It’s Halloween, and everyone in Charlie’s small town is excited for this year’s festivities. Charlie's grandfather, Old Joe, is famous for his holiday haunts, and his pumpkin patch is the center of the town’s zealous celebrations. But for Charlie, Halloween’s just one more reminder that his cousin Billy isn’t around anymore. Charlie plans to keep to himself this year, hanging out in the haunted barn with his trusty dog Ringo.
But when Charlie runs into some neighborhood bullies who are after his candy, he heads off into the woods to escape. He quickly gets lost, but spots a kid who he thinks is Billy. As Charlie chases after him deeper and deeper into the woods, he finds himself entering Monsterland—a mysterious place where werewolves live amongst trolls and goblins. Here he meets the Prime Minister, a vampire who tells Charlie he may be able to see his cousin again in this strange new land. Accompanied by a hulking monster chaperone, Charlie’s determined to find out just what happened to his cousin, and sets off to explore the secrets hiding in this uncharted territory.
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No Man’s Land
Charlie was there again, in this familiar place, with its windswept sand and jagged rocks, its vast emptiness. For a moment, he thought he saw the boy out on the open plain in the distance. He had seen him here before and called to him, but there was never an answer. This left Charlie to wonder if the boy was ever really there, or if instead, he was seeing nothing more than the other shadows that stretched across the horizon. The name he called out to the boy was Billy, and in this place Billy always walked alone, in silhouette, toward a setting sun.
“Charlie, Charlie Cooper.”
Charlie opened his eyes. There was a puddle of drool next to his hand on the yellow plastic grain finish of his desk.
“Would you care to join us?”
Charlie’s fifth-grade class laughed, and someone—even the teacher, Ms. Hatchet, wasn’t sure who—was making cartoonish snoring sounds.
“Come on, Charlie, sit up. You may be surprised. You might actually find this interesting.” Ms. Hatchet clapped her hands. “And, class, that goes for the rest of you too. We’re almost there. Class!” Another clap. “Class!”
Charlie blinked, slowly focusing on his notebook and the tattered photograph that was propped up against it. The picture was of two boys standing in front of a large barn. Charlie was the smaller of the two, although it was difficult to make out his cousin Billy’s face through the sun flares that had dappled the camera’s lens that day. Both boys were wearing vampire capes and smiles that exposed pointed, plastic fangs, and surrounding them were pumpkins, piles and piles of pumpkins.
Charlie lifted his head and stared blankly at the map that was pulled down in front of the blackboard. He wasn’t ready to be back in Ms. Hatchet’s class yet. He was tired and wished he could just keep on sleeping, but he knew that wasn’t an option— there had already been plenty of warnings. Charlie folded the photograph and returned it to the pocket of his sweatshirt.
“Now, this area, which would eventually become part of the Oklahoma Territory,” Ms. Hatchet was saying, “was known as No Man’s Land. It was thought at the time to be the hangout of outlaws and other questionable characters.”
Ms. Hatchet paused as the rest of her class sat up slightly. The students, a gruesome assembly of smeared makeup, hooded capes, and rubber-molded masks, were almost all in costume.
“Yes, outlaws. I thought that might get your attention. You see this region.” Ms. Hatchet pointed at the northwest corner of the map. “When they divided up the land into the Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas Territories, they forgot this section.”
Charlie studied the faded region of the map. Sure enough, the mapmakers at the time had missed a section.
“But the authorities learned their lesson. Just because a place isn’t on an official map doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Ms. Hatchet lectured. “And although this strip certainly did exist, it did not formally become part of the United States until the passage of the Organic Act of 1890, which assigned the land to the newly appointed Oklahoma Territory.”
“Okay, class, so let’s remember, ‘Ok-la-homa Territory.’ Repeat after me: ‘Ok-la-homa Territory.’”
“Ok-la-homa Territory,” the class robotically returned.
