Title: Shivers #34 – Weirdo Waldo’s Wax Museum
Author: M.D. Spenser
Cover Artist: ?????
Summary: WAX NEVER FORGETS
And neither does Billy or his sister Crissy. Both of the kids will always remember that freaky family vacation. The one that almost scared them all to death. What should have been a terrific tour of Washington, D.C. turned into a terror-filled, run for your life race against wicked wax. All because Billy’s dad is, how do you say it – cheap! He never met a bargain he didn’t like until this one. Why go all the way to the capital, when you can save money and wander through a wacky world of wax. One low price gets the whole family in – only luck gets them out!!!
MY BRAIN IS MELTING!!!
Shivers is another YA horror series I stumbled upon in my quest to complete my collection of Graveyard School, Goosebumps, and Fear Street books. I don’t remember how exactly I learned of it, most likely while I was perusing through a secondhand bookstore.
I only own a few copies of the series, most of them from the latter half. This one was a Christmas gift I received in 2008, and this book completely took me by surprise. It ventured into areas I would never expect a Goosebumps knock off to go into, but enough to qualify the Shivers series as a whole the right to exist as a “YA horror series” and not a “Goosebumps knock off.”
There’s a reason I wanted this post to go up on Veterans Day. I’d guess Memorial Day would’ve been more appropriate, but considering it’s been one year since that rapist homophobic piece of shit was put into power, coupled with the increase in the “Alt Right,” you’ll see why I wanted to recap this book.
You think this is a stereotypical “Wax museum full of dead people” story, like the myriad of “House of Wax” remakes and rip-offs and, it kind of is. But we don’t have scenes like Joan of Arc or one of Henry VIII’s wives getting executed. No, this book ventures into some very dark territory. I’m talking racism, sex jokes, a recreation of a fucking NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMP. They should make kids read this book in school.
The really strange thing though, is that the wax museum is NOT run by Weirdo Waldo, but instead is run by Mad Mac. Go fig.
[Wing: Well this is going to be an interesting ride. Also, that cover is creepy as shit.]
Billy Miser is going to die. He’s trapped inside a dungeon (complete with shackles and the words “Help Me” scratched in the wall) where hot wax is dripping from the ceiling. Billy’s mother is trying to shield his little sister Crissy from the hot wax. Billy laments how his favorite “Rude Dudes” shirt is ruined, his hair crusty with wax and his bare arms and legs covered in welts from where he rips the wax off. He really wishes he hadn’t worn shorts. The wax in his hair reminds Billy of a kid he once knew who used to pick his nose and put the snot in your hair. [Wing: Dear lord, that is disgusting. Why did no one punch that kid in the face?] Dying makes you remember stupid shit like that. Billy’s mom begs his father to try and do something, so Billy slowly makes his way across the room, trying and failing to avoid the hot wax, to get his dad. Billy’s father Howard assures his wife they’ll be out in no time, as he holds up a key he’s just made from wax. [Wing: … … … … I’ve got nothing.]
This is all Howard’s fault anyway, thinks Billy, because he is sooooo cheap.
“HOW CHEAP IS HE???”
Billy’s dad is so cheap he’s been reusing the same paper sack for his lunch every day for years. He screams at the kids for wasting electricity from the dim 60 watt bulbs he buys in bulk whenever someone leaves a light on. He makes sandwiches with leftovers and day old bread. He’s so cheap he used to force his wife Louise to MAKE Billy and Crissy’s clothing before she finally convinced him to let her shop at discount stores. Billy gets teased for being “The No Name Brand Kid” but he’s got ZERO patience for the idiots in his school. He gets the best grades in every class he has, and he lets everybody know it. Those are Billy’s three turn offs, his dad, stupid people, and ugly people. Billy takes after his mom, who used to be a Beauty Queen. He’s got no idea how his parents got together, and he’s got no idea how his little butterball of a sister could be related to him. [Wing: Billy, I’m starting to hate you right now.]
Billy’s dad is so cheap, he always buys his cars secondhand at “Charlie Ryan’s World of Pre-Owned Autos,” or, as Billy and Crissy call it, “Cheapo Charlie’s World of Rust Buckets.” So yes, Mr. Miser is a skinflint son of a bitch. [Wing: Yo, Billy, buying cars secondhand is just good planning. Brand new cars are pointless. I’ll give you some of the other things, though.] Which is why everyone in the family was shocked speechless the night Howard declared they were going on vacation. Billy’s first guess was “Nickle Night at Fun ‘N’ Wheels,” and while Crissy was hoping for Disneyland, Howard reveals it’s even better than Disneyland AND Nickle Night AND Heaven combined. They’re going to… Mad Mac’s History In Wax Museum!
Yeah nobody has any idea what he’s talking about, but Howard is pretty stoked as he explains they’ve been invited through the mail, even though they still have to pay $9.95 for the entire family. Mad’s Mac is supposedly fun for the whole family, a combo of Madame Toussard’s Wax Museum and the Smithsonian.
So the family spent two days travelling to Mad Mac’s. Billy and Crissy were stuck in the back seat of their dad’s broken down station wagon, Crissy playing with her Darbie (Much better than Barbie) dolls, while Billy played “Luigi Brothers” on his Game Guy and listened to the Rude Dudes on his Stony WalkKid. YES HIS DAD IS CHEAP.
