This book follows the same format as the first, which lends itself perfectly to the spooky atmosphere of the story. It is told from teenage Ryan's point of view, written in his all-caps "handwriting" in a lined composition book. His story is interspersed with videos filmed by his best friend, Sarah. Sarah is an aspiring filmmaker, and she shoots her part of the story, skulking through the very creepy abandoned mining dredge with her camera, filming potential clues in their sleepy little town. She uploads them to a secret site, and then emails Ryan the password (which is always something from a spooky book, film or television show). Readers access the video themselves, going to sarahfincher.com, and get her side of the story. The combination book/video hybrid makes for a gripping experience that will appeal to those who love mystery, suspense and horror novels and films alike.
The book comes in a delightful package. There is a flexible translucent plastic sleeve that covers the novel (above), and the composition book (on the right) slides out from inside it. I love those cute little skulls all over the cover, complete with fake spots and stains. The illustrations, wonderful black-and-white sketches that adorn the pages with Sarah's passwords, give readers a clue about the background behind them (a ship's steering wheel for "THEANCIENTMARINER," for example, and a topiary labyrinth for "JACKTORRANCE").
The first installment left us with a video cliff-hanger of the worst kind, but happily the quandary in which our characters find themselves is resolved in the video that opens the second book. And from there, the text and videos sweep the reader along at an unrelenting, break-neck pace. I found myself keeping my laptop open on my lap as I read, so I'd be ready for the next video installment - and the eerie music and sounds from Sarah's site were an ideal soundtrack, making the written part just that much more spooky.
Ryan and Sarah are still forbidden to see each other, following the accident that happened before the opening of the first book. They had been exploring the abandoned mining dredge in the woods, and Ryan had shattered his leg when he'd fallen from a high wooden walkway. He'd felt someone shove him - it wasn't an accidental fall, but of course no one would believe that. Instead, their parents have demanded Ryan and Sarah not email each other, call each other - or even, when Ryan's leg is finally healed enough for him to return to school - talk to each other at school.
But the investigation conducted in the earlier book has led them to believe that there is a conspiracy right in their own hometown, the place they'd thought was the most boring place on earth. Ryan's own father seems to be involved, as does the grumpy librarian, who screams at Sarah for filming outside the public library. The other names they've found in a secret room of the dredge are unfamiliar to them...but each one they track down turns up to be dead. It is clear that someone wants them to stop poking around - the park ranger, in fact, seems to be stalking Sarah whenever she goes outside. Ryan discovers creepy writing on the wall of his bedroom, and he knows with a dreadful certainty that the ghost from the dredge has been in his bedroom - while he's sleeping: Don't make me come looking for you. But is it possible that Ryan wrote it himself? In his sleep?
The more Sarah and Ryan uncover, the more important it becomes to learn the truth of what happened in their town, years before they were born. Unfortunately, their search involves lying, sneaking around, and going directly against their parents' wishes...and getting themselves into more danger than they believed possible.
I enjoyed the first book in this series, as much for the novelty of the format as for the spooky, suspenseful tale it contained. I was delighted to find that I enjoyed this one even more. The first volume sets the stage, introduces the players, and presents intriguing clues and details. In this second volume, the characters gain depth and complexity, particularly Ryan as he uses his journal as a sounding board, trying to sort things out by writing them down.
Here is a passage I found to be particularly effective:
So now I'm alone in the house again, and I can't help thinking about what it feels like to live in Skeleton Creek. I've been trying to put my finger on it for a long time. No one new ever moves here. It's the same old people keeping mostly to themselves. There's a kind of Gothic loneliness about everything.
You know what it feels like?
It feels like the dredge dug the heart out of my town and chucked it into the woods. All that's left are the ghosts walking around.
I also enjoyed getting to know Sarah a little better. She is a very strong character, tenacious and brave, moving forward to get the information they need, even when she is clearly scared out of her wits. The mystery is tangled and confusing, and it is unsettling for the teenagers (and also the reader) to see their ordinary town, and people they've known their entire lives - including their own parents - in a darker, potentially threatening light. There is a chilling but satisfying conclusion that leaves a few threads dangling, which makes me hope for possible future installments in this gripping series.
Ghost in the Machine (Volume 2 of the Skeleton Creek series) by Patrick Carman; illustrations by Joshua Pease (Scholastic, 2009)
Also reviewed at:
Books and Literature for Teens: "If you like ghost mysteries, grab this book and let the story of Skeleton Creek suck you in. Hey, this would even be a great thing to read during a sleep-over. But if you're faint of heart or don't like to be scared, then you know you shouldn't read this book."
MariReads: "SKELETON CREEK was a really great introduction to the characters and story, and GHOST IN THE MACHINE was the perfect sequel, bringing the mystery to a shocking close."