Gary Ghislain’s Goolz Next Door series may just be the most striking, original and entertaining horror series on the middle grade market. Creepier and darker than the Goosebumps crowd but laced with wit and humor, the series offers a spot-on blend of fast-paced storytelling and fun, engaging characters.
Ghislain is French, though his series is set in the US. In Maine, specifically, whose favorite son is of course the horror master himself, Stephen King. In spite of its setting, the series is more popular in France, where Ghislain’s publisher has already released the third book in the series to the delight of French horror fans.
With any luck, Goolz will find a broad and enthusiastic audience here in the States. It deserves to, as it is one of most enjoyable and well-written series occupying shelf space at your local library or bookstore.
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A Bad Night for Bullies
A Bad Night for Bullies introduces readers to thirteen-year-old Harold Bell and his mother, who emigrated from England to the Maine coast. A childhood accident left Harold wheelchair-bound, a disability that unfortunately puts him at the mercy of the school bully.
I was a cool kid. I dressed OK. I had true grit and tons of attitude. If I were standing up, walking like everybody else, no one would ever pick on me. But in my wheelchair, I was Alex Hewitt’s favorite mark. He was a genuine Bay Harbor bad boy. And the dictionary definition of the perfect idiot.
Enter the Goolz: Frank, one of the most popular horror writers in the world, and his two daughters, Ilona and Suzie. They’ve moved in next door to Harold, which is great because both Harold and his mom are big fans of Goolz’s novels.
Harold is an even bigger fan of Ilona. When they first meet, Alex and his goons have Harold in a precarious position: they are about to tip him over the edge of the boardwalk down into the ocean far below.
I took in her black dress, her coat, her huge blue eyes, the certainty in her voice, the tension in her body. I’d never seen such a beautiful creature. And I was absolutely sure Alex had never seen a girl like her either.
Turning the tables, it is Ilona who shoves Alex off the boardwalk. They listen to his screams as he plummets over the edge and to the splash when he hits the water.
And right away we know we’re in the hands of a different sort of writer. When telling stories for kids, most writers pull their punches. The good guys take the high road. The bad guys rarely get any serious comeuppance. Ghislain, however, flips the script and gives us a bold and engaging character willing to cross lines most writers tip-toe up to before backing away.
Alex Hewitt, however, is the least of Harold’s problems.
There’s a ghost haunting the Goolz’s new home, and she’s out for revenge. Harold first spots her late at night as he peers out his window.
She stood so still, I thought for a second she could be a mannequin or a horror movie poster glued to the window by one of the Goolz for the purpose of scaring me to death. I leaned in and looked more carefully. Her lips moved to form an evil, cadaverous grin. She touched the window with a hand that seemed to have lost most of its flesh. Just bones and rotten nails remained. She waved at me.
Harold may be freaked, but the Goolz clan is intrigued. Frank Goolz has spent his life rushing headlong into creepy and supernatural phenomena, and this vengeful ghost is no different. Neither Frank nor his daughters are deterred, not even when kids begin to vanish and people begin to die.
Ghislain crafts a fast-moving horror show beset with numerous twists and turns. Balanced against the pervading creepiness is an ongoing comic banter between Harold and the Goolz, as well as the budding romance between Harold and Ilona. Woven throughout is an exploration of differing parenting strategies: the loose, seat-of-the-pants approach of Frank Goolz and the calculated helicoptering of Harold’s mom.
Peppered throughout are sly nods to horror touchstones. Frank Goolz is a clear stand-in for Stephen King. Less obvious is that Harold shares in common his wheelchair status with ten-year-old Marty Coslaw from King’s Cycle of the Werewolf. Numerous chapter titles (I Know What You Did Last Night) allude to other non-King horrors.
All told, Bullies is a top-notch effort by a top-notch writer, and the opening salvo in a wonderfully wicked new series.
The Mallow Marsh Monster
In this follow-up novel, something is afoot.
“There’s something strange about this foot.” Frank Gools poked it with the tip of a pencil.
“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s detached from its owner. That is pretty strange.”
The foot in question arrived in a shoebox in the hands of the Farrell sisters, identical twins who claim their mother was kidnapped by the Mallow Marsh Monster, a sinister creature of local legend.
I focused on the foot, trying to extract subtle clues that would impress her. The skin was greenish-gray, the toenails black. It stank madly and was swollen like a balloon about to burst.
This stinking swollen appendage launches our heroes on a quest to discover just what carried off Mrs. Farrell, as well as unravel the mystery of the monster of the marsh.
The mystery deepens when they arrive at the Farrell house, where Mr. Farrell claims his wife is not missing at all. She’s simply traveling. Nothing to worry about. And the severed foot? An item from the morgue that is part of an experiment he is conducting.
Simple as that.
Except that when they leave the Farrell house, Harold and the Goolz find their truck vandalized.
The entire interior, from the dashboard to the fake leather seats, was covered in deep gouges with patterns of three or four lines, like someone — or something — had tried to claw its way out.
“What’s that?” Suzie hunkered down, picking up what looked like a bunch of white pebbles scattered on the passenger seat. She held them out on the palm of her hand.
Frank Goolz pinched one between his fingers. “Teeth. Human.”
Carved into the dashboard are the words: I’ll be back for you.
More is going on here than Mr. Farrell is letting on. This becomes starkly clear when Mr. Farrell himself is dragged off into the marsh by the same monster that kidnapped his wife. Harold, the Goolz and Ilona and Suzie’s Uncle Jerry — a cryptozoologist with long experience chasing monsters — set out to find the monster and rescue the Farrells.
Which leads to Harold getting bitten by the monster. And just like with werewolves and vampires, the bite is slowly transforming Harold into a monster himself. He feels oddly energized, ravenously hungry, and more than a little concerned about the sharp teeth poking their way through his gums.
Now the race is on. Harold and the Goolz must track down the monster, rescue the Farrells, and figure out how to stop Harold from spending the rest of his life as a fanged freak.
As this is a sequel, Ghislain is freed from introducing his characters in detail once again. The result is a leaner and meaner novel, one that feels even more propulsive than its predecessor.
Once again, Ghislain shines when walking the tightrope between laughter and horror. Uncle Jerry is a welcome addition, a larger-than-life character who widens the circle of the strange but lovable Goolzian world.
The romance between Harold and Ilona remains a source of good humor, less actual romance and more blushing puppy love (as middle school relationships often are). It serves as just the right amount to intrigue young readers without making them gag.
At each turn, Marsh Monster succeeds, showing once again why Ghislain is one of the finest horror writers in the field today.