The Monsters of Morley Manor
by Bruce Coville
Published by Harcourt
224 pages, 2001
Reading level: 8 to 12 years
Buy it online
Reviewed by Monica Stark
You just have to love the way Bruce Coville's mind works. Eighty books in to a stupefyingly successful career as an author of children's books, Coville's prose still sounds as breezy and happy as it did back in the 1970s when Coville and his illustrator wife, Katherine, collaborated on their first book, The Foolish Giant. Though Coville has honed his writing and tightened his audience scope in the two-plus decades since, he hasn't lost his sense of humor or his willingness to tackle new forms. There seems to be a single thread that binds all of Coville's work: don't come to one of this author's books with preconceptions of what you might find there. Coville tells a good story, but keep an eye out for that humor and his well-honed sense of the ridiculous, no matter what the title or the age for which the book is intended.
All of this is true of Coville's latest book, The Monsters of Morley Manor. With an autumn 2001 publication date, a cheerfully scary cover and a story that includes just about every type of creepy ghoul you can imagine, The Monsters of Morley Manor is clearly aimed at those who like a little seasonal reading come Halloween.
Narrator Anthony and his sister Sarah go to a demolition sale at a haunted house, Morley Manor, "the most interesting place" in Owl's Roost, Nebraska. "Of course," sixth grader Anthony tells us, "being the most interesting place in Owl's Roost, Nebraska, isn't that hard at all."
Regardless, Morley Manor sounds like the kind of place that would be interesting in any city:
It had high ceilings, dark woodwork, and doors just as creaky as you would have expected. You could see that it must have been beautiful once, but you could also see why no one wanted to live in it now. ... The house was damp and moldy, and peeling wallpaper hung down in long strips, leaving bare spots where dark patches of mildew had started to grow. But it wasn't just the look of the place that made it spooky; it was the feeling you got when you were inside.
In this morass of decaying mess, in the library hidden behind some books, Sarah finds a small, locked box without a price tag that she points out to her brother, thinking it will be suitable for Anthony's trading cards.
Upon their return home, Anthony sets about opening the box. After some wrestling about with various tools and other mechanical means of persuasion:
... the lid made a horrible squeak and moved up about half an inch. At the same time my desk lamp began to flicker.
Anthony convinces himself that all of this is a natural occurrence. "Must have been some weird buildup of static electricity, I told myself." But even he isn't convinced. After a while, however, he's drawn back. The box is frightening, but also oddly compelling.
What he ultimately finds -- after the odd fog has cleared and a false bottom encountered and dealt with -- are five beautifully made figurines, each marked with a name: Gaspar, Albert, Ludmilla, Melisande, and Bob. And the portion of the box that they occupy is marked: Morley's Monsters.
The detail work on all five of the monsters was amazing; Melisande's face, for example, had tiny, delicate scales, and she was wearing a slinky, skintight dress that seemed to have scales, also. I began to wonder if the figurines might be more valuable than I had expected.
Anthony doesn't have time to wonder long, however, before a bit of a domestic accident shows him that his new "toys" have an aspect he couldn't have imagined: they're actually humans who -- using both science and magic -- had transformed themselves into monsters quite some time ago. Later they had been shrunk and frozen to a size small enough to be locked in a box. For over 50 years. And all of this occurs before page 30. With that kind of pacing, it's easy to see why Coville constantly enchants his young readers: there's a lot of action here but, perhaps more importantly, it's not a manic level of action, just the tightness of plot and clarity of tone that makes for good storytelling. | October 2001
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.