YA authors scare the living daylights out of me.
Seriously, YA is a genre full of some freaking warped books. And not just the ones they force middle and high schoolers to read at gunpoint, either. I'm talking about the humor books meant for the middle school-age audience, I'm talking about the ridiculous books they let us read thinking "oh, they're all right for kids" that involve stuff like child slavery and brainwashing. The aforementioned Wayside School is a series of linked cosmic horror stories that also work as school comedy.
Now, they're also good books, because most of these people can write. But I did want everyone to know that I have read me some Edward Lee. And some Jack Ketchum. And some Clive Barker. And all the rest. And not once did I find anything nearly as fucked up as I did in young adult fantasy or science fiction or comedy books*.
This brings us to Ribblestrop.
In Ribblestrop, Andy Mulligan takes the "school of adventure" tropes that one seems to find reoccuring throughout young adult novels, and blows them so far over the top that it creates an unusual adventure in a school that might as well be unmoored from reality. Despite being ostensibly aimed at the younger set, it's a book full of strange mannequins, kids getting drunk on rum repeatedly, numerous train accidents, and at least one case of nonconsensual trepanation. It's also a book full of heart, and the points where the book gets shaggy make up for it with heart and character and a wicked sense of humor. It's not a book I'd necessarily recommend, but it's fun. And in this case, fun is really all that matters.
"What a question to ask! 'Is it dangerous?' We're at Ribblestrop, Giles. Where life is dangerous. Don't tell me you didn't know that."
- Professor Worthington
Ribblestrop begins with one Sam Arthur Tack getting on a train for a long voyage to his new school, the titular Ribblestrop. Sam**'s parents have been told that Ribblestrop is a prestigious boys' school with a long tradition behind it, and their small boy will be a wonderful addition. Upon entering the train (and suffering the first of many train accidents), Sam is met by Jacob Ruskin, a portly boy who is a returning student to Ribblestrop Towers. Ruskin talks to Sam about the various ins and outs of Ribblestrop-- the eccentric headmaster Giles Norcross-Webb, the small handful of other kids (most of whom are Asian and eastern European orphans) who attend the school, the fact that the dormitory doesn't have a roof, but will eventually have one built-- and then accidentally spills his tea on Sam, causing the two boys to try and find a way to get Sam a spare pair of pants.
On the way, they meet Millie, a young woman and enterprising criminal who accidentally loses Sam's school pants out the window along with his tie, steals a woman's credit card, and barges into a restaurant where they meet the other returning student to the school, Sanchez. Sanchez is the son of a South American gangster, a soft-spoken boy who still has trauma from when he was kidnapped and held for ransom. One helicopter ride later, the four of them arrive at Ribblestrop Towers...
...where Sam promptly gets hit on the head by crockery thrown out of the tower window by Lady Vyner, the eccentric owner of the Ribblestrop property, and her monstrous grandson Casper. Things quickly settle into a routine. The school is barely supposed to exist, practically runs under the table, and has all sorts of strange secret passages. The only teachers are the affable but completely cracked Captain Routon and the mad "electrical scientist" Professor Worthington. One of the main classes involves mapping the entire state, including cutting out new trails and paths through the overgrowth. Doctor Norcross-Webb insists that they'll make everything up as they go along. And then one day a deputy headmistress appears...
And things get very strange indeed.
Ribblestrop Towers is soon pulled into a strange mystery involving unusual-looking mannequins, a series of secret basements in the school, the corrupt local law enforcement, and the deputy headmistress Miss Hazlitt, who has a prior connection to Millie and seems to be a little too concerned with psychopharmacology and discipline. Mad science abounds. After all, Ribblestrop Towers used to be an Allied research facility.
What follows is a ridiculous adventure story as the students of Ribblestrop battle murderous high schoolers from the local city, corrupt police, the government, a former dentist and mad scientist, an antique weaponry-toting heir, ghosts, a human robot, and a conspiracy that threatens not just Ribblestrop Towers, but the entirety of students in all of the schools in the whole world if it gets out.
