The small-town mysteries of John Bellairs are made modern with a dash of Stranger Things in this spine-tingling supernatural horror-thriller
After his father returns from treatment for addiction, highschooler Vish — lover of metal music and literature — is uncertain what the future holds. It doesn’t help that everyone seems to know about the family’s troubles, and they stand out doubly as one of the only brown families in town. When Vish is mistaken for a relative of the weird local bookseller and attacked by an unsettling pale man who seems to be decaying, he is pulled into the world of the occult, where witches live in television sets, undead creatures can burn with a touch, and magic is mathematical. Vish must work with the bookstore owner and his mysterious teenage employee, Gisela, to stop an interdimensional invasion that would destroy their peaceful town.
Bringing together scares, suspense, and body horror, The Grimmer is award-winning author Naben Ruthnum’s first foray into the young adult genre. This gripping ride through the supernatural is loaded with vivid characters, frightening imagery, and astonishing twists, while tackling complex issues such as grief, racism, and addiction.
Release date: September 26, 2023
Publisher: ECW Press
Print pages: 256
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“Can I get a ride to the bookstore?”
Vish Maurya was in boxer shorts, standing on the desk in his room, and yelling through the vent cover in his ceiling. The footsteps above him stopped. The TV weatherman’s voice drifted through the vent, as he let everyone know what they knew already: it was cooler today in Kelowna than in hell, but only slightly. And it was probably drier here.
Waiting for his mother to answer, Vish coughed and scratched his arm. A new patch of eczema had arrived, some dark shading under the forearm hairs that he was beginning to think were too thick, too noticeable.
“Come upstairs if you want to talk. I’m not a prison guard,” his mom said, managing to get every word through the vent clearly. Anji Maurya could project without screaming. They used to talk like this all the time, through the vent. Always with the same conclusion, this exasperated invitation upstairs. It was one of the many things Vish had missed in his two years at the boarding school on Vancouver Island.
Vish considered just pulling on pants and one of the t-shirts from the floor of his closet, but he did a pit check with his nose and knew that a quick shower would be necessary.
“Just twenty minutes,” he called up through the vent to no reply.
He got down from the desk by jumping onto the bed and bouncing to the floor, but the phone receiver made part of the trip with him. It was an ancient touch-tone with tiny plastic buttons, the number stickers on them peeling off, that his dad had gotten for free with a subscription to Time Magazine. It was cheap and brittle, but was precious to Vish, back when he had friends to call. It landed in the thick carpeting and didn’t break. Vish nestled it back into its cradle on the desk. The familiar things in this room were important to him: they reminded him that he was back, back for good.
In the years he was gone, there’d been holidays, of course. Time that the other kids spent going on vacation with their parents or doing the turkey-carving-present-trading thing. Vish just came back to Kelowna and, like his parents, pretended things were okay. But never normal. Before they had sent him away, Vish told his parents that if they ever wanted him to pretend things were normal again, they’d have to wait until he was living at home again for real. And now he was. So he was keeping his promise and pretending he could live with his family again, and that they could live with him.
The water pressure in the shower was strong, and best of all, Vish was the only one in it: sharing bathrooms with eleven other boys who didn’t want to be his friend and that he didn’t want to talk to had not been his idea of fun. He turned the water cold for the final minute, hating the feeling, but knowing that cooling down in here would help him face the summer heat.
Vish started getting dressed from the empty apple crate he kept his underwear and socks in. It hadn’t been in his old bedroom when he’d made the move back, but he tracked it down in the garage, where his dad had filled it up with old Canadian Psychiatric Association magazines. Vish had dumped them on the cement floor of the garage. His mom must have found them and cleaned them up before his dad saw, or there would have been a fight.
The apple crate was now tucked into the closet of his new digs, the former downstairs where Vish used to practice guitar, that he’d now swapped out for his upstairs bedroom. He wanted to make the move because it was bigger,
he’d explained, and his parents had accepted that. It was another chance for the three of them to pretend. Vish was fifteen and wanted to be as far away from his parents’ bedroom as possible, especially after a couple of years of having his own cell-like room at the school, where he could be completely alone for every hour he wasn’t in the classroom or the shared bathroom. His dad had helped carry the bed, desk, and dresser, and Vish had done the rest. Most of the posters he’d collected as a kid didn’t make it. Just The Crow and a collage he’d made of players from guitar magazines.