I’d say this game does the same thing you do to a piece of straw, but my parents don’t like me using that word.
“Say ‘Shucks,'” Mom says. “It’s much nicer.”
Game Guy shucks. Family vacations shuck.
[Wing: Oh dear lord, this family.]
Billy’s parents tell him not to play his music too loud or he’ll make himself deaf, to which Billy responds he can’t hear them because he’s probably made himself deaf. Oh my God he is such a fucking shit it’s amazing. He then asks his sister if her Darby has got “Bald Dolly Disease,” and Crissy gets defensive on her doll’s appearance. Oh, and here’s some Rude Dudes lyrics.
“I gotta can of tuna. It’s shaped just like a balloona. I took it to Polona. To eat with my bologna.”
That’s by this point the scariest part of the book. Oh, and while there IS a band called the Rude Dudes, they don’t have any songs about tuna. [Wing: Thank fuck for that.]
Howard announces they’ll be spending the night at a motel.
“Does the motel have a swimming pool?” Chrissy squeals excitedly.
“Not exactly,” Dad says.
“How about cable TV?” I ask.
“Not exactly,” Dad says.
“How about free donuts in the morning?” I ask.
“Well I hope the sheets are clean,” Mom says.
Dad doesn’t say anything.
Night in the motel is hell, with the Misers being kept awake by the sounds of babies crying and teenagers holding their after-prom party in one of the rooms. Billy can even hear the sounds of vomiting, cans opening, and “Swallowing.” SWALLOWING WHAT I ASK YOU? Not even the cable TV can keep their brief stay from “Shucking.” The next morning everyone is miserable, and all Howard has to show for it is watered down coffee and stale donuts. Billy and Crissy fall asleep most of the ride until they finally reach Mad Mac’s. The museum looks like a cross between a prison and a castle, surrounded on all four sides by a fence topped with barbed wire, complete with a guard tower. For added effect, all the windows are just painted on the walls. Inside a ticket booth is an old woman dressed like a fortune teller, who promises the Misers are in for the time of their lives.
There are several other families who’ve been invited to Mad Mac’s, and while we don’t learn their names now, I’ll be sharing them for ease of access alongside Billy’s GLOWING first impressions.
- The Jockheads, the, ahem, Jock Family (“There’s father and son Jockhead. They wear numbered jerseys so they can remember their IQs.”)
- The Nedleys, the Smart Family (“And the Nerdoids. Are horn-rimmed glasses hereditary?”)
- The Marlins, the Farm Family (“And the Cretins. Lots of inbreeding going on in that family.”)
- The Farrises, the Religious Family (“And the Church Mice. They look meek as heck. The mother carries a thick leather book under her arm, and the father uses a crutch.”)
- And the Sniders, the Rich Family (“Oh, and best of all, the Prepmeister Clan. Proof that money can’t buy brains.”)
Now we also know Billy’s dad is so cheap he couldn’t afford an off switch to turn off Billy’s snarking. [Wing: Oh, lord, Billy, you are something all right.]
After assessing the gaggle of individuals, Billy realizes they’ve suddenly been joined by someone wearing a black hood and a long black cloak. The moment this person speaks, it’s like the life’s been sucked right out of the room. The person bids everyone a fond welcome, and Billy notices Howard looks so excited he’s about to wet himself. Although Billy mentions he REALLY used that word that starts with a “P” and Crissy threatens to tell their mom he said something bad. As Billy quickly tells Crissy to shut up, he once more checks out what the other families are doing.
The Cretins are rubber-necking the lobby, their jaws slack in awe of… what? Electricity? Indoor plumbing?
Daddy Jockhead and his no-neck son are slugging each other on the shoulders. Playfully, I guess. Looks like it hurts to me.
The Nerdoids are arguing among themselves over whether the candles are real or special effects.
The Church Mice are reading to each other from the mother’s leather book.
The Prepmeisters are picking lint off each other’s sweaters.
Their host bids them to hurry along, because there’s so much to see in this short life. Once fully inside, the massive doors slam shut behind the families, and they’re told no one’s allowed to leave until the tour is over. The host refers to those gathered as his friends; even though they’ve never met, he claims to know each of them and promises them an experience only the lucky few get to see and remember eternally. When Son Prepmeister laughs, the host immediately identifies him as Huntington Snider II. When Huntington quips about the museum’s decorator, the host begins the first round of psychoanalysis and spells out the boy’s life story.
“You are Huntington Snider the Second and you attend Westminster Academy where you are, on your best days, an average student,” says the man inside the cape. “Your poor grades do not bother you, however, because you know your father will buy your way into the same Ivy League school from which he barely graduated.”
“Hey now!” objects Huntington Snider the First, a taller, older version of his son.
The cold voice inside the hood interrupts him before he can continue.
“Yes, I know all about you. Every one of you. I know you better than you know yourselves. And that is why I have invited you here. You are my kind of people,” says the voice inside the hood.
[Wing: Now we’re getting somewhere, and that somewhere is creepy as hell.]
Son Jockhead, whose name is literally Sonny Jockhead, can be heard whining that he’s hungry and asks where the snack bar is, so now it’s his turn.
“Yes, Sonny,” says the Hood. “You’re hungry. You’re always hungry. You are ten years old and weigh ninety-seven pounds. Your father declared you a linebacker at birth, at which time you weighed twelve pounds, seven ounces. You were a big baby. You still are.”
