To Sleep, Perchance to Dream: Charlie and the Grandmothers by Katy Towell
February came, and a colder, darker February Charlie could not recall. He already loathed the month as it was. His worst dreams plagued him relentlessly on the snowy nights of February. But now the sun had begun to set as early as noon while the snow fell so heavily that one had to bat the stuff away to see. As usual, no one found this as alarming as Charlie.
"The days are always shorter in winter," reasoned Mother.
"All this gorgeous snow and not one friend around to throw a ball of it at us," Georgie harrumphed.
Charlie fears sleep. His nightly nightmares grow worse. And the days are filled with foreboding. The children he knows are disappearing--gone to visit their grandmothers, everyone says, but they seem strangely never to return. No one seems concerned but Charlie--and Georgie, when she has no one to go adventuring with her in the snow.
Even their sensible Mother seems vague and subdued. And then one morning, she will not waken. She sleeps through the day and the next--and the next. Charlie can't even get their doctor to come take a look, even though his usually busy waiting room is dusty and empty. Then a telegram arrives.
DEAREST CHARLIE AND GEORGIE=
WORD HAS REACHED ME OF YOUR MOTHER'S ILLNESS. I WILL ARRANGE TO HAVE HER TAKEN TO AN EXCELLENT HOSPITAL ON CONDITION THAT YOU BOTH COME TO ME AT ONCE=
ALL HAS BEEN ARRANGED=
YOUR GRANDMOTHER PEARL=
But Charlie remembers perfectly clearly that Mother had told them that both of their grandmothers were dead. Georgie isn't worried. All her friends have gone to visit grandmothers and liked it so much that they haven't come back, even when school holidays were over. To the effervescent Georgie, it's an adventure.
Charlie's dread grows as their empty railway car takes them through a surreal foggy landscape where nothing is familiar. And there are two grandmothers, Grandmother Pearl, who is thin and ghastly, and Grandmother Opal, who seems more kindly but is clearly terrified of her "sister," Pearl. Their house is enormous and the hallways are always different each time Charlie and Georgie leave their rooms. And then, searching for Georgie, out adventuring in the snowy gloom where Grandmother Pearl says there are wolves, Charlie ventures through a small doorway to the cellar and finds himself and Georgie in a place worse than his most fretful nightmares.
Ahead of him was a cave, huge and cavernous. Children of all ages gathered by the thousands in a great hall. All of them wore gray uniforms, and every child was bound by chains and manacles.
The torchlight illuminated even greater horrors, for stalking the cave were creatures like nothing Charlie had seen in his dreams. Some were tall and gaunt. Others were squat and blubbery. All had bald, gray skin, slick with slime, and from his vantage, it appeared they had only holes for eyes.
This wretched labyrinthine cavern is filled with half-starved, gray-clad children, all the missing children, working as slaves to their keepers, a cabal of Grandmothers and even worse, their memory-sucking bedbugs, phantoms, and the soul-destroying Queen. Because he doesn't sleep, Charlie is the only one with memories of his past life. Even Georgie, sentenced to smashing timepieces eternally, doesn't seem to know him, As the only Rememberer, Charlie realizes that he is the only prisoner able to save himself and his little sister from having all memory and imagination, what the keepers call their "figments," sucked from them forever.
Katy Towell's forthcoming Charlie and the Grandmothers (Alfred A. Knopf Books, 2015) makes the average middle-reader Gothic tale seem like a weekend at a quaint bed-and- breakfast.
Like the masters of the genre, Roald Dahl, in The Witches, and Niel Gaiman in his Coraline and Newbery-winning The Graveyard Book Towell summons up demons from the stuff of childhood's nightmares, phantoms like Harry Potter's dementors, capable of taking both body and soul. Charlie's salvation comes from his realization that his own fears are both his worst enemy and at the root of all he finds to fear underground, but his release is not without some of the grimmest of escapades to free the captives. Towell's evocative storytelling is plenty goose bump-raising for the average middle reader, absent those touches of wry humor that Tolkien and Rowling, Dahl and Dickens, and even Gaiman offer in their darkest writings. Good-and-scary reading best done during the sunny days of late summertime.
Katy Towell is also the author of Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow.