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Meddling Kids
by Edgar Cantero
Anchor Books, $16.99, 336pp
Published: May 2018

It's hard to imagine a book that looks more up my alley than this one by Spanish author Edgar Cantero, writing in English. Most will see it as a mashup of 'Scooby Doo' and the Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft, but there's another key element, which is the books of Enid Blyton, especially her 'Famous Five' stories. I was reading her books before I found Scooby, let alone Lovecraft, so there's a progression here for me throughout my youth.

The final element is Stephen King's 'It', which is apparent in the structure of the book, split as it is over a pair of different times. This all begins in 1977, when four teenagers and their dog, who collectively call themselves the 'Blyton Summer Detective Club', solve the mystery of Sleepy Lake. However, it haunts them over the years that follow and the damaged remnants of the team return to Blyton Hills in 1990 to finish the job they left undone as children.

This is a great way to merge these ostensibly different influences but it also brings a welcome depth to the time-honoured phrase that constitutes the title. If it wasn't for their meddling, would everything that follows have come to pass?

Everything in 1977 is happy. These are Enid Blyton characters, full of confidence and clever enough to outfox the adults around them, who praise them in the 'Pennaquick Telegraph' after they close their case. In a 'Scooby Doo' style setpiece, they unmask a villain, who was using a diving suit to disguise himself as a giant salamander and distract people from his search of the Deboën Mansion for its supposed hidden gold.

But, as they come to realise later, after they grow up, they missed the big picture. While they were taking down Mr. Wickley in his distraction costume, they missed the meaning behind the ritual symbols, candles and ancient books up in the attic. Sure, they took down a crook who had set up a fake haunting, but they also subconsciously shied away from the unimaginable horror surrounding him, too. What lies beneath Sleepy Lake, the second deepest body of water in the Americas, that the Walla Walla Indians called the Land of Deadly Shadows? What rituals were the hidden inhabitants of the Deboën Mansion conducting? Above all, what was their goal?

As tends to happen in Lovecraft stories, the best way to deal with unimaginable terror is to go safely mad. The four young detectives are all affected by this affair. Peter Manner went on to fame as a Hollywood actor, but he killed himself with a drug overdose. Nate Rogers still hallucinates Peter from his room in a psychiatric institution in Arkham, MA. Andrea Rodriguez, a tomboy known as Andy, toughened up, serving in the military and learning how to fight properly, all with the subconscious aim of eventually facing her fears. Lastly, ignoring Sean the Weimeraner, there's Kerri Hollis, the girl with the flowing hair whom Andy always loved, who got lost in nothing jobs, like the bartending gig she quits when Andy starts to put the team back together again.

She realises that they're all broken and that it was the Sleepy Lake Case that broke them. To heal themselves, or at least those of them still alive, they have to return to Blyton Hills and solve the bigger case that they missed in 1977. And so, as in 'It', these grown-up kids go back to their roots, except for the one of them who chose death instead, and they find that the old threat is still there and rising to threaten the whole town. Only the Blyton Summer Detective Club can save the day, if only they can save themselves first.

I liked this approach a lot. Sure, some of it's a little obvious in its exercise of homage, such as having the Zoinx River flow through Blyton Hills, but it's fun nonetheless. Cantero is a good writer and he builds this novel well, as if it's growing up too, working its way from Enid Blyton to H. P. Lovecraft. In fact, I liked the return of these particular meddling kids a lot more than I did their equivalents in 'It'. Cantero ably plays with a concept he dubs 'rediscovery shrinkage'. The town of Blyton Hills and everything to be found in it, all the way down to Kerri's bedroom in Aunt Margo's cottage, is smaller than it used to be, but mostly only because they're bigger. The only thing that's resistant to rediscovery shrinkage is the Deboën Mansion on its island in Sleepy Lake, because that's just as big a nightmare as it ever was.

Cantero writes very well. He isn't intimidated by vocabulary, but he's still readable and understandable. There's a fantastic dream sequence that's believably scary and neatly intense, elevated by the fact that it turns out not to be a dream sequence at all. Only the best prose can elicit emotions the way that this scene does. He also knows how to write action scenes. While his sentences are the length they need to be throughout, they elongate during action scenes until they take over paragraphs. During the points when they become especially breathless, they start to lose punctuation too. Reading these aloud would be as much of a blast as it would be a challenge. There's a neat use of personification too, which helps to bring the environment to the fore and keep us thinking about the concept of perspective.

Unfortunately, he also has a habit of dropping out of prose mode and into play mode. Instead of writing strings of dialogue, especially during longer conversations, he often presents it as if it had been adapted to the stage. I have no idea why he chose this approach, because it had to have been very deliberate. To me, it was distracting and disengaging, which would seem to be the exact opposite effects to what he should have been aiming for. It's the single aspect I hated here. Well, that and the use of the word 'lemminging'. That's just wrong.

I really ought to quit at this point because this is the most redundant review I've ever written. Really all that you need to know is what I outlined in the first paragraph. If you liked 'Scooby Doo' as a kid (and especially if you liked the work of Enid Blyton too) and you grew up to like H. P. Lovecraft as well, then this is recommended. Only if you actively hate any of those palpable influences would this cease to be a good choice. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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