Over the past forty years or so Kit Reed has quietly put together a significant career primarily as a writer of literate and often satirical science fiction, with occasional forays into fantasy, horror (as Shelley Hyde and Kit Craig), and the mainstream. Much of her early short fiction, including such fine stories as "The Reign of Tarquin the Tall" (1958), "Judas Bomb" (1961), and one of my all time favorites, "Automatic Tiger" (1964), appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and she was also a regular contributor to Damon Knight's Orbit series. She has continued to be a prolific and successful short story writer throughout her career, with "The Singing Marine" (1995) being nominated for a World Fantasy Award and "The Bride of Bigfoot" (1997) similarly nominated for a Tiptree. Her many novels have included science fiction, such as Armed Camps (1969), Fort Privilege (1985), The Baby Merchant (2006), the Alex Award-winning Thinner Than Thou (2004), and the forthcoming Enclave (2009); works of fantasy, like the Tiptree Award-nominated Little Sisters of the Apocalypse (1994); and occasional mainstream novels such as Catholic Girls (1987).
Her eight short story collection include Mister Da V. and Other Stories (1967), The Killer Mice (1976), Other Stories and ... The Attack of the Giant Baby (1981), and the Tiptree Award-nominated Weird Women, Wired Women (1997). Although the Alex Award is given by the American Library Association to adult books that are of particular interest to readers ages 12 through 18, The Night Children is Reed's first book specifically written for young adults.
Here's the plot in a nutshell. Amos Zozz, a physically deformed billionaire with a psychotic hatred for children, has turned the impoverished Midwestern burg of Castertown into a flush and complacent company town by building on its outskirts the MegaMall, a shopping emporium so large that my daughter's much beloved Mall of America outside Minneapolis, Minnesota might be lost inside of it. The MegaMall is so big that it supports its own international airport, and so complex that no one but Zozz himself knows all of its secrets. For Castertown, however, its sudden wealth has required a number of trade-offs. Zozz and his privately owned corporation, Zozzco, are involved in a variety of hinky business practices that the locals simply ignore. They also ignore the fact that various citizens of Castertown, including a number who were involved in the design of the MegaMall and its many attractions (most notably the monstrously big WhirlyFunRide), have simply disappeared, as have any number of local children. One thing that the locals don't know, however, is that Zozz reinforces their complacency by the regular introduction of tranquilizers into the Castertown water supply.
So where are all of the Disappeared? The fate of the adults is a mystery only revealed at the end of the book, but Reed's title hints rather broadly at the location of the children. They're hiding in the mall, of course. Gone nocturnal and partially feral, they haunt the MegaMall's service corridors and food courts, holing up by day in the closed stores that pepper the multiplicity of arcades. Entire tribes of children, pale white from a lack of sunlight, some of them the sons and daughters of adults who have also gone missing, live out their lives in Zozz's MegaMall, avoiding the security cameras and heavily armed but curiously inept security personnel. Reed's novel centers on two such tribes out of many, the Castertown Crazies, led by the benevolent and highly competent teenager Tick Stiles, and the Dingos, a marauding and destructive group led by the thuggish Burt Arno. Caught between these two tribes is the MegaMall's most recent lost child, a resourceful young woman who oddly enough (and without explanation) bears the name of a best-selling romance novelist, Jude Devereaux.
In The Night Children, Reed is working interesting variations on a number of standard fantasy motifs and previously published works of fiction. Although YA readers won't have heard of it, the most obvious reference is to John Collier's classic "Evening Primrose" (1940), which concerns a group of misfit adults who hide in a department store disguised as manikins, leading their actual lives at night after the store is closed. Also relevant are any number of novels where children, abandoned by or alienated from the adult world, create their own cultures, from William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954) to Michael de Larrabeiti's The Borribles (1976) to literally dozens of more-recent YA novels. Considering the enormous importance of malls in contemporary youth culture, it should also come as no surprise that many children's and young adult writers have published stories set in shopping centers, some of them contemporary and realistic, others futuristic or postapocalyptic, the majority critical of mall culture. Obvious titles include Todd Strasser's The Mall from Outer Space (1987), Edward Bloor's Crusader (1999), and Jennifer Armstrong and Nancy Butcher's Fire-us Trilogy, beginning with The Kindling (2002). Reed may or may not know these young adult titles, but the intended audience for The Night Children will be familiar with either these books or others like them. Mall-related novels for young readers are so numerous that you can even find a bibliography dedicated to them online.
