Overnight, our tales about the swamp swung from complete fantasy to an infectious reality. Folks are just as likely to talk about the ghosts that their sister/cousin/uncle saw as they are anything else. As much as I’d like to disavow all of it, there are still some things I can’t explain. And far be it from me to discount a thing because I don’t understand it. I wasn’t blessed with a staggering intellect for nothing.
—Behold the Bones, by Natalie C. Parker
What’s the best sort of book to read during a snowstorm? Well, if I’m being entirely honest, I’d have to admit that I’d probably give you a different answer on any given day, but during this last snowstorm, my answer would have been Small-Town Southern Paranormal. I blew through Natalie C. Parker’s two books set in spooky Sticks, Louisiana—Beware the Wild and Behold the Bones—and now I’m already waiting for a third installment.
Beware the Wild is about Sterling Saucier, who sees her brother Phineas run into the swamp and disappear….not just from sight, but from the memory of everyone else in town. He is replaced by a girl named Lenora May, a girl who came out of the swamp the same day that Phin went in, but who is now recognized as Sterling’s older sister. Sterling wants Phin back in her life and Lenora May out of it, but as she’s the only one who even remembers that Phin exists, it’s going to be an uphill battle….
It plays with classic horror tropes as well as elements from fairy tales—the danger and wild in nature, the power of belief, the importance of origin—but it’s also very much a story about siblings and family. It deals with domestic abuse—the long-term fallout and how hard it can be to break the cycle—and it explores the lines between love and obsession, the instinct to protect and the desire to control.
While Behold the Bones—due out later this month—takes place shortly after Beware the Wild, it’s more a companion novel than a true sequel. It features the same core cast of characters, but follows one of Sterling’s best friends, Candace Craven Pickens, who happens to be the one person in town who is immune to the magic of the swamp. Not just immune to its effects—she can’t even see it.
Most of the time, that wouldn’t be a huge problem, but Sticks is currently in the middle of a ghost epidemic, so everyone except Candy is seeing ghosts everywhere. And now there’s a reality-show ghost hunting family in town, and you’d think that they wouldn’t be at all interested in a girl who can’t see their prey…but they are, and almost alarmingly so.
Beware the Wild is an entirely entertaining, enjoyable, page-turner of a read. Behold the Bones is all that, but stronger across the board, both in terms of craft and originality. For one thing, how many YA books really even deal with menstruation, let alone make it a major plot point? And it opens with the acknowledgement that the events of the first book actually changed life for the residents of Sticks, that said events changed peoples’ understanding of the world—people still have their own personal secrets, but no one is trying to deny the truth of their town anymore—which is SO unusual. (Think of Buffy, where most Sunnydale residents didn’t—wouldn’t—look at the reality of their situation, or of any number of other stories in which the core cast works to keep magic a secret from the general population.)
Candy is a heroine who meets difficulties and challenges head-on—some might say recklessly—with stubbornness and bravery, self-respect, self-confidence, and a whole lot of good humor:
I’ve never understood why the promise of love has the power to make a perfectly reasonable person feel like they’re incomplete without it, to get weak in the knees, or act a fool. If someone made me that nervous, I’d hightail it in the other direction faster than they could spit. Give me a high-impact love that makes me stronger than I already am. Or give me nothing at all.
She is, at moments, jaw-juttingly furious with her parents, but she never questions their love for her or her love for them; she commits a huge, huge Friend Foul, but again, there is never a question about her love for Abigail, or Abigail’s love for her. (Fingers crossed that the third book will be about Abigail, who is fantastic.)
As in the first book, Parker plays with familiar tropes, but in this case, she does more to subvert them. In one of my favorite moments, she neatly sidesteps the familiar beats of the Dangerous Handsome New Boy trope by having Candy respond to the DHNB’s entreaty to NOT trust him by responding “No problem,” and walking away. It was such a delightful moment that I literally cheered. She also briefly—but wonderfully—comments about the utter unhelpfulness of the Knowledgeable-yet-Cryptic Old Lady archetype.
Like Beware the Wild, this book has plenty of spooky moments and ghostly magic, but it’s just as much about friendship and family and trust and forgiveness as it is about the woo-woo. And Parker depicts rural life in a way that I don’t see particularly often—Candy wants out of her small town, but the residents aren’t portrayed as backwards hicks or mean-spirited gun-nuts. Hunting is a way of life, as are guns, but thankfully, the Chekhov's Gun rule doesn’t ever come into play.
I loved Candy’s voice so much that I’m going to let her play you out. Here’s her completely accurate take on scary stories:
These stories give everyone a chance to be safe scared—they’re imagining something horrifying from the safety of a sleeping bag, and in some strange way that’s fun. I’ve always seen the stories for what they are—tools of the very fine art of manipulation. I understand their parts in a way that lets me tell them again and again while keeping the thrill of fear very close.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.