“And I’d have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.” –attributed to nearly every villain on Hanna-Barbera’s Scooby-Doo animated series, 1969-1971.
In the early 1970s, cartoon quintet Daphne, Velma, Fred, Shaggy and Great Dane Scooby-Doo drove around in a painted van, solving supernatural mysteries — which always turned out to be staged by all-too-human villains. Edgar Cantero latched onto these cultural icons and flipped the script, asking the story what would happen if one of those ghostly, creepy, eerie creatures had not been human, after all.
Meddling Kids (2018) is set in 1990. In 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club, consisting of four young teens and a dog, solved the mystery of the Sleepy Lake Monster. The four youths were inseparable during their summers in Oregon. Now, thirteen years later, it’s hard to imagine them being farther apart. Peter, the athlete and self-proclaimed leader of the group, pursued a movie career. A successful tween-heart-throb action hero, he died of an overdose of pills. Kerri, the bombshell/bookworm and brain of the group, did manage to complete a B.A. in biology before her alcoholism took over, and she lives in a cold-water flat on the East Coast with her dog Tim, paying the bills by tending bar. Andrea, who goes by Andy, is street-smart and tough, with aggression issues and a jailbreak under her belt. Nate checks himself into asylums on a regular basis, but even at his most isolated, he is rarely alone. He explains when a new nurse at Arkham Asylum questions him about her former movie star crush, Peter Manner.
“He was so talented,” the nurse said. “Did you continue to see him after that?”
Nate locked eyes with her.
“I still do,” he said.
Arkham, in the paragraph above, may give readers a clue. Maybe the strange events at Sleepy Lake, a startlingly deep lake in the Oregon Cascade Mountains, were not all staged by Thomas Wickley, who was searching for lost gold. Maybe, in fact, this story is Elder-God, tentacle-gothic horror, with nostalgia, metafiction and humor thrown in liberally.
Cantero is from Spain, well known there as a cartoonist. He wrote Meddling Kids in English, and in addition to creating an entertaining reverse-Scooby-Doo story, he plays with form in a way that the reader may find invigorating, or annoying (or sometimes both). He uses playscript format, and dips into self-referential passages where the characters remind us (and themselves) that they are characters in a book. This starts in the very first paragraph of the book:
It starts when you pull the lamp chain and the light doesn’t come. Then you know you will never wake up in time, you will not make it to the end of this paragraph alive.
And moments like this:
Nate: I once spent five weeks digging a tunnel out of a clinic where I’d been admitted for two weeks.
Andy: (after rereading the line above): Why didn’t you walk out after two weeks?
Nate: I’d started already; I hate leaving stuff unfinished…
If you hate this kind of writing, then Meddling Kids is going to frustrate you. For me, Cantero’s disdain for the correct use of English transitive verbs was an itch I couldn’t reach to scratch, but it did not spoil the book for me.
The story is a real story with a real Elder Gods plot and interesting characters, good dialogue and wildly funny action sequences. Cantero may play with form but he does not rely on metafiction to carry the book. While my favorite character was Tim the dog, who is quite different from Scooby-Doo, probably the most fun character, in the sense of having agency and doing exciting things, is Andy. Kerri, the brain/bookworm is a good character, and her orange hair is practically a character itself. Peter, who may be A) a ghost, B) an hallucination, or C) something else, is a genuine jerk, well-rendered, and it’s easy to see in retrospect that he was jerk when the Detective Club members were kids. Nate has the most growth, and it seems that part of that is getting out of living-or-dead Peter’s shadow and learning to trust himself.
Meddling Kids is funny all the way through, but it is not light. People die, the risks are real, and the monsters are terrifying. With all of that, it still carries a spark of Scooby-Doo-ness. And it’s really hard not to love Tim.