In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s youngest son Willie Lincoln was laid to rest. Newspapers from the time report seeing the President visit his son’s crypt in the night to cradle the boy’s body. Departing from this real historical event, Lincoln in the Bardo, MacArthur Fellow George Saunders’ first novel, is a moving journey through the netherworld and a meditation on what it means to love what you cannot hold.
In a Georgetown cemetery, the spirit of Willie Lincoln refuses to move on, instead arriving in a strange place called the “Bardo,” a dizzying state between life and death where the dead refuse to believe that they’re dead. There, spirits replay past events and undergo strange transformations in their struggle to cling to the world. The arrival of Willie upends this delicate world, particularly the visits from his father, who is the first living being the dead have seen in years.
Lincoln in the Bardo is written in a style unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s narrated by characters who speak in turn like a play, some of whom are from real historical sources such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and some of whom are ghosts. I found myself re-reading the first few chapters, not quite sure of what I was getting into, but once I adjusted to the unusual style, the novel was accessible, fast-paced and binge-worthy.
Saunders has created a historical novel that flirts with fantasy and sacrifices, features his readers have come to love. Fans of his comic imagination, Vonnegut-esque inventiveness and blunt sensitivity will find his talents are on full display.
Anyone who enjoyed The Underground Railroad’s inventive approach to American history will find much to love, but Lincoln in the Bardo is sure to ensnare adventurous readers of all kinds.
Everything that’s new is scary when you’re a kid. Everyone remembers how hard it is to try new food, make new friends or move to new places. But what if you found out that your new neighbors really were monsters? That’s where Charles finds himself in Drew Weing’s excellent all-ages story The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo.
Charles is a conservative kid. Like really conservative. He even has his own conspiracy blog. He hates foreign food, art museums, opera and he especially hates the monster that lives in his closet. No one believes it’s real, but luckily Charles meets someone who does: monster expert Margo Maloo. Together they journey into the troll’s lair, expecting to “take him out,” but in a surprise twist, Margo knows him! His name’s Marcus. He’s actually a pretty cool guy.
It turns out that Margo is more of a monster mediator than a monster hunter. This means that sometimes she helps kids get rid of monsters, but more often it’s the other way around. We discover that monsters of the city have their own secret community whose way of life is under constant threat from encroaching humans. As Margo drags Charles along on a number of adventures involving these friendly neighborhood ghosts, goblins and ogres, he learns to be more open-minded toward his new and scary neighbors.
Inspired by '70s kid lit like Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Cricket in Times Square, Margo Maloo is an imaginative mystery comic with a strong message of empathy. To stay up to date on Margo’s whereabouts, make sure you follow her faithful assistant Charles F. Thompson on Twitter.
Many readers will be surprised to learn that Raina Telgemeier is one of the most successful graphic novelists working today. Her comics may not be the stuff of spectacular blockbuster movie adaptations, but she has an uncanny eye for the subtleties of school age friendships, romantic relationships and the pain of braces (which hits especially close to home for me). She connects with readers — especially young ones — and this has led to her books outselling popular comics like The Walking Dead or whichever superhero book Marvel or DC are pushing this week. Telgemeier outpaces them with personal, self-contained stories about children and, with her new book Ghosts, Telgemeier has taken yet another step forward as a storyteller. Retaining her signature warmth and breezy humor, her subjects now include death, family illness and ghosts.
Ghosts follows a family who’s just moved to Bahía de la Luna, a seaside town whose ocean air is especially good for Maya, the youngest daughter who has cystic fibrosis. But the protagonist of the story is Catrina, Maya’s older teenage sister.
Maya is a classic child, silly and wise. She has a peace with the world that’s hard to retain when you become Catrina’s age. But Bahía de la Luna is not your average town, and the girls begin spotting ghosts and real-life spooky, scary skeletons. Maya has questions for the ghosts, but Catrina is terrified of them and the uncomfortable feelings they stir up about her sister’s health. Through many lessons, Catrina will learn that inviting ghosts into her life may be the healthiest thing she can do.
Ghosts is the perfect all-ages read, full of beautiful landscapes, cartoonish humor and wisdom. Leave it to Telgemeier to take the heaviest of subject matter and make it jovial.
Meet Sabrina Spellman. She’s the new girl at school, dealing with the typical problems of dating, peer pressure and trying to get a part in the school play. But now that she’s turning 16, she faces an even more important rite of passage — signing her name in the Devil’s book. Wait, what? Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and illustrator Robert Hack embraces historical depictions of witchcraft, goat sacrifices and all, in its depiction of the usually jolly witch from Archie Comics. So ’90s nostalgists beware: This Sabrina resembles Melissa Joan Hart about as much as Melissa Joan Hart resembles Black Phillip from the film The Witch.
This companion series to the similarly horrific Afterlife with Archie is just as satisfying but more subtle and psychological, with allusions to Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury in place of Sam Raimi and George Romero. But both series deserve to be read if for no other reason than they’re the only horror stories that you can read and witness the characters being traumatized or mutilated, and then go and can revisit with the original Archie and his gang getting ice cream and having a swell time as a chaser in the Archie Superstar series.
This collection also includes a reprint of the original Madam Satan series from the ’40s in which the title character seduces men and kills them with a kiss, while an angelic monk on a donkey attempts to thwart her from leading men away from the path of righteousness. It really is something. You’d think an old man on a donkey isn’t quite the hard sell that a supernaturally attractive bride of Satan is, but you’d be surprised.
In Jeffrey Ford’s new collection A Natural History of Hell, there is such a variety of creepiness and at such different comfort levels that I feel I should offer a travel guide to whoever reads this book. Something like:
Here lie straight creeps.
Here’s one night’s lost sleep.
If you read this story you’ll only be able to eat bananas, rice and applesauce for a week.
But for those with an appetite and a broad palate for horror, there’s not likely to be a better book this year.
Many of these stories take place sometime in a Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque past, or other liminal areas where bizarre traditions overtake common sense. The opening story “The Blameless” sets the table, with a couple receiving an invitation to a neighborhood girl’s exorcism. Surprisingly, the couple finds their neighbors celebrating the supposed banishing of a demon with the small-portioned enthusiasm of a bat mitzvah.
Elsewhere, Ford ably glides between genre lines. Some of his stories don’t seem like horror at all until he drops the floor out from under you. For instance, in “The Angel Seems,” an angel comes to a small village offering protection. For a while, the story resembles Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” and then it turns and you realize it’s been re-written by Clive Barker.
There are also ghost stories, fantasies with dark wizards and even a story about gun control if monsters aren’t scary enough for you. Ford’s use of imagery and violence is implemented masterfully and tastefully throughout, creating an experience that is less like a horror movie than a nightmare weighted with meaning. Have fun!