You don’t often find a middle-grade novel that can be classified as horror, but I just did. And it is awesome.
Isabelle and Beatrice Thorn are 12-year-old twins, orphaned in a fire that took their father’s life on their prairie farm in Lethbridge, Alberta. Rescued by their Uncle Walter, the two girls now live in Hollywood under the patronage of the mysterious Mr. Cecil, a preeminent director and inventor in the 1920s. Isabelle, a blond beauty, earns her keep as an actress in silent films. Beatrice is kept hidden away, studying science and collecting insects, her birthmarks and scars covered by flowing scarves.
But life is not as easy as it first appears. People seem to be disappearing, Mr. Cecil keeps odd, private hours, and a rare new breed of insect, the scorpion hornet, attacks Beatrice and her best friend Raul.
I did not read the blurb before picking up this book. The cover attracted me, and I didn’t even stop to consider what was behind it. I don’t even know if I looked beyond the title and the picture. So I went into this book completely ignorant. What a surprise. I picked it up thinking to read a few chapters before bed and ended up staying up ’til all hours, unable to stop until the final page was turned.
Delightfully creepy and chilling. I don’t know how else to describe this novel. Creepy in an edge-of-your-seat-can’t-put-it-down sort of way. This is 1920s movie-making horror mixed with the paranormal mixed with enough reality to make you wonder what really goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood.
The characters are wonderful. Beatrice is smart, logical, questioning and independent, and the real star. Sister Isabelle is, at first, slightly spoiled and snobby and the centre of attention. But as the story winds its way through movie making and the adulation that surrounds it, the reader discovers her depth and that her devotion to her sister is not just based on what “Beets” can do for her. The groundskeeper’s son, Raul, is the best mix of practical and fanciful, he is pure friendship for Beatrice, willing to do anything for her, but also well aware of his role and his standing in the elitist Santa Monica neighbourhood where they live. And Mr. Cecil is mysterious and enigmatic patron, supporting and encouraging, all the while trying to harness the energy of emotion and imagination.
The plot starts out in one direction and ends up somewhere totally unexpected. I will not spoil it, but give it your best guess, and you will be so wrong. The twist is nerve-rattling and out of the blue, and I did not see it coming at all. Such amazing storytelling. The pace builds as the mystery gradually unfolds, mirroring the slow, measured life on the prairies and ending up with the furious cacophony of life in LA. Along the way, author Arthur Slade looks at misdirection and reality, at bravery and friendship and redemption, and weaves it all together with old-fashioned horror and Hollywood glamour.
The research that went into the world-building in this novel is evident. 1920s Hollywood, when the silver screen was just starting to change from silent films to “talkies,” the parties and excesses, the dark theatres with orchestra pits and velvet curtains. Slade is a master of imagery; everything from the lonely prairie homestead in Alberta to the crush of the premiere and the emotion in the theatre jumped off the page at me.
The epilogue is SO perfect.
This is the first novel I have read of Slade’s (which is criminal) and he has just become one of my automatic must-read authors.
While Flickers is a middle-grade book, it can and will be enjoyed by anyone.
Flickers was published April 26th, 2016 by HarperCollins.