Title: Judgment Night by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald
Summary: “I HAD A BAD DREAM…”
Valerie Sherwood knew all about nightmares. Three years ago she was turned into a werewolf, and ever since that strange moonlit night, she understood the power of the darkness. The only thing to fear was fear itself. And tonight, that fear came to her in her dreams.
“IT SEEMED SO REAL…”
When Valerie awoke, the nightmare didn’t end. Even by day, she was haunted by terrible shapes and sensations: The horrible vision of a giant, skeletal bird. The foul smell of decay. The chilling sound of eerie music. And that was just the beginning.
There are some things so dark and evil that even a werewolf would be afraid. Now Valerie is about to learn the awful truth about the ancient force that calls to her from the mountains: It feeds on her fear. And it’s hungry for more…
The dark legacy of terror lives on — in the shattering sequel to BAD BLOOD and HUNTERS’ MOON.
Tagline: It’s the One Night That Every Werewolf Fears
Note: As Dove requested, I’ve updated my template, because we now apparently call the Bad Guys Muffin Man. Hey, it makes as much sense as most Point Horrors. Except I pretty much never call anyone the Muffin Man, so moot point.
I don’t know how many times I can say I love this book and this series, but it still holds true. I love this book and this series. To be fair, this is probably my least favorite book in the series, but I still adore it. [Wing: Note from the future. In recapping it, I realized how damn much I loved it.]
[Dove: I had never read this before — apparently in my excitement of finding the series, I read the first two, then passed out in the sheer joy of finding them. So if you heard me sounding proud on the podcast when I told Wing I’d read this, that’s why.]
We open with Valerie Sherwood, who has now been a werewolf for three years. If you read the recaps of book one or book two, you already know how much I adore Val, and only partly because she’s an ACTUAL WEREWOLF.
Val is a senior now, and she and Freddie have been dating ever since fall of their junior year (so about a year or so, depending on when exactly this story is set during senior year). However, they’ve never kissed, because Freddie knows she’s a werewolf and is very cautious about accidentally being infected himself. This is some sort of AIDS metaphor now, isn’t it? When was this book published? 1995. So yeah, it could be an AIDS metaphor, totally. Especially because Val explicitly calls herself a part of a “minority group”. There’s a lot of criticism out there about this exactly thing, and the dangerous and problems of writing supernatural as a metaphor for minority groups. Theoretically, it can be used as a mirror to reflect the reader’s prejudices against real people back onto them through their reading, but I’m not sure how much this works in practice, and also, there’s far too many examples of it being poorly written in the first place.
Moving on, though. Freddy has concerns because they know it can be passed on through biting, and he’s read that you can become a werewolf by drinking from the same pond a werewolf drank from (going old school with the legends here), so he thinks it could be a “highly infectious, saliva-borne agent.” I kind of love Freddie sometimes, and this is one of those times. Val has her doubts about this theory because way back in book one, her teacher was also a werewolf, and he had a human wife, and she never became a werewolf despite the fact they must have kissed. (And fucked, Val. You can say they fucked.) [Dove: Val can, but maybe her publisher can’t.]
Oh, okay, it’s spring of their senior year, so they’re getting ready to graduate and have been dating for just over a year.
Also, Diana has returned! When we last left off, she was spending sophomore and junior years at a private girls’ school back east because her parents thought she was getting over a nervous breakdown. In actuality, she was dealing with the fact that she was the one who killed Jay, the werewolf who bit Val and who tried to kill all of them.
Val and Diana have some banter about dating and their plans for the dance and the weekend, and then Val describes Freddie as “tall and nicely built, with red hair and a cute smile — and he’s got a backpack in his bedroom filled with stakes, silver crosses, mandrake roots, holy water, and assorted other supplies”. Another reason to love Freddie, really. (Also, Freddie kind of feels like a Frog Brother all grown up.)
Diana and Val are believers in that they believe in werewolves because they are a fact of life. Freddie, however, is a True Believer, and wants to know everything about the supernatural. [Dove: This is one of the reasons I really like Freddie. He’s a nerd. Once he has an interest, he goes all out, and I love it when people do that.]
Freddie and Val go to a dance that (Friday) night, and we learn that Val’s dad is headed out of town for a professional conference. I’d give that some trope points, but he’s been around (and sometimes useful!) throughout the other two books, so I will give it a pass this time. Freddie’s cleaned up his truck, and put in a new radio; they have a hard time choosing a station, because Val likes heavy metal best (VAL YOU ARE SO VERY MUCH MY FAVOURITE WEREWOLF) and Freddie prefers bluegrass (which I also love, actually, and Mr Wing is particularly fond of it). The dance is pretty much a non-event, typical school dance (for students in the USA. Sorry everyone else).
However, as they’re driving home, for a second, the new radio loses synch with the station that is playing, and “for a moment a ghost station filled the silence, playing some piano piece [Val] didn’t recognize.”
Val doesn’t think much of it at the time, but I doubt you’ll be surprised to know this is foreshadowing.
She drifts off to sleep with pleasant thoughts of how she’ll shift under tomorrow night’s full moon, but later in the night, after moonset, the sound of a piano playing somewhere in the house wakes her. At first she thinks the “graceful, rippling music” is pretty, and then she remembers they don’t have a piano.
She tracks the music into the living room. The second she turns on the light, the music is gone. The room is empty. It even smells empty. (I love that detail! WEREWOLF!) She finds the journal her dad was reading earlier, which is conveniently turned to “Case History: Mrs. A; Pseudo-Possession Brought On by the Rite of Exorcism” and a discussion of the symptoms of hysteria, including autosuggestion and auditory hallucinations.
She makes herself some tea (Dove and Val need to hang out [Dove: Raise your hand if you don’t want to hang out with Val. Yeah, nobody. That’s what I thought.]), and finally realizes that she heard the same piano piece on the radio during that little blip earlier. She doesn’t get back to sleep, and is still awake in the kitchen when her dad gets up. She tells him that he’ll probably think she’s crazy, and he tells her he prefers not to use that term. So while I am tempted to give it a trope counter, since the book literally called itself on it the second it happened, I am going to let it go this time.
(Man, I am either feeling very generous, or I am exhausted by fighting for equal rights for everyone. Probably the latter.)
Val tells him that she thinks they have ghosts, and then explains what she heard, with a little more casual ableism thrown around. Come on, Val. BE BETTER. Her dad has her hum it for him, and it’s Beethoven’s Für Elise which you probably all have heard at least once [Dove: And if you’ve read Stephen King’s IT, it should be synonymous with flu, rain, floods, and the death of George Denborough.], and which is a lot of fun to play on the piano due to the repeating notes, actually. (I also love Pachabel’s Canon in D, which is actually best with piano + strings. This is a really fun cover of it. And thus brings us to the end of Wing’s Classical Power Hour.) [Dove: Like any true nerd (especially an English one without much faith in her government), there is a special place in my heart for Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture Finale, but the bestest most awesomest classical music of all time is Edvard Greig’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. What? I can be cultured too.]
This makes Val grow cold, because it reminds her of Elise Barbizon, her friend from junior year, who became a vampire, and who Val staked because she begged her to do so. It was a really rough time of it for everyone, really.
She decides she’s being haunted by Elise, and her father does admit that is possible, though he also says she might have some unresolved issues. He asks her not to try to fix it, whatever it is, by herself, but to ask for help. Which she is generally pretty good at, though she doesn’t often loop him in until toward the end of the book. I doubt that will change here.
Val frets about it all day, but that night is the full moon, so when she can finally shift, she finds a little peace. As usual, I love the descriptions of Val’s change and her hunt after, which include delightful details, such as the fact she can taste scents on the air, and the little creatures she hunts are “hot and sweet and good to taste, worth giving up garlic if [she] could have this instead.”
She has her own territory in wolf form, the town and the fields around it, but she turns back from the woods, because she might not get back before moonset if she ran through them, too. She shouts down a Pekingese who thought he could argue with her from indoors, eats a dozen mice, and marvels over the stars, which as a wolf astound her because she can see them but not smell them. (She does think she can smell the moon, though, and it smells like green cheese, which made me laugh out loud the first time I read it.)
That night, though, when she gets back to her room, still in wolf form, she dreams. She and Freddie are in the kitchen, then the tape player they’re listening to starts to slow down, until the music becomes a deep, rasping voice crying for help. FUCKING CREEPY. And then it gets worse, because blood pours out of it, “flowing across the white table in a dark red stream, the lines and swirls of it forming into the picture of a screaming, skull-like face.” JESUS.
