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Write On Ottawa: YA fantasy novel offers a coming-of-age gothic tale

By Brendan Blom on December 23, 2013

Maplewright, the small town where Kevin Johns’ young adult novel The Page Turners is set, is a sad-sack little burg, devoid of glamour or inspiration.  It has a stalled economy, few decent jobs, and run-down neighbourhoods.  It could be any one of a thousand fading rural centers across North America.

The population is narrow-minded and bigoted; skeletons are gathering in closets like unfashionable coats.  The children bully each other, and the adults — parents, teachers, police — show no leadership, motivation, initiative, or concern.

From this miasma of disillusionment, three nerdy and vulnerable but striving protagonists emerge.  Nate, Danny, and Spenser have developed their friendship by taking refuge in genre novels, which they discuss weekly in their book club, the Page Turners.

Each of the teenage boys has his own problems: a mother’s death and an alcoholic stepfather in Nate’s case, parents going through a divorce in Spenser’s, and romantic anxieties for Danny.

All are struggling with the adjustment to high-school, and are the targets of teasing and intimidation, sometimes worse.  Diana, Danny younger sister, who will become the fourth member of their crew, is just beginning to go through the turmoil of puberty.

It is Nate’s impulse to try to relieve their small-town ennui by reciting a spell from a mysterious, ancient book that has the unintended consequences of bringing their most feared fictional villains into their town — and inciting them to stretch their mental and physical capabilities to extraordinary lengths.

The secondary characters are drawn with equal clarity.  Ray Crawford, the school janitor, embodies the mediocrity and small-scale aspirations of Maplewright’s citizens: “[He] was a practical man of little imagination.  He stuck to his routine and took pride in the little things in life, like when his son, Chip, had opened his own gas station on Main Street.”

Kevin Johns

Kevin Johns

The ominous Staff Sergeant Doug Alderwood at first seems more vigorous than the other adults — but also more threatening and mysterious.  His character embodies the menace lurking behind the mask of the normal: “A middle-aged man, of average height and build … neither especially handsome nor especially ugly.”

He could be a refugee from a 1950s TV family— Leave it to Beaver’s buttoned-down, soft-spoken uncle with the curious tools in his cellar workshop.

Alderwood is also the worst kind of bully – the one who holds legitimate authority.  When the three boys go to him for help, he says, “You’re the geeks … the nerds, the losers … You’re the kids who have to make up stories and adventures about dead bodies because you’re too skinny to make the football team, or you’ve got too many pimples and too fat an ass to get a date with a real girl.”

With the characters set up, the plot moves quickly.  A dark stranger comes to call on a girl Danny has been courting.  The more the boys try to ask questions and raise alarms, the more they are mocked and insulted.  When violence erupts, it is sudden and graphic.

More than anything, The Page Turners is an homage to genre stories of all kinds: particularly the fantasy, the “true” alien abduction story, and vampires.  Johns adds a charming note by inserting pastiches of different kinds of genre writing, presented as extracts from the books the boys are reading.

The story in fact opens with a fun, just-overcooked-the-right-amount parody of a Lord of the Rings-style epic: “I fear not the dirty emerald men of legend. It is something else that makes my sword heavy and my armour rattle.”

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize this year for her melancholy evocations of the lives of ordinary people in rural communities.  Her work has been described as “southern Ontario gothic.” With all due respect to Munro, The Page Turners’ chiaroscuro coming-of-age tale could be seen as a truer inheritor of the literary mantles of Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Hogg.  It has all the depression and anxiety of Munro’s tales, but also has sinister, bloodthirsty monsters lurking in the shadows. Unlike the work of some other authors I could mention, Johns’ crimson-stained love letter to genre fiction certainly kept me up late into the night.