Scary stories work best when they are sourced from real fear. That’s why, no matter how fun they may be, movies about giant lizards or regenerated dinosaurs can never compete with CGI-free tales about weirdos with murderous intentions. Not many people spend a lot of time obsessing over the possible reappearance of bloodthirsty velociraptors, but the creep who haunts the local park and wears a parka in July? He’s worth losing sleep over.
Here’s another truism: the richest source of horror-story-generating fear is located deep within the sticky mass of anxieties kids carry around with them every day. Even the most confident child has a few dark corners in his mind that will make him shiver and sweat, and it only takes a few imaginative nudges from a clever writer to populate a bedroom closet with beasties, or to make the first day at a new school feel like something out of The Walking Dead.
In The Nest, a short and unsettling new novel by Kenneth Oppel, classic childhood worries buzz and swarm like the wasps that are its primary villains. Steve, the story’s troubled hero, is the kind of kid who spends a lot of time wondering if he is crazy. He has trouble sleeping; he sees dark shapes watching him from the end of his bed; he dreams about angels. He once had an imaginary friend named Henry, which gave him someone to talk to. These days, he’s more likely to talk to Dr. Brown, a psychiatrist his parents brought in when they realized Steve did things like wash his hands compulsively and recite lists to himself before going to bed.
Foremost in Steve’s catalogue of worries is the fact that his baby brother, Theo, has a congenital condition and may not live to see his first birthday. Not long after Theo is born, Steve has his first angel dream: inside a shimmering white cave, he is greeted by unearthly beings who offer to fix the ailing baby. Later, as the dreams persist, he realizes these are not angels, but a mysterious species of wasp, and that the cave is actually a large nest attached to his family’s home. Even worse, he discovers their plan is not to fix the baby, but rather to replace him with the flawless lookalike they are busily creating.
Oppel, in one of many scenes that will have readers squirming, describes the wasp-made neo-Theo in its larval stage: “It was slimy, with two black dots sunk into the front end of its soggy body. Underneath the eyes it had a kind of hole, and it was eating. All around it, stuck to the nest ceiling, were insects – a dead spider, headless bees, and other things that I couldn’t quite recognize, but there was a bit of something that looked like it had hair on it.”
Steve, who is allergic to wasp venom, initially agrees to the baby swap, but then changes his mind and tries to stop what he has helped put into motion. This sets up the genuinely terrifying climax, one that will no doubt inspire more than a few nightmares in younger readers. (Parents of easily spooked kids take note: Steve’s heart briefly stops and he has to be revived by paramedics. Also, the wasps’ plan for the ailing Theo is to eat him. Diary of a Wimpy Kid this ain’t.)
Tonally and thematically, The Nest is a long way from Oppel’s previous novel, The Boundless, a rollicking adventure set on a train, and from his earlier, more high-flying Airborn and Silverwing books. It builds narrative tension through dread and claustrophobia. Oppel makes the very smart decision to not tip his hand too soon as to whether Steve’s predicament is real or merely a product of his imagination (spoiler alert: it’s both). There are strong echoes here of David Almond’s 1998 classic Skellig (a sick baby sibling, an angel-like creature), though where that book was all about shadows and quiet menace, The Nest opts for Stephen King-lite terror – though with a lot of interesting sub-currents about the nature of fear and of familial love. Caldecott and Governor General’s Literary Award–winning illustrator Jon Klassen contributes some appropriately gloomy incidental drawings, but this is Oppel’s show – his prose is brisk and visceral.
Having become a YA star many years ago by bringing readers inside the minds of bats, Oppel has now concocted a kidlit horror classic by taking them inside a wasps’ nest.