Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Writing from the Shadows

     I recommend books to my kids all the time. I know what they like, so I pay attention to what's coming out and getting good reviews for my own sake as well as theirs. My oldest, however, rarely reads the books I rave about. It's partly because her pleasure-reading time is limited by the required reading for school (sadly, it's not one and the same), but also because she likes to pick her own books (though I can claim responsibility for getting her a little obsessed over a vampire romance book when it first came out in 2005). So when she picked up Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and started reading it, I was happy.
     We were at my son's baseball game and I'd brought the book along to read between innings. I hadn't started it, so I was a little miffed that she'd finally shown an interest in the one book I was really excited to start. Anyway, she sat next to me with the book and was well into the first couple of chapters. Suddenly, she jolted.
     'Oh my goodness', she said. She took her sunglasses off, and wiped her eyes. "I wasn't expecting that."
     Naturally, as a writer, her reaction got me curious. Short of taking it out of her hands, I waited until she finished reading for the day and started the book later that night. I needed to know how Riggs' accomplished that effect. And this is what I found:
     Riggs is a master of atmosphere and setting. In his story, the main character, Jacob, witnesses the mysterious death of his grandfather who, as an orphan, lived on a remote island off the coast of Wales in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Jacob sets off to visit the island and uncover the secrets which his grandfather hinted at before his death. His quest leads him to the abandoned orphanage, a hulking nightmare of a structure, which Riggs describes in haunting detail.
     But before Riggs even took me to the island, he surprised me with his breath-holding prose during the same scene that rattled my daughter. Sure, I was expecting it; I knew it would happen fairly early in the book, so my surprise wasn't pure. What I noticed is that what he didn't reveal had a greater effect on me than what he did. His scenes are full of shadow and light, things seen and unseen. His storytelling allows the reader's imagination to take the story to another level.
    The book reminded me a little of a movie that I saw when I was about fourteen. I refuse to watch it again, even as an adult after all these years. It was Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, and I saw that it was just remade (though I heard the reviews weren't stellar). In the story, a woman is terrorized by knee-high demons in her own home. I never really saw the demons until the end. Instead, they were characterized by their shadows on the wall, the moving curtains where they hid, their whispers. I was superbly freaked out for weeks. And why? Because it was the idea of them, the suggestion of what was just around the corner. Riggs accomplishes the same effect in his book.
     So I let my daughter finish Miss Peregrine until I dove into the rest. I started reading it the other night from the beginning. Last night, I read before bed as I do every night. I finished a couple chapters and really, really wanted to continue to the next. But I saw that Jacob was heading back into the house again. Alone. On a foggy afternoon. And I was alone; everyone else had gone to bed. The curtains were still open in the family room. It was too quiet, too dark outside. I was creeped out, thanks to Miss Peregrine.
     Has a book ever had that effect on you? I'd love to know which one.


  1. I have heard so many amazing things about this book. I can't wait to read it.

    I hate it when I've left the curtains open until dark and I have to go right up to th window to shut them :-)

  2. @ Sarah: It's my favorite of the year so far. And yes, I can't get them shut fast enough when that's the case.

  3. You've certainly piqued my interest in Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children!

    A book I read many, many years ago that totally freaked me out was Where Are The Children by, I think, Mary Higgins Clark. And of course, anything Stephen King - especially The Shining and Pet Cemetery!

  4. Yes, I remember that one, Susanna! And SK's earliest novels had the same effect on me.

  5. Love the pictorial image you posted of the spooky house, Dawn. I can't help but think there's a whole story there. Can you tell?
    I might be too scared to check later...

  6. That's the thing - it's the rustling in the shadows that's truly freaky! I never read a book that made me feel that way, but when I saw the Halloween movies? OMG, I couldn't go to the washroom after bedtime for a while (we had two, one of which was all the way downstairs in the laundry room). I kept thinking Michael was hiding in a corner ready to pounce on me!! *shivers*

  7. @ Mirka: Isn't it great?! I'm sure it's full of stories!
    @ Crystal: Yes, Halloween didn't do any favors for people with overactive imaginations like myself!

  8. I haven't seen the movie but Miss Peregrine's is near the top of my TBR list. After your post, I will move it to the top.

    I also wanted to let you know that you have an award waiting on my blog - Congrats!

  9. Hi Dawn. Fellow campaigner checking in. I followed your latest posting, and as you neared revealing what encouraged such a reaction from your daughter, I stopped. I want to read the novel for myself and see if I too react. Thanks for the heads up.

  10. @ Pauline: You're safe from spoilers in the post! I just discussed his technique and didn't give away specifics

  11. I can relate to your daughter picking her own books. I have one that doesn't like anything I read and another one that wants to read everything before it's even out of the Barnes & Noble bag.

    I am very intrigued by this book. I'm going to have to check it out.


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