"She said I’d scare you kids to death" or The Headless Cupid

Hey guys! It’s TKOG over from Not That Kind of Girl, guest blogging for the lovely Nikki! Over on my blog, I’m conducting an ongoing project to do 250 completely uncharacteristic things by August 23, 2010 (some of the ones I’ve already done have been doozies!), but when it comes to reading young adult literature? Oh, let me assure you, I will always be that kind of girl.

Today I had every intention of recapping Richard Peck’s sublimely brilliant Ghosts I Have Been, but my copy seemed to disappear (spooooky!) partway through the reread, so, in honor of Halloween, another creepy kid-lit classic: “The Headless Cupid” by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.

If you haven’t read this one, you almost definitely will recognize the hallowed ZKS from The Egypt Game and the (inferior) Gypsy Game. I was borderline obsessed with her as a kid, and doubly so once I got to college and realized that those books are set in my old stomping grounds of Palo Alto. (Not that you’re actually allowed to stomp in Palo Alto. Noise ordinance! The old dudes go to sleep at 5pm, right around when the, like, two bars close.)

The book opens from the perspective of David Stanley, the saintly eldest of the four Stanley kids. His father has just married Molly, a fiery takes-no-bull artist, and the kids are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their new 12-year-old stepsister Amanda. Ever since the death of David’s mother (because you cannot have a book without an orphan), David’s been playing nursemaid to his three younger sibs, who are a handful to say the least:

Janie: 6 years old; bossy little nag; totally Toddlers and Tiaras material
Esther (Tesser): 4 years old; obligatory fill-up-the-scenes kid
Blair: 4 years old (Esther’s twin): sweet – almost unnervingly sweet; oh yeah, um, psychic

Amanda arrives and she is obviously A PIECE OF FRIGGIN’ WORK. Headless Cupid is no BSC, but allow me to outfit y’all:

“For the first second or two, he’d actually thought there were a bunch of springs and wires coming out of Amanda’s head, but then he realized it was only her hair. It seemed to be braided in dozens of long tight braids and some of them were looped around and fastened back to her head. The rest of her was almost covered by a huge bright colored shawl with a shaggy fringe, except for down below her knees, where something black with a crooked hem was hanging. … He remembered, seeing her again, some things he’d forgotten—the very dark eyebrows, smallish nose, and the way her mouth moved now and then into what looked like an upside-down smile.”

I’ll say this for Snyder: lady can Make Words Do Stuff.

Amanda is a temperamental shrew off the bat, and – to make things interesting – a witchy one, no less. She storms in with cardboard boxes full of occult books, a pet toad, and a raven Familiar. Though she studiously avoids the family for her first few days (parents’ divorce + the emotional pressure-cooker years = one sullen, ceremonial-robe-wearing tween), she’s fascinated by the creepy old Westerly House the Stanleys have moved into, and especially by the gorgeous hand-carved cupid balusters on the stairwell, from which – you guessed it – the head of one is missing.

Amanda’s mother Molly eventually forces her icy daughter to commune with the rest of the Stanley kids, and, when David is epically failing to coax the kids into weeding the garden, Amanda steps in. She appoints herself a slave-master and the kids slaves, and gets them to weed the garden before they even realize they’re working. Kind of like an S&M-y Mary Poppins. This forges an uneasy alliance between Amanda and David, and she decides to let the kids into her occult obsession.

She gives them the standard “red or black?” psychic playing-card test, and all of the kids turn out average performances, except for sweet little Blair, who, when Amanda holds up the nine of hearts, lisps: “It’s lots of little valentines!” Amanda is pissed. But she still agrees to let them undergo the twelve rites of initiation to join her makeshift coven.

To skim the rites, the Stanleys must get through whole days while accomplishing tasks like: not touching any metal (silverware is problematic); not talking; carrying reptiles on their body at all times. They get through the tasks with a hilarious lack of poise and aplomb, but the kids’ weird behavior combined with Amanda’s bitchiness basically drives a knife through their parents’ newlywed bliss.

After the kids pass the rites, Amanda throws a séance. One of her stipulations is that their ceremonial garb cannot contain any trace of the color white, and you can imagine Her Hot Topic-liness’s disdain when the kids’ interpretation of this maxim involves dyed tennis socks and old college sweatshirts. Bliss. She puts on the kind of elaborate witchy show that will make you cringingly recall your own middle school Wicca days (uh, you guys too, right? Right?!). But when Janie offers her dead mother’s ring as a sacrifice to the spirits and Amanda refuses to give it back, Blair awesomely calls her out on her fakeness by using his nascent psychic powers to relocate the lost stuff. Amanda pouts.

