Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Black Slide

Ocker, J.W. The Black Slide
August 16th 2022 by HarperCollins
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Griffin Birch isn't a huge fan of school, and refers to his classroom as the "Torture Chamber", where his fifth grade teacher demands that the children not look out the window at the playground. It's hard not to, especially when a weird black slide appears there. It looks like it is made of leather, and no one knows where it came from. When Griffin is the first one to go down it, he has a very weird experience; he feels like he was falling for a very long time and everyone, including his best friend Laila, blames this on the concussion they say he suffered after being injured in the slide and breaking his arm. When classmates start to go missing, and Griffin sees them approaching the slide, going down it, and never coming out, he has his suspicions. It only seems to affect the fifth graders, so when he sees Laila at the slide, he rushes out to save her. The two go down the slide together and end up in a weird and horrible world. There are weird, metal beings whose voices grate on the senses, and the children seem hypnotized and hopeless. There seems to be no escape, and the children are subject to horrible experiments, so that the area is dubbed the "Painful Place" or "the painground". They suffer at the hands of the Merciless, who have told the children that when the experiments are done, they will go home. To Griffin and Laila, along with classmates Desda and Ozzie, this seems unlikely. There are constant, senseless attacks by creatures of frightening intensity, and nothing makes sense. After running and fighting for ages, they meet Leech, who claims he can help them defeat the Merciless and escape, if they help her get inside the Forge. Can Griffin accomplish this, and even if he can, will it help him and his friends get out? 
Strengths: This was certainly very rich in gruesome imagery and horrible descriptions, from cold air that smelled like "the chemical smell a bathroom has after it's cleaned", to the Merciless, who have "white heads glowing like moons above their shiny black robes". There's constant screaming and torture; the best description I can offer is a middle grade fever dream that starts on a very, very dark playground. The writing felt very cinematic, like someone describing a horror film to me. It's super creepy, and I started to wonder if Griffin and his classmates would ever get out. At first I thought this was going to be a bit like Dr. Fell's Playground of Doom, but the book this really reminded me of was Alexander Gordon Smith's Lockdown (2009) (Escape from Furnace) series, and that was mainly because of the violence and gore. This gets bonus points for novelty of form and content; I went into this thinking it would be like The Smashed Man of Dread End, but if Ocker's first novel is a dark and twisted Monkees' television episode, The Black Slide is the Monkee's Head
Weaknesses: Because of the fever dream feel, the plot is rather secondary to all of the descriptions of torture. There is also a disturbing scene of Griffin's father abusing him and harming his lizard which should be mentioned in case this book is handed to tender hearted elementary school students; we have hints all along that Griffin's father has left the family because he was abusive, but I was a bit surprised at the graphic nature of this abuse. Supernatural monsters ripping people apart is different from human-on-human violence. Somehow. 
What I really think: I am honestly not sure. This felt very experimental, and I feel like my students are either going to love it to pieces or not know what to do with it. I'm going to have to feel out my horror lovers on this one; it's quite effective, but an odd convergence of fifth grade playground and horrific monsters torturing children! Certainly one to read if you are a fan of scary books. 

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