“Should ditch that poster,” he muttered. Danny and Matt Pearson, his old best friends, used to watch The Crow at least once every weekend and would have loved to take it off his hands. But to give them the poster, he’d have to see them, and that was something he didn’t plan to do until school started. Vish didn’t want to see anyone he used to know until he really, really had to.
In his former room, he had a few photos of Danny, Matt, and himself goofing off at the mini-golf course at Scandia and on their cousin’s boat pinned up next to the guitarist collage, above Eddie Van Halen’s head. These photos now lived in a drawer.
Through the vent, Vish could smell coffee, eggs with the kinds of spices his dad liked, and the blender making one of the two smoothies a day his mother drank. Vish still hated breakfast, and now that he was back home, Anji was starting up again with her requests for him to eat something proper to start the day. But just like at the boarding school, where they couldn’t force him to eat anything he didn’t want to, Vish intended to keep eating an apple each morning, at most. He put on pants and grabbed a Megadeth shirt that his mother hoped he would lose someday soon.
As he pulled the shirt on over his head, Vish looked into the mirror over his dresser. Outside his window, just at the level of the sill where a potted plant would be if Vish had plants in his room, was a human head. Vish whirled around, too scared to yell, and the head was soon joined by shoulders and two hands held up in a gesture that was supposed to look calming but just looked panicked.
It was Matt Pearson, sweaty, his curly hair hanging lank around his face. He was wearing a dark grey t-shirt, which was a mistake on such a hot day. He looked like he’d walked through a car wash before getting to Vish’s house. Vish cranked open the window. Matt spoke into the screen.
“You got taller, but not much.”
“What are you doing here,
man? Watching me change?”
“How could I see you changing with how dirty this window is, dude?” Matt asked. He usually insulted before apologizing, a habit that Vish had picked up too, according to his mom. “Sorry I snuck up on you. I went to your old window and you weren’t there, so I was just —”
“Spying? It’s weird, Matt.”
“What’s weird is you ignoring Danny and me.”
“Keep it down,” Vish said. “And where is Danny? He better not be bugging my mom.”
“Yeah, I decided to sneak down here and crawl in your window to make sure not to bother your parents, while Danny knocked on the front door.”
Vish stared through the screen. If Matt was waiting for a laugh, Vish wasn’t going to provide it.
“He’s not here. He’s home practising drums. And I didn’t come here to ‘bug’ you. You want me to go away and leave you alone, just tell me. I’ll let Danny know. Anyway, can we talk for five minutes without the screen here? It smells like rust.”
Vish hooked his fingers into the little plastic tabs on the inside of the screen, using them to pull the springs that kept it lodged in the window frame flat. The screen gently popped off and came inward. Vish waved Matt in. The window was low to the ground, but Vish still had to help pull Matt over the ledge. Matt had one leg shorter than the other, not by much, but that and a few other what he called “skeleton things” made it uncomfortable for him to stand around or run, and made it a bit more difficult to climb in an open window. Soon, Matt was sitting in a sweaty pile on the desk. His baggy black t-shirt and cargo shorts made him look like a heap of laundry with a small human lost inside of it.
“I’m getting a ride downtown soon,” Vish said. “I don’t really have time.”
“Good. Maybe now you’re in a rush you can finally tell me the truth.” Matt took off his glasses and tried to polish them with his t-shirt before putting them back on.
“Just say that you’re pissed at us. Say it. Because Danny and me know you are. We’ve always known. And it’s because Danny told Mrs. Gulliver about your dad. So just say it.” Matt pushed his curly hair up and back, but it flopped back down and seemed to stick to his forehead even more permanently. “It was my idea to tell her. We didn’t know you’d be going away for so long, or we wouldn’t have said anything.”
Vish hadn’t expected Matt to come out with this right away. He would have pushed him back out the window if he thought he could do it quickly enough and that Matt wouldn’t be right back on his feet, yelling at him.