Charlie’s gaze wandered to the window. It had rained on and off all morning, and through the cotton ball cobwebs and rubber spiders that decorated the window’s frame, he could see that a heavy gray mist still hung in the treetops surrounding the playground.
“I think there may be a lesson here for all of us,” Ms. Hatchet continued. “Could you imagine, a no-man’s-land? Hundreds of thousands of forgotten acres that some surveyor failed to include on any maps?”
Charlie looked at the clock. It seemed to be stubbornly hovering a few minutes before the top of the hour.
“Sounds to me like this is the story of one mapmaker who didn’t do his homework.” Ms. Hatchet glanced at her watch. “Well, looks like All Hallows’ Eve is almost upon us!”
Ms. Hatchet turned, concealing her face for a moment, and then spun back around, wearing a wrinkled green witch mask that muffled her voice. “Remember, have fun tonight, but be safe. And please make sure you are home before the clock strikes twelve, for midnight is the bewitching hour, when the monsters, ghouls, and goblins roam our streets looking for girls and boys who do not obey their parents, or teachers, and who refuse to brush their teeth . . .”
The entire class looked at “Stink Mouth” Sam, who conspicuously covered his mouth.
“Oh, come on,” Sam called out. “I brushed this morning!”
“That’s good, Sam. Lesson learned,” Ms. Hatchet continued as the bell rang. “All right, Happy Halloween!”
The class erupted, running for the door.
“Keep the mayhem to a minimum and don’t eat all your candy at once!” Ms. Hatchet shouted over her students’ exit.
Charlie got up from his desk and slowly pulled on his backpack. His foot had fallen asleep, and he stomped as he stood to shake the pins and needles free.
“Hold on there, Charlie,” Ms. Hatchet said. She was still wearing the witch mask, so it was difficult to understand exactly what she was saying. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“Forgetting something, Ms. Hatchet?”
Ms. Hatchet held out an old pillowcase with Charlie scribbled across the front in smeared orange and black Magic Marker. Earlier in the week, they had decorated the trick-or-treat sacks in art class, Charlie with less enthusiasm than his classmates.
“I know it’s just the candy from school today, but it’s a start, right?”
Charlie took the sack from Ms. Hatchet. “Oh yeah, the candy. Thank you. I must have left it in the cafeteria.”
“And, Charlie,” Ms. Hatchet said, removing her mask. “About the quiz. A little better, but I know it’s not your best. Still having trouble concentrating?”
“Well, these things take time, so keep trying, okay?”
Other than a quick look toward the door, Charlie did not respond. While he appreciated Ms. Hatchet’s checking in on him, he really just wanted to leave. Charlie always wanted to leave, to be somewhere else, anywhere except for where he was.
“I have something for you.” Ms. Hatchet opened her desk and presented a pair of plastic glow-in-the-dark fangs to Charlie. They were taped to a full-size Hershey’s chocolate bar.
“I remember you saying you lost yours.”
“Thank you, Ms. Hatchet.” Charlie peeled the plastic fangs from the Hershey’s wrapper and dropped the chocolate into the sack with the other candy he had collected at lunch.
“There will be plenty more candy after trick-or-treating, right?”
“I don’t know, Ms. Hatchet. I don’t think I’m going trick-or-treating this year.”
Ms. Hatchet set the witch mask down on her desk. “You sure?”
“This’ll be enough,” Charlie said, swinging the sack over his shoulder.
“No trick-or-treating. Well, you are still working in the pumpkin patch tonight, aren’t you?”
“I doubt Old Joe would have it any other way. It’s good having it back, isn’t it? The pumpkin patch?”
Charlie shoved the fangs in his mouth and nodded.
“The town—well, everyone—really missed it last year.” Ms. Hatchet smiled.
Charlie tried to smile back, but with his mouth full of glow-in-the-dark plastic, it was hard to tell if he was succeeding.
“All right, I will see you there.”
“Okay, Ms. Hatchet, see you there.” Charlie turned to the door, but stopped just before opening it.
