The trees parted like a curtain and suddenly there it was, cloaked in fog, looming atop a weed-choked hill. The house. I understood at once why the boys had refused to come.

My grandfather had described it a hundred times, but in his stories, the house was always a bright, happy place—big and rambling, yes but full of light and laughter. What stood before me now was no refuge from monsters, but a monster itself, staring down from its perch with vacant hunger. Trees burst forth from broken windows and skins of scabrous vine gnawed at the walls like antibodies attacking a virus–as if nature itself had waged war against it—but the house seemed unkillable, resolutely upright despite the wrongness of its angles and the jagged teeth of sky visible through sections of collapsed roof. (78-79)

Has Ransom Riggs written the next Harry Potter? No, but his first novel, a YA dark(ish) fantasy, has won him bestseller status and a movie deal, and he clearly wrote it with the intention of launching a sequel. Indeed, he wrote it a little too clearly with the intent of launching a sequel.

The book has been illustrated with and was partially inspired by creepy old photographs of the sort found in faded cardboard boxes in second-hand book stores and antique barns, pressed between pages of books and lost behind wooden desks. The story begins with a youth named Jacob, whose grandfather dies. His grandfather had a rather significant collection of such photographs, which Jacob has long considered "obviously fake." His grandfather used to tell stories of the odd children in the photographs and the monsters who hunted them. The grandfather, later, took up the cause and hunted the monsters. The now-teenaged Jacob concludes the man fabricated the specifics of the stories he told, but not their essential nature. He was a refugee from the Nazis, who later fought in the war. The story about monsters, Jacob is now sure, was simply an imaginative allegory.

Then the old man dies, supposedly of natural causes. But Jacob sees something else in the old man's yard, something terrifyingly like the monsters of the old stories. Now he isn't so certain. His parents, of course, send the boy to a psychiatrist.

All this might make an interesting realistic story, but that's not the kind of book we're reading. Of course the photos weren't fake, and the monsters are real. Jacob later finds the decrepit ruins of Miss Peregrine’s secret school, and realizes the peculiar children she tends may still be alive, and that danger and adventure awaits him,

The novel begins with sinister foreboding, as some dark unknown world creeps into the more familiar one. I especially liked how Riggs used those photographs and childhood stories to set the stage. Both have plausible alternative explanations, but we know from the start that—somehow— these things will prove real.

The discovery that sets the plot in motion and Jacob's first foray into the home provide the suspenseful high points of the book; it's a pity they occur so soon. Once our protagonist learns the secret of the school, the story loses much of its sinister edge, and turns into a fairly predicable fantasy. Miss Peregrine reads, in the second half, like Harry Potter meets X-Men in the Addams Family Mansion. As a bonus, we have time-travel—introduced mainly so it can form a part of future books.

The story hits some new and interesting developments in the final chapter—only to reveal itself as an extended prologue to a forthcoming series, with no resolution in this volume. I recognize that other fantasies have sprawled across volumes, but they either have some coherent plot in each volume, or each volume offers much more than Riggs manages in this one.

Riggs also proves an uneven writer. He creates strong descriptions of the novel's settings, and his comments on the photos add memorable depth. He proves less successful with character. We get a good sense of Jacob's personality, and we gradually realize the truth about his grandfather. Some other characters have been developed, but we get far less a sense of them than we should. Many of the Peculiar Children can barely be distinguished, save for a particular ability.

I recognize we will see additional developments in future books. When viewed as a whole, the series may prove a strong addition to the body of fantasy literature. It has that potential. As of this writing, it's the YA fantasy that's selling lots of copies-- in the same year that Fifty Shades of Grey became a bestseller, and Michael Bay scored a hit with a third Transformers movie.

Title: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Author: Ransom Riggs
Original Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59474-476-1 and 1594744769

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is Ransom Riggs’ bestselling young adult horror novel. One of the things I’ve been trying to gauge in my own YA writing is the relative level of gruesomeness/scariness I can portray without it being deemed too much for younger readers. So I was interested in how Riggs handles the darker aspects of his narrative, particularly his monsters.

In this narrative, “peculiars” – people with special paranormal or mystical abilities such as the power to change form or control fire – are hunted by immortal, soulless monsters called hollowgasts, or hollows. If a hollowgast devours enough peculiars, it can transform into a wight, which has a more comfortable existence and can pass for human.

Overall, Riggs doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the description of the hollows and the threat they present to the protagonists:

It stooped there, hairless and naked, mottled gray-black skin hanging off its frame in loose folds, its eyes collared in dripping putrefaction … Its outsized jaws were its main feature, a bulging enclosure of teeth as tall and sharp as little steak knives that the flesh of its mouth was hopeless to contain, so that its lips were perpetually drawn back in a deranged smile. And then those awful teeth came unlocked, its mouth reeling open to admit three wiry tongues into the air, each as thick as my wrist. They unspooled across half the room’s length, ten feet or more, and then hung there, wriggling, the creature breathing raggedly through a pair of leprous holes in its face as if tasting our scent, considering how best to devour us. (Riggs 287)

“(E)yes collared in dripping putrefaction” and describing its nostrils as “leprous holes” are fantastically gross images. Riggs relies on visual details in this description – some of which are fresher than others. I’ve read about and seen on screen plenty of monsters with this kind of toothy rictus before, and I’ve read at least two pieces in the past year that compare a predator’s teeth to steak knives (so I’ll resist that image if it comes to me in my own work).

Based on the descriptive passage, we don’t yet know what this particular creature sounds like, nor do we know specifically what it smells like, but the “putrefaction” detail would certainly not lead the reader to think the hollowgast is rose-scented, and we can imagine the terrible broken noise a creature like this might make considering its grotesquely overgrown teeth and tentacle-like tongues. So, there’s a nice little sleight-of-hand here in implying other sensory details through the visuals.

The details of Riggs’ descriptions aside, they should give most prospective YA horror writers confidence that they need not hold back too much from visceral descriptions in horror aimed at young readers. You can probably trust your own instincts as to what’s appropriate for a scene and what isn’t.

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