They agree to call Diana after it stops, she shows up shortly after, and she’s terrified because something followed her all the way there — a big bird, like a condor, a big dead bird, dead and falling apart, rotting, with a bone head.
I love this book so much!
It followed her the entire way there, swooping in and out of her headlight beams, and one time it came at the windshield, causing her to nearly run straight into a speeding tractor trailer. Freddie wants to go look at it, but it went away after she turned onto Val’s street; the music disappears, they try Freddie’s radio, but it doesn’t work either, and Val realizes she can’t hear Fleabrain O’Donnell, the Irish setter who lives next door and always barks at her. (Fleabrain is my favorite throw-away character.)
They drive to the mall, and end up inside, though Val doesn’t remember how. (This is a really long damn dream sequence.) The mall is empty, even the cages and fish tanks in the pet store. [Dove: BRB, MUST PLAY SILENT HILL 3] When Val turns to point that out to Diana and Freddie, she finds them gone, too, and only “the dark shape of Diana’s skeletal, half-rotted bird” remains.
This is when Val wakes up (FINALLY, though that dream was full of creepy imagery). She gets dressed so she doesn’t feel so vulnerable, and then goes to tell her father about her bad dream, because it has left her really, really scared. He tells her to get her sleeping bag and sleep on his floor for awhile if she wants, and she does, though she hasn’t used that sleeping bag since the night Jay attacked her [Dove: Which again is nice continuity, and also shades of things to come.]. She manages to get a little more sleep, without any dreams.
When Freddie checks in later to let her know that he’s learned Elise did play the piano, she talks to him about dreams. (He starts to be a little sappy over her being in his dreams, but she cuts that shit off fast, because she has far more important things to talk about.) He offers to come over, and she desperately wants that. It doesn’t hit her until he’s on his way that if the dream is going to come true, having him come over is how it will start.
By the time Freddie shows up, Val has worked herself into a bundle of nerves, which is unusual for her, especially now, because: “One thing about being a werewolf — even though I’m five-foot-three and skinny, I’m faster and stronger than anybody else I know, muggers included, and my body can shrug off almost anything short of a silver bullet. So ordinary things don’t scare me very much anymore. Ghosts and nightmares, though…they weren’t something I could fight, or something I could run from. And if the ghosts wanted to hurt me, I didn’t think they’d do the kind of damage that my body could heal. ”
I love Val so damn much, you guys. She’s so solid and smart and comfortable in herself, and also the whole werewolf thing. I love Val, I love this book, I love this series, I wish it did better when it comes to mental illness.
She catches him up on her dream, including the tie to the music in his car, he throws around some more “crazy” talk because this book is determined to make me give it trope points, though again, I will hold off here.
Freddie also posits that even if it is only happening in her head and not in reality, that doesn’t mean that someone (or something) isn’t putting it into her head. One of the theories about ghosts is that they are not usually visual apparitions, but instead people feel a presence, feel a temperature change, hear things, smell things, and that people believe ghosts aren’t actually the departed spirits but more like tape recordings of something that happened or somebody’s local psi field. This could also mean that people living before the event happens can experience the phenomena too, not just people living after (a slipped time-track, Freddie calls it). I’ve been intrigued by this sort of theory of ghosts for a long time now; a good friend of mine loves it and the layers of time on top of each other as the explanation for ghosts.
Freddie runs through a couple other theories which aren’t super important, and then hits this one, that becoming a ghost is a punishment for the dead person, or that the ghosts are evil things pretending to be the dead.
A few more days pass without anything else happening, and then Freddie and Val have a date at the movie theater. They go out for ice cream after, which is just adorable, but Val has a hard time concentrating on the ice cream because she’s trying to explain to Freddie why she didn’t like the movie. She says there was nothing wrong with it, exactly, but she didn’t like that one guy. The guy “who looked like he’d wandered onto the set by accident and nobody bothered to chase him off…. [He] never did anything in the story? He never said anything either…. He even looked right out at the audience sometimes.”
Needless to say, Freddie did not see this guy in the movie, because this is creepy as fuck and absolutely wonderful. Freddie wants to go check out the next showing of the movie so he can try to see the guy, too, but Val doesn’t want to worry about it. As they leave, she sees something big and dark sitting on the telephone wires running over the entrance to the parking lot. They can both see this one, and bicker a little about what they’re actually seeing; Val settles hard on it being the rotting bird from her dream. Freddie is super excited by this idea, because Freddie is a bit of an idiot sometimes.
(No, I’d do the same thing. I mock out of love, Freddie.)
They drive toward it slowly, and when they get close, they see it is a torn-up black plastic garbage bag. They’re both shakily relieved, until Val looks back “just in time to see the garbage bag spread huge dark wings and flap off heavily into the night.”
I love this book so damn much. I know I keep saying that, but I can’t seem to stop.
Freddie is again excited by what she saw, and she points out that it’s actually kind of terrible, because if her dream is true, it is going to try to cause them to wreck. Freddie waves this off because he’s a good driver, and his truck is old enough that it is “a solid piece of Detroit iron from back before they started making itty-bitty mini-pickups for all you big-city types.”
There is something just delightful about that line to me. In part it’s because I love what he’s talking about, classic vehicles so heavy and safe — I drove an old Chevy SUV for a long time that was basically as solid as a tank — and in part because his cockiness over everything is hilarious to me. Such a teenager.
After Freddie drops Val off at home, she calls Di. They don’t talk long, because Di is waiting for another call, but Val wants to warn her about the nightmares she’s having. Turns out, Di is having them too, though she doesn’t go into detail.
Freddie calls her later, when he makes it home okay, and he wants her to try an experiment: make a pendulum out of a ring and a piece of thread, and then hold it over a highway map for their part of the state while thinking about her bird. It should swing in a straight line normally, and if it swings in a circle over a spot on the map, she needs to mark it. He’s going to do the same thing, and then they can compare their results.
I really love how Freddie is always so eager to try new things and learn new tricks when it comes to the supernatural.
Val suggests he call Di, too, and ask her to do it, because she’s also having bad dreams. Freddie agrees with that, and then tells Val to burn a candle anytime she gets nervous, because if the flame goes low and blue, that’s almost a sure sign there is a ghost around. Well now I am going to stare at any candles I light forever.
[Aside: Dove and I and Raven (Mr Dove, if you don’t follow our Sweet Valley Twin recaps) are going on holiday together this year, and we have already decided to play 10 Candles while we’re traveling, because it involves candles and burning things and horror. We will report back!]
Val doesn’t hear any more piano music that night, but when she wakes up, her bedroom window is open, even though it was closed and locked when she went to bed. She closes it, locks it again, and then finds a piece of a broomstick to use to hold the window in place (she broke it trying to kill a spider, and I am sympathetic to this. Ask Dove about the time she had to listen to me nearly break my neck trying to kill a spider). [Dove: Don’t. I was freaked out. After that, I got Wing’s siblings’ phone numbers as emergency contacts in case it ever happened again.]
The jagged chunk of wood reminds her of killing Elise, and it is all heartbreaking. I love you, Val, and all you do for your friends.
That afternoon, her dad leaves for his conference; he’s super excited and nervous because this year he’s reading a paper, which is a pretty damn big deal. Go Val’s dad! Fictional character that you are.
After she drops him off at the airport, she tries the pendulum experiment on a local map. Nothing happens. On the state road map, though, the pendulum swings in circles, no matter what different weights she uses on it. It marks a spot in the national forest, right where they camped that summer that Jay attacked them and bit Val.
She tries to convince herself it doesn’t mean anything, the music and the rotting bird and the nightmares all have nothing to do with the mountains, but doesn’t manage to make herself feel better. She takes herself to bed, and sleeps soundly for awhile, until the broomstick jamming the window shut hits the floor and the piano music starts again.
She really wants to just stay in bed, but Freddie asked her to take notes, and so she goes to the living room, but this time stays just outside the door. She asks if Elise is the one trying to tell her something; the music continues, first the same song, and then others. Val is worried that if there is a message in the music, she won’t understand it, because she’s never been into piano classics. I love this detail! Too often, the main characters conveniently have just the right skills to get a hidden message. This is far more realistic, and far more interesting.
