetery, bodies with their hands cut off.You read that right. Smith isn’t foolin’ around. He goes straight for the horror here, and the results are good.
Though Smith, whom I talked to via email about the novel, said he grew up reading Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor (“I guess you could say I was a fan,” he says), he didn’t really consider Hoodoo a Southern Gothic story until he was well into crafting it. “The further in I got,” he explains, “the more evident it became that it was, indeed, Southern Gothic: the deep South; odd, vivid characters; the setting itself being a character. The flora and fauna, omens and visions, alienation, a supernatural bent to the story. I think these are all hallmarks of the Southern Gothic genre. I’ve been telling kids that if the Lemony Snicket books were in the South, they’d probably be Southern Gothic. They are certainly akin to Gothic fiction.”
The Kirkus review refers to it all as a “distinctive mashup of genres” and also praises Hoodoo’s authentic voice as the book’s intrepid protagonist. I myself read this one aloud (to my own children) and can attest to Hoodoo’s unforgettable voice—as well as to the book’s merit as a read-aloud. (Verdict: gladly recommended.) It’s a voice marked with fear and vulnerability—Hoodoo essentially faces down the Devil himself, after all—but also with humor and style. “My bones were shaking in my pants,” he says on more than one occasion, which is sure to elicit laughs in the middle of all the terror. He’s also fond of wrapping up thoughts with “if you didn’t know,” as if speaking directly to readers. It’s a gamble in that such repeated phrases can sometimes wear on readers, not to mention it risks Hoodoo coming across as condescending. But it just works, weaving humor into the story and adding flavor to the very real and complicated character Hoodoo is.
“With any character,” Smith tells me, “the more you write, the more they become flesh and bone. I knew Hoodoo was a young black boy in the Deep South during a certain time and place, so that informed a lot of his persona. From there, it was just drawing on my own knowledge and experience about the South and what it would be like to live during that time. My parents were a great resource, as that is where they are from. I also wanted to write the kind of story I’d like to read.”
The more Hoodoo learns about the Stranger, the more he learns about his own family’s past and, in particular, the father he never knew, described to Hoodoo as a “powerful mojo man” but who left town and died when Hoodoo was but five years old. Learning how the Stranger is linked to his father’s own story is a large part of Hoodoo’s adventure, filled with fortune tellers, the spirit world, root doctors, potions and elixirs, shadow selves, sinister crows, prophetic dreams, mojo bags, devils at crossroads, the all-seeing eye of God, and prayers to Saint Michael the Archangel to ward off evil. And it’s when Hoodoo has to muster up enough courage to save his best friend Bunny that his own hoodoo is tested—and when he learns precisely what it means to have heart.
It’s an ambitious story, especially for a debut novel. Smith says his road to publication is a long story but that the short version is simple: “I’ve always been a writer—from the time I was a kid. I used to write literary short stories, but that didn’t go very far. Only after working as an advertising writer for 20-some years did I rediscover my love for children’s lit. Hoodoo was the third novel I wrote—and the one that got me signed. It sold a few weeks after being on submission.”
And when I ask him about taking on horror for his first book, he stresses the importance of authors writing stories they want to tell. When asked to give advice to aspiring writers of horror in the realm of children’s literature, he adds: “If it’s too scary, I’m sure your critique partners or editor will tell you to step back and think about it a little more. But I also don’t think we as writers should censor ourselves too much when it comes to scary stuff for kids. Everyone likes a good, scary story! These books also help kids learn about life and consequences and bravery. But don’t make the mistake of talking down to kids or trying to moralize. They can sniff it out miles away.”
For his next book, Smith doesn’t seem to be shying away from the art of the good, scary story. His next novel, The Mesmerist, is one it’s a bit too early to discuss, if you didn’t know. But he’s excited. “Think turn-of-the-century London,” he explains, “a young girl with supernatural powers and a shadowy dark threat called Mephisto. Lately I’ve been saying [it’s] Penny Dreadful meets Downton Abbey. For kids. With lots of monsters.”
My bones are already shaking in my pants.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.