I'm going to talk about something I don't usually talk about here, and that's commitment. Commitment is more important than anyone could possibly realize. It's when people accept a premise and play it as straight as they possibly can. No winking, no tongue-in-cheek, just accepting the most ridiculous thing you can and playing it as straightfaced as possible. It's something very few people do, but for the sake of comedy, sometimes you have to pick up that shovel and dig all the way down. For science fiction and fantasy, too. Andy Mulligan takes a very weird premise and slowly makes it weirder, but never once does he flinch. Never once does he present the absurd world he creates as anything but normal. The chief of police in Reading spends his time squeezing the school dry for bribes that he then funnels into shady projects in the surrounding countryside. The deputy headmistress is clearly an evil sociopath, but everyone just goes along with it because the school needs a little order. In fact, it's pretty easy for even the children of Ribblestrop to realize that there is something seriously wrong with just about everything, but because the world is that strange (an early chapter involves a gunfight where absolutely no one gets shot or arrested), it doesn't bother them that they have to rebuild the dormitory roof like a gothic cathedral during the fall/winter term.
But commitment doesn't just make Ribblestrop believable and grounded. It also helps the reader not think too hard about the fact that a lot of the book is twisted. The school takes in orphans to brainwash them, a group of students almost get hit by a train, and a sadistic dentist has a plan to chemically and surgically alter the brains of schoolchildren to obey authority and rules without question. The science teacher is a mad scientist as well, the true owner of the property nearly kills a main character, and all of this is pretty much played for some kind of laughs. It's more amusing than terrifying and I, for the life of me, could not tell you why. There's just something that keeps it all moving forward and funny. Maybe it's the idea that everything could be funny, and that there's not as many real stakes. Yes, everything is cartoonishly frightening, but at the same time, there's a lot of safety. And...while normally the "no real stakes" thing would be something bad, here it actually works fairly well. The book is not without its plot risks and stakes, but the idea of bad things actually happening in a book like Ribblestrop would be kind of terrifying. If the villains won, even in part, it would destroy the pretense that all of this is actually funny.
Which leads me into the other thing I really enjoy about the book, and that's the way it handles the tone. While there are a few genuinely unnerving scenes played straight, a lot of it comes off as funny. Sam Tack's repeated and brutal injuries (he spends a section in the middle of the book in a coma after an ill-fated football game) as a running gag are actually kind of amusing. Casper and Lady Vyner's horrifyingly insane behavior comes off as darkly comic. That this is the kind of world where a school can be run totally under the table and have to bribe a police chief for its continued existence comes off as unnerving and funny rather than flat-out frightening. With Ribblestrop, Andy Mulligan's tone and control manage to keep all of this in the realm of the absurd and out of the realm of near-Gothic horror.
My only issue with it is that the beginning is more a series of vignettes than an actual book. It transitions from one scene to the next without much thought, sort of shrugging as it goes through the paces and outlines its characters. That the rest of the book is much tighter makes me wonder if it was just kind of Mulligan playing around and then finding a common thread to link everything together. It just feels shaggy, a little loose, just trying to establish its voice, and I would have liked it to be a little tighter. But, as this was practically the first novel Mr. Mulligan wrote for young adult audiences, I can shake some of that off. Besides, the book finds its feet around the time everyone almost gets run over by a train, and suddenly it's off and running.
So in the end, I think this one is worth a library checkout. Especially since it's now out in the US. I especially recommend it to those of you out there with children, provided they know that yes, it is incredibly warped. I wouldn't unknowingly inflict Ribblestrop on anyone, but for someone looking for a fun, adventurous young adult read, I highly recommend you pick this one up and spend some time with it. Hell, someone younger than me will probably get something better out of it than I did, or like it more. The only thing it'll take from you is your time.
- A short break while I try to get back to some semblance of a schedule and stop releasing Wednesday/Thursday posts.
- Going, Going, Gone by Jack Womack
- Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
AND MANY OTHERS.
*Even when they're not being intentionally creepy...the passage about weeping librarians eating remaindered books with a knife and fork in Whales On Stilts! was kind of depressing and horrifying while still being kinda funny.
**Those of you who are giggling...stop...please...