“Yeah, Matt, I didn’t really expect my two best friends to tell the band teacher that my dad was a drug addict and that I was getting sent away until he was clean and my mom could stand being around me again. I didn’t think you guys would do that.”
A great clanging sound from the vent shut both the boys up. It was Anji’s Birkenstocked foot, thumping out a summons. Vish put a finger to his lips as his mother spoke down through the vent.
“Time to get going, Vish, if you’re going at all.”
“Five minutes,” Vish called up.
“Five minutes?” whispered Matt.
“Hurry up.” Vish waved Matt farther into the room, away from the vent. Matt took a seat on the unmade bed, while Vish sat with his back to the door.
“Look. Danny and me both apologized, Vish. In like fifty letters.”
“So it’s my fault you humiliated me and my family to everyone we know, because I didn’t answer your stupid letters?”
Matt rearranged himself on the bed, sitting cross-legged, staring at Vish.
“No. That’s me and my brother’s fault. And we’re sorry. I’m saying you never answered when we asked if you were mad. You didn’t answer us at all, not about anything important.”
“I didn’t want to talk about it. I still don’t, not with you. Not now or any other time. Because look what happened last time I talked to you about something important, right?”
Matt leaned back against the window. He opened his mouth, then closed it. They were both remembering that day in the middle of the seventh grade.
The three of them had been hanging out in the band room after class, free from the restrictions of the musical charts that they repeated endlessly. In the period they’d just finished, it had been The Muppet Show Theme, over and over because the French horn and flute players kept messing up. Vish played the flute part on his guitar, while Danny made Animal faces behind the drum kit while he pounded out the simple rhythm. Mrs. Gulliver had to shoot a look at them every few minutes to get Danny to quiet down enough so the other eighteen kids in the concert band could be heard.
Matt was one of two bass players, and he was concentrating on getting the intonation exactly right on every note because he’d been able to play the piece almost perfectly from his first try. Mrs. Gulliver was a former hippie, as she told everyone all the time, only she looked exactly like a hippie still, maybe with neater clothes. Wild, curly hair and a lot of purple, and she wanted to be everyone’s friend, except when it was time to actually play a chart, when she tried to shift into military mode, threatening any kid making stray noises on a horn or tympani with suspension if that happened just one more time.
But she was always up for letting Vish, Matt, and Danny stick around and play music after class was over, as long as it was the end of the day. She would go to her upstairs office and do whatever it is teachers did after class. Vish knew that the math and history ones had papers to grade and lessons to prepare, but he genuinely had no idea what Mrs. Gulliver did up there. He asked once and she looked pretty mad.
That afternoon in the band room, only Vish knew that it was going to be their last jam for a long time. So he did his best to forget about what was happening to his dad, and what was coming for him in the next months or years,
and to just have fun. Vish was pretty sure they sounded bad, and Matt would have confirmed they did, but drawing out the riff from “Enter Sandman” into a twenty-minute blues and noise jam, cranking the volume on the school-owned Fender Twin Reverb amp until the speaker crackled and the air between the three boys got thick with sound and excitement, felt better than almost anything Vish had ever done. He could tell he felt good because he wasn’t thinking; he wasn’t trying to forget anymore, his mind was in his hands and in the music they were making. That day, the janitor literally had to pull the plug on Vish’s amp to snap the three of them out of it.
Afterwards, Danny, lanky and sweating in the spring air, took his t-shirt off and hung from one of the hoops on the basketball court to stretch out his arms. The hoops weren’t standard NBA height, not even close, but it was still impressive. He and Matt were the kind of twins who looked nothing alike, and Danny was already almost a foot taller. While his brother swung from the hoop, Matt asked Vish the question that would lead to spending less, and eventually no, time with his former best friends.
“Do you want to finally get serious and do a band with us or what?”
Vish started to cry, something he hadn’t done in front of anyone up until that day, not even his mother, certainly not his father, whose fault all of this was. His father and those little orange plastic bottles. It wasn’t a full sob, but the tears came, and he walked off the court and back into the band room. The brothers came in to see Vish facing one of the corners. The walls had sound-baffling foam and carpet glued and stapled onto them, and as Matt and Danny walked up behind him Vish remembered staring at the grey foam, all the chunks torn out over the years by kids before him.