This gets some laughs, and yet absolutely no one questions how this man is able to know so many intimate details about two kids. Mr. Jockhead is more upset that his son was called a baby, not that the Hood ACCURATELY KNOWS WHAT HIS SON WEIGHED WHEN HE WAS BORN. [Wing: RIGHT? I would be more concerned about the invasion of privacy going on! Also, I was picturing a much older Son Jockhead until this moment.]
Mr. Jockhead tells “Wacky Mac” to get the show going, which earns more laughs, but the minute the Hood responds they shall indeed get the show going, no one’s laughing. The families are herded down a dark hall, and some arguing between stereotypes breaks out. A young Farris child asks if the other people are heathens, to which Mother Farris confirms. Nancy “Nerdoid” Nedley, described by Billy as “A homely thing with big, black-rimmed glasses and pigtails,” bemoans that her family is “Awash of fools” while Hunt Part Deux says he’d rather be sailing than slumming. [Wing: That brings up a good point. How in the world did they get the Prepmeisters here? They wouldn’t have been tempted by a cheap vacation, so what did they use? I’m curious.]
Inside the next room, everyone is accosted by a rather rank odor, which Billy describes as something old. Decayed. Dead. Jeremiah Farris, a boy with an oversized head and everything that goes with it, cracks it smells like someone farted. Billy is instead amazed at the size of Jeremiah’s ears.
I bet he gets a hundred channels with those ears. In some neighborhoods they wouldn’t let him outside because you can’t have satellite dishes on your lawn.
The Hood describes the smell as “The purest essence of mankind,” leading Jeremiah to declare it’s “Essence of human beans.” That gets everyone laughing, even Louise, who hates fart jokes. But that leaves Radar Boy open for the Hood’s psychoanalysis.
“Clever, very clever,” says the caped tour guide. “I imagine you picked that up from the many hours you spend in those Internet chat rooms you’re so fond of, Jeremiah. Not the one called X-dreams, of course, where you pass yourself off as someone much older and more experienced than you are. Or many of the others where you assume adult identities long after your parents have fallen asleep.”
HOLY SHIT IT JUST WENT THERE OF ALL PLACES. THE LITTLE DWEEB KID FROM THE UBER RELIGIOUS FAMILY GOES ON PORN SITES THAT IS AMAZING.
[Wing: Of course he does, and this was not at all where I expected this book to go. Damn. Not sure I believe that the hardcore religious family doesn’t have hardcore filters on their computer and/or one that connects to the internet at all.]
As Billy hears Mother Farris whacking her son with the family bible and call him a wicked boy, Billy can’t help but think this trip’s funner than he first believed. Father Farris warns Jeremiah they’ll settle this when they get home. The Hood reminds everyone they’ve got a schedule to keep, but does mention public punishment is a longtime favored spectacle of the human race. The Hood proceeds to give a speech about mankind’s capacity for inventing new ways to punish and torment one another, especially in public for entertainment. The one thing that truly separates mankind from every other species on Earth is its capacity for cruelty unlike anything animals are capable of. The violence shown within a barnyard chicken’s pecking order or a wolf establishing dominance is nothing compared to the deliberate, malicious torment the human race can inflict. Papa Marlin isn’t interested in philosophical debates, which the Hood anticipated. He paints the head of the Marlin household as one who almost prides himself on ignorance, one who has taught his children there’s no value in learning new things nor truly cared about their education. Papa Marlin justifies his actions saying he’s teaching his kids how to survive, just like he was taught, and orders the Hood to get the show going. This escalates into another argument, this time with the Nedleys and Howard criticizing the Marlins, with Mama and Papa Marlin voicing their lack of patience with those who assume you need a college education to matter as a person when it’s the eggheads who’re gonna be responsible for turning the world into a nuclear wasteland. [Wing: I mean, in some ways, he’s not wrong; you don’t need a college education, or any education at all, to matter as a person, despite what society will often have you believe.] As Papa Marlin claims it’ll be farmers like him left to pick up the pieces, Hunt the First laughs at the idea.
“Oh, right!” Snorts Huntington Snider the Original. “I seriously doubt that. You’ll be out there staring at the mushroom cloud with your mouths hanging open saying, ‘Lookee there, Ma. Ain’t that purty?'”
Papa Marlin and Hunt the First are about to throw blows when the Hood gets between them and reminds the group of their schedule. The rich man and the farming man step back from the Hood, and Billy wonders if the glimmer of fear in their eyes is because they saw the man’s face.
As the group is led to the first exhibit, Louise tries to comfort a teary Crissy and expresses her own reservations about the other families. Louise admits not even she likes any of the other families, disappointed by the lack of attractiveness. Guess Billy really did get his vanity from her. [Wing: So they’re ugly is the problem, not the creepiness of the Hood invading everyone’s privacy or manipulating them into fighting with each other. Woman, you are terrible.] The Hood announces the start of the tour will began with a brief examination of contemporary life on Earth, and the several families are suddenly assaulted by a series of ghastly images. The younger children begin crying at the awful things before them. A man being beaten to death by an angry mob, a building destroyed by a bomb, bodies under bloody sheets. It’s a parade of death as Billy is shown photos of bombings, riots, and dead bodies.