She grabs the tape recorder and records the music. She even dozes off listening to it after awhile, but comes awake sharp, because something has changed. There is now a shadow in one of the blurs of light, a shadow like a bird’s head on a long, snaky neck, swiveling. There is a patch of light in the shadow where an eye would be. Val bites her lip hard to try to wake herself up, but she’s already awake. She reaches out for the shadow, and it feels strangely cold on her hand, even though she knows that streetlights don’t throw enough heat for her to be able to feel a temperature difference between light and shadow.
Val can tell the shadow comes from one of the living room windows. She slips down the hallway to see which window exactly, and sees it silhouetted against the streetlight. The music still plays, with no sign of piano or player, but she can plainly see the rotting bird, which keeps moving as if it’s trying to look inside the house.
She wishes she had Freddie’s gun with silver bullets. Before she can do anything, though, the bird flaps off out of sight. She runs into the living room to try to follow its movements, and the music stops immediately. She’s relieved that the bird is gone and that it can’t get inside, but then she remembers the falling broomstick — her bedroom window is open.
Val races back to her bedroom, freaked out, and snarling at herself for not closing the window before she left the room. Her one bit of relief is that the screen was still in place, and if it had been a full moon night, it wouldn’t have been.
As she starts to close the window, a great black shape attaches itself to the window screen and starts to ooze through.
Damn, but this book is delightfully creepy and full of action. [Dove: Yeah, I noped out here. I’d be like, fuck it, we’re moving house. I’ll call dad at his conference and inform him we just ceded the house to the ooze bird.]
Val slams the window shut, and without looking at the black shape, locks it, jams the broomstick back into place, then backs across the room until she can close and lock her bedroom door behind her.
And I stayed that way, standing with my back against the locked door and my face toward the locked window, until the sun came up. I wasn’t going to let down my guard again. Whatever that bird was, it was evil — and it was after me.
VAL! BE CAREFUL VAL! I LOVE YOU VAL!
As she’s getting ready for school, she checks the recorder, but there is no music on it.
Di and Freddie have the same homeroom as Val; Di is angry that morning because she’s just gone through a breakup (and she’s used to being the one who does the breaking up), but Freddie wants to talk about the pendulum. Val says she did it, but has an even more important story to tell him. He wants to do the maps first, though, so her story won’t influence them. Freddie went through a bunch of maps in his experiment, but long story short, all three of them circled the same place, which is not only the forest where they camped, but as far as he can tell, the place where they had their campfire that night.
Val spends the rest of the morning scared, because she can’t fight nightmares and coincidences, and she does best when she has something concrete to fight. Oh, Val, you are me in this, and I love you for it. Give me a target, and I can fight to the end. Give me something ephemeral, and I struggle.
They talk again at lunch, and Di finally gets to tell them about her nightmares. She dreams she’s asleep, and then wakes up and looks out her window; through it, she sees a forest, all birch and aspen and rock, like the place where they camped. Under the trees, all sorts of eyes watch her; there’s something in her room, too, and even though she doesn’t know what it is, she’s terrified. She wakes up in bed with the covers over her head, but then hears something sniffing around outside her bedroom door. It sounds like a big dog, and for a second she wonders if it is Val, but it isn’t a full moon night. (Though the moon outside her window, in that other place, was full.) It isn’t a dog, though, it is a pig, and the door opens on a huge black pig with little red eyes. [Dove: Amityville reference?] [Wing: Oooh, good catch.]
And then she woke up for real.
Freddie is actually sad that they are having the neat experiences and he isn’t; he’s always wanted to witness a haunting. Oh, Freddie. Val points out that with all the things he has in his house, there’s no way anything supernatural could actually happen to him. They grumble at each other a little, and then Freddie finally tells them his pet theory: there are bad things in the woods, and what’s happening is connected to that. He thinks there is an ancient, inhuman spirit of evil after them.
I love you, Freddie Hanger. I love you so damn much.
Di and Val question him about this, but there aren’t many stories, because people don’t tend to survive it, and if they do, they don’t talk about it. He does say that it sort of reminds him of the story of the wendigo, a “Native American” spirit with a story like this: “A hunter followed a deer to the top of a mountain; only it wasn’t a deer.”
Okay, first of all, it isn’t a “Native American” spirit, as if Indian tribes are all the same. It is an Algonquian belief. (A language group along the North American east coast, made up of many different tribes.) Since Val et al are in California (right? That’s what I took away from the last book), the actual closest legend would probably be the Athabaskan Wechuge. But second of all, even beyond the details being glossed over, using native stories to prop up white characters is complete bullshit.
Lenore Keeshig [Tobias], Anishinaabekwe, said this back in 1990, and criticism of this sort of storytelling is both much older than that and still relevant today:
Stories, you see, are not just entertainment. Stories are power. They reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture, thinks. Such wonderful offerings are seldom reproduced by outsiders.
Native people were not involved in any creative aspect of the film. Their voice was heard only through cultural consultants hired to provide the nuances and insights lacked by the movie’s writer and producers.
Cultural insight, nuance, metaphor and symbols give a book or film the ring of truth, but their essence—the thing that gives stories universal appeal, that allows true empathy and shared emotion—is missing from Where the Spirit Lives, as it is from most “native” writing by non-natives.
The wendigo is not just some sort of supernatural monster to be trotted out to bolster a horror story. It cannot just be borrowed for storytelling and scares. This is something non-native authors must learn; I had to learn it, too, and I regret the writing I did before I educated myself.
Dr. Adrienne Keene talks about this often at Native Appropriations, including when J. K. Rowling started sharing information about the American wizarding school.
Native spirituality and religions are not fantasy on the same level as wizards. These beliefs are alive, practiced, and protected. The fact that the trailer even mentions the Navajo concept of skinwalkers sends red flags all over the place, and that it’s mentioned next to the Salem witch trials? Disaster. Even the visual imagery of the only humans shown in the trailer being a Native man and burning girls places the two too close for comfort.
We fight so hard every single day as Native peoples to be seen as contemporary, real, full, and complete human beings and to push away from the stereotypes that restrict us in stock categories of mystical-connected-to-nature-shamans or violent-savage-warriors. Colonization erases our humanity, tells us that we are less than, that our beliefs and religions are “uncivilized”, that our existence is incongruent with modernity. This is not ancient history, this is not “the past.” The ongoing oppression of Native peoples is reinscribed everyday through texts and images like this trailer. How in the world could a young person watch this and not make a logical leap that Native peoples belong in the same fictional world as Harry Potter?
We are also fighting everyday for the protection of our sacred sites from being destroyed by mining, fracking, and other forms of “development.” These sites are sacred. Meaning they have deep roots in our spiritual beliefs, hold sacred power, and connect us to our ancestors. If Indigenous spirituality becomes conflated with fantasy “magic”–how can we expect lawmakers and the public to be allies in the protection of these spaces?
Back to the book. Val tells Freddie and Di about what happened the night before. Di is afraid, but Freddie acts as if it makes perfect sense within his theories. They talk all throughout lunch, but don’t come up with any plan. Val keeps seeing things out of the corners of her eyes the rest of the day, and the shadows seem darker before.
After school, Val is freaked out and nervous about going home, but talks herself out of staying with Di for the next week. (While her father is out of town. Again, this would normally get a trope point, but her dad is around most of the time, and also, she’s nearly 18 and an adult. Leaving her alone for that long isn’t as strange here as it is with some of the other stories.) She also talks herself out of calling her dad, because she doesn’t want to spoil his trip when she has so little information to give him.
Val lights a candle and turns on all the lights so the wavery candle shadows don’t frighten her. She sits down awhile to do her homework, and really gets into it for awhile, until she realizes that someone else has joined her.
Chapter break! And again, this could have been a trope counter moment, but the authors haven’t used up all my goodwill for them (STINE), and it feels like a believable, natural chapter break for tension. No points! See, it can be done (STINE!).
Val isn’t scared, though, because she recognises Greg, from junior high, the one who played the French horn, helped her sneak into the school the night she confronted Jay, and has his throat ripped out.
(That bit of lore from Freddie about the candle flame burning low and blue turns out to be correct, which is awesome.)
Greg tells her he knows he can’t stay, and she asks if he remembers what happened, because if he doesn’t, she’s not looking forward to telling him that he’s dead. He does remember, though, because something like that is hard to forget; it hurt, but not for long, and he remembers Di holding him while he was dying, asks Val to thank her for him. Oh, Greg.
