Strange Happening is in the tradition of Twilight Zone and Friday the 13th (TV series) in eeriness and subject matter. I couldn’t help but include the ever-famous intro to this most beloved series that dabbles into the strange and weird world we live in. After all, nothing is like what it appears to be. Avi is a familiar name to Young Adult readers. I’ve seen his name across numerous books, but I’ve never read any of his books until now. What made me pick up Strange Happenings a few months back was its cover—a young boy as a reflection to an evil looking cat. The cover made me pick up the book and browse through. What I found as I read the synopsis at the back of the book was enough to make me purchase it.
“Appearances can be deceiving.”
It read in large bold letters at the back of the book. For the cat isn’t really a cat isn’t it? Strange Happenings is a collection of five eerie stories. Some reminiscent of old non-sanitized folklores and fairy tales others are a case quite similar to Eerie Indiana or Disney’s So Weird.
A fan of the paranormal, Strange Happenings was a good way to start my set of reviews for Gathering Book’s Haunting Tales Special.
The five stories in the books are as follows: Bored Tom, Babette the Beautiful, Curious, The Shoemaker and Old Scratch, and Simon. To Neil Gaiman fans, this book’s narrative has the same beat and storytelling to Gaiman. It is told in the same tradition of old storytellers where reading this aloud one dark night can bring chills to the spine and shock to its reader. It did bring shock, after all this 27-year-old reader has never expected such a wonderful eerie tale amongst young adult literature (and I’m hard to scare.) The titles are nothing quite likes its stories.
Though the stories are different from each other they share similar threads like that of the presence of the cat in almost all the stories. I’m short of being a cat person. I like cats for their association with the paranormal. Cats are common omens to the paranormal.
Several ancient religions believed that cats are exalted souls, companions or guides for humans that they are all-knowing but are mute so they cannot influence decisions made by humans.
The discussion of cats reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s short story The Price that talks of a cat that protects a home from the demons that come crawling in the night.
In strange happenings they are like genies, showing up to those whose wishes are dire, but unlike disney-fied genies their wish-granting isn’t without its strings. In Bored Tom and The Shoemaker and the Old Scratch, the main protagonist discover cats aren’t just cats but creatures who can trick you into giving away your human body or fair business partners with scary demons protecting them from cheaters.
Mirrors and reflections are commonplace objects amongst fairytales and haunting tales. Mirrors reveal the truth of a “person’s” nature as vampires have no reflections or the true creature is revealed outside the human surface. In Babette the Beautiful, Babette grew up in a kingdom where mirrors were hidden from her. Her only measure of her beauty was the various paintings created by court artists. Similarly in Bored Tom, it was in the mirror that the human inside the cat exterior reveals itself.
While mirrors can symbolize one’s vanity, mirrors are also instrument of self-reflection. It reveals ones flaws and true nature. Without one’s own psychological mirror that allows introspection, we fail to discover who we truly are. Babette literally discover who she is through the single mirror that exists in the whole kingdom. Self-discovery pervades Strange Happening. Against the back drop of the eerie, four of the five stories had elements of self-discovery. The main protagonist, with much regret, discover that who they were wasn’t so bad or for the more vain they discover who they were wasn’t so great.
Re-telling of classics
Strange Happenings isn’t a collection of old stories rehashed. In some ways the stories are re-telling of classics, they are presented in a fresh youthful voice. The Shoemaker and Old Scratch is reminiscent of Faust by Goethe in ‘selling/bargaining’ his soul with the devil. Curious is like your classic Alien (Sigourney Weaver) story in its ‘costume’ wearing alien mascot and show-stopping ending. Babette the Beautiful and Simon are like fairytales/folklores in their plot and narration.
The one thing the stories do share in common are the elements of transformations. A transformation always takes place whether to the protagonist or the antagonist. The transformations may be physical, attitudinal or both. However, all transformations are driven and moved by circumstance both environmental and internal. While I felt most transformations were flat, one sided, it is the last story, Simon, that personifies true transformation. Simon’s transformation are two folds. It is both punishment and reward, but both so affecting and true that it changes not only the physical, but the heart as well.
For a book I bought because of a cover and a short phrase, Strange Happenings turned out to be worth the impulse. Each story offers something different from the other. Avi’s narrative voice changes fitting into the tone of each story. He doesn’t waste sentences in his stories. Each sentence adds to the stories’ build up living the reader’s eyes affixed to the book in hopes to discover the mystery behind each story. His last story, Simon, and my favorite of the five is, of all the stories the only one that goes full circle. While strange, it is redemptive. Babette the Beautiful had elements of full circle, but Simon’s story is the most developed in terms of character and plot. It was written to have a closed ending, unlike the other stories which left the reader with what I call “Carrie’s Arm” (reference to the ending to Carrie the movie) at the end.
My tiny quibble in the book is its attitude towards curiosity, as evident in the story aptly called Curious. While curiosity killed the cat is a cliché that hold water in some occasions, I do not think it should be discouraged. The way by which the child is punished by his curiosity was short of saying that curiosity does kill the cat in the end. To me curiosity is part of learning and while it requires a few parameters (to keep them safe), it shouldn’t be discouraged. This may be an area for discussion that educators and parents may have with their children.
Strange Happenings are for older children between the ages of 8-10, but not limited to them. It is, however, not for the faint hearted. It can leave some children and adults awake all night. However, beyond the eeriness, the book opens the child mind while at the same time imparting truths on boredom, vanity, humility, and fairness. Areas, I believe, that adults can learn from too.
Avi is the pen name of prolific children’s book author Edward Irving Wortis. Born in 1937 in New York. He began his career as a playwright and only began writing books when he had children. He has published over 60 books. Written for various age groups and in various genres. As a multi-awarded author when asked what else he has to say in his Q&A in this website he states:
Listen and watch the world around you. Try to understand why thigns happen. Don’t be satisfied with answers others give you. Don’t assume that because everyone believes a thing it is right or wrong. Reason things out for yourself. Work to get answers on your own. Understand why you believe things. Finally, write what you honestly feel, then learn from the criticism that will always come your way.
And maybe that’s how good books are made. After all, Strange Happenings, I believe is built around the same principle: Nothing is what they seem.