After a (too) long, (too) hot summer, winter has finally arrived in Georgia and the weather people on the news are saying things like “prepare for ARCTIC BLAST 2017.” It’s gloomy and grey outside and pitch black by 6 p.m., meaning that I’m ready to get PJ-ed and hop into bed by 6:30. Some people like to read about the beach and happier tropical climes when the weather outside is frightful, but I prefer to hibernate with a stack of library books by my side featuring frost-bitten protagonists trying to survive the elements, so I can revel in my warm, afghan-covered indoor-ness while they’re being chased by wolves. It’s time to build a fire and read To Build a Fire.
For many in my generation, Joan Aiken is the queen of this sort of middle grade gothic, with her loosely connected alternate history series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. In Wolves, two young girls fight back against an evil governess (and an assortment of wolves) with the help of hermit-boy Simon, who lives in the woods and raises geese and bees. Simon moves to London and becomes the protagonist in my favorite book of the original trilogy, Black Hearts in Battersea, where he thwarts a Hanoverian plot to assassinate the king. Simon’s friend, Dido Twite, takes up the narrative (and visits America) with her adventures in Nightbirds on Nantucket. I didn’t realize at the time that Dido went on to star in several more books written by Aiken, but I’ve been catching up with the series and all the treacherous Hanoverian plots, my favorite of which involves sliding St. Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames during the coronation of King Richard IV.
If you prefer your wolves and evil plots a big closer to home, Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty is the start of another great middle school series, set in the Biltmore Estate and the surrounding forests and mountains of Asheville, Tenn. I’ve visited Biltmore several times, and it’s a treat to see the rooms I’ve toured come alive in Beatty’s version of life at Biltmore in 1899. Serafina, daughter of one of the house employees, prowls the house at night and designates herself Chief Rat Catcher, but children both upstairs and downstairs are going missing and Serafina soon realizes that there are evil forces at work, discovering her own magical heritage in the meantime. The second book in the series, Serafina and the Twisted Staff, picks up where the first book leaves off, continuing the fight against evil and Serafina’s journey of self-discovery.
This past year, my favorite example of Dickensian dreariness was in the three volumes of the Iremonger trilogy by Edward Carey. Carey, an Englishman, has said that he was inspired to write the series after moving to Austin, Texas, and missing the grey gloominess of London. Beginning with the first novel, Heap House, he creates a complete world around the Iremonger family, who live in the midst of the vast rubbish dump produced by Victorian-era London. The enormous heaps are a dangerous ecosystem of their own, but also the source of the Iremonger wealth, and each member of the family is assigned a “birth object,” a particular item that they must carry with them for their entire lives. I loved everything about these books: the detailed (and very gloomy) illustrations, the always-not-quite-right Iremonger names, and the story, which ultimately spills out of the heaps to infect all of London. The books are aimed at middle school readers and teens, but I think they’d be great fun as readalouds, as long as the listeners are okay with the occasional (very) unfortunate event.
Let me know if you have any grey and gloomy favorites that keep you warm over the winter, and Happy Reading!
This was originally published in the winter 2017 issue of HSL.