A few days later, the electrical system blows out, and when the repairman comes by, he reveals his father carved the staircase from which the cupid head is missing. He suggests that the old poltergeist that haunted the Westerly House 70 years ago might have taken it. When David asks what a poltergeist is, Amanda sniffily reveals that it’s a troubled spirit who tends to live in houses with girls who are – uh-oh – her age.

You can guess what happens from here. Pebbles start appearing in strange place, then hitting the windows and raining from the ceiling. A big rock falls from the sky during dinner and breaks the milk pitcher. The whole time, David’s dad is away on a business trip and Molly increasingly becomes a basket case. She’s about ten seconds away from ditching the dang kids and running off to a nice, unhaunted condo. Because kids are always smarter than parents in YA books, David figures out that Amanda is the poltergeist, and angsts over how to confront her.

Then one night when Molly is getting the balls away from her daughter picking up a friend from the city, Amanda has a really sweet bonding sesh with the little kids, who are growing to love her. David is ready to gently ask why she’s putting on the polterguise, when a dusty old box comes clattering down the stairs, and Amanda screams. Dude. Hot authentic poltergeist action. In the now-broken box: hundreds of rocks and THE CUPID HEAD.

Amanda freaks the frig out, confesses everything to David – including the fact that she was trying to force Molly to send her back to her father, who she couldn’t accept wanted to send her away. She lays her brilliant ghost-impersonating schemes on him too (total faux séance helpful hint list), and then finally talks her drama out with Molly.

Although the family agrees not to tell the little kids about the box, Blair seems morose and keeps asking David about the box. When David presses to find out about what Blair knows, he reveals that he was carrying the box downstairs that night and dropped it. A little ghost girl, he says, told him where it was hidden in the wall, and she just wanted him to put the cupid head back. Which David does. And all’s well that ends well.

Sorry, guys, there’s literally nothing to snark on with this fine novel. It’s one of the very few emotionally honest portraits I’ve ever read about how kids defer blame and deal with the feeling of rejection from divorce. It’s sweet without being cloying, and the descriptions of Amanda’s cringe-worthy tween-ishness are totally on the money. Read this dang book! And/or reminisce over your own awkward faux-Wiccan middle school days in the comment section!

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About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
This entry was posted in guest blog, Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to "She said I’d scare you kids to death" or The Headless Cupid

  1. Sadako says:

    I totally remember this book. But it's been years! Wasn't there a sequel where the kids meet a huge dog–well, one of the little kids finds it anyway and they think it might be a ghost dog or something? And there's a subplot with David and this bully and he's trying to avoid the bully, and then Amanda's friends with him? I'm pretty sure it's a Stanley family book, and I think I owned it, too. Do you know which one I'm talking about?

  2. dragonzflame says:

    Ah, my days as a 14-year-old Wiccan. Yes, casting a magick circle amid a haze of incense, Silver Ravenwolf book in hand, to find out if the boy I liked also liked me. Wearing a pentacle necklace outside my top in the hopes that someone would notice and tell me I was a Satanist, so that with a flick of my Earth Mother tongue, I could correct them.I thought I was so different and individual – it's only now, talking to other 20-somethings, I realise that a lot of people dabbled, and I really wasn't that unique at all. What's it take?

  3. Sada says:

    Sadako: It's Blair's Nightmare, Nightmare being the name of the giant dog, which I believe is an Irish wolfhound. Confession: I have a total author crush on Zilpha Keatley Snyder. This book always made me wish I was psychic. Damn you, Blair!

  4. nikki says:

    Thanks for the awesome guesting TKOG!!! Sounds like a great book. I shoulda read more occultish stuff as a teen. On the plus side, I just ordered Beloved Benjamin is Waiting from paperbackswap!

  5. @dragonzflame: Thank goodness I'm not alone! I don't think I've ever admitted this to anyone, but back in my 13-year-old Wiccan phase, I, uh, may or may not have used my marching band-issued flute cleaning cloth holding stick as a magic(k) wand during my various attempted spells.Oh man. Oh man. I had totally repressed that memory. I have total Sudden Revulsion Syndrome for my 13-year-old self now!

  6. Sadako says:

    That's it, Sada! Thank you!

  7. dragonzflame says:

    Haha, TKOG, that's brilliant! I never thought of doing that. I picked up sticks from the ground and hot-glued crystals to the top. I also fashioned myself a pentacle for my altar out of cardboard, dark blue nail polish (I had no paint), and clear beads.Then my puppy stole it and ate it, along with my dream catcher.

  8. zehava says:

    I was OBSESSED with ZKS as a kid! I especially loved her "above the root" trilogy (so much so that I bought them used off of Amazon, but never actually re-read them.) I LOVED the Egypt Game, and the Great Stanley Kidnapping Case. I probably have read every book she's written.

  9. a sonic fan says:

    for some reason it made me think of speak with your heart by Cash Cash…

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