Daryl Gregory has written about monsters. He's written about demons and drugs and Philip K. Dick. He's wrecked the world a couple times over, bounced from fantasy to science fiction and back again with an impish ease. He's the kind of storyteller who's always chasing after the weird — occasionally catching it, often trailing close enough to smell the brimstone and tacos on its breath.
And I don't mean any of these as bad things. On the contrary, they're all proof of a nimble mind and busy, strange fingers. He doesn't do sequels. He doesn't write epics. Each book has been a single, contained idea, seen through from beginning to end, popping like fireworks in the sky and then fading. And his new one, Harrison Squared? In keeping with his record of squirreling off in odd new directions with every brick of paper he slaps his name to, this one is a YA novel.
A Lovecraftian YA novel, actually, which is a thing there isn't nearly enough of in the world. It's the story of Harrison Harrison (called H2 by his scientist mother), a California teenager with anger issues, a missing leg and a dead father. He lost both the leg and the father in what he's been told was a boating accident when he was very young, but that's obviously not true. No, the leg was bitten off by a sea monster — the same one that then ate his dad — which, as far as novel setups go, is pretty solid. And awesome, with its shades of Moby-Dick and "Dagon."
The sea monster bite has given Harrison some vague connection to the supernatural world that he's never really understood. The double loss has given him a deep and violent real-world rage that he's had to learn to control. And Gregory covers this all in the first three pages, with an efficiency and voice that perfectly suits the audience he's writing for (meaning both kids after some moderately creepy Miskatonic-light and full-grown book critics who get all the influences he's playing with).
After that, Gregory's off and running, with Harrison and his mother traveling from California to the weird seaside town of Dunnsmouth, Mass. (because ofcourse Massachusetts), ostensibly because she's a marine biologist searching for an elusive giant squid, but really because she's a marine biologist searching for the monster that ate her husband (and part of her son).
For his part, Harrison is enrolled in the local high school — a damp and cavernous place teetering on a cliff above the bay where the creepy, pale and silent students weave fishing nets in home ec, try to reanimate frogs in cryptobiology class and spend their mornings singing hymns to the Elder Gods. The school may as well have a giant neon sign blinking SECRET CULT HEADQUARTERS with a bright arrow, but Gregory plays none of this for false chills. His Harrison is a modern boy. He recognizes the sour, wet weirdness of the place from a hundred yards off, but also more subtly expresses a deeper truth. He's a kid, and kids have to go to school because them's the rules. And frankly, to an uprooted and transplanted kid following after his vagabond scientist mother, every new school is strange and alien and possibly home to an evil end-of-the-world cult.
And then comes the point where Harrison's mother disappears and I have to stop talking in specifics for fear of spoiling all the good parts that come after — all the ghosts and comics-obsessed fish-boys, the spooky, mythical killer stalking the damp places, gooey sea monsters and evil, untrustworthy adults that haunt (and are haunted by) Dunnsmouth's terrible, secret history.
I can say that there are no weepy love triangles here. Instead, there's just a local girl named Lydia who befriends Harrison and proves herself to be a monster-fighting junior badass. There's no prom drama, no nerds-versus-jocks, no my one true love was right in front of me all the time! Gregory dumps all those used-up YA tropes and turns, instead, to a more elderly formula — the unabashed boy's adventure novel.
It's a Volvo of a book, sturdily and dependably made. With stakes that feel high (rescuing a kidnapped parent, not getting stabbed in the face by a very murder-y Big Bad) and consequences that feel real (the end of the world if they fail), it moves confidently from page to page, squeezes in a few laughs and lays all the responsibility in the hands of its teenaged protagonists. No one walks away from Dunnsmouth unscathed, but considering his audience, Gregory sands down the sharp edges just enough to make it a suitable entry point for tweens bored of ponies and dystopias and looking for something a little bit darker, damper, creepier and closer to home.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor ofPhiladelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.