Blacks killing whites. Browns killing blacks. Red killing brown. Brown killing yellow. Yellow killing black. White killing black, brown, red, yellow.
On and on. Over and over.
And the thing is, the longer the slide show goes on, the more horrible the images, the less horrifying it becomes. Really.
[Wing: Interesting order there, considering how much white people colonizing the world did to destroy civilizations. He’s not wrong about the images becoming less horrifying; it’s terrible that humanity can become inured to suffering, and yet here we are.]
When the barrage of pictures finally ends, the families don’t react for several moments before Hunt the First makes a joke and, suddenly, everyone is able to laugh again. The Hood has brought the families to the first wax display, a scene set in a town that could be anywhere, but featuring a group of men, women, and children in shabby clothing about to be gunned down by heavily armed soldiers in the middle of the town square. The women are trying to protect the confused children while the older men seem prepared to fight. But the strangest thing of this setting is one of the children. Billy notices a dark skinned, dark haired boy who stands out from the others because he’s dressed in regular clothes. The look of terror captured in the boy’s screaming face stands out from the rest, and Billy can swear he could hear the boy’s heart beating when he realizes he’s listening to his own hea-BANG!
A sound like a shot fires in the room and everybody jumps, except for the Hood, who laughs. The adults start griping and the fathers begin to ask for a refund, except for Howard of course, who’s never asked for a refund in his life because he would have to admit it was a waste of money. He once tried to justify buying an automated can opener that took forever to work by saying it taught the kids about patience. The Hood promises they’ll get their money’s worth, but Junior Marlin feels otherwise.
“That’s bull,” says the oldest Cretin boy. “This is a rip.”
“Interesting of you to say so, Junior” says the tour guide. “That counts as the first original thought you’ve ever had.”
“Wait a minute, mister,” says Junior’s dad.
“Before you burst a blood vessel, Mr. Marlin,” the Caped Creep says calmly, “I don’t need to remind you of your son’s grade point average do I? Which, I might add, would be even more dismal if he hadn’t convinced another student to take his algebra final for him with threats of bodily harm.”
Junior Marlin’s dad looks stunned. He turns to his son, who sort of shrinks back into the crowd.
“Junior, I oughta…” he says, but the voice from within the hood interrupts him.
“Oh, puleeeese, Mr. Marlin,” says the Hood, “Don’t act surprised. That is your Chevy pickup in the parking lot with the bumper sticker that says, ‘My kid beats up your honor student.’ Isn’t it?”
Marlin Senior blushes. He looks at the crowd of shaking heads.
“It’s a joke,” he says, weakly.
After that awkward pause, the group moves to the next wax display. Going back to the earliest days, the Hood has brought them to a sign of prehistoric violence. Two cavemen are fighting each other over something one caveman owns. A cavewoman and child are huddled in the back of the cave while other, subhuman creatures are sharpening weapons and cheering on the violence. Everybody says one of the cavemen reminds them of someone they know in real life, a gym teacher, a boss, a football player, a principal, a minister, and none of the comparisons are good. While everything else in the cave looks hokey and fake, Billy is floored by the detailing on the wax sculptures, to the point he can even make out the zits on the cavemen faces. Just like the boy from the first display. It makes Billy shiver. And then the lights go out, and when they come back on, the Marlins have disappeared.
The Hood reports the Marlins have left, and when asked why, he counters by asking if anyone actually cares that they’re gone. No one honestly does, but their disappearance worries Billy. It looks like it bothers Howard as well, but he’s more concerned with knowing if they got their money back. Billy sighs and resigns himself to knowing his dad will never exceed his expectations.
The next trip on this world tour brings everyone to a torture chamber from the Spanish Inquisition. Men getting whipped and flogged, women getting burned at the stake, and men stretched across racks and being slowly torn apart. Billy can even make out droplets of sweat on the wax figure’s agonized face. [Wing: As much as I dislike everyone in this story, these details are gorgeously creepy.] Daddy Jockhead tells his son that’s how they make basketball players. The Hood explains the Spanish Inquisition was orchestrated by the Roman Catholic church during the 15th and 16th Century as a means to stomp out heresy. Anyone who disagreed with the teachings and law of the church was punished by torture and death. But it was less about religion and more about thought. If anyone disagreed with the church over anything, they were hunted down.
“Sounds like being in school,” quips the Nerd-girl.
“That’s clever, Nancy,” replies the Hood. “During the Inquisition, that remark would’ve gotten you killed.”
“Or a basketball scholarship,” Sonny Jockstrap snickers.
While showing the group men being burned alive, Father Farris automatically declares the wicked always get what they deserve, and you either burn now or burn later. But when Crissy shows too much interest in the flames, the Hood decides to reveal she’s not only interested in cartoons and Darbies.
“You’re fascinated by flames, aren’t you Crissy Miser?” says the Caped Creepster. “You’re a little girl who likes to play with matches.”
“I am not! I didn’t do it!” squeals Crissy. She hugs Mom’s legs with both arms. “He’s lyin’, Mom.”
The Cape chuckles a cruel laugh.
“Oh, it was you, all right, Crissy. You were with your friend Arnold, in his garage on March 5th at 3:15 PM. Your brother was in school. Your father was at work. Your mother was across the street in the park. The rags, newspapers, and boxes were Arnold’s. But the matches were yours.”
“Crissy!” Mom says. “You told me you were going to the restroom.”
