Writing horror is tricky. You need a deft hand, mastery of character and pacing, an understanding of when to pull back and when to let loose. It’s hard enough writing it for adults. Doing it for kids adds an extra wrinkle. You have to be scary without the gore or the violence or the intensity.
Most writers can’t hack it. That’s just the truth, no harm intended.
Phil Hickes can hack it.
The ongoing adventures of Aveline Jones – currently consisting of The Haunting of Aveline Jones and The Bewitching of Aveline Jones – are a delightfully creepy addition to the field. This is a standout series and an excellent choice for kids who enjoy eerie and ghostly tales. And Hickes, who is at the start of what one hopes is a long and productive career, is a writer to watch.
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The Haunting of Aveline Jones
“But things were different here. The monsters were real.” – Phil Hickes
Aveline Jones has come to the English coast to stay with her Aunt Lilian in Malmouth, a tiny village in the tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor or MR James’s Burnstow. Hickes has a gift for vivid description, as when detailing the drive between Bristol and Malmouth.
“The only living things to be seen were the rooks that sat hunched in the branches, hurling their angry curses across the empty countryside.”
A cheery place, this Malmouth. Lacking charm and warmth, however, isn’t quite enough for the residents of this seaside village. Local custom encourages residents to fashion eerily lifelike scarecrows which are displayed all over town.
“The figure’s head was made from a grubby white buoy, with eyes, nose and mouth scrawled on in blood-red paint. Its limbs were stiff because they’d been pulled from an old shop-dummy. It wore a black woollen hat on top of a garish ginger wig and had been dressed in charity-shop clothes – a tatty oversized jacket hung past its knees, underneath which were paint-splattered trousers.”
As Malmouth isn’t exactly a happening place, Aveline eventually finds herself in the one shop in town she might enjoy: Lieberman’s Second-Hand Books. There she stumbles across two things of interest. One, a boy her own age named Harold, who is a bit surly but friendly enough. And two, a copy of Ghosts and Phantoms of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.
Hoping to read about some local ghosts and phantoms, Aveline purchases the book, only to discover later that its previous owner, Primrose Penberthy (who wrote her name on the inside cover) assiduously crossed out every line of the final chapter of the book, which was titled The Lady in the Waves.
Disappointed yet intrigued, Aveline conducts a little research and finds that Primrose Penberthy was a Malmouth girl who disappeared in 1984 and was never found. Returning to Lieberman’s, she inquires of the shop owner if he knows anything about the missing girl or The Lady in the Waves.
Mr. Lieberman knows the story of Primrose Penberthy, and he recalls that her book came to him in a donation box shortly after her disappearance. In fact, there are more books from that box still sitting in the back office. Investigating, they hit pay dirt: Primrose’s diary.
The diary reveals that after reading The Lady in the Waves, Primrose believed she was being followed, haunted by a vengeful ghost. Not wanting anyone else to suffer the same fate, she crossed the story out. The last entry concluded:
“I think I’ve worked out who the lady is and, if I’m right, she’s been coming to Malmouth for a very long time now and isn’t about to stop. The worst thing is, I think I know what she wants too. She wants me.”
Pushing onward with her investigation, but now with Harold and Mr. Lieberman in tow, Aveline eventually learns the truth about The Lady in the Waves and the wrathful ghost that took poor Primrose Penberthy…and who now wants Aveline as well.
Considering the recipe for the perfect ghost story, the great MR James (who wove a few nasty nightmares on the page himself) wrote: “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo.” It is precisely in these areas that Hickes excels.
The Haunting of Aveline Jones is a beautiful slow-burn of a novel, one that quietly sneaks up on you, wraps its arm cozily over your shoulder, and then leads you down a dark alley to show you something horrific. Hickes’s evocative writing is a masterclass in crafting a creepy locale, and the long-awaited appearance of the Lady is pulled off with plenty of real chills.
If you’ve got space for only one ghost story in 2022, this is the one to read.
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The Bewitching of Aveline Jones
“Shadows of the past, let me see you.” – Phil Hickes
This second entry finds Aveline once again away from home, this time in the village of North Wick, which is best known for the Witch Stones, a mysterious henge monument that happens to be just behind the house where she is staying with her mom.
“Some said it was a type of calendar, so ancient people could keep track of the seasons. Others said it was a temple, where people might come and worship the gods. There were those who claimed that aliens had built it. Others said it was connected to the druids, ancient Celtic priests who were either healers, wizards or bloodthirsty fiends, depending on who you believed.”
Wandering through the Witch Stones, Aveline meets Hazel Browne, a local girl her age who claims to know a good deal about the Stones and their history. According to Hazel, it’s not the stones that are special. It’s the land they stand on. The stones are simply markers, but the land itself is hallowed, a nexus point where real magic can happen. If you know how to use it.
And if you’re brave enough to try.
Hazel is more than a little pushy, and she convinces Aveline to leave a bracelet her mom bought her as an offering to the Stones. In return, Aveline asks that the Stones deliver her a new T-shirt, as the one she owns is old and falling apart. Aveline doesn’t really believe in magic, but she wants to be friends with Hazel and figures she can just come back for the bracelet later.
Lo and behold, a new T-shirt does arrive. It is brought by Aunt Lilian, who has come with Mr. Lieberman and Harold to visit. Aunt Lilian says she wanted to bring Aveline a gift.
Coincidence? Of course not.
Aunt Lilian isn’t the only one who brought gifts. At Aveline’s request, Harold has carted along a hefty stack of books on a variety of topics: witchcraft, henges, folklore of the British Isles, medieval superstitions and charms. As in Haunting, Aveline plunders books and the history and wisdom they provide in order to prepare herself to face the supernatural.
And prepared she’ll need to be. For North Wick and the Witch Stones are the site of some dark history. What Aveline discovers there is a tale of hate and death and revenge and, obviously, witchcraft. For the North Wick witches may have died many centuries before, but they have not entirely passed on, and their dark magic is as potent as ever.
And it is Aveline who is now in their sights.
Once again, Hickes weaves a little magic of his own and delivers a crafty, spine-tingling tale perfect for reading on a dark and windy night.
And keep your eyes open for the third installment, due out later this year: The Vanishing of Aveline Jones.