Nothing is as it seems

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark finds fantasy and horror tales strong enough for their subject matter

ELSKE. By Cynthia Voigt. Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99. TESDirect pound;4.49.

DR FRANKLIN'S ISLAND. By Ann Halam. Orion Dolphin pound;4.99. TESDirect pound;4.49.

THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY. By Chris Wooding. Scholastic pound;12.99. TESDirect pound;12.49.

Early adolescence is the time for daydreams. Can anything be as boring as a Year 8 lesson, the subject of which you neither know nor care to know, because all you want to think about are the changes you and your acquaintances are going through?

Fantasy and horror stories are traditionally aimed at this age range, to cater for all the shuddering revulsion embodied in the gross physicality of adults. More subtly, the sub-genre of the "as if" story seems custom-made for Years 7 to 9: what if scientists really could change your body to another animal? If history had been different? If science really could conjure up monsters? Yet to adult readers, such notions can rapidly wear thin. It takes a strong story to sustain them.

Elske, by the masterly Cynthia Voigt, is a kind of "as if" Icelandic saga. Brought up by the feral Volkaric, also known as Wolfers and clearly dead ringers for the Vikings, Elske escapes her doom on a funeral pyre and becomes a servant in an "as if" Baltic trading city state. From thence, she gets attached to an "as if" SwedishAmazon princess and helps save her kingdom from internal treachery (her brother) and external menace (the Wolfers again). It is gripping stuff, and reminiscent of the Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; in the way that Voigt's insight into Elske's slowly maturing sense of self raises the story above the realm of simple swordplay.

Likewise, Ann Halam's offbeat story of an evil scientist and three castaway teenagers goes deeper than mere flesh-creeping. Semi, a pathologically shy and short-sighted conservation volunteer, narrates her shape-shifting adventures on a tropical island as if she was writing a holiday journal. After the plane crash, it seems that the volunteers are alone. How are they to survive? Miranda is the leader, but Arnie has other plans. Then they find a way through the waterfall and everything changes.

Ann Halam's writing transcends a potentially ludicrous plot in which the young people are changed into giant fish and birds - gills, feathers and all - then changed back. Halam pulls the story off because it is completely grounded in an almost banal teen perspective; Semi's anxieties over whether her best friend has been offended by a chance remark loom far larger than their strange transformation into, respectively, a giant manta ray and an eagle. In fact, the most convincing part of the story is Semi's description of how restful it is to be a manta ray. It sounds like going on holiday.

Chris Wooding's The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is another gripping tale: a more straight-forward horror story than Halam's, mixing a setting of an "as if" Victorian London (complete with a virtual Jack-the-Ripper figure) with bizarre Grand Guignol-style touches. Wooding attempts to show how such a society would try to organise itself against a quasi-Masonic conspiracy to bring into being all of the monsters from myth and legend - even fiction.

Incidental scenes in which well-to-do parents try to cope with bogeymen stealing their babies or beggars contend with ghoulies and ghosties offer sharp contrasts in tone, bringing to mind John Carpenter's film Halloween. A shoot-out, an explosion and a kiss wrap the tale up in time-honoured fashion. It's still the "as if" world: pretty similar to ours.

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