Wednesday, May 1, 2013

BH: A Readthrough of the SIXTH SENSE Children’s Book Series

Yet another article rescued from the gaping hole that was once

“I didn’t do it!” Then the noose tightened.
That is the real life blurb on the front of the real life children’s book THE SIXTH SENSE, SECRETS FROM BEYOND #3: HANGMAN. That’s right, M. Night Shyamalan’s hit supernatural drama THE SIXTH SENSE spawned a three-part kids’ mystery series, released between 2000 and 2001. And no, this isn’t aimed at ages 13 and up, like the movie itself. These are chapter books for actual children. Sometimes the world we live in can be a very strange and beautiful place.
I discovered this series, written under the inconsistently-utilized pen name David Benjamin, during a trip to a used bookstore a year ago, but I didn’t start to flip through them until this month. I shouldn’t have waited, because my life has been thoroughly enriched by the knowledge that, somewhere in time, a gaggle of kids across the nation had the opportunity to leaf through these delightfully gruesome mysteries starring Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear, acting as direct sequels to a film they weren’t even allowed to see. I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey through these weird and wonderful books.
WARNING: This article will mildly spoil the endings to some of these books. It also spoils the ending of 1999’s THE SIXTH SENSE but, like… c’mon. Reader discretion is advised.

You know how Bruce Willis turns out to be a ghost in THE SIXTH SENSE? Well, in these books it seems like they’re contractually obligated to have at least one character turn out to be a ghost each time. That might seem like a cheap ploy, but it actually creates a fun meta-mystery. You try to figure out which character has been dead the whole time as Cole attempts to solve a completely unrelated mystery. Often, it’s actually easier to solve Cole’s mystery, because the obligatory ghost reveal can come completely out of left field.
In SURVIVOR, I was convinced that a particular detective was a ghost. There was already another pair of detectives on the case, and nobody else seemed to know he existed. He would just arrive out of nowhere to interrogate Cole whenever he was conveniently alone. Then I got the rug pulled out from under me! Not only did a late-chapter human interaction prove he was alive, he actually became an important recurring character throughout the entire trilogy. So much for my Sherlock Holmes-ing.
I won’t spoil who the ghost is, except to say that it is a hilariously arbitrary reveal, but the fact that this kids’ book could pull off a playful twist like that speaks to a certain quality in the writing, as simple as it is. This series isn’t high literature, but it’s a little, teensy bit smarter than your average kiddie fare.
I wasn’t particularly drawn in by the main plot of SURVIVOR, so I don’t have much to say about that, but my other major takeaway was another quality that would carry over through the entire series: it’s hella gross. The catalyst for the story is a deadly plane crash, and SURVIVOR is just dripping with grotesque descriptions of charred flesh and exposed bone. It’s flatly horrifying and the fact that the intended audience is clearly supposed to be children makes it even more grotesque. In case it wasn’t clear, I highly recommend it.

The mysteries in SECRETS FROM BEYOND are always juvenile, but RUNAWAY is probably the most compelling: Cole is developing a friendship with his classmate Jason, whose life is suddenly thrown into turmoil when his older brother goes missing along with several other neighborhood teens. This one has a lot of plates spinning. Cole wants to get close to Jason by helping him find his brother, but is scared to reveal he can see dead people, even though his gift will help them find him. Plus, there’s a ticking clock. The person he’s trying to save is actually alive this time, so the stakes are high.
It’s actually pretty amazing how well David Benjamin can juggle so many situations and characters (the story also covers, in some detail, Cole’s mom and Detective Brown from SURVIVOR) in less than 150 pages. But what’s even more amazing is the character arc that he spins from straw into gold. The book is littered with references to Cole’s dad leaving him, to the point that it’s annoying, but in the end he synthesizes that into a message of empowerment that acknowledges the hardships many kids face. It’s something that a lot of kids’ books would be afraid to do, but I suppose a series where a ten-year-old stares at ribs poking from a bloody torso is willing to push the envelope a bit.
One more thing that I dig about this series is its strong sense of continuity (I guess that would be the seventh sense), both with the film and the other books. In RUNAWAY, a character from the plan crash in SURVIVOR is instrumental in solving the mystery. They were really building a universe here.

They saved the best for last! HANGMAN doesn’t have the strongest plot in the series, but it’s terrifically gruesome and heartfelt, two qualities that defined the film this series is based on.
This entry is just ghastly, depicting macabre sights left and right. My personal favorite is the deliciously tragic detail that ghosts of authors haunt the public library, weeping and imploring patrons to read their forgotten novels. But seriously, I have no idea how they got away with passages like this:
All the man’s hair had been charred off – even his eyebrows. His skin was burned and boiled. The fingers of his hand were fused together.
That’s some truly twisted stuff, and when it isn’t being grotesque, HANGMAN is being poetically gothic, like the idea of a hanged man being unable to leave the boundaries of where he was executed, the noose tightening around his neck to prevent his escape.
It’s a real shame that this series didn’t continue beyond a third entry, because it was just getting started. With each passing entry, Cole’s adventures were getting more and more genuinely disturbing, and HANGMAN introduced a character that just might have been revealed to share Cole’s sixth sense in a later book.
It’s sad we don’t have more, but at least HANGMAN concludes with a tender, deserved scene that actually brought a tear to my eye. I’ll miss my ever-so-brief journey through this delightful, disgusting trilogy, but my heart will forever be lightened by the knowledge that some kid out there grew up poring over these monstrosities. Hell, maybe they’re even reading this article right now. It’s certainly a better education than any summer reading list can provide.

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