by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller
(September 9th, 2014, Delacorte Books for Young Readers)
Life has been rough for 12-year-old Charlie Laird. After his mother passes away and his father remarries, Charlie is forced to leave the home he has loved and lived in all his life.
Now Charlie lives in the Cyprus Creek’s creepiest house, an old purple mansion on a hill, along with his younger brother, Jack, his father, and his strange stepmom Charlotte DeChant.
But living in a creepy house isn’t Charlie’s only problem. A witch has been haunting his dreams: threatening to eat him and Jack. He also suspects Charlotte of being an evil witch, bent on stealing his family from him.
When the witch of his nightmares comes to the Waking World and kidnaps Jack, Charlie is forced to venture into the Netherworld, the land of Nightmares, to face his worst fears and bring his brother home.
Despite its name, Nightmares! reminds me of one of those gentle, old-fashioned fantasies that would have been popular in the 70s and 80s. That’s not to say that it won’t appeal to modern readers. On the contrary, this book is very aware of its audience. Much of what is covered here, from the death of a parent to the difficulties of dealing with new family members, is very relevant today. And even though these are weighty topics to tackle, they are presented well, never feeling forced or contrived.
Charlie’s personal struggles with his mother’s death and new stepmom are central to the plot but they don’t smother it. This is a book first and foremost about facing one’s fears, and the choice to make the Netherworld a real place and having the nightmares be just as fleshed out (and afraid) as the human characters was an excellent and very imaginative twist.
Both the Waking World and the Netherworld felt very real to me. Cyprus Creek is a sweet, sleepy town that is both archetypal and endearing. The Netherworld – at least what we see of it – is a dark and twisted version of Cyprus Creek, populated by all manner of monsters and scary creatures.
The secondary characters are all satisfactory. And even though none of them really shine, it doesn’t hurt the story much, since the focus is mainly on Charlie, a likable and relatable protagonist.
The writing is also an asset, evocative and descriptive enough to give the reader a good mental image, but not in any way dense or info-dumpy.
Like many lighter fantasy books, Nightmares! falls victim to the dreaded slow beginning. Though the central premise is introduced early on, the story doesn’t really go anywhere till over a third of the way in. And when the plot does get moving there are many lulls that make the book lose steam and suspense.
But the thing the irked me most about Nightmares! is that it’s one of those books that isn’t in any way bad but isn’t great either. This problem, I felt, was a direct result of Segel and Miller not doing enough with their (quite good) ideas, especially where plot was concerned.
With a sweet and highly positive message, Nightmares! is a cozy old-fashioned fantasy that will appeal to thoughtful and somewhat patient readers.