In the Author’s Note following On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave, Candace Fleming (Amelia Lost; The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School; Lowji Discovers America ) remembers fondly the times her mother would freak out Candace and her sister by telling them ghost stories before bedtime about people they knew or superstitions and legends they heard about but couldn’t verify. She writes: “This connection with facts and history made [my mother’s] stories real . . . Fantasy suddenly became possibility. And as I listened, fear tickling my spine with its chilly fingers, I thought, This could happen to me. The idea was both thrilling and terrifying.”
Thrilling and terrifying . . . the perfect combination. Luckily for readers, Fleming continues her mother’s tradition by offering up nine deliciously creepy tales full of paranormal activity, white-robed specters, disembodied giggling, dolls possessed by evil, you name it. Adults, take heed: These aren’t macabre fictions filled with gratuitous violence, but tamer, tween-appropriate versions of Rosemary’s Baby or The Sixth Sense (and yes, Fleming’s protagonist does see dead people). That doesn’t mean they’re not scary, though. Even this stalwart blogger found herself tensing up at certain key moments!
In the opening story, we meet Mike who is embroiled in a situation many teenagers find themselves in on Friday nights, Junior year—he’s late for curfew and ignoring the increasingly frantic phone calls from his mother. But Mike, unlike most teenagers, actually has a good excuse, or so he discovers. While driving home as the clock ticks past midnight, he picks up a girl, sopping wet and seemingly stranded after nearly drowning in a nearby lake. What Mike doesn’t realize until after he drops her off is that she’s dead . . . and has been so for 50 years.
In the stories that follow, Mike is introduced to nine other drifting souls—spirits from the 1860’s to the present who have come back from the dead to tell Mike the stories of how they lived—and died. There’s Scott (1995-2012), who snuck into Chicago’s abandoned State Asylum for the Insane to take photos for a school art project and got squashed by a falling gargoyle from the Asylum’s entrance during a thunderstorm. Coincidence, or did the wan figure in the wheelchair stashed in the corner of the room have something to do with it? (Author’s Note: The asylum in the story is based on Chicago State Hospital.) There’s mad Edgar (1853-1870), who hears too many voices and sees too many visions before he’s sent away by his fed-up parents. He dies from a gunshot wound, but who pulls the trigger and why? (Author’s Note: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Bernice” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” are felt strongly here. So, too, are Anthony Trollope’s impressions of 1862 Chicago.). For fans of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and W. W. Jacobs’ 1902 infamous account of the monkey’s paw, “Lily (1982-1999)” is Fleming’s modern retelling wherein the haunted object winds up in the hands of an ill-fated teenage couple. They’re doomed once they bring home the paw from a garage sale and use it for their perverse bidding.
While each of these narratives (and six others) follows a similar pattern (i.e. “This is how I died.”), Fleming succeeds in building suspense and throwing in a few good ol’ tried-and-true scare tactics for good measure. Case in point: What’s one of the essential ingredients in a good ghost story? An unexpected surprise at the end, of course. (Not telling!) Readers will also enjoy uncovering the truth behind some of the places and people mentioned throughout. (Backmatter includes a chapter devoted to unpacking the “true” elements in each ghost story, i.e. the White Cemetery, the World’s Fair, Al Capone, etc. As always, Fleming puts her research skills to good use.)
Above all, these stories from the grave are a delight to read and, I gather, to listen to. Read them aloud to your tween (ages 11-14) before bedtime. Leave the book out prior to a slumber party and see what happens. Or listen to the audio book. And yes, the flashlight-under-the-chin trick is corny. But you have to admit, it is a little bit unsettling, no?
Like most bookworms, Alexis Burling has loved reading since she could crawl. She has worked in the publishing industry for over a decade and has reviewed both children's and adult books for prominent media outlets such as teenreads.com, Publishers Weekly, and the Washington Post.
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