BILLY’S SISTER IS A BUDDING PYROMANIAC SO THINK ABOUT THAT THE NEXT TIME YOU CALL HER A BUTTERBALL, BILLY.
[Wing: Did not see that coming, either! I love how well this book is showing the dark sides of everyone.]
While Crissy and the Capester argue, Billy is captivated by one of the monks being burned in the exhibit, and has the oddest feeling that he knows who this person is. As if reading his mind, the Hood responds it’s possible Billy does. The Hood says this particular monk was being burned for saying the Earth revolved around the sun. Billy doesn’t see what the big deal is, until the Hood explains back then not everyone was willing to accept the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. The men with the matches were the men in control.
“Mankind has always demonstrated a low tolerance for original thought. Intellect is always suspect.”
We all take another look at the wax man in the plastic flames. His eyes are turned toward the ceiling. His mouth is shut. He burns to death in silence.
“Boy,” says Nancy Nedley, shaking her head. “I’m glad I don’t live in a time where they kill you for having brains.”
The Hood swivels and levels its unseen eyes at Nancy.
“Oh,” he says coolly, “but you do.”
Once again the lights go off, and this time its the Nedleys who’re missing. In one moment I thought cute, Jeremiah Farris’s little sister worriedly asks her parents what happened to Nancy. The Hood claims they simply “Went to the restroom,” when Daddy Jockhead approaches the Hood demanding answers. The Hood holds up his hand to stop him, and for a brief moment Billy swears the space between the glove and the robe is showing bare bone. As everyone moves on, Howard now thinks this is all part of the show, and Billy tries to convince himself his dad is right. Next up is the French Revolution, in the middle of a crowded plaza as peasants and farmers cheer at the sight of an executioner holding up a rich man’s severed, bleeding head. Billy’s disgusted by the blood and viscera oozing from the neck stump as well as the large sweat stains under the executioner’s armpits. [Wing: Goddamn, the details are amazing.] The Hood describes the French Revolution as a time of revenge. The poor people wanted to kill the rich people, no matter what the history books say on the matter. Hunt the Second is white as a sheet as he stares at the rich man’s severed head, and Billy realizes the head’s eyes are following him as he moves.
“While the Spanish Inquisition was a war against brains, the French Revolution was a war against breeding,” the Tour Guide of Terror continues. “It was, frankly, poor people murdering rich people. During the Reign of Terror, wealth was a crime. The punishment was death.”
“Nowadays, instead of chopping off your head,” says Snotty Snider the First, “they just tax you to death.”
All the adults think this is really funny. I don’t get it. Grownups are always griping about taxes. Taxes must be pretty terrible.
Like kissing girls.
[Wing: Really, Snotty Snider. Really. You should be taxed so much more than you are. Corporations should not be considered people. Etc. I have no energy left to rage. It has been a year, and I am tired. We’re all tired. Every step forward has us beaten back. I’m with the sister, here. Burn everything.
But I digress. We should continue with the creepy as hell kids’ book.]
When Sonny comments rich people always win in the end, Daddy Jockhead starts gushing about his son’s hypothetical future in the NFL and Sonny proclaims he’ll buy a big house for his parents with his signing bonus. Neither Billy nor the Hood can stomach it.
Maybe it’s not the headless man that’s making me sick. Maybe it’s the company I’m keeping.
“I hate to interrupt this little father and son fantasy session,” says the Hood, “but I have something else I would like to show you.”
The Hood takes the tour a couple of centuries further, to the Killing Fields of Cambodia to show off how the Communists killed the rich AND the smart in the 1970s. The group is shown a replica of a swamp filled with hundreds of dead bodies, the best and the brightest the country had to offer. The Hood says the Communists killed them simply because they could, and when someone says that’s not a very good reason, he answers it’s the only one they needed.
“Oh they might say it’s to purify the nation, or to re-educate the people, or eliminate the enemy, or protect the nation’s security. But the truth is mankind’s worst deeds are caused by one thing: the simple desire to be cruel, and the power to carry it out.”
And does that remind us of anything, children?
Billy feels his stomach churn, and then his vision goes black when the lights go out once more. Only this time they seem to be in some kind of castle, and now the Sniders are missing.
The Hood is focusing on the slave trade, beginning in one of the slave castles of West Africa. He talks about how it started with African tribes selling condemned prisoners and enemies to Europeans in exchange for supplies. Over ten million people, men, women, and children, were captured and sold into slavery over the course of three to four centuries. Sent through the Door of No Return and shipped off to a life of torture and misery. Billy can feel the wrongness of the castle, knowing it’s not really real but feeling as though it’s haunted. The Hood describes the squalid, inhuman conditions slaves were kept in, but the castles were nothing compared to the ships that dragged them across the oceans. Those who died on the journey were the lucky ones.
Leaving the castle, Louise officially declares this trip to be even worse than the god awful camping excursion they took one year. Howard was trying to save money by camping instead of going to a motel, but they got to the campground late, they couldn’t set the tent up properly, and it started to pour freezing rain. Billy and Crissy both agree with their mom.
“Mom’s right,” I say.
“Me, too,” Crissy says, which makes no sense, but I know what she means.
The next part of the display shows a group of Black men being sold on a wooden platform, while off to the side several are being whipped and punished.
