There are any number of personal anecdotes/mini personal revelations I could use to ease into a discussion of this book, but I’m going to cold open with this: I like weird stuff. I don’t know if it’s been a consistent thing, my attraction to bizarro shit, or it’s a more recent and mildly alarming development in my personality, but it’s one that I’ve pretty much embraced. It’s confused people, the weirdness generally tends to confuse people, but I stand by my Eraserhead enthusiasm and unironic love of pigeon dating games. Weird is great, okay? Weird is playful, the ability to step back and go yes, but what if, an impulse that puts it catty-corner to surreal and experimental on the avenue of delighted surprise. Weird doesn’t always mean well-conceived or even ultimately all that interesting—think of any of the failed start-ups that litter college campuses—but it does mean a willingness to do things differently, and that is something I can admire.
So then. Personal anecdote over. Meddling Kids.
(cw for discussions of mental health, suicide, and general trauma)
Much as the haunted fake IKEA novel drew me in with its tagline of, well, haunted fake IKEA, Meddling Kids caught my attention by asking hey, what if one of the Scooby-Doo cases was an actual monster? It’s a concept you see all the time in fandom – what RPG class would the Disney Princesses be, what if The Avengers were cats, what Hogwarts house would XYZ character be in, etc? Seeing such a premise in published form is a rarer, but not that surprising—if we live in a world where a shitty Twilight fanfiction can become a cultural keystone, then hey, I guess there’s still hope for me. And so the concept, along with a pretty glowing review on NPR, dragged me in, and I got myself a copy of Meddling Kids.
I’m glad I did.
I’ve been describing Meddling Kids to friends as “hey, what if the Scooby-Doo kids grew up,” but it’s not quite that, not exactly. There’s a heroic dog, yes, and plenty of classic Hanna Barbera tropes—spooky mansions, a character who keeps losing her glasses, an embarrassing number of full-grown adults running around in Halloween costumes—but the characters aren’t exact analogs of their animated counterparts. Peter’s basically Fred, but he’s Fred who grows up, becomes a movie star, and then kills himself at the height of his fame. Kerri has Velma’s intelligence and Daphne’s looks/red hair, but she also suffers from anxiety and PTSD after being perpetually kidnapped and tied up. Nate is similar to Shaggy-like in his willingness to believe in the supernatural, but he’s also a twenty-four-year-old man who willingly committed himself to a mental institute. Andy is the hardest of the bunch to place, but I guess you could line her with Velma’s supposed tomboyishness, albeit more queer, Latinx, and ready to kick your ass.
Tim the dog does not talk. Also, he’s a Weimaraner, not a Great Dane, which I’m sure is of great importance to roughly three people out there.
So. It’s 1991, thirteen years since the Blyton Summer Detective Club’s biggest case, and they’re all basically shells of their former selves (except for Peter, because Peter is dead). Much like Scooby-Doo: The Movie (2001, Warner Bros), Meddling Kids opens with our heroes reuniting to—what else?—solve crime, except this time the threat is actually supernatural.* Thirteen years ago, the BSDC found Thomas Wickley running around a decrepit mansion in a giant salamander costume; now they’re back, convinced that Wickley was only one pawn in a larger game, and they’re ready to unmask the real villain.
It’s a fairly simple, tropey premise, and Edgar Cantero (who’s not even writing in his native language, he’s from Barcelona and works primarily in Spanish and Catalan which is patently UNFAIR) gleefully milks it for all its worth. This is a novel that knows its premise is silly and which rolls with it—it knows you’re here for “Scooby-Doo, but grown up” and does its damn best to deliver on that, giving us Cthulhu references and shitty paranormal erotica and such gems as the Zoinx River. The writing’s clever, full of one-liners and weirdly specific but oddly accurate metaphors and descriptions—particular favorites include “the night was cold but gentle like an X-rated metaphor” and “horror writers who get laid exist in literature” (oh snap, Edgar Allen Poe!) Maybe I’m just a sucker when it comes to meta jokes, but it’s hard not to be charmed when someone writes lines like, “Tim approached the ajar door, anticipating the next character entrance.” Meddling Kids is a parodic, but lovingly so, a nostalgic love letter that doesn’t devolve into a self-indulgent wankfest the way, say, Ready Player One did (oh snap, Ernest Cline! Cynthia picking fights with famous writers, round two out of infinity).
Even without the intertextual context, it’s a pretty solid horror novel, too. Yes, it’s pretty heavy on the comedy side of “horror-comedy,” but are some genuinely terrifying moments in Cantero’s descriptions of the creepy clues around the Deboën mansion and the eyeless hellspawn living under Sleepy Lake. The plot is tense, more full of twists than a bag of Twizzlers, and the suspense is sharper because you care about these characters—like fuck no, don’t you dare hurt my beautiful butch daughter Andrea “Andy” Rodriguez, she deserves to be happy and live happily-ever-after with her beautiful girlcrush. And maybe I’m slow or just not too great with mystery novels (I always was bad at guessing the villain in Scooby-Doo episodes), but this book had me in suspense until the inevitable evil villain monologue. Is Meddling Kids going to go eldritch horror, or are we gonna get a sci-fi plot out of this, or is this just going to be an elaborate long con by some guy in a fursuit? All of these options seemed equally possible at various points, it (in true Mystery Inc fashion) it managed to combine elements of “all of the above” with spicings of surprise. So yes, A+, 10/10, would read again.
And here we reach the part of the review where I invariably come in with a loud BUT of reservations and quibbles as to why this book isn’t actually 10/10 because No Art Is Perfect and We As Aspiring Artists Should Be Perpetually Critical of Media. And yeah, Meddling Kids isn’t a perfect book—there are points where the meta jokes start feeling more self-indulgent than witty, and the plot definitely lost me at a few parts (but this could just be me being bad at mystery novels). I would have definitely liked to know more about Peter, who—due to being kind of dead—is present only through flashbacks or hallucinations, and consequently either thirteen or a huge dick (possibly due to being a hallucination and you know, only sketchily connected to the actual person in question). It would have nice to see what drew the other kids to him and how Cantero would have played with tropes of “popular leader dude.”
But man, for all that I can see the flaws of this book do I not care. You know how can look at a box of Pop Tarts and know, objectively, that they’re essentially sugar and preservatives in a decidedly non-vegetarian package, but that does nothing to deter you from sneaking three packages of them from the office for breakfast? That’s this book in a nutshell. It’s a good, fun book that doesn’t really try to be anything else. And c’mon, who isn’t up for that? It’s August 2017, America is in shambles, the ocean levels are still rising, and it’s going to be literally hot as hell soon. Fuck it. Go read the Scooby-Doo horror novel. You won’t regret it.
*There’s even an island, though thankfully no Scrappy-Doo character.