Finally Val asks why he’s there, and he says he can’t tell her everything, and he doesn’t actually know that much in the first place. They talk a bit about whether she can ever know for sure that Greg is really there and that he’s really himself, and he says she can’t, because “real” is a slippery concept after death. He reassures her that she has some good friends where he is now, but also one serious enemy. She assumes Jay, of course, but he tells her not to jump to conclusions.
Val has a hard time believing that, considering not too long ago, he was hell bent on killing her, but Greg says that he’s seen Jay a few times, even though they hang out in different places, and Greg actually thinks Jay has been asking for her help.
SO MANY QUESTIONS. I would love to see more of this strange afterlife, but also, what a shock that Jay needs help from her. I did not see that coming.
This is pretty much all Greg knows, and he starts fading after he tells her that. She shouts at him to go visit Freddie, but by the time she finishes the sentence, he’s gone, and the candle is back to burning a normal yellow flame.
Val is shaken by this, and reminded of the voice on the tape recorder in her dream, the voice that growled, “help me,” while blood ran across the table. Super fucking creepy.
She can’t focus on her homework any more, and tries to call Di instead, but the line is busy. (Oh, for the days before call waiting and voicemail.) She tries to distract herself by watching tv, but can’t focus on anything. As she’s staring blankly at a western, she sees something flicker behind her, like someone walked into the room. When she turns around, no one is there. She goes back to thinking through everything, and after awhile, she notices that this movie has an extra figure in the background. It’s the same guy as before, and he stays in the background all through the commercials, too; he’s staring at the camera and getting closer, though he’s not yet close enough for her to make out his features.
This is creepy as fucking shit. I keep picturing Samara climbing out of the tv at the end of the first Ring movie, and am truly creeped out. (Random Wing fact: sometimes when we’re on a video call, I put my hands up by the camera to make it seem like I’m going to crawl out of the screen. This freaks Dove the fuck out every time.) [Dove: I hate you.] [Wing: *preens*]
During the second commercial, she recognises him at last: it’s Bill, another of her junior high friends, and another teenager killed by Jay. Unlike Greg, though, he doesn’t look the same as he did before he died. Instead, he looks like the man he might have grown up to be if he’d lived.
She’s starting to feel cold and shivery, because she has three dead friends and one dead enemy, and so far she’s had three apparitions, and maybe Jay reaching out to her too.
When the commercial ends, Bill is gone.
Val decides not to sleep in her own room — she can’t stop thinking about the bird trying to come in through the open window. She feels safer in the living room, because all the ghosts there had been friendly ones, at least. She closes the curtains and brings in a supply of candles, which she’s clearly going to use as ghost detectors. She gets her sleeping bag and a big pot of tea (Dove will approve), and puts the candles on saucers so the dripping wax won’t hurt anything.
She calls Freddie to tell him about Greg’s visit. After she catches him up, Freddie says it sounds like a logic problem, where “you’re supposed to figure out what color house the man who owns the zebra lives in.” Val hates those problems. Freddie, of course, loves them. (Random Wing fact: I love them and have a recommendation for you: play some here.) [Dove: Welp, there goes our readership. They’ll all be off doing logic puzzles.] [Wing: Hey, at least I didn’t rec the nonograms.] Freddie asks if she wants him to come over, but she says she’ll be okay.
She dreams that she is the wolf, running through the woods to a hill in the middle of the forest. The full moon shines down on blue-white snow and broken rocks. She’s filled with joy over the beauty of her world. She’s not alone, though; hundreds of people carrying torches are coming for her. (She can smell their anger and fear.) She tries to find a way to run, because she won’t stay and fight them; she promised herself she would never bite anyone, no matter what, because the world doesn’t need any more unwilling werewolves. (Because Val hardcore believes in consent, and I love her for it.)
She’s just about to escape past the human mob, but then a man steps out of the shadows and grabs her. His grip is unnaturally strong, and he smells like “leaf mold and mushrooms and the wet places near seeps in the woods.” Gorgeous description there. It’s a smell that is like and unlike the dead and rotting smell of the vampires from the last book. The vampires smelled completely unnatural, but the man smells like a creature that is meant to be in the world.
He tells her to bite him and she will go free. She wants to bite him. She needs to bite him. But she’s promised herself — she turns away instead of biting him. He calls for the people, and they bind her with ropes, tie her to a stake, and set her on fire, because this dream is serious fucking business.
She wakes up twisted in her sleeping bag, and for a second, she thinks she sees something dark staring down at her, something that smelled of damp leaves, but then it is gone. The tv is still on, but the stations have stopped airing, so all she has is a test pattern, which is not even a thing anymore at least here in the USA.
The candles still burn yellow and there isn’t any piano music, but there is a chill to the air. It’s not just her imagination, either, because the furnace suddenly kicks on.
Then she can hear something moving very quietly through the house. She doubts a ghost could make a sound like that, it is too solid, too real, and it sounds like it is being sneaky. That makes her feel better, because if it’s an ordinary prowler thinking there’s only a teenage girl home alone, they would be in for a big surprise, and in this mood, Val is eager to give it to them.
Except the candle flames start to burn blue.
The noise changes into a scratching and skittering sound, the kind of sound she thinks a cockroach the size of a coffee table would make. I am seriously freaked out now, and so is Val; the hair on the back of her neck stands up, which she takes as meaning her wolf-senses are giving her a warning as well. She wishes she could be in wolf shape to sniff the air and learn more about whatever is coming.
The test pattern on the tv disappears, and instead she sees grown up Bill again. He tells her that he’s there to try to save her life, and no matter what happens, she can’t look at the doorway behind her.
Jesus, I don’t know if I could keep from looking after that. Val even talks about how hard it is not to look specifically because he told her not to do so. She manages not to look, though, and doesn’t even try to catch a glimpse in her peripheral vision.
Instead she stares at Bill and wonders if he’s on her side or not, if she would have even thought about looking at the source of that noise if he hadn’t told her not to. UMM, VAL, I CAN PRETTY MUCH GUARANTEE THAT YOU WOULD HAVE FACED IT, BECAUSE THAT IS THE KIND OF PERSONALITY YOU HAVE. No judgment here, I’m the same way, but come on. Three books in, you should know this as well as I do!
Bill keeps telling her not to look around, and then says that somebody out there doesn’t like her, and nasty stuff is going on. He can’t say who it is, though, because it doesn’t have a name. He can’t even explain why he can’t tell her. Eventually, though, he starts talking about that camping trip, and how there was more going on in the hills that they thought at the time. One of the days, they hiked through a burnt area, and it turns out that when the fire went through, it turned something loose. He’s not sure how to describe it, but when Val offers Freddie’s words (“an ancient, inhuman spirit of evil”), Bill says that’s pretty much it. It’s so old it doesn’t have a name, and it gets off on hurting and destroying things; it eats and drinks anger, pain, and bad thoughts.
Until they came along, it was just aimlessly floating there in the woods, and hadn’t yet thought about going somewhere else, until it could attach itself to them. To Jay in particular, because he was broken, wrong from the beginning, somehow, and just getting worse.
Val doesn’t like what she’s hearing, not what Bill is saying and not what she’s hearing behind her.
Even though it liked Jay best, Val is the one who got it going again. Val again wonders if Bill is actually on her side, because he’s hit on her darkest fears, that she has become an evil, monstrous thing. Oh, Val, I love you so much, and you’re filling the werewolf-as-bipolar metaphor that I adore so well.
Bill goes on to say that he doesn’t know if it is hungry or scared when it comes to her. Val understand hungry, because a werewolf is always hungry, and she’s thought about what it would do to her if she didn’t have such regular access to food. “For lycanthropes, there never were any good old days.” Food insecurity is still a huge thing, here in the USA, in the UK, worldwide — so it’s not like this is only a historical problem. But Val understands hunger, and how it could drive someone to do terrible things.
She doesn’t understand why it would be afraid of her. Bill says that it thinks she can hurt it somehow, even though she hasn’t done it yet. He’s not sure how, though, but knows that it wants to kill her or claim her, whichever works to make her not a threat.
He tells her not to be mad at him, because he’s just the messenger; she scoffs at that and says if he’s the messenger, he should tell her what’s behind her. He says nothing, and then disappears.