Another wax slave is lying face down on a board. His thumbs are tied together at one end of the board. His feet are tied together at the other. A leather strap around his waist pulls him tight to the board.
His back is to us, so I can’t see his face.
Off to one side is another black man. He is huge and muscular. He has long whip in his hand. The whip is frozen in the air. Its tip is inches from touching the man’s back.
I look away. It’s only wax, but the sight of the man’s back makes me sick.
A dozen or more stripes criss-cross the man’s back. Blood oozes from each wound.
“Slavery,” announces the Hood, “is a human invention. Only human beings have enough capacity for cruelty to treat their own kind like animals.”
The Hood stops to wave his arm like a wand across the crowd with its wax eyes fixed on the slave for sale. “And no other creature is capable of such indifference to the pain and suffering inflicted on others.”
Billy turns to face the wax slave standing on the platform, and moves closer to the display when he notices something about the eyes and realizes they are indeed moving. The eyes within the wax sculpture radiate fear and seem to be almost pleading. The lights go off once more, and it’s down to the Farrises and the Misers. Howard eagerly asks how the Hood keeps doing that, and the Hood comments on what a “Brilliant” man he is. Billy tries to get his father’s attention, but the Hood notices.
I feel the eyes beneath the hood looking at me, staring at me. Goose bumps slither down my arms.
“Yes, Billy,” says the chilly voice from inside the hood. “Is there something…” he pauses for a moment and then draws the word out slowly like a knife, “bothering… you?”
All, I repeat, ALL eyes are on Billy as he weakly says he saw the eyes move in the sculpture. The Hood congratulates Billy on being the only perceptive person in the group. The Farrises and the rest of the Misers realize they too see the eyes moving, which the Hood describes as a robotic effect wired in the sculpture. Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuumkay.
The next display is in a circular room, showing several displays of religious murder at once.
Wax Romans burn wax Christians. Christian crusaders battle Moslems. Moslems massacre Hindus. Hindus kill Jews. Jews stab Romans. And Romans…
Billy can feel he’s surrounded by hundres of eyes, and the Hood begins his usual shtick.
“There are hundreds of religions in the world,” announces the Hood. “The variety of religious expression itself reflects the wondrous spectrum of humanity. All religions have their own rituals, ceremonies, costumes, and celebrations. All are different and yet they all have one thing in common.”
“They want money,” quips Dad.
Mom gives him a playful slap, “Howard!” she scolds.
The Farrises glower at him, and shake their heads.
Billy describes how the Hood is patiently waiting for the two families to stop baring their claws, like a school teacher waiting for the class to settle down. When they do, the Hood talks about how the one thing common between all religions is the belief that life is sacred and “Thou shalt not kill,” yet then motions to the centuries of death perpetuated in the name of religion. And then Father Farris cements himself as the worst of the adults so far.
“There is one God, one religion,” recites the Farris father, dryly. “All the rest is blasphemy. Eternal damnation to infidels and heathens.”
Jesus CHRIST this book is dark. [Wing: And yet so damn real.]
Billy turns away from the theology discussion to examine the exhibits, which consist of:
- Christian martyrs being dressed in shirts of wax and set on fire
- A car bombing in Belfast, Ireland, set off by Irish Catholics at a protestant pub
- A Palestinian girl throwing rocks at a Jewish soldier who has just shot and killed a man
Billy can’t help but find people in these exhibits familiar, especially the Palestinian girl, whose black hair is done in pigtails and whose glasses are too big for her head. Sound familiar? It does to Billy, because the eyes within the statue are able to communicate to Billy “I know you.” Of course that’s when the lights go out and now the Misers are alone with the Hood. Howard assumes this means they’ve won something, but all they’ve won is the right to continue.
The next stop is the biggest and most realistic section of the tour, an entire concentration camp almost as it were pulled from World War II. Billy briefly mentions the Nazis killed “Like a billion Jews or something” and the Hood, again as if he were reading his mind, corrects Billy.
“The Nazis killed eleven million people – Jews, Poles, Slavs, Gypsies, and others,” says the Hood. “That’s called genocide. Wipe out everybody. Kill them all. Only human beings could devise such a horror.”
The camp is made up of windowless buildings, chimneys pumping out smoke and ash, fences with barbed wire, and a train track with trains filled with terrified men, women and children. Billy tries to find recognition in the eyes of the statues, but so far none of them move. Surprisingly, the Hood asks if Howard recognizes where they are. It turns out this particular camp is in Poland, and the setting is supposed to be 1943. Howard looks as if he’s going in a trance as the Hood says the camp recognizes him, at least, but not in the way you think.
I have to type out this one segment in its entirety. You need to read it for yourselves.
“You are the son of John Miser, a 19-year old Army private who came from a small town in Pennsylvania that calls itself the Birthplace of Jell-O. In the left pocket of his pants he carried a green rabbit’s foot.”
I can’t tell if Dad is listening to this or not. His eyes have not strayed from the wax replica of the death camp. He is fixed on the dull, concrete buildings with large steel doors.
“Your father was here in July 1944,” The Cape continues. “This scene is a year earlier, after a prisoner revolt in another concentration camp put such a fear into the Nazis they ordered the prisoners in this prison, and others, exterminated.”
Crissy is starting to whimper. She’s holding on to Mom with one hand and sucking her thumb.
“I don’t know anything about this,” Dad says, “I’ve never seen these people before.”
