Author: Edgar Cantero
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: September 2018
The premise of Meddling Kids can be guessed due to the cover art and the pop culture timing: this book is riding the same ’80s kids-vs.-weirdness nostalgia waves as Stranger Things and the new movie version of It. I’m not yet burned out on the fad, so I was all in for trying this author’s latest work. For some reason I thought the book was YA, but I quickly learned otherwise. (Must have been those playfully rad colors on the cover.)
Turns out that not only is the book for (and mostly about) adults, but the premise is cleverer than I suspected. The first image we get is a small town front-page newspaper with a headline that reads “Teen Sleuths Unmask Sleepy Lake Monster.” There’s a picture of the crew alongside local law enforcement and their trusty dog, with a frustrated bad guy tied up in a net on the ground in front of them. It’s Scooby Doo, of course. But something never sat well with the kids who “solved” the mystery and grew into aimless twenty-somethings. When one of them tracks down their former foe, he ends up screaming “Iä fhtagn Thtaggoa! Iä mwlgn nekrosunai! Ng’ngah’hai,zhro!” Effing yes. Lovecraft. The mystery wasn’t completely solved after all, and now they have to go back to keep digging.
But let’s pause here. This whole setup is in the first few pages, and at first I wasn’t sure if I was on board. I have a healthy respect for Scooby Doo, especially as emphasized by the Tim Minchin anti-woo spoken-word poem “Storm.” It does matter that at the end of each episode, the villain turns out to be an opportunistic fraud, because that’s real life. (Is it true that later Scooby Doo movies featured actual ghosts? Retch.) So to undermine the critical thinking of a Scooby Doo story is a big deal, but perhaps the way to do so is by pursuing Lovecraftian horror. Sure, this path inevitably involves cultists and some minor form of witchery, combined with some way to tie everything into modernity—the first character to be convinced tries to explain: “The symbols and the sulfur and the tooth are not props meant to scare children away. They are signs of a very old science.” But the core of Lovecraft is simply the idea that there are forces of nature so far beyond us that they break our minds (or can at least cause massive beings to come crush us). Edgar Cantero attempts to thread the needle and does so with success. Or maybe I was just comfortable enough with the rational parts and fantasy-seeking parts of my brain to be able to enjoy the story.
Because the story itself is about the characters reassessing their youth and coming back to face old horrors, Cantero chooses to double down not on the nostalgia per se (that’s already built in) but on his awareness of his audience and how savvy they will be. References to movies, shows, and other ideas are underlined and emphasized (take the name “Zoinx River” for one). Plot beats are casually noted in the writing, either by calling out the structure on the page (after a break in scenes: “Two blank lines later, they were still sitting there.”), by using the language of video games (“she had lost… about 40 percent of her health bar”), by using the dialogue framing of a play, or by referring to scenes based on how they’d be framed in a movie or on TV. Parentheticals denote action, entrances and exits are commented upon, and the whole text is self-aware. The use of these tactics is fluid and arbitrary, the author slipping in and out of this almost-fourth-wall-breaking as it pleases him, yet keeping an entertaining and super intelligent voice throughout.
This should all sound very pretentious, and it kind of is. Except… it doesn’t come off that way, at least not to me. What it feels like is the author having a hell of a good time, telling a wacky story while also taking his characters seriously, and showing off genuinely good writing skills. Every scene is tactile, fresh, and relevant. (Okay, I admit some scenes toward the end got repetitive, when the heroes were outrunning or outgunning their hundredth submonster.) If lines like “Her whole body was literally paralyzed. The literal literally.” would drive you nuts, then you might hate the style. Personally, I would take this any day over an author misusing the word. (Sorry, Lev Grossman, your book will always remain a punching bag on this blog.)
I find myself slightly overselling the book, as I knew I would do in this review. It’s the type of book that I imagine inspires a dramatic love/hate divide, and I wanted to place myself at least in the “like very much” camp. During the first half of the book I was completely smitten, and was a little bummed that after I finished the final page the story slipped from my brain more quickly than I expected. But it was still a blast, a Halloween adventure tale that, for all its stylistic boastfulness, also had its serious shades. Oh yeah, did I mention that Edgar Cantero was born in Barcelona, Spain, so his first language is Spanish/Catalan? As a blurb on the back points out, he isn’t from the “country, decade, and language that the book operates in.” This fact is truly badass. If I was a novelist, I might envy-hate him, but as a reader, I’m in awe.
Cover art corner: Let’s come back one more time to that sweet cover design. The neon pops not only on the front but also on the spine, where various nefarious symbols float, with a pentagram being the most prominent. Now, we’re a long way past the idea of demonology carrying any threat whatsoever in the modern mind, but there’s still the faint (yes, nostalgic) twinge that the symbols are transgressive. Righteous autumn rebellion!