(First published on Manila Bulletin, Students and Campuses section)

Something sinister is bubbling beneath the surface of the backwater town of Skeleton Creek, and best friends Ryan McCray and Sarah Fincher appear to have stirred it. Ryan and Sarah are convinced that Skeleton Creek is harboring secrets, and they are determined to get to the bottom of it, even though there are forces that want to stop them at all costs.

This is the premise behind Scholastic Press’ latest multimedia venture, following the phenomenal success of its interactive middle reader series 39 Clues, which had readers collecting clue cards and playing online games in the hunt for the Cahill family treasure. This time around, Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman introduces readers to a new multimedia format: video books.

“Books are having a harder time holding the attention of a wired youth culture. iPods, cell phones, movies, the Internet, video games, and television are distracting even our best young readers,” states Skeleton Creek creator Patrick Carman. “I developed Skeleton Creek for ten to sixteen year olds who have grown up with YouTube and MySpace for one reason: I want them to read. While there will always be plenty of room for traditional books for young adults, publishing has to think outside the box in order to bring back many of our young readers.”

The secrets of Skeleton Creek

The sinister story unfolds after a night of snooping around at the abandoned mining dredge causes a nasty accident for Ryan. He barely survives the ordeal, falling into a coma and shattering his leg. Because of their knack for getting into trouble, Ryan and Sarah’s parents forbid any more contact between them. Ryan is kept under lock and key at home while he is recovering, and he turns to his love for writing as an outlet for his experiences.

However, as Ryan puts it, 15 year olds are always smarter than their parents, and they find a way to get around their parents’ surveillance and correspond through texts and email. Ryan finds out that while he was knocked out, Sarah has been busy. A whiz with a video cam, Sarah has been going over the footage of the night of the accident, and has been exploring on her own.

Despite their separation, Ryan and Sarah run into more than they bargained for: a conspiracy by a defunct mining company; a secret society that appears to be in operation after decades of obscurity; and Old Joe Bush, the ghostly guardian of the dredge, who died when he got caught in the machinery and fell into the creek.

the dredge

Ghost story with a twist

The video book series, with the books “Skeleton Creek,” “The Ghost in the Machine,” and “The Crossbones” follow a unique format showcasing two different perspectives.

The books are in the form of Ryan’s journals, enclosed in a slipcover meant to look like a DVD case. The journal entries are in Ryan’s handwriting, as he copes with the horror and attempts to distance himself from it by pretending he is writing a story. Ryan’s journal entries are interspersed with drawings, snippets of correspondence with Sarah, diagrams, as well as the clues he uncovers along the way.

Ryan’s journals spark the empathic connection with the readers, guide them through a tremulous realization of the horror that unfolds in Skeleton Creek, process the video and bridge the story in between the footages, and comfort them through the scary moments.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s headstrong persistence to get through the truth about Skeleton Creek is told through her videos, the products of several nocturnal visits to the old dredge with her camera in tow. Sarah uploads her videos on her website, sarahfincher.com, sends Ryan the password (often a reference to the horror genre, like “amontillado” from the “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe; “peterquint,” the protagonist in “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James; and “georgelutz,” the subject of the Amityville Horror), and the videos provide the leads for the mystery.

Sarah’s videos provide the atmospheric backdrop for a ghost story, guaranteed to keep readers at the edge of their seats (or with their fingers shielding their eyes!) with nighttime footages, footsteps, screams and heavy breathing, even a gruesome phantom! Carman pens the screenplay and the videos are shot by his production team, PC Studios, in a real-life dredge in Oregon.

With the unique combination of the books and the videos, this ghost story with a twist provides a sensory experience like no other, opening a new avenue for storytelling, even for the most tech-savvy of readers.

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P.S. I read this book weeks ago, but I’ve been saving the review for the Halloween weekend (I am currently out of town and this is a scheduled post). I highly recommend this series — it works both as a mystery thriller and as a horror story! The video book concept is unique, but it pulls the combo off without a hitch, and the transition from text to video flows quite naturally. It kept me up several nights, and towards the really exciting (and scary!) parts, I couldn’t even watch the videos alone! What an awesome idea for a book!

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Skeleton Creek and The Ghost in the Machine, both hardcover with slipcase, review copies courtesy of Scholastic, Inc., both 4.5/5 stars

Books #149-150 of 2010

*photos courtesy of Skeleton Creek website

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