The house is quiet, and she’s been sitting there for two and a half hours. The candles have mostly burned out, but one is left. She takes it and goes walking through the house, looking for whatever was there. I FUCKING TOLD YOU THAT YOU WOULD GO LOOK AT IT, VAL. [Dove: See, at this point, I’d be under the kitchen table, wrapped in my sleeping bag, crying and hoping someone would save me. Val is a badass.]
About an inch beyond the living room door (an open arch, not an actual door), she finds a clod of dark earth; it is wet and slimy against her skin when she touches it. She follows patches of mud through the house. Some are fresh, some caked and dried. There are also scratches on the walls. The trail leads straight to her bedroom; the door is closed.
Inside, the room is empty, but it is terribly, bitterly cold. The bedroom window is open, and the trail of muck leads to it. The screen is still in place, but caught against the outside of the screen is a dirty black feather.
Val slams the windows shut, then nails the damn thing shut, because she is determined and a bad ass. She then cleans up the bits of mud. It’s only when she’s finished that she realises she’s shut up her usual way out of the house during the full moon. She’s not even sure she wants to sleep in that room anymore, now, so it doesn’t really matter.
She heads to school even though it is an hour before her normal bus, because she is too freaked out to stay in the house. She mocks herself a little for not being brave enough, but Val, you are definitely being too hard on yourself. You were badass during that weird visit, you are badass all the time, you feel fear but push through it. I love you.
Freddie and Di are both frustrated and worried about her when they get to school. Whoops, she totally forgot to call Freddie that morning, like she promised. They both snap at her a little, she says she had a bad night and will tell them about it at lunch. They’re not super great with that idea, but they don’t really have a choice, because homeroom starts and then they’re busy all morning with classes.
(I mean, you could skip, y’all! That is an option! But okay.)
She has brought the feather to show them; there is a little bit of sour meat still attached to the end. She then tells them about what happened. Di starts to cry when Val gives her Greg’s message. Oh, Di, you’re such a dear. Also very brave and strong.
When she’s done, Val says she doesn’t know what they should do next. Freddie suggests that they take the evil back to the mountains. Di asks what he means by “take it back” at the same time Val asks what he means by “we”. I love that.
Freddie and Di discuss this back and forth, talking over Val, until she finally snaps that there is no we, she’s the one who needs to put herself at risk. When Freddie tells her that it’s too big for her to handle alone, she needs all the friends she can get, Val snaps that she needs them alive. Val has lost so many friends over just a few years, and she blames herself for most of their deaths. Oh, Val. You’re carrying a huge burden.
What’s great about this is that Val’s side makes absolute sense, but so does Freddie’s.
Their argument goes all through lunch, and in the end, Val loses, or decides she doesn’t actually want to win, or something, she’s not even sure. By the end of the school day, they have a plan; they’ll go back up the mountain, camp one night, come back down. [Dove: That was Heather’s plan in The Blair Witch Project. It didn’t end well for them. Can’t imagine it’ll go much better for Val.] [Wing: This book predates The Blair Witch Project. I knew that, but it didn’t really strike home until now. That’s how well it holds up this many decades later.]
That night, Val preps for the trip, packing food and water, a tent, her sleeping bag, a first aid kit. She hasn’t used any of the camping stuff since that terrible camping night, until she used the sleeping bag recently because of her nightmares, and it is truly fitting that this is why she has to get back to it. (She’s also not had to use the first aid kit since then, because she heals pretty much everything.)
She sleeps in the living room again that night, and nothing happens. The next morning, she gets up when it is still dark out, because they want an early start. She hears a door bang shut somewhere in the house while she’s making tea (Val, are you a Brit?), but doesn’t go investigate. She’s rattled, and she doesn’t like it; she hasn’t been shy about investigating scary noises since she became a werewolf, because she is one of the scary things now. I love you, Val. (WEREWOLF!)
Val eats a giant breakfast so her body will be fueled, and then Freddie and Di turn up in Freddie’s truck. Freddie has brought along all of his antisupernatural things, which makes Val feel a little better. They head out just as the sun is coming up, and it turns into a beautiful morning.
The drive up is faster than she expects, and Val decides that when they were younger, it felt like it took so long because they were so excited. But now, three years later, half of them are dead, and the other half are going back, and this is a terrible idea. Oh, Val. I love you and your fear and your bravery.
Freddie leaves a note on a map in the truck, with their names, the date (March 31), and the time they start up the mountain, so the search parties know where to start looking. And on that somber (but really smart! Make sure someone knows where you’re hiking!) note, they set out.
Val isn’t convinced the note will do much good, because by the time anyone figures out they’re missing, they’ll have either won or lost, but Freddie doesn’t think it can hurt. They each have a map and a compass, and they make a plan to meet back at the truck if they get split up, which is smart, but unlikely to actually work when the supernatural gets involved, I’m sure. Di also has a pocket altimeter, which with Freddie’s topographic maps, will let them find their way off any mountain. I wasn’t sure what that was, so I looked it up, and basically it measures altitude gained, so they can compare that to the topographic map. Makes a lot of sense, actually, and is very useful. It’s her dad’s, and if she breaks it, she knows he will be pissed.
They hike for awhile before taking a break, and it’s pretty nice, if warmer than they anticipated. When they stop, Val asks what their plan is, and Freddie doesn’t really have much of one other than sit around and wait for something to happen. Once it does, he has some stuff to use against it, but until then, they’re basically doing nothing. Val and Di both find that extremely frustrating.
Freddie defends his plan, because he has things like mustard seed, to scatter in case they have to run. That’s some old lore that doesn’t get brought up very often, that supernatural creatures will have to stop and count before they can keep going. [Dove: This? This I fucking LOVE.] Val doesn’t think it has enough sophistication to be distracted by counting. Freddie has other things, too, though, like a hawthorn stake, because he can drive that into a shadow, plants that are good against evil, silver — and if none of that works, he plans to stand there and challenge it to come out and talk to him. Oh, Freddie, you are wonderful and ridiculous at the same time.
Di’s response made me literally laugh out loud (and scare my dog): I’m afraid you aren’t filling me with the sort of warm, fuzzy feeling of comfort that I should be getting when I tell myself we’ve got an expert along for the ride.
Oh, Di, you are so sharp and so witty. (Also, I would like to point out that Freddie’s bravery is interesting because he’s the only one in this group who hasn’t been forced to kill someone supernatural. And even if they were generally monsters killing people (or would become that, in Elise’s case), they had human faces at least some of the time. Di and Val have both done A LOT.)
Val then calls him an “ad-lib exorcist” because she is also witty and wonderful. I love these girls so damn much.
They continue on their hike, and it’s really gorgeous out. Val finds it hard to believe that something as terrible as the rotting bird came from somewhere as beautiful as this place. Of course, as soon as she starts to relax, Freddie stops her, because she keeps turning her head to the side like she’s listening, and she actually responds out loud to someone saying her name. She thinks it is Freddie, but neither he nor Di said anything.
They wait around awhile to see if it happens again, but it doesn’t. Freddie wants to get up to the right location by sunset and then camp there for the night; Di would be much more comfortable sleeping elsewhere, but Freddie points out they didn’t come up there to sleep. As they’re bickering, Val hears something large take flight from a treetop nearby. She can’t see what it is, but is pretty sure it’s the rotting bird.
When they stop for lunch later, Di says that she thinks they’re getting pushed to the north. They’ve been following the easiest way, and it is causing them to stray to the right of the direct line they want. Freddie isn’t much bothered by this, though, because as long as they get to the general area, they’ll be able to find the right spot. You’re certainly blase about both finding the spot and whether you’re getting lead somewhere in particular.
Eventually, Val stops hearing the sounds of the woods, no birds, no rustling leaves. This is creepy as shit, and Val knows. She has a bad feeling, and the hair on the back of her neck is starting to stand up. She wishes she had her wolf nose to smell the things she can’t actually see.
Di is the first to see the gray shape gliding through the shadows, just at the edge of where they can see. There are at least five wolves, and they are keeping pace with them. Freddie’s not sure if they’re real or not; Val says she’s heard they are repopulating the area, and maybe they’ve entered the wolves’ territory. If that’s true, they have nothing to worry about, because real wolves don’t bother people. They can’t be werewolves, because there’s no full moon.
Freddie again repeats that “a hunter followed a deer to the top of a mountain, but it wasn’t a deer.” Helpful, Freddie.
