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Book Reviews, Fantasy/Science Fiction, Middle Grade Readers

THE ORPHAN OF AWKWARD FALLS by Keith Graves

The Orphan of Awkward Falls has me a little confused.  Although I have classified it as fantasy/science fiction (and it certainly IS that) the story crosses the line into the horror genre.  My confusion is not with the story, itself, but with how to write about it.

Would I recommend it?  Not to everyone.  There are some amazing characters: a genetically engineered child living on sugared and processed foods and being looked after by an ancient robot; Josephine, a twelve-year-old vegetarian newly relocated from Wisconsin whose curiosity alleviates her fear of boredom and puts her squarely in the path of an escaped murderer (who cannibalizes his victims); as well as the afore-mentioned mental asylum escapee whose humpback contains an evil python named Cynthia who may or may not be imaginary.

Chapter One begins:

The little town of Awkward Falls was known for two things:  its canned sauerkraut and its insane asylum.  Both had achieved notoriety for their repulsiveness.  The canned sauerkraut contained cabbage, vinegar, and other appalling ingredients, the smell of which prevented most sane people from actually attempting to eat it.  The Asylum for the Dangerously Insane contained insane murderers.  Both were to be avoided at all costs, as one was likely to cause gas, and the other, death.

It is one of the best opening paragraphs for a story I have ever read.  It has the humorous flavor I so appreciate in a well-plotted narrative and the promise of both action and eccentricity.  The story maintains this tone well for the first three chapters, introducing us first to Fetid Stenchley, the madman imprisoned for the past ten years in the Asylum for the Dangerously Insane and then to Josephine, the young girl who will become the catalyst for what is yet to come.

After these first few chapters, however, the material takes a decidedly darker twist: the reader is privvy to a somewhat graphic and altogether inhuman “Treatment” given to Fetid Stenchley in front of an audience of dignitaries (and tourists).  For some adults the scene may be too much, but could be tempered by the dark ironies we have experienced as adults concerning the mental health system and politics and voyeurism.  A young reader typically does not have the experiences or the faculties to process such a scene with the tongue-in-cheek viewpoint from which it is written.

The “Treatment” is not the end of the horrifying scenes in the story.  There is a real element of Frankenstein/Dr. Frankenstein woven into the narrative:  Fetid Stenchley is deformed.  Professor Celsius Hibble treats him like a human being.  In his gratitude Fetid cannot stand to have anyone else grow close to the doctor and many individuals who began to frequent their home “accidentally” perish.  The Professor is involved in researching the reanimation of dead tissue, despite ridicule from the scientific community that once lauded his work.  When the Professor’s fiancee leaves him he descends further into madness and commits unspeakable acts which result in his own murder by Fetid Stenchley, who is then imprisoned in the Insane Asylum.

All this has happened before Chapter One actually begins.  It is Josephine, who sees the Professor’s old house through the fog her first night in their new home next door, and sets out to investigate who joins the threads of the past to those of the present.  Professor Celsius’ mansion is not abandoned.  Fetid Stenchley has escaped and revenge for his imprisonment is foremost in his damaged mind.  In the process of Fetid’s tortured search for revenge and redemption the reader is witness to much that will make the squeamish stop reading–including the return of the murdered professor’s corpse.

Here is where I come to my crossroads, as it were:  to recommend or not to recommend?  I am uncomfortable with some of the material in the book for a younger reader.  It is possible that a middle grade reader (or above) who is interested in the horror genre would thoroughly enjoy this book.  My best comparison with an adult horror writer is Dean Koontz (as opposed to Stephen King).  In Dean Koontz’s work, although horrendous things occur to people, there is always an overall sense at the end of the story of hope and good over evil.  The Orphan of Awkward Falls is by no means as graphic as a Koontz or King title, but parents should be strongly cautioned that it is NOT for young readers.

That said, the narrative is tightly plotted with strong, well-developed characters, an interwoven ribbon of  dark humor and underlying themes of unconditional love and individuality.

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