Since the birth of my son, I’ve been a bit hard-pressed to make time for reading, and it is with regret that it took me several weeks longer than expected to finish Edgar Cantero’s new novel Meddling Kids, a mashup of Scooby-Doo and H. P. Lovecraft that earned rave reviews from critics earlier this summer. I found the book to be enjoyable, but a little less impressive than the critics made it out to be. Meddling Kids is a book I wanted to love, but it was one I liked instead. And to be frank, I think TV is ruining novels for me. It’s hard to pretend that 300 pages of a one-off novel can rival the hundreds of hours I spend with characters on TV series over the years of their runs. It takes, what, 20 hours to read this book, while, for example, a throwaway TV show on a similar theme like Teen Wolf has 100 hours of content spread over six calendar years. Perhaps that’s why I just don’t feel the same connection when I read reviews about how realistic and detailed the book’s characters are. I barely got to know them before they were gone. Each had, I believe, one personality trait. It seems like the CW’s Riverdale was more of a fresh and darker take on Archie than Meddling Kids is for Scooby-Doo
The story concerns a team of teen detectives who return to their hometown more than a dozen years after their last big case, when in 1977 they unmasked the Sleepy Lake Monster in the summer resort town where they spent their school vacations. Now adults in 1990, they are slightly skewed versions of the Scooby Gang, to the point that I needn’t really describe them except to say that Cantero has taken the most popular readings of Scooby-Doo’s subtext and promoted it to text—the Shaggy analog is insane and on drugs and hears voices, Velma and Daphne (here remixed into two hybrid characters) are a butch lesbian and a sexually fluid femme. Fred’s dead. Their new names for this novel don’t really matter. I rarely thought of them as anything other than the Scooby Gang. Yes, there is a dog.
Our heroes gradually realize that the man they fingered as the mask-wearing Sleepy Lake Monster was in fact a stooge, and something horrible happened to them in 1977, a real horror that they couldn’t suppress completely and which has destroyed their lives. If you thought that the horror involved abuse or even terrible violence, you would be wrong. Instead—and this gives nothing away since it’s on the cover—the real horror is Lovecraftian, a tentacled monster that someone is trying to free from under a shunned house. The Scooby Gang goes back to Blyton Hills to uncover the truth, and they stumble into a rather heavy-handed combination of “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Lurking Fear.”
Before we go any further, I need to address what most reviewers failed to mention, probably because middle-aged book reviewers don’t keep up with semi-recent cartoons. The plot of this book is not dissimilar to Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated (2010-2013), and at times the echoes, down to the buried Lovecraftian horror waiting to emerge beneath a seemingly idyllic resort community where a team of teen investigators only think they’ve unmasked pretend monsters, are uncomfortably close. The TV show colored its horror with humor and with Zecharia Sitchin’s ancient astronaut theory, while the book hews toward Clark Ashton Smith’s wizarding version of Lovecraftian lore, but they both dance around the same story, in what I doubt is entirely a coincidence.
Elements of the book were wry and funny. The best joke in the entire book is also one of the first, with the town of Blyton Hills sitting on the Zoinx River. But that cleverness doesn’t permeate the entire book, and it leaves the characters in an uneasy place between cartoon and fully formed human. Similarly, the world of Blyton Hills is merely sketched and incomplete, with a small handful of limited locations, a suggestion of a setting like the infamous Hanna-Barbara Repeating Forest (to steal a Futurama joke). It was as though the author imagined an old cartoon’s storyboard, where the need to paint backgrounds necessitated a restricted set of backgrounds. If the story had leaned into a full parody of Scooby-Doo, this might have been part of the joke, but Cantero wants us to take the characters seriously, so the cartoony setting doesn’t quite support the emotions we are asked to believe.
One reason for that is that Cantero sets the story in Oregon in 1990 but seems to have no firsthand knowledge of either. Cantero is a native of Barcelona, working in Catalan, Spanish, and English. Although Meddling Kids was written in English and is set in the United States, it has just enough of a remove from the deeply intimate knowledge we would see in an American native that at times it doesn’t quite capture the depth that might have taken this cartoony novel to a higher plane. Like me, Cantero was 9 years old in 1990, and so far as I know he has never been to Oregon. The lack of specifics from either the time period (aside from a list of hit songs) or the geographic location leaves the story suspended in a never-never-land that, again, would be appropriate for a cartoon parody but which rings hollow in what is supposed to be a better rounded and realistic—though I use the word loosely for a story about an evil wizard—take on Scooby-Doo archetypes.
The Lovecraftian elements did not come out particularly well. Something, it seems, was lost in translating Lovecraft to Scooby-Doo via Catalonia. Cantero name-checks Lovecraftian elements such as Arkham, the Necronomicon, and Nyarlathotep, but the existential despair of true Lovecraftian fiction is here reduced to an action-adventure that just happens to feature tentacles. To that end, could really have been any magical material used in place of the Lovecraftian.
I should also briefly mention that the writing style is sometimes distractingly postmodern, shifting between traditional narrative and screenplay format with no purpose or notice, and using unusual portmanteau words that the author seems to have invented for his third language out of translated parts of the other two.
All of this makes the book seem less enjoyable than it was. It is a fun, if slight, story that seems as though it were written with a potential movie in mind. It was great summer reading, but I doubt I will retain much of a memory of it by the time the leaves start to change.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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