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“Kids deserve better, deeper, more original scares.”
– JW Ocker
JW Ocker is one of the bravest writers in America.
I can’t really say if he’s brave in person. We’ve never met. A lot of horror writers are plagued by irrational fears and wouldn’t be caught dead in a haunted house (Ocker actually seeks them out, his blog Odd Things I’ve Seen is devoted to traveling to weird and spooky places).
But on the page, Ocker is fearless.
His previous novel, The Smashed Man of Dread End, was one of the creepiest horror novels of the year, and one of the finest middle-grade books I’ve ever read. In a genre where most writers pull their punches so as not to frighten the kiddies, Smashed Man pushed the boundary.
Ocker’s new novel, The Black Slide, furthers that trend.
The Black Slide appears like horror often does: without warning.
The Black Slide appeared on the playground of Osshua Elementary on a clear day in late September. Griffin Birch was the first to see it. His desk was near the back window of the Torture Chamber, and he had the best view of the playground. And that was too bad.
It seems relatively harmless at first. Creepy, sure. But harmless. Until one day when Griffin, edged on by class bully Ozzie Aldridge, enters the slide for what he believes will be a disturbing, but short, ride.
He’s right on one count.
It was all darkness and loud wind and awful cold to him.
It wouldn’t end. It wouldn’t end. Why wasn’t it ending?
After a lifetime inside that darkness, where he grew up and grew old and had thoughts he would never forget for the rest of his life, it eventually did end. He felt a solid shock in his body, like he’d hit the thin part of a funnel and found himself back inside the terrifying tube of the Black Slide.
When he finally shoots out the bottom, Griffin is in a strange world filled with ominous gray clouds crackling in an alien sky. Luckily he’s there but a moment, and when his vision clears he’s back on the Osshua Elementary playground with his best friend, Laila, standing over him.
Was it a dream? Had he imagined everything that happened in the Black Slide?
This wouldn’t be much of a book if he had.
Griffin is the first kid to breach the Black Slide, but not the last. In fact, the fifth graders are oddly drawn to it, not all at once but one at a time, and it’s only Griffin who seems to notice.
From his vantage point by Mrs. Pitts’s classroom window, Griffin observes one kid after another entering the slide…and not coming out. Mrs. Pitts – indeed all the adults – are oblivious to the dwindling numbers in the fifth-grade class, which has been oddly singled out by the Black Slide.
The younger kids on the bus were doing their usual things, talking loudly or jumping up and down and laughing. The older kids, though, the fifth graders, they seemed abnormally quiet, all of them staring out the windows. He looked outside. The school had come into view, the red brick building dominated by the dark slash of the Black Slide. Even from this distance it seemed too big. He turned back to the kids, who continued to stare, silent and strange, like they were all thinking about their nightmares.
When Laila is inexorably drawn to the slide, Griffin has only one choice. He follows her in and tries to save her.
What they find is worse than Griffin imagined. The alien world he witnessed briefly is real alright, and it isn’t empty. In some ways this world is reminiscent of the Upside Down in Stranger Things, but its inhabitants are closer to the Cenobites of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. They are strange, rock-like creatures who worship pain and are using the Black Slide to kidnap and torture children in an effort to open a doorway between their world and ours.
What follows is a grim journey through a world of rock and metal where even the trees are torture devices.
They walked for what seemed like hours, the hard ground making Griffin’s feet and legs ache. If he’d thought it would be more comfortable to sit or lie down on the unforgiving metal, he would have suggested it, but that sounded as horrible as walking on it. As they trudged along, they passed more mound monsters and more fields of spiky black grass, which they looped around in big serpentine coils. They passed what looked like impact craters, dents in the metal ground big enough that Griffin could almost have laid down in one. Sharp boulders like giant black stalactites jutted from the ground. The sides of the stones had wide facets like cut jewels. Griffin kept seeing the boulders as fangs and waited for the landscape to come alive and eat them with those black teeth.
Griffin must save Laila, rescue his classmates, and find a way to save our world from creatures hellbent on destruction.
The Black Slide cuts a bold, original path. It raises difficult questions most authors and publishers would rather leave for kids to discover when they’re older (and supposedly more equipped to deal with them). Questions about how to confront and overcame pain and suffering. Questions about whether it is better to submit to abuse or fight to escape it. Questions about how we find strength and compassion in a harsh world that is constantly tearing us down.
Ocker doesn’t sugarcoat the terrors in his novel. Life is filled with pain, but The Black Slide ultimately teaches that pain can be endured, and on the other side one can find strength to meet and conquer life’s challenges. And it suggests that the source of that strength is friendship and empathy.
Those are messages every kid needs to hear.
Reluctant Reader Books