“That’s right, Mr. Miser, you’ve never seen them,” says the Hood. “And neither did your father. When he got here. They were all gone. Killed. All he saw was what they left behind. The remains.”
Dad stares without blinking. He looks without seeing. His eyes are glazed.
“A year from now, when your father arrives, he will see a five-story warehouse,” the Cape continues. “There will be one large room with nothing but suitcases and satchels. And another with thousands of dresses. And next to it, a room with thousands of coats and jackets. Rooms full of safety razors, pencils, pocket knives, rings and bracelets. Rooms full of children’s toys. And one room of shoes. Nothing but shoes. Shoes piled to the ceiling. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands.”
Something clicked inside Dad’s head.
“I remember a shoe,” he says, not taking his eyes off the concrete buildings with the heavy steel doors and the smokestacks. “A small shoe. It was a woman’s slipper sewn with rhinestones.”
“Ah, yes,” says the Cape. “Your father’s little souvenir from the war. Wounds, medals, and a lady’s shoe.”
“I found it in his closet. In a box on a top shelf,” Dad says. “I think I was seven at the time. I asked him ‘Whose is this?’ He smacked me. ‘Stay out of my closet.’ That’s all he said. ‘Stay out of my closet.'”
The Hood nods towards the vegetables growing in the background of the camp.
“In the back there are the cabbage fields fertilized with the ash and bones of a million people,” he says. “The Nazis grew giant cabbages.”
“Dad hated cabbage,” my father recites in his trance.
This is probably the scariest segment in the entire book. You think we might get an explanation to why Howard is such a cheapskate, that it’s leading up to something traumatic that made him a penny pincher. But no, while it was traumatic, it has nothing to do with that.
Billy, meanwhile, finally locates a statue with moving eyes, and this time it finally clicks. The boy statue is really Jeremiah Farris, recognizable by his big ears. And then Billy screams as he sees Jeremiah’s sister, and then their parents and the rest of the Farris family.
Their eyes are locked on me.
The eyes are screaming at me. “Help! Help us!”
It hits Billy. All the families. They’re trapped in the wax.
The Hood prepares to show the Misers the unfinished “Americana Room” when Billy screams that they have to escape. The Hood doesn’t even launch into a rant about his master plans. He coldly states “So. You know.” Howard is, of course, clueless, and while the Hood laughs, the lights flash and now the Misers are inside the wax dungeon.
We’ve finally caught up with the opening chapter, where Howard has tried to mold a key from wax. Howard has steadily lost his grip on reality while Louise tries to shield Crissy. Billy tries to move through the ankle deep wax to reach his father, who repeats over and over “I got the key.” The weight of the wax dripping from the ceiling makes it harder to move, and Billy trips and prepares to smash his head open on the dungeon’s stone walls… when instead, his head slides down INTO the wall. Billy discovers that the dungeon walls are made of wax too! His energy renewed, Billy drags himself towards the bars in the dungeon and starts beating his heavy, wax-coated arms against them until they break apart. He throws himself down onto the concrete floor, batting his arms and legs against the solid floor to shatter the wax on his body. When that’s finished, he goes back inside the dungeon to pull out his immobilized parents and sister.
Louise tries to comfort Crissy while Howard is still totally out of it. The three Misers pull Howard with them as they run away from the dungeon and through a staircase. Where they’re going they’re not sure but they don’t have time to safely investigate before the Hood returns. They manage to find the lobby, but just as they’re about to flee, Billy realizes they have to save the Farries, the Nedleys, and the other families who’re still trapped. Louise agrees with Billy, but because Howard’s still in a state of shock, Billy orders Louise and Crissy to get him out of there while he goes back. Brave. Stupid, but brave.
Billy’s first trip is to the Holocaust exhibit, where he frees Jeremiah Farris first. Jeremiah asks how Billy recognized him, and Billy almost says it was because of his ears but knowing how cruel that would sound at this moment, merely says he recognized Jeremiah’s eyes. Jeremiah looks like he’s about to cry when he and Billy get to work on freeing the rest of the Farris clan. It then dawns on Billy that, hello, they’re SURROUNDED by other prisoners of the museum and starts relentlessly smashing and destroying the other statues in order to free the people inside. Unfortunately, by this point, they’re beyond saving.
Inside some, there are bones. In others, only dust.
“Billy! Stop!” yells Jeremiah. “It’s no use. It’s too late for them.”
And now I want to cry. [Wing: This is such a creepy, heartbreaking book, holy shit. I did not expect this.]
Billy and the Farrises go to rescue the Nedleys from the Religious War exhibit. Nancy hugs Billy in gratitude, and he can’t help but notice with her hair loose from her pigtails and her glasses off she’s maybe sorta kinda cute. For a girl. Since Nancy’s glasses are ruined by the wax, he holds her hand as the Farrises and Nedleys rush to the slavery room where it turns out the Marlins are held. The Sniders are in the French Revolution exhibit, the Jockheads in the Spanish Inquisition room. The families are relieved and overjoyed to be free. All the past animosity is gone as everyone is crying, hugging, even Hunt the First is kissing Papa Marlin! But the Hood is still out there so Billy and the rest of the group run for the lobby. Unfortunately, it turns out the reason the Hood never stopped Billy from freeing the others is because he’s got Crissy and Louise by the throat and hair respectively. Howard is still slumped on the floor.
