Fiction Review

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A children's fantasy turned to nightmare.

By Denise Dumars     April 05, 2000

Thomas 'TJ' Randall is a popular children's author who is about to have his STRANGEWOOD stories made into a film. As he discusses this with his agent, he is struck by the idea that maybe the film should be live-action instead of animated, for the characters in it seem very real to him. He is also a divorced father, and something very bad is about to happen to his only child.
So begins STRANGEWOOD, Christopher Golden's most recent adult horror novel. It is not a children's book, although the settingStrangewoodis a place that resembles such imaginary children's fantasy worlds as the Hundred Acre Wood or Narnia. Unlike those places, the Strangewood of the novel is not entirely a place of the imagination, nor is it completely benign.
Thomas thinks his son Nathan is having emotional problems due to the divorce, for the boy sees strange things out of the corner of his eye and reports disturbing occurrences surrounding his imaginary friend. Thomas's ex-wife, Emily, is also concerned about the boy, and in her own life has made some steps toward starting over by dating a promising suitor. The incidents surrounding Nathan's growing fears become stranger. Thomas now thinks that someoneor somethingis stalking him and his family, for he, too, sees evidence of strange events around his home and family. But by the time he gets glimmerings of what is really happened, it's too late. Nathan slips into a coma-like state, and both his parents find their worlds crashing down as they are powerless to help their son.
What they don't know, at least yet, is that he is in Strangewood. No longer a cutesy, kiddie place, Strangewood has metamorphosed into the abode of frightening creatures, each with his own agenda. Some of these creatures are downright evil, and there are more secrets to be learned about Strangewood and what its origins really are as we progress through the book. Just how real is Strangewood? Even Thomas's ex-wife begins getting glimpses of the citizens of Strangewood, such as the grumpy dwarf Grumbler and the hyena-man Laughing Boy.
But the reader first sees Strangewood through Nathan's eyes, as the boy is carried in the arms of the benevolent Peanut Butter General, who is attended by the screaming, orange-shaped-and-scented Orange Pealers. Nathan is both afraid and in a state of wonder at the strange yet familiar place he has been brought to. Here he will encounter both friends and enemies, and nothing in Strangewood will ever be the same again.
Eventually, Thomas will have to go to Strangewood to save his son. How he does this happens off-screen, and it is never really clear--at least to this reader--if the deed that precipitated it was done intentionally and, if so, how he knew it would work.
Even after Thomas enters Strangewood there are truths as yet unrevealed that will come to light. Meanwhile, Nathan is in danger of his life, and Golden pulls no punches in showing the young boy's plight at the hands of the supernaturally frightening Jackal Lantern, the dangerous Longtooth and the disgusting Cragskull. The reader truly feels that the child is in terrible danger and winces at his treatment in Strangewood.
The central conceit of the novel--a cute, fun children's fantasy world gone bad--is handled well. The characters in the story present themselves as real people; we see the author having lunch with his agent, the ex-wife beginning a tentative relationship, and it all feels like real life. All the better, then, to make the unreality of Strangewood come alive once its power has been revealed.
The story is compelling, and the pace of the novel is always right on target. I found it compulsively readable, and believe others readers will feel the same way. STRANGEWOOD made its way onto the official preliminary ballot of the Horror Writers' Association Bram Stoker Awards. If a jury of one's peers found it worthwhile, then chances are you will, too. STRANGEWOOD is not for the faint of heart, nor for young children, but neither is it offensive in its presentation of both supernatural and realistic horror, and it is definitely not in the realm of the 'splat pack.' Perhaps traditional horror really is coming back into style. One can always hope.

STRANGEWOOD, by Christopher Golden, Signet, 1999. 320 pps. $6.99. ISBN 0-451-19765-8.


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