They keep going, single file, Freddie leading and Val bringing up the rear. The wolves keep pace, one line on either side of them. They banter a little, until the wind starts tearing at them, as loud as an express train. It shakes the trees, tosses around leaves and little branches, and then disappears. The wolves are gone, too.
Di thinks this means they weren’t real, but Val says they might have just run away from that wind. Freddie says they need to get moving, because it’s getting late. They find out exactly how late when they come to a clearing, and find the wolves waiting for them there.
Di wants to turn back, and Freddie agrees, but the wolves have circled behind them. Val knows this isn’t natural behavior, and if they’re real, something is controlling them. This enrages her on their behalf, because they didn’t deserve to be ordered around. You guys, I love Val so fucking much.
Val takes point and they walk forward in a little wedge of people. Val tries to look as non-aggressive as possible, even though lupine body language doesn’t work really well in a human body. One of the wolves advance on them, a big old male with a silver ruff. He doesn’t make any threat gestures at first, just stands and watches. Freddie asks if it’s time to bring some destruction out of his bag, but Val tells him no. (She also wonders what he has, a hand grenade or powdered wolfbane in an aerosol can, which would be pretty devastating for her but also is really clever.)
The wolves start closing in, and Di and Freddie are both afraid enough that Freddie asks if wolves can really smell fear, because if so, they’re getting a real whiff from him. They’re thirty feet from the edge of the trees when the big male charges straight at them without any noise or warning.
The writing in this scene is delightfully werewolf:
He leapt at me from a range of about twelve feet. It was a huge jump, beautiful in its way — time was slowing down for me as the adrenaline reaction hit, and I seemed to have forever to watch him coming. He moved in a long arc, the wind of his passage ruffling the fur on his back. His mouth was partly open, the lips curled back, and his fangs were long and white. His yellow-green eyes were fixed on mine.
The wolf knocks into Val, bites her arm; as soon as he lets go, she can feel that tingling rush of werewolf healing. The wolf only let go of her arm to go for her throat, however, and the only thing that saves her is her backpack is holding her up off the ground enough she could bring her arms up in time. She holds him off of her and rolls over and over, until the end up with her on top of the wolf, sitting on his belly, pushing his head up and back. She thinks she’s growling at the same time. The wolf goes limp all at once, whimpering, and she recognises it as wolf-surrender mode. Val lets him up, and he slinks away, taking the other wolves with him.
Val wants to howl at the sky to take credit for her victory and announce herself as the new leader of the pack, but her human throat won’t make the right sounds.
This is also so gorgeously werewolf, I am dying of joy. SO MUCH JOY. [Dove: Even I, who’s not that fussed about werewolves, loved this.]
When she turns to find Di and Freddie, though, she finds the clearing empty. She calls their names, but no one answers; a big, bird-shape flashes across the sun, and then disappears.
She considers heading back to the truck, where they agreed to meet if they got split up, but she decides that she’s come this far and she’s going to get to the heart of the problem. I am completely unsurprised. However, if you’re going to set a plan into place, MAYBE YOU SHOULD FOLLOW THAT DAMN PLAN.
Val takes off, but leaves a pile of three stones to mark her trail. A stack of three is not natural, and Freddie and Di would recognize it as her marker. This is a fairly standard hiking trick. She keeps building piles of stones as she goes.
The forest is quiet and getting dark; Val starts talking out loud to scare off any animals and make herself feel better. She does the time tables first, but gets bogged down around 7×9. (I loved memorizing the times tables, because that is the kind of memorization I enjoy, but also, we earned pizza for it in school.) Then she moves on to poetry, quoting Poe, which is pretty much a terrible idea if you’re already tense and scared.
The sun is going down, and Val starts to move faster, stops checking her map and compass as often. She ends up lost, of course, and figures it out because she circles back around to one of her piles of stones. She wants to burst into tears, but ever since she became a werewolf, she can’t cry even in human form. This is an interesting bit of lore, and not something I remember reading elsewhere.
Instead, she sits down to come up with a plan. She finally decides she’ll spend the night then head back down to the truck, and she knows Di and Freddie will be annoyed with her for not heading back sooner, but it’s too late for that now.
Then she hears “a wordless, gloating cry, as inhuman as a wolf’s howl, but never something that came from a lupine throat. And then […] came another outcry, high and shrill and full of jagged edges. A human scream of pain.”
I love Val, and I love this book.
She gets her bearings and then takes off at a lope to save her friends (WEREWOLF!). The sun sets, but her compass is glow in the dark, and she keeps going as fast as she can, trusting in her werewolf healing to fix anything that might break if she steps wrong or runs into a tree.
However, the sky gets lighter and lighter as she runs, until she can see a huge glowing wheel hanging against the stars. She considers whether it might be the aurora borealis, but it doesn’t look like any of the pictures she’s seen. (I don’t think they’re far enough north for that anyway.) The thing it most reminds her of is an Ezekiel bible verse about seeing fire and brightness in the sky. She always thought it sounded like UFOs.
The wheel of light starts rotating, and she decides to ignore it and keep running. She’s running out of energy, even for a werewolf, when she smells blood, and almost immediately after trips over Freddie. He’s conscious, but barely breathing. His legs are twisted in a way they shouldn’t, and both are broken. His stomach has been torn open and his guts are hanging out, “a glistening mound of yellow coils, covered with blood and dirt.” That is a gross description, and I love it. Val knows he’s dying, and there’s nothing she can do about it.
Val begs him not to die, and Freddie begs her to help him, and it is all really heartbreaking. Through everything, she can hear the terrible noise of that great rotting bird. It is watching them. It wants to kill them.
Freddie then asks Val to kiss him like she means it, if she loves him, to do it now. She’s never kissed anyone on the lips before, and isn’t sure if she’s doing it right, but she does. She always thought her first kiss would be overwhelming and wonderful, but this isn’t, though she’s not surprised, because Freddie is dying and she is so cold. He’s also disappointed, but for a different reason, because he was hoping it would infect him. Save him. He begs her to turn him, because he needs the healing. She’s leery, because she never wanted to do that, and because when she first turned, her injuries still took hours to heal. He says it doesn’t matter, though, changing is his only hope.
She hesitates, because of her promise to herself and because she’s suddenly afraid that this is all a setup, part of the Muffin Man’s plan to either destroy her or suck her in.
Then she snarls at herself for thinking too much (SNARLS BECAUSE WEREWOLF), tears Freddie’s jacket and shirt away from his right shoulder, and bites him. It ends up being a lot harder than she thought, because normal human teeth aren’t really built for breaking through skin like that, we don’t have enough fangs like werewolves and vampires. She has to bite down hard and chew, and for a scene that uses few words, it is surprisingly creepy and tense.
The part of her that is wolf enjoys the taste of his blood. She kisses him after she’s done biting, sharing the blood with him, then licks the wound with long, slow strokes until the blood stops coming, like a dog licking its wounds. This is such a creepy, wonderful scene. She’s going off of Freddie’s theory about lycanthropy transmitting through saliva.
Val holds him long throughout the night, while his breathing is shallow and his heartbeat slow. Eventually, she can’t help but drift into sleep, and for once, her nightmares are a better option than reality.
She wakes in the morning to sunshine and birds. Freddie’s temperature has broken, and though his breathing is ragged and low, he is still alive. His legs are healed, his intestines no longer hang outside his body. He’s going to live.
She wakes him, and at first he thinks he only had terrible dreams, and then when he sees the blood on her face, he lashes out at her, calling her a bitch because she bit him. WHAT THE FUCK, FREDDIE. GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE WITH THAT MISOGYNISTIC BULLSHIT, I DON’T CARE HOW ANGRY YOU ARE. ALSO, SHE ONLY DID WHAT YOU FUCKING BEGGED HER TO DO.
Val’s temper breaks much like mine just did, and starts yelling back at him that he was dying and he asked her to do it.
Di is the voice of calmness in this, when she turns up and reminds them that it feeds off emotion, and all they’re doing is making it stronger.
Her arrival is enough to break them out of their anger, and now Freddie is embarrassed that he reacted so badly, and grateful that he will live. Di sets about making them breakfast, and Val spends a couple minutes thinking about how stylish and pretty Di is even in the middle of the forest after a night of camping in the best case scenario.
After breakfast (and cleaning up from breakfast, because as Di says, “As long as no creatures of ultimate evil are breathing down the back of our necks, we might as well have a bit of respect for the environment.” I LOVE YOU DI. And can you come and teach the USA to have some respect for the environment?), the talk about what happened when they accidentally split up.
