In the Skeleton Creek duology, best friends Ryan McCray and Sarah Fincher team up to investigate the mysterious goings-on at an old mining dredge in their town. The story is told in Ryan’s journal, in which he records his thoughts and his correspondence with Sarah; and in Sarah’s films, creepy Blair Witch-style videos that are accessible on the Internet using passwords given in the text. Before I go any further, I should say that Skeleton Creek is not fantasy and is better categorized as mystery.
Skeleton Creek begins with Ryan recovering from a broken leg; he fell when spooked on an expedition to the dredge with Sarah. The friends’ parents forbid them to see each other, but they communicate via emails and Sarah’s videos as they continue their sleuthing. They find a history of suspicious deaths at the dredge, along with cryptic references to alchemy and, just possibly, a vengeful ghost.
Skeleton Creek sets an interesting scene, but is ultimately a little disappointing. Ryan is very introspective, and much of his narrative consists of him telling the reader how scared he is. This gets a little repetitive, along with both kids’ constant insistence that there’s something suspicious going on at the dredge and that they’ve stumbled across something they weren’t supposed to know. It’s pretty clear that there is something and that Ryan and Sarah have poked a metaphorical hornet’s nest. Patrick Carman shows this just fine and doesn’t need to tell it so much.
The scariest moment, for me, was a brief passage toward the end in which Ryan begins to doubt his own memories, and starts wondering if something terrible happened to Sarah on the same night he broke his leg. This would have been a haunting avenue to explore, but it comes out of nowhere and then vanishes as soon as it appeared. I think Carman could have done a lot more with this if he’d drawn it out longer. There’s also a scene that throws the reader right out of the story because, supposedly, Ryan is writing in his journal while snooping in his parents’ room. He only has a brief window of time to do this, yet he’s writing as he searches? It’s a little hard to swallow.
Ghost in the Machine is stronger. Ryan’s leg is improving, and this means both that he’s more able to help Sarah with the investigating and that he’s in less of a funk. Carman builds a lot of suspense in this volume. Ryan begins to wonder whether his own father is up to something sinister, and this plotline is handled very well. There’s something about not being able to trust your own parents that’s even scarier, in a way, than things that go bump in the night. The mystery builds to a satisfying conclusion. I almost think Skeleton Creekmight have been better as one book, with some of the introspection from book one trimmed out. Then again, making readers wait for the ending was probably part of the suspense!
I thought the integration of text and video worked well, in general. I did have some connectivity problems (my ISP’s fault, not Carman’s) while reading these books, and found myself wishing the videos were on a CD-ROM so I didn’t have to wait for them to load. However, that would raise the price of the books and partially negate the “new media” aspect.
I recommend Skeleton Creek for kids who like ghost stories and mysteries, and who have the patience to get through a slowish start.