Once upon a time, I read a trilogy of books featuring diminutive main characters fighting an ancient, seemingly unstoppable, evil. It was called The Iron Tower, by Dennis L. McKiernan. Published in 1984. Some time later, I read a series with, nearly point-for-point, the same plot. And was disgusted at how obvious a copy it was. This series was The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Published in 1954. And so a lesson was learned – check dates before assuming something is just a rip off.
Which brings us to Nine Candles of Deepest Black by Matthew Cox. I have to admit, I liked this story, I even liked it when it was the movie ‘The Craft’. And while it is tempting to use the same line, changing ‘The Craft’ to ‘Stranger Things’, knowing how long it takes to write, edit, and publish a book, the odds are minuscule that NCoDB was influenced by that excellent Netflix series. There are similarities, but then, those similarities are elements of horror fiction that are not original, dating to (at least) Lovecraft and Dunsany.
Now, the plots of The Craft and NCoDB are not identical, merely…highly similar. In both, the protagonist is a troubled teen in a new town, who connects with fellow outcasts with an interest in using magic to deal with their problems in life and high school. In both, the protagonist is the only one with any real power, and her abilities fuel the ritual for her friends. In both, everything goes pear-shaped. In both, the wishes are strikingly similar (love, revenge, money), although honesty compels me to state that these are pretty universal drivers, so there isn’t much to be made of that. And in both, the really evil character is gone at the end, and the rest are still talking, if less skittish about it in NCoDB than the movie.
There are, to be sure, many differences. And those make the book a good read. But wow, I was starting to picture the cast of The Craft there for a while.
But on to the book. Nine Candles of Deepest Black is the story of Paige Thomas, sophomore, whose family has just relocated to the small town of Shadesboro, PA after her sister, Amber, was killed by a drunk driver. Something Paige had seen coming, but (sis being away at college and all) unable to prevent. Or have anyone believe she saw coming. Paige, on her first day of school, meets the rest of the characters – picked-on eight-grader Sofia (taunted because her parents run a funeral home), Renee (comes from a broken home), Santana (family is struggling financially), and Mackenzie the token spoiled rich girl (dead mom, trophy wife stepmom, crush on football player). After some hang-out time at Mackenzie’s, the girls get out the Ouija board (of course), and things go dark when Paige uses it.
From there, it is a short jump to Mackenzie using the others to cast a spell to get what they want – Paige wants her father to snap out of his depression at losing his daughter, Sofia wants the mean kids to stop teasing her, Mackenzie wants the football player (Cole) to love her, Renee wants her family to be whole, and Santana wants her family’s money issues to end. Of course, this is where the kids mostly good intentions go off the rails, as I expect you can tell from the wishes. No spoilers, but it is a bit obvious who the villain is, and that nothing will be what it seems.
Matthew Cox’s writing is excellent, if a bit bogged down in describing Paige’s clothing. His depiction of a family torn apart by grief, and having to deal in their own ways is excellent, and while some characters are completely two dimensional (Cole), they are also closer to being set pieces than actual characters. The actual characters are well rounded, with good and mean in what feel like accurate amounts. The inevitable ‘but you saw the super-mystical-inexplicable thing!’ scenes are, frankly, solid. Even if the trope is played out, the simple fact is that in a real encounter, this kind of exchange would occur, and would freak people out to no end. The mind is fairly excellent at wiping out things it decides you don’t need to remember, which makes the reactions far more believable. Cox also deals with desires of someone who doesn’t see the whole picture nicely as well. Without ruining it, let’s just say Renee’s father needed to be absent, for good reasons. But also for reasons that a teen might simply not want to see, and thus be able to ignore. All well done.
I do have to say that at times, Renee and Santana blended in my head some, with neither being overly strong, or memorable. Again, understandable – the story focuses on Paige, Mackenzie, and Sofia. I didn’t see any crosses in the writing – which is a bit annoying – so while I had some occasional trouble, your mileage may vary.
This is a good stand-alone novel, being fully self-contained and leaving only the usual bits at the end for the genre, suggesting nothing vis a vis a sequel. I would like to see one, however. I think there can be more to tell here, and while the girls learned not to mess with ancient evil, there are enough references to other things Paige sees/senses in the town to make a satisfying short series of the girls helping out when something bad pops up. Something in the vein of Buffy meets Sleepy Hollow.
Anyway, yes, I can suggest this as a good read – some thrills without being too much for a younger audience. Despite feeling like a revision of The Craft, NCoDB is a solid work that deserves a look. The deductions in stars are for being too close to The Craft for my liking (I know all stories have been told before, at a meta level, but seriously, this was just too close), and for feeling drawn out towards the end. That could have been tighter. If a sequel is released, I will very much be picking it up, and that is as solid an endorsement as you can get.