He held up the candy sack.
“Thanks again,” Charlie said. Then he bit down on the fangs and walked out the door.
A whirlwind of leaves, red, purple, and gold, swirled around Charlie’s sneakers as he walked across the playground, counting his steps home. Usually, counting things made him feel better, but today it was somehow harder to keep track with the plastic fangs in his mouth. He wasn’t sure why. He wasn’t counting out loud—he was counting to himself—but still he was having trouble concentrating.
Following the cracks in the sidewalk, Charlie passed the other kids from his class, going largely ignored except for a sad, sympathetic smile from a girl named Birdy Fargus. Charlie tried to wave back; however, Birdy did not seem to notice, so he kept on moving, careful to go the long way around the rock outcrop that marked the start of the high school playing fields.
From the cover of the tree line, he could see a group of older kids, some already in costume, lingering on the rocks. To avoid their teachers and coaches, Billy used to laugh. But now, Charlie thought, looking out over the open fields, Billy was gone. Charlie glanced back at the older kids and decided to stick to the high trees. Even though it took a little longer, he knew the detour was worth the effort, and was soon on the main street that went through the middle of town anyway.
Charlie’s hometown sat at the foot of the mountains, right along the coast, and was said to be “picturesque” with “something to offer tourists year-round.” In spring, it was the flowers that clung to the rolling grass hills. Summer, it was the beaches and wild, rambling rivers. In autumn, it was haunted hayrides, cake doughnuts, apple cider, and the colors of the ever-changing trees; and in winter, the mountains’ great pine forests were covered with snow—a perfect backdrop for any Christmas card. But of all the holidays that the town celebrated, Halloween was the favorite. No one seemed to know exactly how or why it was so popular, or if they did, they rarely spoke of it, electing instead to point their fingers toward the foot of the mountains and the abandoned military base that was adjacent to the orchards where Charlie’s family lived.
Everyone knew Charlie’s grandfather as “Old Joe,” even Charlie. And for Old Joe, Halloween was more than just a holiday; some even said it was his obsession. For almost every October, as far back as any kid in the town could remember, Old Joe had transformed the orchards and large barn that sat down the hill from his house into a hayride and haunted maze. Visitors loaded into wagons and were taken to the three-story barn and the pumpkin patch that draped up the hill to the dark woods behind it. The pumpkins were only available to those who dared to pass through the haunted structure, taking some of the children years to work up the courage and make the journey.
Charlie turned down a gravel drive, which led up through Old Joe’s orchards. The apple trees were spread out between the pines along the foothills, bordered by the mountains and the river. Charlie lived with his mother, father, and Old Joe in the house that was the centerpiece of the property. With its sagging windows and rotting widow’s walk, the big Victorian was in a constant state of disrepair and looked almost as haunted as the decorated barn.
“Honey, is that you?”
Charlie passed the jack-o’-lanterns that lined the worn wooden steps to the porch, and threw open the screen door.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Charlie yelled. There was a scratchy Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers album blaring from an old record player.
“Shut the door, will you?” his mother called to him. “With this front coming in, there’s suddenly a real chill in the air.”
Charlie did as he was told and crossed the living room’s creaky floorboards to the double doors that led into the kitchen.
“How are you? Good day?” Charlie heard his mother say through a thick veil of pasta steam. She was boiling huge pots of spaghetti for the brain and gut bowls that the haunted barn’s guests would have to put their hands in to enter.
“How was school?”
“Ah, it was okay. We learned about a mapmaker who forgot to put things on a map.”
“That’s interesting.” Charlie’s mother was preoccupied with the pot of pasta that she was struggling to strain in the sink.
“You should get changed and see if you can help out down at the barn.”
“At work, but he’ll be home soon. There’s still some time to trick-or-treat before you give Old Joe a hand, though. Knock on a few doors, get some candy . . .”
“Why does everyone keep saying that?”
“Saying what, honey?”
“That I can go trick-or-treating,” he mumbled.