Di ran to climb the nearest tree, and when she stopped climbing and looked down, everyone was gone. She headed back to the truck (BECAUSE YOU HAD A DAMN PLAN, VAAAAL), but she got about halfway there when she heard the same screech and scream that sent Val to Freddie. Di took off running in terror, got lost, and eventually gave up and made camp for the night.
Freddie backed out of of the clearing while trying to get some of his arsenal out of his bag. When he looked back, everyone was gone. He, too, started back for the truck (VAAAAAAL), and when it started to get dark, he thought he saw the headlights off to his right, so he headed for it, assuming they had made it back first and turned them on for him. He followed the light for awhile, but it never seemed to get any closer, and when it went out, something started chasing him. He never got a good look at it, it was just a big shadowy thing until it got close to him, but based on the noise it made when it attacked, he thinks it was a Wind Man, which is apparently the Siberian equivalent of Big Foot, except Big Foot isn’t dangerous, while Wind Man is an aggressive carnivore.
Val wants to know how it got there, and one of Freddie’s theories (my favorite), is that the Muffin Man constructed it from his memories. That is so fucking creepy and invasive and perfect.
After story time, they get themselves oriented again, and take off for Muffin Man’s home base. When they get close, Freddie and Val start bickering a little about their next plan (Freddie’s is still “wait and look for something weird”) when Di asks what he means by weird, because the water in the stream they just found is a thick, red, foamy, blood. THAT SEEMS WEIRD TO ME, DI.
On the far side of the stream, the trees look like natural trees but are really stone, with trunks and branches of granite and jade leaves. This is both gorgeous and creepy!
They spend another three hours hiking through the strange jeweled forest before they find the campsite. Once again, Freddie and Val argue, and once again, Di is the voice of reason, because she’s found a natural, living, growing bush right in the center of the firepits (their ashes have been turned to stone, too), and her altimeter has bottomed out. According to it, they’re somewhere below sea level.
Freddie decides he’s going to blow up the bush and the entrance beneath it with a bit of dynamite that he got from his dad, who keeps it around for blasting stumps. This is not the first time we’ve seen teenagers have easy access to dynamite! (Check out The Stranger by Caroline B. Cooney.) It’s still weird here.
Freddie has them back off until they are a safe distance away, and the rotting bird shows up to watch what they’re doing. Once Freddie gets it in place, he runs toward them, says that there are only 18 seconds until it blows, but then they have to wait a long time after. Di says it was a bad idea, thinking they could defeat evil by playing with explosives.
Not quite a dumb idea, Jay’s ghost tells them. He looks bad, like someone who’d been shot in the head, burned in a fire, and left to rot in a coffin for a couple of years, which is exactly what happened to him.
Di gets sick over it; Freddie doesn’t. Val isn’t sure if this is because Freddie is a little tougher, especially after the vampires, or if it’s because he wasn’t the one who killed Jay in the first place. I’m going with the latter, Val, considering how she first reacted to killing him.
Jay tells Val that he was asking her for help because he could talk to her, since she was the wolf he made. He’s weak and sinful and dead, and can’t fight the Muffin Man himself. Di is the only one who asks about the dynamite, because Di has her shit together, and he says time there isn’t what they think it is, and their 18 seconds aren’t up yet — but then it is, and as the explosion rolls toward them in a series of heavy, crashing noises, he wishes them luck. [Dove: I love this disruption of time. I love it when supernatural fucks with time.]
The explosion knocks down the jeweled trees; their delicate gemstone leaves break loose and scatter in colorful drifts. The shock wave leaves bare hills covered with colored pebbles. Di says the column of black smoke will bring the forest rangers or nothing will, but Val isn’t worried about that, because they have poked a stick in the nest of Freddie’s ancient and inhuman spirit of evil (or, you know, the Muffin Man, for true respect!). She leads them back up the slope to check out the damage, and they find a gaping pit where the bush was. A black cloud pours out like ink on water, and it envelops Val in darkness.
She is alone, standing on a high rock, thirteen full moons spread across the sky. A year of full moons, a voice tells her, and here she stands, for the first time in a long time a human under the moonlight and not a wolf. The voice tells her that she brings death to her friends, but it doesn’t have to be that way; if she comes with him, none of it will have happened.
In the darkness below, she sees Jay alive and well; he tells her he could be alive, and he would have gotten his act together, straightened out — he didn’t even have to be a werewolf, if she goes with the voice, he’ll be normal and alive. Jay’s not really her friend per se, but he’s followed by Bill, who begs her to say yes and save his life. Next up is Greg, of course, and if she goes, he’ll live and get his scholarship and go off to college in the fall.
And then there is Elise, who claims the vampires came to town because Val was there. She’s followed by Freddie, who says it is her fault he is becoming a supernatural creature of evil. Well damn, Freddie.
(My god, Val has had a lot of death in her life the past couple of years.)
The voice goes low and sweet, and two tawny yellow eyes appear in the darkness. It tells Val that she is a part of it, she belongs with it, and when she comes with it, all the bad things will go away and have never happened.
Then they go through and tell her everything that will happen if she says no: she’ll become a vampire when she dies and come back and kill people (Elise), she’ll kill people or make them werewolves (Jay) — basically, this thing has tapped into her deepest fears.
Val doesn’t like when people lean on her like that, who pressure who, who use ultimatums. That’s not what real friends do, and that thought reminds her of Bill on the television said, about the evil wanting to destroy her or absorb her. That had been a real friend talking to her. This isn’t.
She tells the voice no, and the world falls apart around her. She forces herself to take a step forward, and then another, and finally she emerges onto a clear mountain morning, still standing with Freddie and Di.
She feels a weight lift from her heart, and tells them that if they hurry, they can make it back to the truck before nightfall. When Freddie asks, she says she thinks she told the Muffin Man to take its toys and go home. That sounds like it was super fucking easy, Val, but okay, you do you.
They do make it back to the truck before dark, and Freddie has eaten all the food they’ve been carrying, basically, because his metabolism has kicked in hardcore.
It is late when they make it back to town, and Di says since they’re going to get into trouble anyway, for being out the way they were, and getting back so late, they might as well go get ice cream first, her treat.
Before they get there, though, the music on the radio dies, and Freddie can’t find anything on AM or FM after that. Meanwhile, Di is staring out the window and asks Freddie where they are going. He says the ice cream shop, but they’re on the wrong road. Instead they’re near a lounge with a forty-foot neon sign in shades of red. None of them have ever seen it before. They realize there are no cars on the street, and dust devils whirl across the concrete.
As they’re trying to turn around, shambling human size shapes, not entirely human, start coming for them. Before they can get away, one of them touches the window, and the sound of its hand on the glass is a dull, squishy thumb like a “slap from a glove full of Vaseline.” Jesus, that is gross. Also, it doesn’t have a FACE.
Freddie peels out of there, and after awhile of driving, a flashing red and blue light comes up behind them — a cop. Or whatever replacement for a cop this world has. Freddie doesn’t want to stop, thinks it would be a very bad idea. Instead, he wants them to sing, because music is a kind of prayer sometimes, and prayer works very well against some things. They sing “Amazing Grace,” because of course they do [Dove: When grabbing a song that everyone knows all the words to and is easy to sing, Amazing Grace has failed to make my top billion every single time.]. When they finish the first stanza, everything weird is gone, and they’re about to reach the ice cream shop.
Val suggests they go to her house for a snack instead, and Di agrees that is a good idea. Freddie, however, has other things on his mind, because he’s figured out that the Muffin Man has been using them from the beginning. They didn’t kill it, they didn’t hurt it, and he thinks all they managed was to set it loose, and now it’s hitchhiked back to civilization with them. SO FUCKY CREEPY AND WONDERFUL.
He wants to fix things, Di wants to know how he plans to fix things since they’ve failed pretty completely so far, and Val says that it’s probably her, because Bill told her it was scared of her. It wouldn’t be so worried if there was nothing she could do to hurt it.
At home, Freddie makes them sundaes and Val tells them her plan: she wants to get in touch of their ghostly friends for advice. Before they can finish their ice cream, the ghosts start making things happen. Val gets the tape player/radio, has Freddie get candles and matches, and they settle down. Val plays the tape from the other night, which sounded blank in the morning, but now they can hear the music playing. Val says Elise is trapped like Jay, and she wants help.
