Food is a recurring motif in the work of William Sleator. From House of Stairs to Parasite Pig (sequel to Interstellar Pig) where food is central, to The Boy Who Couldn’t Die (in which a young man almost gives away his secret by grabbing a hot dish with his hands), The Last Universe (in which the brother is wasting away), and Singularity (spending a year alone requires careful stockpiling), where it’s a detail, but not central. And then there’s The Beasties, in which food is again a detail, but the primary theme of the book is consumption of a different kind. Consumption of the environment—destruction of the forest, specifically, and its consequences—and consumption of the body as well. The latter is surprising. Although Sleator’s books for young adults almost always deal with the supernatural, there’s usually not a lot of gore in them. Here, though, there’s a fair amount of bodies being dismembered and stitched back together. And early on the protagonist Doug and his young sister Colette discover an extremely disturbing, and crude, underground surgical theater.
As with most horror stories, though, it starts with something small, even appealing. Outside their new vacation home, in the growing dark, Doug and Colette find a baseball bat, a ball, and a book—Frazier’s Golden Bough, in fact, which is an intriguing choice. The gifts seem almost too obvious, though. Dough is into sports, and Colette loves to read. Doug even comments on the coincidence. When they discover a secret trapdoor, Doug is, at first, afraid. It’s the younger Colette who points out what is an obvious flaw in most horror stories.
“If some crazy person wanted to do things to kids, they wouldn’t just sit here waiting months and months for us to come along. A normal murderer would go out and look for victims.”
Colette is, of course, absolutely right, although the creatures they find have been waiting for them, and eventually Doug will have to make a large sacrifice.
Sleator does an excellent job of keeping up the suspense, and, while there is an underlying theme of environmentalism (the titular Beasties rely on the forest for their survival) it’s not obtrusive. It’s thoughtfully and intelligently treated, suggesting that our actions may have unforeseen consequences. And if your mother ever warned you not to do something because you’d lose an eye, well, The Beasties gives a whole new slant to that.