Writing horror stories for kids is a bit of a tightrope walk. Not enough spookiness and readers will be bored, too much and they might have nightmares. It’s a fine balance, one that Philippa Dowding doesn’t quite achieve in the second instalment of her self-defeatingly titled Weird Stories Gone Wrong series, which aims for the genuine creepiness of Goosebumps, but barely attains that of a campfire tale.
For 12-year-old Myles, the boredom generally associated with long road trips would be a welcome alternative to the terror he feels during a cross-country drive with his mom, older sister, and younger brother to join his father in the family’s new town. Dad has gone ahead to settle into a new job and home, with a promise that the arrangement will be better for all of them. But Myles is scared – of moving, of leaving behind his friends and old school, of what their house will be like. Mostly, though, Myles is scared of the giant mist monster with the glowing red eyes stalking the family’s ancient red Volvo, whispering, “I see you, Myles.”
These whispers are the scariest part of Dowding’s low-key story. A ghost dog (and owner), a monster made of fog, and a desolate stretch of road on a dark and stormy night are good set ups for some genuinely spooky storytelling, but the fright level is undermined by the tale’s repetitive nature. Interior illustrations by Shawna Daigle are too cute, showing a monster more akin to a bug-eyed Gumby figure than a creature of menace. The book feels suited to a slightly younger audience than the recommended tween age group, who are likely to find the pace too slow and the bone chilling decidedly lukewarm.
Myles and the Monster Outside uses a ghost story and elements of horror as a thin veil for a novel about stress-induced fears and how they manifest for children. That Myles desperately wants a dog and his savior is a glowing, ghostly canine is just one of the unsubtle clues to Dowding’s plan. The intention is honourable, but the execution could use a bit of oomph.