Sunday, August 18, 2013

YA Mystery/Paranormal Review: 'Dead Is Just a Dream' by Marlene Perez

This is the eighth book in the Dead Is series overall, and the third one in which the protagonist is Jessica Walsh. When we last saw Jessica in Dead Is a Killer Tune, she and her sister viragos (town-defending women warriors) had to solve the mystery of the bizarre behavior of Battle of the Bands contestants during Jessica's freshman year of high school. Just a Dream opens at the end of summer, with Jessica becoming a sophomore. It ends in early November, at a Day of the Dead celebration. 

This year's strange occurrences include a ghostly, red-eyed white horse stalking the town at night, a creepy clown who comes into town with the circus, an artist whose paintings give people nightmares, and a new art teacher with a marionette obsession. People die and appear to have been scared to death in their dreams - a nod to the Nightmare on Elm Street horror film series that Perez acknowledges by having one of the characters sing a song from the movies. 

A ghostly horse associated with the night and bad dreams, the Mara, rings a bell for me. Looking back over some of my previous blog posts, I realized I'd written about the Mara when I wrote about the Welsh goddess Rhiannon (she of the awesome Stevie Nicks tune). Known as Mare to the Irish, the goddess was said to ride through people's dreams as a white horse, bringing inspiration. Inspiration isn't nightmares, though, so I'm guessing the association with bad dreams comes from Christians saying, "Mare isn't a goddess, she's a demon." 

If you look up Mare in Wikipedia, whoever has written the article says nothing about Celtic legend, defines the folkloric terms as "an evil spirit or goblin in Germanic folklore which rides on people's chests while they sleep, bringing on bad dreams" and cites the 13th-century Ynglinga Saga (a work by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelander who serves as an important source of Norse mythology*) as a source for this Germanic etymology. 

That sleep paralysis and night terrors are caused by evil spirits is not a folk belief that has died out, by the way. You can, for example, go to YouTube and watch videos by Christian evangelists such as Chris White who explain sleep paralysis not in terms of neurological activity in the human brain, but in terms of "the demonic realm." Personally, I went to Roman Catholic schools from kindergarten through bachelor's degree, and although we believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast, we also used science as the tool for understanding the natural (but not the supernatural) world. I don't quite get the mentality of religious belief that can't co-exist with 21st century medical knowledge - but that's just my worldview.  I have my spiritual and folkloric beliefs, but I open them in a different window than my scientific knowledge. 

The Mara, in Perez's telling, is a shapeshifter, sometimes a scary horse and sometimes a frightened little girl with wild hair. If your childhood included reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (spookily illustrated by Stephen Gammell when I bought them; newer versions were illustrated by Lemony Snicket collaborator Brett Helquist), then you may remember the story "A New Horse." It's about a magical bridle and a witch who uses it to change people into horses, riding them at breakneck speed all night and returning them, exhausted, in the morning. Schwartz's footnotes say similar tales can be found worldwide, but that this particular version comes from rural Kentucky. 

Look back at the Wikipedia entry for Mare, and you'll see the rural Kentucky folk tale closely mirrors what the Norse peoples believed: 

"The mara was also believed to 'ride' horses, which left them exhausted and covered in sweat by the morning. She could also entangle the hair of the sleeping man or beast, resulting in 'marelocks,' called marflator mare-braids or martovor mare-tangles in Swedish or marefletter and marelokker in Norwegian." 

...which explains why the little girl has such wild, umkempt hair in Dead is Just a Dream

The other book that comes to mind when I read about the Mara is The White Witch of Rosehall by Herbert G. de Lisser. I've never been to Jamaica, but apparently if you go there, you'll find numerous copies of this novel, first published in 1929, for sale at all the tourist stops. The real Rose Hall is a plantation in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and the legend that forms the basis for the book regards a haunting by an Anglo-Irish witchcraft and Voudun practitioner named Annie Palmer. In de Lisser's novel, Annie commands the specter of a demonic horse. 

But back to the book at hand. 

In the acknowledgments, author Marlene Perez thanks the Houston Teen Book Con. Apparently someone asked her what she is afraid of, and "This book is the answer." It does have a certain creepiness factor that makes this volume a little more suspenseful than the last one, which offered very few surprises. 

The mysteries here still aren't very tough to crack - this series has always had more of a light, breezy paranormal tone than a hardcore mystery novel tone, after all - but I found myself liking this one a little better than Killer Tune. Maybe it's because the horse, the bizarre paintings, the weird puppets, and the eerie clown are more interesting and original than a Pied Piper retelling. 

As I've come to expect from this series, there's also a romantic wrinkle: Jessica faces a solid month of loneliness when her boyfriend Dominic announces he'll spend December touring with his band. She also faces competition when Dominic's ex-girlfriend Tashya comes to town - and Dominic's mother (also a virago) seems to prefer her to Jessica. 

No spoilers, but the ending is somewhat bittersweet. At this point, I don't know whether or not Perez intends to continue the series. I hope so, because if this ending is the very end, it doesn't seem quite definitive. Also, Jessica is really growing on me. Daisy got five books as the heroine, and I kind of hope Jessica gets the same. 

You can preorder Dead Is Just a Dream now. The official release date will be September 3, 2013. 

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of this book through Amazon's Vine Program. I was not compensated for this review in any way other than the free book. The review represents my own honest opinion.  I am an affiliate and if you buy this book or any product after clicking through the above link, I will receive a small commission of a few cents. 

*Much, much more about Norse mythology will go into my upcoming Mabon (autumnal equinox) posts. 

This is an affiliate link: 

Shift by Madison Dunn. $8.99 from

I'm not sure why it happens, but when I focus just right, I can slow time. Things around me become lighter somehow, and I almost feel the tiny particles of energy spinning inside of them. The thing is, having the ability to transform the world around you isn't all it's cracked up to be -- especially when you are running from the Valencia without any deodorant.

No comments: