Full disclosure here: I have been a fan of Jason Segel's since watching the television show Freaks & Geeks ages ago. Having grown up with the Muppets, I was further impressed by Segel when I heard an interview in which he spoke passionately and thoughtfully about co-writing and acting in the Muppets revival movie. This, along with the fact that Segel had the good sense to team up with established kid's and YA book author Kirsten Miller left me opened minded (but with reservations) about reading his new middle grade novel, the first in a trilogy, Nightmares!, with illustrations by Karl Kwasny. And, while I had my reservations, even when I had a review copy in my hands, it was Renee Dale's review of the audio book (which she leads off with a fantastic description of the amiable kind of multi-talent Segel possesses), read by Segel, that prompted me to purchase the audio and give it a go.
Charlie Laird's waking life is almost, but not quite, as horrible as the nightmare world that plagues his sleep - and keeps him awake and exhausted with huge black sleep deprivation circles under his eyes. Now twelve, Charlie's mom died three years earlier and his grief remains present and profound, especially since his father has remarried. Not only has he remarried, but he has moved his family - Charlie and his little brother, Jack, into the ancestral home of his new wife, Charlotte De Chant. Charlotte, an herbalist who grows her own plants and runs a shop in town, is also a vegetarian and a bit of a health nut (she puts kale into pancakes) who has returned to Cypress Creek to live in the purple mansion on De Chant Hill. It's bad enough that Charlie is convinced Charlotte is a witch, what's worse, Charlie's little brother, Jack, seems to adore Charlotte, her strange cooking and the creepy book she is writing and illustrating in her lair at the top of the mansion's tower.
At night, Charlie's nightmares take him to a real witch's lair where she hangs him in a giant cage that swings from a hook in a tall, exposed tower before eating him. She also taunts him with insults that hurt even more because, in his waking life, he is sure they are true, especially because is increasingly, angrily, pushing everyone away. In Nightmares!, Segel and Miller have created dual worlds that are not too far apart. The Netherworld, the dreamscape that Charlie and, as the story unfolds, all of the children of Cypress Creek, are transported to at night, is populated with people, places and things from the waking world. Worst, and poignantly, emotions from the waking world follow the children to the Netherworld, growing and promising to engulf them - after toying with them first. When Charlie believes that Jack has been stolen by his nightmare witch, he finds a portal to the Land of Nightmares in Charlotte's lair and rushes in to rescue him.
Segel and Miller give Charlie a group of loyal, if somewhat standard, friends. Rocco Marquez is tall, handsome and much better at sports than academics. Alfie Bluenthal is the class genius and Paige Bretter, despite being "dainty as a music box ballerina," is an effortlessly gifted student who fits right in with the dudes, somehow. Layers are added to the three friends when they enter the Netherworld and confront their deepest fears in the form of nightmares. The characters in the Netherworld are more interesting than the humans, especially the sad rebel clown, Dabney, who I hope we see more of in the next book, and his buddy, Meduso, a male gorgon. Then there is President Fear, the leader of the Netherworld who is upsetting the delicate balance of good and bad fear that the inhabitants have worked to uphold. Segel and Miller also do a fantastic job with the landscape of the Netherworld, which is crawling with a variety of familiar things gone wrong, like the fluffy white bunnies who, instead of sparkly eyes, twitch noses and whiskers, are all gaping maws with razor sharp teeth and bloodstained fur that tells you they just feasted on something very big. That said, the creepiness of the Netherworld (and the sadness) is often mitigated with humor. Comic relief comes from the hordes of goblin minions, Meduso's mirror-loving mother ("she may be a gorgon, but she's also a diva. One is a terrifying creature that can turn men to stone, and the other is a gorgon.") and President Fear's insistence that the name "Paige" is pronounced "Podge," as well as his five-point plan for taking over the world and ensuring immortality, number 4 being, "Try a Krispy Kreme doughnut."
Like the Land of Nightmares that relies on facets of the waking world, Segel and Miller have created a new literary world that is both unsettling and amusing by taking familiar elements from middle grade fantasy to make something that is imaginative, thoughtful and a little bit creepy. And, Segel does a brilliant job reading Nightmares!. He captures the wide range of character voices and narrates with a touch of sadness in his voice that adds to Charlie's story.
Source: Review Copy and purchased Audio Book