Finally, the song changes; Di recognizes it as “Moonlight Sonata” (which is another lovely song). Moonlight means something particular to Val, and Elise knew about it. It’s still a week until the next full moon, and Freddie doesn’t think they can wait that long. The music gets louder still, and is now coming from the living room as well as the tape player.
This time, when they go into the living room, the music doesn’t stop. Instead, she can see the piano and the pianist, who is wearing a long dress, and is old, and is Elise, because Val can see her fangs. She begs for them to help her, to set her free, and then disappears when a cold wind blows out Val’s candle.
Val is hit with inspiration, and leads them to her bedroom. It’s the window she goes out every full moon, a threshold, a place of changes; Die has dreamed of a bedroom window, too, with a view to a full moon instead. Val has finally figured out that Jay speaks only through their dreams, and Di is linked to him as much as Elise is to Val, because they have their blood on their hands, and they owe them one last service before they can be free. That is fucking dark, and I love it.
Reality doesn’t matter in her bedroom, because a huge full moon shines through her window, and Val turns into a wolf. Freddie does, too. They’re both tangled a little in their clothes at first, then work their way free; Val salvages her clothes, Freddie savages his.
To wolf!Val, the window smells of evil. Di tries to open it for her, but it sticks. She then breaks it out with the desk chair, because, again, Di is a fucking badass and I love her. Val leads them through the window, but the drop from it is a lot longer than it normally is. No one gets hurt, luckily, and they take off through scrubby bushes into an unknown world. Eventually, they reach the City of Dreadful Night, a decrepit place filled with industrial pollution and human waste.
They go down an alley that gets narrower and narrower until it a slimy, dirty tunnel. When it finally opens again, they are in a natural cavern with a putrid waterfall. A mob of people are coming for them, and Val figures out she’s been following the smell of the rotting bird this whole time.
They need to move, and the scent goes forward. Di says she can climb down the cliff, and Val flings herself off the edge. If she’d been an ordinary wolf (or an ordinary human, hello), she would have died, but her werewolf healing kicks in. When she can look again, Di is halfway down the cliff, and Freddie is still standing at the top, too scared to jump.
(They howl back and forth in communication. I love this book.)
Freddie doesn’t actually jump until Di has reached the bottom herself. He lands hard, is hurt even worse than Val was, and he heals slower. He’s still very new to this, after all. The mob is getting louder above them, and they are getting nervous. Di carries Freddie because he can’t yet walk himself, and, again, Di is suck a fucking badass.
The mob reaches the edge of the cliff and walk over the edge without stopping. The first ones spatter on the rocks, and more come, and more — Val wonders how long it will be before the mound of bodies is so tall the rest of the mob could walk down over their own dead to come after them. That is creepy as FUCK. [Dove: I was watching The Walking Dead the other day and there was a part where the zombies were just walking in a straight line off somewhere tall, and the bodies were starting to pile up — can’t remember which episode or location of this zombicide — and I thought, oh, that’s an homage to that scene by… and then I remembered how few people have read this book.]
The trio head off, and eventually the rock floor turns into a glass and tile and metal mosaic. It hurts the pads of Val’s paws, because the metal is silver, and it is terribly cruel and such a nice detail all at the same time.
The path leads them into a circular chamber, where fires blaze in large bronze dishes and the air is filled with the smell of hot metal and burning meat. Something dark and shapeless is on a huge seat of metal.
Freddie twists out of Di’s arms, angry and scared and focused.
All the exits have disappeared, and there is a metal cage holding a naked, scared prisoner — Elise. Oh, dear sweet Elise. That shapeless dark form tears off her arm and absorbs the meat, then tosses the polished bone and remaining meat back into the cage. Elise puts it back to her shoulder; it reattaches and the flesh grows back immediately. JESUS CHRIST SO GROSS. [Dove: So much about this book is just horrifying, in a really lingery way.]
Val tries to reassure herself that nothing there is real and the Muffin Man is pulling pictures out of her memory and imagination, but it does nothing to help her. stay calm. Her response, especially in wolf form, is to run and attack the thing, to keep it away from her people — her pack. There is enough human side to her left that she knows that is a terrible idea. She also knows that the Muffin Man is trying to dazzle and frighten her to keep her from thinking. She tests the air, and figures out that they are still in the forest, they’ve probably never left, and everything else is just flash and mirror to distract her.
She howls her answer into the darkness. They are in the woods, her pack is there, and no evil city has power over her. This calls her friends from the shadows, Bill and Greg, solid, Bill and Greg first, and then the wolf pack she fought calls back to her, promising to come, to help her fight, and everything is wonderful right now, my heart is ten sizes too big and I am filled with werewolf love.
Val sees Jay in a second cage, same as Elise. He begs her to run, to not let the Muffin Man get her. Instead, Val leads her friends forward, in the most badass of badass power walks, and Di is a total badass, as usual.
Di […] had a grim look on her face. She’d looked that way only once before that I knew of — the night on the road to Freddie’s farm, when she’d picked up a pistol and shot Jay in the head. “We’re going home,” she said to the darkness, “and our friends are coming with us. Let them go.”
DI I LOVE YOU SO DAMN MUCH.
As they keep walking forward, all of the bad things Val has ever done appears before her, from copying Di’s homework to lying about brushing her teeth to pouring a glass of milk on the kitchen floor when she was a baby. Every bad action, every bad thought, comes up to accuse her, and this is really terrible. I don’t know how well I’d stand up to that assault.
Val springs into the shadow, and falls through the burning metal throne into a white space where a man sits, writing in a thick book. He tells her she can’t win, because she’s one of his, a creature of evil. Otherwise, why would the werewolf tain have affected her from a single bite, and now that she’s tasted human blood, she will never be able to stay away. She calls him a liar, he says she’s one too.
When she realizes he is afraid of her, she howls, and Freddie comes launching himself into the cube of light, too, followed by the big alpha wolf she already defeated. When he growls, something makes her recognise him as Jay, in the full grown shape he might have been if he’d lived. He wasn’t very good at being a human, but he might have been a great wolf. Jay attacks the man, until they vanish.
Jay reappears a moment later, in human form, holding open the collapsing exit. They climb through the opening and out into a campsite where the sun shines on a little collection of tents. Val is human again now, and naked. She runs into the tent and pulls on some old clothes, clothes she thought she lost from that camping trip years ago. Freddie does the same with his clothes. [Dove: This is now my personal headcannon for every missing object in my life. Can’t find the remote control? Future self stole it.]
They rush to find their younger selves, to warn them, while Jay shouts that he can’t hold it much longer. Then they run back to the pit. The Muffin Man starts to return after they get back to Jay, and he says he’ll hold off the Muffin Man as long as he can, he’s already dead, and he’s there because of his own actions. Val and Freddie flee, scrambling toward good light, until they climb over the rim of the crater Freddie blasted into the mountainside, and they find Di there, waiting for them.
Everything looks normal now, the trees and the pine needles and the wind and the birds. That reminds Val of the rotting bird. She thinks about it hard, calling it to her, and when it gets close enough, she grabs its bare skull and crushes it. The head comes away from the body, maggots and rot sliming down her hand as the bone gives way, and the body collapses at her feet in a pile of dirty feathers and stinking flesh. A small green and gold snake emerges from the stump of the neck, and Val crushes it beneath her bare foot.
I love everything about all of this. It is gross and terrible and wonderful.
They hike back down the mountain and return to Val’s home; there are bowls of melting ice cream on the table and broken glass where her bedroom window had been. It was all real, even the parts that didn’t seem possible to be real.
Nothing has really changed for them, even though they warned their past selves. Val says that their timeline hasn’t changed, but in some universe somewhere, there’s a boy and a girl who got the warning, and maybe everything has changed for them. I love the multiverse theory, and this is such a gorgeous, twisty end.
Val tells him that if everything that happened was real, he no longer has to worry about becoming a werewolf, because it already happened. And then she kisses him soundly.
I love this fucking book and this fucking series so damn much. I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT. WEREWOLVES AND MONSTERS AND CHOSEN FAMILY AND PACK AND TEAMING UP TO SAVE THE WORLD AND MULTIVERSES AND TIME TRAVEL AND METAPHORS AND AND AND
I love this book and this series so damn much.
[Dove: I’m done. We’re never topping that series. We should just retire. (We’re not retiring. Don’t worry.)]
Nada, because I was too caught up in the story.