I loved Small Spaces, Katherine Arden’s first foray into children’s horror, and so I jumped right into its sequel, Dead Voices (2019). A few months have passed since Ollie, Coco, and Brian outsmarted the Smiling Man who wanted to turn them, and all their classmates, into scarecrows. The ordeal left them with recurring nightmares, but also made them best friends. It’s December now, and Ollie’s dad has won a stay at Mount Hemlock, the new ski lodge a few hours outside of town. He’s taking all three kids, along with Coco’s mom.
I didn’t fall in love as immediately this time, and I think I’ve distilled that down to two reasons. One is that, from an adult perspective, it seemed out of character for Ollie’s dad to endanger the kids by driving in a blizzard. The other is that I’m greedy, and Arden’s writing is lovely, and I wanted to read her description of the snow in quiet beauty before it became a threat instead. So for both of these reasons, I kind of wanted the storm to hold off until the characters reached the lodge. At the same time, though, I understand the narrative logic of keeping most of the other guests from showing up.
The group reaches the lodge safely, but their troubles are just beginning. The power is out, and soon the heating begins to fail too. The only other guest there is Don Voland, a writer for a paranormal magazine; the rest were kept away by the snowstorm. Creepy taxidermied animals fill the lobby, and seem to move when no one is looking. On the family front, Coco’s mom and Ollie’s dad appear to be falling in love, and now both girls have to figure out how they feel about that.
Oh, and the lodge is haunted, having been the site of a cruel orphanage and of another, more recent tragedy. Ollie’s watch just reads “BEWARE.” Voland, an expert on ghosts, tells the kids there’s nothing to worry about, but after a brief investigation, even he gets freaked out. The villain separates the kids from each other, and they must find a way to communicate and work together if they want to avoid joining the ghosts of Mount Hemlock … permanently.
While Small Spaces was written from Ollie’s point of view, Dead Voices alternates between her perspective and Coco’s. Coco gets some great moments to shine here, as she goes up against the villain with only her wits as a weapon — that, and people’s tendency to underestimate her because she’s short and looks younger than her age. Brian is somewhat sidelined this time; Arden is planning a four-book series, so I imagine the next installment will expand upon him as Dead Voices expands upon Coco.
As in Small Spaces, what really elevates this over an average horror story is the emotional content, particularly the affection between the three friends, and between the kids and their parents. This gives the villain a lot of levers to pull, of course. There’s a scene late in the book in which Coco is talking to Ollie’s watch (this makes sense in context) and they both think all is lost, and my heart just broke for everyone in that moment.
The kids’ determination and ingenuity, the creepiness, and Arden’s evocative writing continue to impress. I may not be the target audience, but I’m hooked on this series. I’d follow Ollie, Brian, and Coco anywhere.