The other fathers, Papa Marlin, Mr. Nedley, Hunt the First, Daddy Jockhead, and Father Farris shield Billy from the Hood as they try to tackle the tour guide head on. Sadly, the army of dads is taken out by a smooth, freshly polished wax floor. The wives, Mama Marlin, Mrs. Nedley, Mother Farris, and Louise try to help their husbands but the Hood incapacitates them by raising his robed arms, and jets of wax come shooting out and tangling up their hands and feet. Leaving Billy, Jeremiah, Nancy, Hunt the Second, Sonny, Junior and their siblings left. The Hood thanks everyone for their visit, laughing at the contradiction in the word “Mankind,” because Man + Kind is an oxymoron.
“Name a nation, I’ll find a war,” he says. “Name a color, I’ll find an atrocity. Tell me a religion, I’ll show you a persecution. Find me a difference. I’ll show you a discrimination.”
At this point Billy and the kids know he’s about to launch into another speech and kindly tell him to SHUT THE FUCK UUUUUUUUUUUUP!!!!!
Oh, brother. Here we go again. I can’t stand it. I must be in History Teachers’ hell.
And I’m not alone.
“Hey,” shouts Sonny, “Just shut up!”
“Yeah,” adds Junior. “We’re sick and tired of listening to you.”
“Your lectures are worse than the wax!” yells Nancy.
“Borrrrrring!” sings Hunt.
The Hood finds this all amusing, saying the children are as bad as the parents, as bad as the rest of the human race and its inability to grow and progress. He’s so busy preaching, he doesn’t even notice Crissy has struck a match and set his robe on fire. [Wing: See? Fire makes everything better.]
The Cape catches fire immediately. Crissy drags Mom away from the fire.
“You wicked little girl,” the Hood snarls at Crissy.
And that’s all he says, because he then wordlessly, soundless, is engulfed in flames and… melts! Because HE’S wax too!
A pool of flaming wax spreads from the Hood and ignites the curtains near the exit and walls. Junior tells everyone to take off their shoes and socks so they can navigate the slippery floor easier. The kids free their moms and help their dads, but now the building is starting to melt and it’s like they’re back in the dungeon. Nancy comes up with an idea, and asks Billy for his ruined t-shirt. Flinging it to a side wall, Nancy lights the shirt on fire, and the flame burns a hole in the wall. The rest of the boys start flinging off their shirts enough to burn a way out through the wall. Billy declares they have to all leave together, and the other kids agree. They go out together, or down together. Holding Crissy and Nancy’s hand, Billy runs through the burning hole with the other kids and tries to ignore the burning sensation in his feet. The parents are right behind them, and then everyone is running to their cars to get away from the museum before it explodes. [Wing: … why in the world would a building made of wax explode? Implode, perhaps, and actually is literally melting in front of them. Ah well.] As the families speed away, Billy watches from the car as the museum goes up like a candle in the distance.
Of course, that near death experience wasn’t enough to cure Howard of his cheapness, but it was still a learning experience for all the families. In the two years since the trip to Mad Mac’s, Billy’s family and the several others have become good friends. Billy chats with Jeremiah and Nancy online all the time, and Hunt the Second and Junior are practically inseparable. Once a year on the anniversary of the trip the families go on vacations together. One year they went to Washington D.C. and toured the Smithsonian and the Holocaust Museum. This year they’re going camping.
And of course we get the usual shlocky crap about human beings can get along and differences and all that, but as the Misers and the other families are camping and having fun, Crissy strikes a match to light up a candle to repel insects. It’s a very special kind of candle, one the group had personally commissioned. See, it’s made in the shape of a man, dressed in a heavy black cape and robe, with a wick coming out of his head.
Everyone loves watching it melt.
[Wing: Because of course they do. No matter how much good you try to do in the world (and I’m not actually seeing them trying to do good), that destructive nature still burns inside us all.]
I sincerely believe this book should be taught in schools and I have no clue how this hasn’t won any awards or anything. The things the author got away with in this, my God.
This took a lot longer than I thought it would because I had to properly convey a lot of the actual book, thinking my descriptions wouldn’t nearly do them justice. That’s not to say the use of “Gypsies” isn’t problematic but at the very least the Hood is acknowledging the Roma were included among the Nazi’s targeted minorities. Spenser doesn’t hold back as he talks about the horrors of mankind, the slave trading segment alone is probably one of the most brutal you could find in this age bracket.
And Billy is such a little shit and comes across as genuinely nasty at some points, but so does everyone else in this book and that’s good because that was the point. I love how he immediately knows when not to be nasty when he’s saving Jeremiah Farris and doesn’t want to insult him.
If there’s one other thing to be disappointed about is that the book didn’t talk about sexual persecution, homophobia, and misogyny, but I guess he probably thought there was only so much that could get past the publishing people.
To cap it off, we never find out who or what the Hood, or Mad Mac, or whatever his name is, was, and why he was doing what he was doing. But it’s good to know he already racked up a pretty big body count by the time Billy’s family entered the scene.
[Wing: Yeah, I’d really like to know more about the Hood and the point of this endeavor, how the families were chosen, how they were drawn in, etc., but I can see how that extra information might take away from the brutal impact of this. And it is brutal, creepy and terrible and heartbreaking.]