I'm not a fan of scary stories. When I was younger, if I happened by chance to see a horror movie at a friend's house, it would stay in my thoughts, terrorizing me, for months (sometimes years). I have never been one to seek to indulge myself with images or tales that made my spine tingle or heart race with fear. When a certain author of young adult horror fiction came into popularity when I was a preteen, my friends would laugh at my absolute refusal to read the latest novel. There is just something about scary stories that makes me want to run screaming...before I even open the book!
That is why, for a few years and in spite of numerous recommendations, I avoided reading 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson. I had heard that it was a wonderful (but scary) book, and I just won't read scary books. Each time I saw it recommended again by a trusted friend or resource, my reaction was something along the lines of "I'm sure it's great. Thank you, but, um, no thank you."
But then, one day, I happened to read one of Wilson's non-fiction books and found that I absolutely loved it. I was captivated by his attention to and appreciation for the ordinary things of this world. His words stirred feelings of wonder and awe in my heart for creation and, more importantly, for the Creator. His wild but reverent love and devotion to the Lord came through with every word. I was enchanted by his perspective and felt as if I was awakened to a whole new world--a world that had been here all along, but that I had been too blind or complacent to see. I remembered then that he was the author of 100 Cupboards and my interest was piqued. How could someone so obviously in love with Christ and Biblical Truth be the author of a juvenile horror story? I know people loved it, but it was...well, scary. And so again, in spite of my curiosity, I left it on the shelf.
A short time later, my husband came home from his commute, raving about a book that he was listening to. It was--you guessed it--100 Cupboards. He absolutely loved it, and it was then that I promised myself that I would read it when I finally made my way to the bottom of my current "to be read" pile. (If you have seen the size of my pile, you know good and well that this was a promise that I never really intended to keep!)
When I realized that there was some real uncertainty among Christians as to whether or not 100 Cupboards was a book worth recommending for children because it was so scary, it was then that I knew it was finally time to read it for myself. And so I did. This past Friday night I pulled it down off of my bookshelf and began reading. And I was finished before noon on Saturday.
Wilson is a master storyteller. I was gripped within the first few pages and read well into the night because I just didn't want to put the book down. It is suspenseful and, yes, a bit creepy, but I was delightfully surprised to find that it didn't really "scare" me at all. But I can also understand how others might see it differently.
The story centers on Henry York, a 12-year-old boy who has been sent cross-country to live on the farm with his aunt and uncle when his parents are suddenly kidnapped. One night while sleeping in his attic bedroom, a piece of plaster falls on his face. He opens his eyes to discover two doorknobs poking out of the ceiling, and one of them is turning. After some exploration, Henry and his cousin discover that there are 99 cupboards in his secluded bedroom, each leading to a different place. Because there is evil behind some of the cupboard doors, the book is full of suspense as Henry attempts to evade it and then, ultimately, determines how he will face the darkness that has been unleashed.
There were two particular scenes that stood out as potentially too intense for sensitive readers. In one scene, Henry encounters a "haunted" ballroom where horrific events had taken place in the past. The events of the tragic night are recounted. However, the terror of the night is merely implied, not described. The evil takes place off-scene and Henry merely catches the sounds of it (also not gratuitously described) from inside the safety of the cupboard. It is almost a stretch to describe the ballroom as "haunted" because the magic of the cupboard is such that it is merely showing Henry what happened the night that the evil came upon that particular world.
In a second scene (slight spoiler alert!), a witch is introduced. She says that she was able to regain her strength because she was able to sample a small portion of Henry's blood, and she is now seeking more. Although her thirst for blood appears somewhat vampirish in nature, she is clearly not a vampire, but a witch who steals life force from others in order to strengthen her own. The witch is particularly evil and harms some of the characters, though the descriptions of the injuries are not grotesque; however, the scene may be upsetting to sensitive readers.
Although there were other elements throughout the book that I would describe as "creepy" or "suspenseful," outside of those two particular instances, I personally would not describe the book as "scary," though I am cognizant of how subjective that adjective can be. I personally did not find the books to be as scary as the Harry Potter series, or even Lord of the Rings. There were scenes in Ember Falls and the Wingfeather Saga that were much more intense than what I felt I encountered at any point in 100 Cupboards.
Wilson has a very specific philosophy about writing scary stories for juvenile readers (his books are geared towards ages 9-12 and older). "They are scary because the world is scary. This is a scary place...you want to read about people who are facing intense challenges, who are moving forward and standing where they stand because it's right, not because they might win." Wilson's books are published by a secular publishing house, but he definitely developed his philosophy (and writes) from a very intentional biblical worldview. In reading 100 Cupboards, this really stood out to me in two distinct ways. Although there is very real evil in the book, there is also courage, love, goodness, and sacrifice. And despite the fact that the characters are in real peril throughout much of the story, they ultimately demonstrate virtue and, in the end, good wins out. Wilson writes about very real (and, yes, sometimes scary) evil in order to highlight the Good, the True, and the Beautiful that exists in the world that God has created--the world in which we actually live. "When you talk about evil," Wilson says, "the level of the evil really tells you the level of the righteousness, the courage, the justice required."
Although he writes fantasy, he intentionally mimics the way that real evil exists in our world, as displayed daily for us to see, but also in the way that it was recorded in the Bible. "In God's world it's not about, 'are you flexing power?', it's about 'do you have the authority to do it? Have you been given the authority?' And when you see men trying to steal and grasp power and control that which was not given to them, you have villains. When guys are going after manipulation, control, power-grabbing, they're the bad guys. When you see people who are given power, they're the good guys. "
But Wilson's biblical worldview is not only evident in his portrayal of good and evil in 100 Cupboards, but also in his gratitude for world that God has created for us and given us to steward. Henry does not find the magic in the cupboards until he is awakened to the magic around him within his own world. He learns to appreciate farm life, starlight, baseball, and the joys of community in his own place, before he ever discovers a single portal to another one. Perhaps it is because I read Wilson's nonfiction before encountering 100 Cupboards that I could see the influence of his biblical worldview--how we are made in the image of God and we are instructed to steward the world He has given us and bring His Kingdom to bear on earth--everywhere in his fiction.
Although 100 Cupboards is not an overtly Christian story, Wilson's biblical worldview was evident enough for me to embrace the "scariness" because the goodness shines so brightly. I empathize with and support Wilson's mission to nourish children on stories that prepare them for the spiritual battles that they currently face and will most certainly face in the future.
"I think stories are soul food. Stories are catechisms. I think they're catechisms for the imagination; they're catechisms for loyalties; catechisms to shape what kind of character you want to be yourself." -N.D. Wilson
(All quotes are taken from an interview with N.D. Wilson on DRTV Above The Paygrade, which can be viewed here.)