Much of what has been published in YA fiction dealing with malls is highly realistic, at least in so far as the malls themselves are concerned, even those stories that generically qualify as science fiction or fantasy. Teenagers tend to be intimately acquainted with what malls are like, after all, so the shopping center can serve both as a realistic grounding for and a point of entry to the world of the fantastic. In Armstrong and Butcher's The Kindling, for example, a group of children on a cross-country trek through a postapocalyptic Florida are taken in by a lunatic end-times cult that has set up house in a half-wrecked shopping center. The cult has put such everyday mall locales as the cineplex and a bridal store to a variety of bizarre uses, which serve to underline both the evils of the now dead consumer culture and the craziness of the cult itself. As bizarre as the novel becomes, however, the mall is never anything more or less than a recognizable mall. We've all shopped at its stores. Reed, however, differing from the majority of YA writers, has chosen to move away from realism into absurdity, making little or no attempt to create a believable mall environment.
The novel opens with Jule stuck atop the MegaMall's greatest attraction, the WhirlyFunRide, one segment of which is a gigantic, indoor Ferris wheel of London Eye proportions. The WhirlyFunRide, we're told, is "the crown jewel in the amusement plaza of the gigantic MegaMall," and "Ordinary people from all over the world save up all their lives to come to the gleaming expanse of galleries and courtyards and domes that lights up the prairie outside Castertown" (p. 9). Zozz's creation really does sound like the Mall of America on steroids and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to discover that Reed has visited that Minneapolis landmark. Her description of the MegaMall, however, replete with its own underground river, many miles of labyrinthine corridors, an eerie, Indiana Jones-like tram ride, and its terrifying and nearly legendary Dark Hall (into which people occasionally disappear, never to be heard from again), moves the entire tale into a region vacillating halfway between urban fantasy and complete absurdity. Moreover, although her children are portrayed as more or less normal, the adults in the book are extreme caricatures. The hideously ugly Amos Zozz is a violent monomaniac, a rage junky, so unable to control his own emotions that one can't really imagine him being able to function in a corporate environment. Because he was tortured as a young boy by the rich children of his mother's employer, he has made it his life's goal to take over the world through the creation of gigantic shopping malls—the MegaMall is intended to be merely the first step in his conquest—with the eventual goal of killing or confining all children everywhere. His adult daughter, conceived through artificial insemination, serves as his official spokeswoman and CEO, but is so vain and obsessed with her own good looks that by comparison Paris Hilton comes across as Mother Teresa. The legions of Zozzco executives who haunt the MegaMall are totally undifferentiated cartoons, themselves obsessed by the need to maintain their places in the Zozzco hierarchy and by the fear of losing, I kid you not, the stripes they wear on their sleeves as proof of their authority and importance.
What we have here, in the final analysis, really is an exercise in the absurd. Reed's children are often heroic, but the adult world they have to come to terms with is entirely insane. Amos Zozz may be the way he is for a reason, but at this point in time he is simply evil, as is his corporation and all who work for it. By coincidence, while partly through with the writing of this review, I happened to see Frank Miller's new film version of Will Eisner's The Spirit (2008). Reed's Amos Zozz could easily be Samuel Jackson's Octopus, though the latter has somewhat more self-control. I liked The Spirit and I also liked Kit Reed's The Night Children, but neither work allows its villains any real complexity, nor does either tale allow for more than a partial happy ending. Octopus is blown to smithereens, but some small part of him (a finger, actually) escapes and presumably will be reconstituted into the entire villain for a sequel if the film earns enough money to warrant one. Zozz's plot is also overthrown and many of the Disappeared parents are discovered still alive in the Dark Hall, but Zozz, in a scene that might well have come straight from a comic book or a James Bond novel, escapes through the MegaMall roof by helicopter. Further, we are told that he has "bunkers and castles and desert fortresses all over the place. China. Canada. He could be locked up anywhere in the world" (p. 231), presumably planning his revenge. The main characters, Jule and Tick, still haven't found their Disappeared parents at the novel's end. Perhaps this may be indicative of the author having a sequel in the works, or perhaps not. Kit Reed has never been a comfortable, "happy ending" sort of a writer, so, for now at least, we can't know for sure.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.
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