Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

I never expected a middle grade book to scare me the way Small Spaces did. Katherine Arden, author of The Bear and the Nightingale, has crafted a wonderfully creep scary story that surprised me on each page.

In this book we follow Ollie, a super smart sixth grader, who is struggling with the loss of her mother the year prior. Ollie’s adventure begins when she runs into a crying woman by the creek, this woman has a book and is going to throw it in the water. Ollie ends up stealing the book and going home to read it. The book is an old scary story, but nothing is as it seems when Ollie goes on a field trip to Webster farm and discovers that the books she stole could possibly be related to scarecrow infested farm. On the way home the bus breaks down and she is warned by her terrifying bus driver that there are monsters in the mist and they are coming to get the kids. Ollie sets off with two friends to uncover what’s out there and to save their class.

Small Spaces builds tension in a way that makes you simultaneously afraid to turn the page but excited to. This constant sense of dread propels you forward in this downward spiral of fear. You know the horror is coming yet you keep going and when it fianlly unfolds in front of you a tingle will snake its way down your spine. I never knew that I was afraid of scarecrows until I read this book, the fact that they are around every corner and moving when they’re out of sight really creeped me out. Imagine that the monster trying to get you moved when you aren’t looking and can show up at any second.

The setting in Small Spaces is suffocating, but not in a bad way. You fly through the dark deserted woods and then into cramped farm houses, the book is littered with claustrophobia to really get your heart pumping. The imagery of where you are really shines through, I could see myself standing in the woods or carefully walking across rotten bridges. The story includes you in every step and you never feel like an outsider peeking in.

We are left with very clear descriptions of the horrors that stand before Ollie, one instance that really made me anxious was a description of the bus driver. Arden writes, “This time the driver turned to face her. Ollie got a terrible shock. His eyes had turned white, white as an egg, pupil-less. He might have been blind except he was definitely looking at her. His teeth were perfectly white too, sharp against red lips.” I found this so frightening because the contrast of white against red is so vibrant, and when most people think about bus drivers they don’t think of pupil-less hell demons. Arden takes the mundane everyday people and places and turns them into horrifying mechanisms to push the story onward.

A detail about this story that I enjoyed was Ollie’s watch. Her watch was dead prior to this field trip, only a memento of the past, but beyond the mist of the woods it starts aiding her on her journey to the truth. It tells her where to go and gives her a countdown to nightfall (when the horrors come out to play), and it added to the mystery of the story. The watch gives Ollie’s history depth and makes you want to learn more about her. The twist about the watch is a tad predictable but heart warming none the less.

My only squabble with Small Spaces is that it is a little bit predictable. No one is who they seem but they do stick to common character tropes that litter horror stories. You can mostly see where the books is heading and the ending, while different, still fits the typical scary story model. It resolves too perfectly in my opinion.

I give Small Spaces a 4/5 stars because it is a fantastic middle grade horror story with depth and fear inducing scenes. I knocked off a star for predictability only.

I just want to thank Netgalley for the opportunity to read the free uncorrected copy of this book for my blog.

Be sure to check out Small Spaces by Katherine Arden and keep your eyes peeled for the next book in the series titled Dead Voices expected to release on August 27th, 2019.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

One of the greatest elements in horror is making you question whether the greatest evil of all comes from within. In Katsu’s The Hunger we are posed with evil from all angles, external and internal. This novel does not make its monsters a secret, we get our fill of bloodthirsty creatures stalking the night, but what it does hide beneath the surface is the secrets and atrocities that the people next to you are capable of committing.

In The Hunger we get to see the Donner Party re imagined as they make their great western trek across America. While most people already know how this story ends, Katsu offers up a different explanation for the Donner’s cannibalistic demise by throwing monsters into the picture. But, this is not your typical hack and slash monster story, it has a depth that was unexpected and truly impressed me. I was left more curious about the evil that lies within human beings than anything.

We follow the party along their journey viewing the events through the lens of many different travelers. The most prominent being Charles Stanton, a lone traveler with a secret, Tamsen Donner the wife to the patriarch and leader George Donner, and James Reed a family man with a fatal flaw. The wagon train is going well until George Donner makes the irrational decision, influenced by the hack Lansford Hastings, to turn away from the Oregon trail and set course through the mostly untamed trail heading toward Weber Canyon with the expectation to take an easier trail through the Wasatch mountains. No such trail existed. Instead they faced hardship after hardship through the Great Salt Lake and meeting their eventual demise in Sierra Nevada Mountains. The unexpected twist is that the party is under near constant surveillance from creature lurking in the trees, the party starts questioning who or what the creatures are and as more of the pioneers disappear or go mad the panic begins.

I have a, probably, unhealthy fascination with the way gore is described in novels, and Katsu does this very well. Nauseatingly well. I have always had an admiration for people who can make my stomach turn just through description, Katsu truly did not let me down. Here’s an example that gave me the creeps, “The head was intact. In fact, if you only looked at the face you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. The boy’s eyes were closed, long brown eyelashes stark against chalk white cheeks. His fine blond hair was plastered against his skull, his tiny mouth closed. He looked peaceful, as though he were sleeping. But from the neck down…” This description is just so fitting of the novel altogether. At first glance it seems like it will be a normal story about pioneers, but underneath it festers with something evil. Another of Katsu’s abilities, is the ability to instill fear. One of her descriptions of the monsters sent a shiver down my spine, she wrote, “His fingers grazed the very end of the rifle stock. Slipped. But the thing had him now, had a mouth around his ankle- Stanton gasped in terror as he saw human eyes, a human nose…” Something about this imagery just paralyzed me. As much as I would like to include a few more sentences from that section I can’t because it would give too much away. Just trust me when I say that this book is freaky.

It is very clear that Katsu dedicated a lot of her time to researching the history for the Donner party so that she could perfectly execute an adjacent story line. She has a familiarity with the history that creates an intimacy between you and the party. It feels like you are peeping in on the hidden lives of the Donner party, non of her creative liberties feels disingenuous or implausible. It inspired me to read up on the historical background of the Donner Party and it is crazy for me to think about the sheer amount of research that she must have put in. A lot the history and people are accurate, it takes the term historical fiction to a new and impressive level. Katsu didn’t just take a moment in history and use it to loosely base a story on, she embedded herself in the history and based her fiction as closely on reality as possible.

I’m a sucker for horror, but I do not believe this made me biased towards this novel. This novel truly deserves any praise that is receives, and for me it is an easy 5/5 stars. I was entertained throughout and had such a hard time putting the book down. Horror novels have a tendency to speed up and slow down as suspense intensifies and wanes, but not The Hunger. The internal and external conflicts are so intense and well written that it is hard to lose interest for even a second.