Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Selection of the Month: "The Devil's Piper" by Susan Price

devils-piper.jpg Book Selection of the Month (July 2009): The Devil’s Piper by Susan Price

With the world excited over the release of the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie this week, it’s worth taking a few minutes to laud a fantastical — and far creepier — children’s story by another British author, Susan Price.

I was about ten when I happened across the disturbingly, surprisingly effective children’s horror story The Devil’s Piper in the school library — and unbeknownst to me, the author was herself only a teenager when she wrote it several years earlier.  This may help explain its effectiveness: Grown-ups (aside from a few weirdoes like Clive Barker) have a natural aversion to scaring the bejeezus out of little kids, but kids themselves don’t.

I remembered the book for decades after first reading it, uncertain it was as good as I thought I recalled — and ignorant of the author’s subsequent career, if any.  Finally, I learned recently that my youthful judgment (as usual) was on-target, and that Price went on to a long and successful career, authoring over forty books, often horror, for both kids and adults and winning critical acclaim along the way.  I ordered and re-read the book.

The simple but highly eerie premise (which would make a good film, hint hint) makes me suspect Price had some youthful contact with unsavory older kids or adults: A few ordinary present-day British teens encounter a scruffy, barefoot, odd-seeming man who casually — and increasingly convincingly — claims to be a leprechaun, not wholly evil but amoral, mischievous, hypnotic, and selfish.  And he slowly but surely leads the kids away from town and their parents, deeper and deeper into the nearby woods, which grow larger and wilder due to his very presence, the kids slowly forgetting their normal lives.

Best of all, creepiness-wise — and again, this is something few adults would think to put in a book aimed at kids, perhaps with good reason — when some adults, alerted to the increasingly weird things happening in town, finally intervene, their solution is to go over the leprechaun’s head, as it were, by visiting Hell and complaining to the leprechaun’s boss.  The depiction of Hell is just unconventional but deceptively safe-seeming enough to make your skin crawl, in a sort of proto-Neil-Gaiman, crypto-pagan, “let’s just talk about ultimate darkness over drinks like civilized people” way that perhaps comes naturally to British writers who came of age in the wake of the New Agey hippie era.

If there’s a smart fifteen year-old you’ve been looking to turn into an occult-obsessed goth, this might be a nice, low-key starting place — not that I’m recommending that.

(Of course, as a skeptic, I don’t think there’s much danger you’ll summon demons by reading this book — but perhaps the real question, in advance of our August 5 Debate at Lolita Bar, is whether you’re in any danger of encountering extraterrestrials.  To my surprise, at least one usually-skeptical person I know leans toward saying yes.  As host, I should remain neutral until next month’s debate — and for dramatic effect, of course.  In the meantime, contemplate this footage and consider the irony that even if we did get footage of aliens at this juncture in history, it’s hard to see how we’d ever know it was real given all the special effects available.  They’ll just have to make a really big splash, I guess.)

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