“Well, you certainly don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” His mother set the strainer in the sink. “You all right?”
“I don’t know.”
“Charlie . . .”
“I guess . . . I guess I just wish Billy was going to be here . . .” Charlie was about to say more but stopped.
“Oh, honey.” His mother sighed, pulling him into a hug. “I do too.”
She kissed him gently on the forehead, and when Charlie looked up, he could see a familiar sadness in her eyes.
“We all miss him. You hang in there, though, and you’ll see. The world won’t seem so bad someday.”
Charlie slipped the plastic vampire teeth Ms. Hatchet had given him into his mouth.
“I better get ready.”
“Okay,” his mother said, forcing a smile and letting him go. “I know Old Joe will be happy to see you.”
“Tell him I’ll be down in a bit,” Charlie said over his shoulder as he left the kitchen.
In the living room, “Monster Mash” was skipping on the record player, repeating again and again, “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?” Charlie ignored it and started up the stairs, counting each one as he climbed.
He passed Old Joe’s room at the top of the landing, and his parents’, then paused at the room that had been his cousin Billy’s. It had become more of a storeroom lately; there were cardboard boxes open with surplus Halloween decorations and discarded bits of costumes strewn about. Charlie took a step into the room to search for his werewolf mask but retreated when he saw Billy’s vampire costume neatly folded on top of an open box.
Their first Halloween together, Old Joe had said Billy was tall and thin enough, so he persuaded him to play the haunted barn’s resident vampire. With the long black hooded cloak, ghost-white makeup, and specially fitted fangs, Billy made an imposing figure looming in the shadows of the pumpkin patch. But that . . . that was before. Charlie quickly turned away from the dark folded suit and closed the door. He continued down the hall to his room, telling himself that his mask was somewhere else, more than likely under his bed.
Charlie’s room was in the corner of the house where the eaves joined the attic to the second floor. The winding bend of a giant oak grew just out the window, giving him the feeling that he lived in a tree house. He sat on the foot of his bed and thought for a moment, then pulled the photograph from his sweatshirt pocket. His mother had taken the photo of the boys with her ancient instamatic camera just last October, a few years after Billy had come to live with them. Billy had been having trouble at home back then, and when he ran away a second time, Old Joe suggested he spend that summer, longer if need be, working in the orchard.
He recalled the talks he’d overheard from the kitchen before his cousin arrived that June. You’d be amazed, Old Joe said at dinner one night, what a little hard work and some fresh air can do for a boy.
So Billy joined Charlie that summer in the orchard. They worked hard, but when their chores were done, Old Joe let them run free through the apple trees, swim in the river, and camp in the mountains that bordered the property. Then summer turned to fall, and instead of returning home, Billy stayed. He enrolled in school and lived with them. He became a regular part of the family, and after a while, everyone just thought of him as Charlie’s older brother.
Charlie put the photograph back in his pocket, lay down on his bed, and looked out the window at the sprawling tree. He was tired and remembered admitting to the school counselor that he was still having trouble sleeping. And even when he managed to fall asleep, strange dreams would wake him in the middle of the night, the old house quiet except for his family’s heavy breathing and the groaning moan of the old oak as it swayed in the wind.
On these sleepless nights, Charlie often found himself wandering the house, drifting from room to room, sometimes spending hours staring at the family photos that hung in the hall and down the stairs. Alone and afraid, he would look at Old Joe’s medals from the war and occasionally take down the saber that was displayed next to a neatly folded flag. Some nights, Charlie would sit on the front porch and gaze into the darkness, and others he’d wake at the foot of his parents’ bed, with his mother or father sleepwalking him back to his room, where he found himself tangled up in his blankets by morning.
Charlie closed his eyes. He could still see the picture. He could still see Billy standing next to him, and he could see that they were smiling.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A brilliant, page turning novel, Monsterland is an excellent fantasy for young adults! I loved it and can't wait to read more of James Crowley's work!