Edition 29: Book Review: The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek by Sue Copsey
Reviewed by Lee Murray
Remember your first ghost story? You probably heard it late at night. You were in your pyjamas, maybe snuggled in a sleeping bag on the floor, the story told to you in a rasping eerie voice while torchlight glanced off the ceiling. For me, it was during a power cut, the ghostly story told by my dad against a backdrop of flickering candlelight. I don’t know how he managed it, but as Dad reached the story’s terrifying conclusion, the lights went on. It was miraculous, as if some supernatural being had been listening in and flipped the switch at just the right moment. It also flipped the switch for me on ghost stories. And a similar phenomenon affects the main character, Joe, in Sue Copsey’s middle grade novel The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek.
Ghosts and the supernatural have always been a favourite for middle grade readers, from traditional series like RL Stine’s Goosebumps, to more recent offerings such as Matthew Stott’s Tales from Between, so I was excited this month to discover Copsey’s Spooky Adventure series with its decidedly Kiwi flavour. Originally from England, where history and the supernatural go hand in hand, Copsey clearly bought her love of both when she settled in New Zealand, since these elements are central to her writing. To date, there are three adventures in the series, the first two: The Ghosts of Young Nick’s Head, and The Ghosts of Tarawera well received by local readers, with the second title receiving a New Zealand Storyline Notable Book Award in 2016. Copsey has recently released the third title in the series, The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek, another stand-alone ghostly adventure, also set in New Zealand, and involving the same young characters.
In The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek, supernatural sleuth, Joe, and his best mate, Eddie, are invited onto the movie set of Roberto Johnson, the famous American filmmaker, whose daughter Anastasia is a friend of Joe’s sister Beckie. Only the movie is set in a ghost town, the old gold mining settlement of Moonlight in New Zealand’s South Island, and the invitation might not be so innocent, with Joe and his friends reluctantly drawn into another ghostly mystery. The children follow the clues left by the elusive Shadow Man, each revelation getting them closer to uncovering the reason for the strange occurrences hampering the movie, when they realise someone else is covering their every move.
It’s a wonderful adventure story, well researched and well written. First and foremost it’s fun, with four engaging young protagonists (with all the normal hang ups, including one with a Vlog to maintain) thrown into a suspenseful adventure where they are forced to use their wits to resolve the mystery. There is some great humour, wonderful geeky references to other sci-fi fantasy stories, and a terrific sense of place, with Copsey doing a superb job invoking the spooky desolation of the old mining town. I especially loved the historical aspects, Copsey using her plot to address important themes such as marginalisation, tolerance, and friendship, issues that are always relevant and not just for younger readers. She also tackles the concept of obsession, and the dangers that can befall us when we allow our obsessions to overtake our lives. But she doesn’t beat you over the head with it—young readers are far too discerning to fall for an overtly didactic story—instead she weaves her message into her event-filled narrative.
One downside for younger readers is that Copsey sets her story on a movie set, so there are a lot of characters. Apart from the four children, there is the director, the director of photography, the two cameramen Ben A and Ben B, the stuntman, the sound recordist, the movie’s leading lady and man, the director’s assistant, some historical figures, a BBC film crew, a museum curator, Joe and Beckie’s mother, Anastasia’s mother, and the cantankerous lodge owner, all of whom have speaking parts. Younger readers, who like to read a chapter or two before bed, might struggle to keep the long list of characters in their heads. I read the story in a single sitting and still had to flip back to the front of the book to identify a character I’d forgotten.
On the other hand, Copsey uses stereotypes well, giving her supernatural sleuth a traditional brainy sidekick, making the leading man a cowardly self-obsessed flake, and the movie director so engrossed in the film that he neglects his daughter. All of the ‘dwarf’ actors are clearly channelling Grumpy! However, given the huge cast of characters, this stereotyping provides essential shortcuts to understanding certain characters’ behaviours, allowing more time for the author to develop other key characters.
Copsey also differentiates characters using distinct voices, even giving several of them idiosyncratic accents and expressions. For example, the stunt man, Ambrose, nicknamed Bro, is a Māori who speaks using Kiwi colloquialisms almost to the point of caricature, while one of the Bens uses a strong German accent: “Vell, in fact Craig hates most of the ze outdoor filming.” Copsey does a similar thing with the gruff lodge owner, Jock, who is Scottish and speaks in a broad brogue, Copsey emphasising his rolling ‘r’s with repeated ‘rrr’s in the text: “Thrrree weeks” and “Rrrroom keys” are examples. I can imagine parents and teachers having great fun reading this story aloud given the myriad opportunities for bringing the characters to life through effective use of voice and inflection. This technique of using distinct voices would certainly have the effect of making members of this large cast more memorable, although one or two fewer characters might have simplified the story.
Overall, this is a fabulous spooky adventure tale for younger readers with its New Zealand setting offering something unique in a genre dominated by stories from non-specific places. Both fun and educational, I will be recommending The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek for my own nieces and nephews when Christmas rolls around.
The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek (Sue Copsey) (Volume 3, Spooky Adventures)
Independently published, 2016
Lee Murray writes fiction for adults and children, winning New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction and fantasy writing no less than six times. However, she has only recently turned her hand to horror, and finds teenagers to be far more terrifying than spiders or zombies.