I don’t play video games and I don’t. like. horror. That said, I enjoyed reading Joel Sutherland’s Kill Screen, in which a hard-core gamer and her best friend try to save the world from the nightmare ghosts she accidentally unleashes. Go figure.
I looked at the abandoned cabin in the woods and knew that if I entered, I would die.
But I had to try.
An ancient evil dwelled inside — a spirit from a time before time, a harvester of lost souls, a ghost of the Netherrealm.
Evie is obsessed with Kill Screen, a video game that’s impossible to beat. That is until Evie finally discovers how to defeat the game’s end boss. But in beating the Wisp, Evie has released her into the real world, where she’ll destroy every living being and enslave their souls. It’s up to Evie and her friend Harold to stop the wisp and save us all.
Joel Sutherland has been billed as “Canada’s answer to R. L. Stine” (a la Quill and Quire). I can’t attest to the truth of that, as I only managed about three Stine books (or maybe it was short stories?) in my entire elementary school career. But here’s what I think Sutherland does really well:
- Evie has an individual voice. She has the irresistible confidence of a star athlete, which she was until the accident that killed her parents, combined with the vulnerability of a child/teen who has seen how fragile and easily lost humans are. (Also: a horror story with a female protagonist? Yasss.)
- The world isn’t divided into living and dead, good and evil. Evie makes mistakes. Stupid, thoughtless, unbearably naive mistakes. So do her friends and allies. The ghosts aren’t all evil, and the humans aren’t all good.*
- On that note, Evie’s grandma and guardian is a pretty awesome grandma… even if she is inclined to view Evie and Harold as crushing, rather than besties.
- Evie and Harold are best friends! I love stories where characters of different genders are friends without the “inevitable” drift into a romantic relationship. I laughed when Evie and Harold are equally horrified when Evie’s grandma teasingly refers to Harold as Evie’s boyfriend.
- I was worried when Harold was introduced and described as short and plump, because the short-fat-guy-who-is-always-a-friend-never-a-boyfriend trope is all too common.
- Countering this is Evie’s openness about how she and Harold are comfortably opposite…
“Craziest of all, he was a Trekkie and I was into Star Wars.”
Other than my family, I’d spent more time with Harold than anyone else. He made me feel good about myself and I often made him laugh — either with me or at me. So although we weren’t identical, we were best friends. And he’d been there for me after the accident, when I’d needed him most. (p. 11)
- Also, Harold isn’t pining after Evie, and there is no indication on either side of any social imbalance of power. There is no endgame romance. It’s friendship all the way through. Evie isn’t a reward for Harold’s good behaviour; Harold isn’t the nice guy Evie needs to grow up enough to love. They’re friends. That is what they want. It is everything to them, and it is enough in itself.
- (Sorry. I feel strongly about this.)
- The setting is very Canadian, and uses actual Canadian monuments. Watch for a showdown in Halifax Citadel! (Which is super pretty, by the way.)
- Sutherland sticks to what seems to be (from my limited knowledge of his Haunted series) his M.O.: characters defeat ghosts not through esoteric and obscure knowledge — there’s no One True Guardian in the Ivory Tower who holds the Only and Secret Way for the Heir of the True Bloodline to Save the World — but through practical skills (think smartphones and basic car repair equipment), common or easily researched knowledge, and an internal/external set of tools, namely, loyalty and love. This is horror without hopelessness. Sutherland’s characters and their victories are marvelously contemporary, even everyday.
- Fun fact about the Haunted series: the characters in each book do not (so far) meet characters from other books, but inhabit a shared world. The characters in House Next Door, for instance, also play Kill Screen.
- The story is funny? I mean. It’s horror. But also, it’s funny.
- That ending.**
*SPOILER: I bet you anything that Leda, the game designer who created Kill Screen, was murdered by Memento Mori. There is no way that hit-and-run as she went to meet representatives of the secret society was an accident.
**No spoilers, but I admire how the ending balances relief and safety with new (or old) dangers on the horizon