And then Vish told them everything. That there would be no band because he was leaving town, for how long he didn’t know. His dad, the pill addiction, detoxing, the plan to send Vish away until everything at home calmed down. And the two brothers listened, each with a hand on one of his shoulders, neither of them asking Vish to turn away from the wall, because they knew he didn’t want to. And then he’d run out of the room and gone home. By the time he got to school on Monday, every kid he knew had heard the story. And by that night, his mom was getting phone calls asking if the rumour was true.
“I trusted you that day,” Vish said, as Matt stared at the desk he was sitting on, both of them snapped out of the memory. “I trusted you and the first thing you did was run to tell Mrs. Gulliver like she was your mommy.”
“Vish, we had to. Her
office door was open and she heard some of it. She asked us if you were dealing drugs and made Danny —”
“I know Danny’s stupid but you’re not, Matt. She didn’t hear it all so she asked a question that would get you to tell her everything so she could tell all the other teachers, so they could all gossip about my family while they pretended to care about me. And about ten seconds after that every kid in school knew. You know what this town is like.”
Matt stood up from the bed and looked like he was considering walking over to Vish. Instead, he went back to the desk and paused before boosting himself up on it.
“You’re right. Gulliver probably did trick us, and we were stupid to talk. Stupid, but that’s all, man. We let you down because we were trying to help you out, and we were wrong. But it’s because we didn’t want you getting in trouble. We’re sorry, and Danny and me both think that if you came over, if we just jammed some and —”
Vish walked over to his still-open closet, pushed the hanging sweaters aside, and pointed at the dusty red Stratocaster guitar that rested there, abandoned in the shadows.
“I don’t play anymore, Matt. Just because it was fun to play forty seconds of ‘Leper Messiah’ over and over after band class doesn’t mean that I want to actually spend hours wasting time with you and Danny. It was stupid.”
While Vish spoke, Matt stopped looking so much like a pile of laundry. He stopped staring at the floor and straightened his back out. By the time Vish was saying “stupid waste of time,” Matt had turned and was edging out the window. He replied when he was outside.
“I don’t think it’s stupid to try to get better at something, Vish. Neither does my brother. And we did get way better over the past couple years, and it would be cool to see you do the same. Or we can just watch movies, or hang out. Just know that we’re really sorry, and give us a shot again. If you want.”
“No,” Vish said. Matt stared back at him for a second, then started walking away, just as Anji thumped on the vent grating above Vish’s head again. Vish put the screen back in place and ran upstairs. When he got to the kitchen, he filled a glass of water at the sink. Out the kitchen window, he saw Matt walking away down the street. He thought for a second about running out to stop him, at least asking if he needed a ride.
“Vish, can you stop staring
at nothing and focus for five seconds?” Vish’s father spoke, and as Vish was taking the words in, he also tapped his coffee cup with his fork. Vish turned, nodding an apology, and sat down at the kitchen table with his half-finished glass of water.
Since starting up his practice again, Dr. Munish Maurya saw patients seven days a week. Today was a Friday, which he used to take off, working Sundays instead. But now, with so many patients having moved on, he took any booking he could get. He was wearing a shirt with a tie under a light cardigan as he finished his coffee over the near-empty plate. A square of paper towel protected his tie and shirtfront. Dr. Maurya didn’t shave very effectively. He pushed his electric razor in a sort of winding stroll around his cheeks, chin, and neck. The result was a daily changing pattern of small triangles or patches of stubble in addition to the moustache he kept on purpose.
Anji was reading the Daily Courier, more particularly the real estate listings. Her hair was wrapped in a towel, but she was otherwise armoured for the day, in a light green pantsuit that had a few flecks of water on the shoulders. She pointed to the fruit bowl on the kitchen table, and Vish walked over to pick out a Honeycrisp apple. His dad was mopping up the last of the scrambled eggs with half an English muffin, and Vish was surprised by a quick flood of salivating hunger for the rich cumin-and-coriander-laced protein. But if he showed a willingness to eat eggs today, ...
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