THE DEVIL AND WINNIE FLYNN
by Micol Ostow
illustrated by David Ostow
Soho Teen, 326 pages
reviewed by Rachael Tague
I don’t like to be scared. I can’t stand that chill-in-the-air, breath-on-my-neck, sweat-in-my-palm terror that comes with horror stories. The last time I tried to read a scary book, I was twelve, and I flipped to the epilogue before I was halfway through to relieve the tension. That’s the only time I’ve ever read the end of a book without reading everything in between. But if I had the option to stop in the middle of The Devil and Winnie Flynn, I would have given up during the séance in the criminal ward of an abandoned insane asylum. As it was, I had to shut the book, take a breath, and reorient myself to reality before I could continue with this creepy tale.
Brother-Sister duo Micol and David Ostow (So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother)) team up for the second time to write and illustrate The Devil and Winnie Flynn, packing the pages with ghostly spirits, exorcisms, demons, psychics, and all manner of haunted locations, its characters seeking communion with the dead and the damned. Cleverly twisting the paranormal with mystery and pop culture, the Ostows invite their readers into Winnie Flynn’s haunted adventures.
When her mother commits suicide, Winnie Flynn meets her long-lost Aunt Maggie, “the creator, director, and producer of the Fantastic, Fearsome USTM series.” Her life becomes “a family-tragedy-turned-last-minute internship in television—in reality television!—smack-dab dead center in America’s armpit.” Winnie relocates from Portland, Oregon to a shady motel in her late mother’s home state of New Jersey. From their headquarters in Asbury Park, the cast and crew are within driving distance of spirit-filled destinations like Overlook Insane Asylum, Ghost Boy Bridge, the Pine Barrens, and the Devils portal. Their goal: to hunt down the famed New Jersey Devil, a creature Winnie believes is a myth.
The Fantastic, Fearsome team knows Winnie is not cut out to be a Production Assistant, having no experience with television or the paranormal apart from a secret obsession with horror movies, “even though that’s: 1) an acute understatement, and 2) our dirty little secret, Lu. Yours and mine, kind of our thing.” Winnie’s friend Lucia is the recipient of Winnie’s letter-style journal, where she records her intern experiences: “I brought the journal you gave me this past birthday with me…even if you won’t see these pages, at least, if I keep writing, I won’t be completely alone.”
The ongoing letter format, the snippets of the Fantastic, Fearsome script, and graphic novel-like illustrations of the crew’s storyboards and destinations lend an experimental feel to the novel, propelling the reader through the book. It’s always a bit of relief to unexpectedly come across a page with giant text or pictures, something to break the horror, look at, and enjoy. It allows the reader to watch other characters interact outside of Winnie’s thoughts and influence.
Winnie’s experiences with Fantastic, Fearsome challenge her doubts about the paranormal and make her question her own abilities and family history. Not only must she navigate typical teenage love triangles, mean girls, friendships, and jealousy, she must cope with the loss of her mother and her relocation to unfamiliar territory. There’s also the small matter of the Devil himself, who, Winnie discovers, is more closely linked with her family than she—or the reader—ever could have imagined. All the while, Winnie’s strong voice, somehow managing to remain upbeat despite her circumstances, shines through the mirk and mire of her creepy life:
See, what you have to understand about the Jersey Devil, Lu, is that it’s this weird kind of dinosaur-ish creature. At least in all the imagery I’ve seen…And while, yeah, I definitely would not want this creepy, raptor-like thing springing out at me on a dark and lonely night, it still doesn’t really hold its own. It pales in comparison to something like, you know, a zombie or a werewolf or even the ghost of someone you once knew and loved.
Bottom line: he’s kind of goofy, the Devil.
Winnie often uses humor to counteract her fearsome environment, mocking horror clichés and comparing her experiences with ridiculous movies she’s seen, while at the same time trying and mostly failing to maintain her disbelief in the paranormal. I enjoyed her awkward humor and demeanor, made possible by the freedom she has to voice her true thoughts to Lucia in her private journal. My only complaint about Winnie’s letters is when she tells her best friend information and stories Lucia already knows. Winnie retells the history of her mother’s suicide and funeral and talks about the good ol’ times with Lucia, bookending these memories with phrases like, “you know this already, Lu.” These bits of narrative are clearly for the reader’s sake, not for Lucia’s. Also, Winnie addresses Lucia by name over and over throughout the book, each time a nudging reminder that, hey, this is a letter, this is a journal, don’t forget.
Apart from that, though, I’m glad I didn’t revert to my twelve-year-old self and stop in the middle of the book. If I had given up during that creepy séance, I would have missed Winnie’s growth as she explores this new and powerful realm. She discovers truths about her abilities and character, learns to analyze others’ actions and better understand their motives and histories. She figures out how to rely on her friends and trust her instincts when the world shakes beneath her feet (both literally and figuratively).
As someone who normally avoids everything with a potential to scare me, I probably missed half of the dozens of horror references throughout the book, but I didn’t feel like I missed the story of Winnie Flynn. Balancing somewhere between terrifying and comedic, romantic and awkward, graphic novel and epistolary tale, The Devil and Winnie Flynn lures readers into its magically haunted domain through the eyes of a girl who has experienced heart-ache and hurt, yet manages to trudge on and find the power within herself to live and thrive in a crazy world.
Rachael Tague grew up in the Indianapolis area and is currently studying English and Creative Writing at Cedarville University. She is an editorial intern for Cleaver Magazine.