Looking for a middle-grade horror story that takes a terrifying Native American tale and sets it, with great effect, in the present? Probably you weren't, exactly, because you didn't (like me until recently) know that such a book existed. But it does--it is Skeleton Man, by Joseph Bruchac (HarperCollins, 2003, 128 pages), and it is a real page-turner and nail-biter of squirming scariness!
Molly's parents have told her stories from her Mohawk ancestors all her life. Some funny, some inspiring, and some downright creepy. The story of the Skeleton Man is one of the later. It tells of a lazy man, always hungry, who burns his finger one day...and the charred flesh tastes so delicious when he puts his finger in his mouth that he eats himself down to the bone. And then he waits for his family to come home...he's still hungry for more.
Molly, safely wrapped in her parents' love, knows it's just a story. But one day when she wakes up, and finds her parents haven't come home, and a skeletally thin man shows up, claiming to be her uncle. Handed over to him, Molly begins a life of fear and desperation--she knows something is horribly wrong, but no-one believes her. And her "uncle" keeps trying to fatten her up....
Dreams come to help her, dreams that show her a way out and inspire her to try to escape. But when all her worst fears about the Skeleton Man come true, it will take all the courage her dreams have given her for Molly to escape.
Fastly, furiously, suspensfully good! This is the first book by Joseph Bruchac I've read, and the first in which he took a story from his own Abenaki heritage and recast it in the present, and it works beautifully. The Native American elements of the story give a resonance to Molly's experience that lifts this up above straight horror, Molly's a great "brave girl heroine," and Bruchac's writing never disappointed me (right after I post this, I'll be busily adding more of his books to my tbr list--does anyone have any recommendations?).
It's short, and a very fast read, making it not quite enough to completely satisfy the adult reader (ie me), but making it perfect for the 10 year old (on up) who isn't easily disturbed (I think the scariest part is not so much Skeleton Man qua Skeleton Man, but the fact that Molly's parents are gone, presumed dead, and she's trapped in a nightmare that no grown-up can save her from. So not recommended to children that have separation anxiety!).
eek--I just found out that there is a sequel, The Return of Skeleton Man! Poor Molly....