Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Ghoul Next Door’

“For you, the living, this mash was meant too; when you get to my door, tell them Boris sent you”

Cullen Bunn does a lot of work these days, and while not all of it is great, he’s still a good writer, so I like to check out his work. He managed to crank out this graphic novel, which Cat Farris draws and Aditya Bidikar letters, and I decided to read it. It’s published by HarperAlley and is very much YA (on the back, it even suggests it’s for ages 8-12, but aren’t we all kids at heart?), so I’m not the target audience, but damn the torpedoes, say I, and full speed ahead!

Bunn sets this book in Ander’s Landing, a small New England town that, like all small New England towns in fiction, is teeth-achingly charming on the surface but hides many dark things underneath, and his protagonist is Grey Brighton, an 11-year-old who begins the story by picking up a penny tail-side up, which his best friend Marshall tells him is bad luck. Oh dear. Through some plot-driven circumstances, Grey ends up drawing the attention of the ghoul of the title, a once-human creature that now lives in the cemetery and eats dead bodies. Oh dear. Given that this is a YA book, you can probably figure out that the ghoul – whose name is Lavinia – is a friendly ghoul and does NOT want to eat Grey (I mean, he’s alive, which is strike one against him), but just wants to be his friend, which ghouls are not supposed to do. Complications ensue.

The first half of the book is the more mysterious half, as Grey doesn’t quite know what’s going on. The creature only appears in the shadows, leaving him gifts that creep him out (she steals his class project showing the layout of the cemetery, but feels bad about it, so she replaces it and puts real bones in some of the tombs, which freaks his teacher and parents out; she makes a doll that looks vaguely like him but it’s, naturally, terrifying), and generally stalking him. Marshall thinks Grey is crazy at first, then he thinks they need to keep it quiet because other people will think he’s crazy, and then, after he realizes Grey is telling the truth, he wants to alert the authorities, but Grey convinces him otherwise because he has spoken to Lavinia and understands she doesn’t mean any harm. Lavinia, it turns out, misses being human, so she wanted to befriend someone and hang out with them for a while. Unfortunately, the other ghouls think this is a very bad idea, as they want to live in secret, and when they overhear Marshall speculating that he might have to tell the adults, they kidnap him and Grey and Lavinia have to rescue him. There are also ghosts and witches and the ghosts of witches, which is never a good thing. The second half of the book is an underground rescue mission, and Bunn does a nice job keeping us on our toes (it’s a YA book, so we never really expect anything too bad to happen, but Bunn does a decent job keeping things tense so that we’re never quite sure that bad things won’t happen), and he does a nice job showing how friendship triumphs over evil. It’s not a completely happy ending, which is also a nice move, as Grey has to learn some tough lessons about life. It’s a good book in that way – yes, nothing is going to be too bad, but at the same time, life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to.

Farris is a good artist, and her cartoony style works well with YA stuff, so she’s a good artist for this particular book. She makes Ander’s Landing a charming spot, so later, when Lavinia reveals some of its darker history, the weird parts contrast nicely with the Rockwellian sections. She does a very good job with Lavinia, making her both icky and sweet, as she is, after all, a ghoul, but Farris does a nice job giving her a crooked smile and a devilish look, so that it’s clear she has a wicked sense of humor and likes messing with Grey (playing on his expectations that she’s a monster, for instance). When Lavinia and Grey go underground, Farris does a marvelous job creating the world, humanizing the ghouls a little, giving them a vast city to live in, and showing some of the evil things they themselves have to deal with. Farris also captures the tragedy of being a ghoul well through Lavinia’s facial expressions – Bunn explains it in words, of course, but Farris does a nice job complementing that with the way Lavinia’s expressions change as she explains her life and why she sought him out. Farris’s coloring is also nicely done, as she darkens things when Grey and Lavinia go underground, of course, but she doesn’t make it so dark that we can’t see her line work. She paints Lavinia in sickly green and gray tones, too, which isn’t surprising but both helps make her look more monstrous, provides a good contrast to the “humans” in the story, and also acts as a ironic touch in her character, as she is not the gloomy thing she appears to be. Grey shouldn’t judge people by their appearances, and Farris makes that point pretty well.

You might not dig The Ghoul Next Door because it’s a YA book, but if you have a YA in your life, it’s a pretty good book for them. I enjoyed it because it’s a fun adventure, and who doesn’t love fun adventures? So check it out if you’re interested!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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