Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole (Tales from Haunted Disney World) by Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 156 pages
• Publisher: Admit One Literary Theme Park Press, 2010
• Price: $9.95
• ISBN-10: 0615402801
• ISBN-13: 978-0615402802

Maybe I should be a tad embarrassed about this, and it’s true I almost never read the horror and thriller genre … but for most of this book, I thought I was reading a story collection for young adults. Except for the occasional four-letter word, I had in my mind that this was meant for a younger audience. Not until I read the final story of these six, the title story, did it hit me: this is adult fare. Oh!

Going back to why I had this idea in my head, I realized it was in part because of the book’s appearance and format. It is quite slim, and the cover illustration rather child-suited, with a moonlit castle and a couple of skeletons having a midnight swim in a glowing pond. The print, too, is on the large size. Most of the stories involved children or teens. Add to all that Schoonover’s writing style—very accessible, in plain language without literary adornment, and … well, there you have it. Young adult.

Okay, but once I got that out of the way, almost feeling I had to reread it with an adult audience in mind, I had to reconsider the stories and the style. As the cover indicates, these ghost and horror stories all have in common the Disney Park theme (another reason I assumed a younger audience). Since I’ve only been to Disneyland in California once (when my children were small), never to Disney World, and have no interest in these or other amusement parks, I was a little out of that zone where I can relate to the characters. I guess I’ve never understood the thrill. Clearly, I’m in the minority in American society, however, so if I struggled more to relate, then surely most readers will identify better than I did.

Misconceptions, assumptions and lack of identification aside, these are quick and fun reads, each with a twist. Schoonover is no Stephen King—what I’ve read of his work is much more dense, detailed, with a more literary finesse—but this author does have a talent for the quick thrill. Her stories are imaginative, and each one, in its own way, left me squirming a bit in discomfort as ghost stories should.

Each story ties to the Disney theme park in some manner, either returning to settle a score, making atonement for some past transgression, or sinking into crazed obsession. “All This Furniture and Nowhere to Sit” was one of my favorites, with a wife that is fast spending all her husband’s funds, buying up larger and ever more elaborate pieces of Disney memorabilia. Schoonover’s sense of humor comes through as movers bring larger and larger pieces to the house, including boats, monorail cabs, booths that transform the house into a spooky mini-Disneyworld without visitors (except the occasional ghost). While it tugged at my disbelief a tad too much at times—what husband wouldn’t put a stop to this?—it was fun to watch this obsession reach its twisted conclusion.

“Romancing the Goat” was maddening not-quite-sibling rivalry, with two girls competing for parental attention. One is a “rescue” from a foster home, the other is the biological daughter. It's hard not to wince at the lack of sensitivity in the parents when they dote on the new family addition and seem to forget all about their first child, duplicating gifts, favoring one over the other. The foster child’s eccentricities, such as talking to invisible goats in her room, must be tolerated, because her parents are dead and so she should be pitied. In truth, “Angelina was meaner than a tipped cow” and knows just how to play the parents to get her way. Almost. Until her new sibling gives into the sweetness of revenge. The story ends with a hint of more horror to come.

The title story, bringing up the end of the collection, deserves its title status. The complexity of this couple is believable and intriguing. He hears the last thoughts of dying animals—and she photographs dead animals. He falls into trances, hearing and feeling the final torments of dying pets, birds, raccoons, deer, but she is forced to hide her art to try to keep him from transferred suffering. Resenting the loss of her photography, she falls into an affair with someone who seems to admire and understand her work, but it is only then that true evil surfaces. There are always consequences. While I wasn’t entirely sure I understood the ending, I enjoyed the malevolency of this story, the buildup, the twists, the shivers.

I’ve published one of Schoonover’s dark stories in the literary magazine I manage, The Smoking Poet, and I would again. If horror isn’t exactly my favorite genre, certainly not my area of expertise, I respect the skill it requires to craft stories that have a haunting quality—whether of light or of shadow. Schoonover can play well with shadows.

Kristi Petersen Schoonover's short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, Morpheus Tales, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, The Smoking Poet, The Battered Suitcase, and a host of others, including several anthologies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, is the recipient of two Norman Mailer Writers Colony Winter Residencies, and is an editor for Read Short Fiction.

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