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Humanizing monsters and monsterizing humans in ‘Monsterland’

I mean really, what did you expect? That in an amusement park called Monsterland, visitors would delight from thrilling rides and stroll about with cotton candy?

Sure, Michael Okon's "Monsterland" (WordFire Press) has its suspense, its horror, even a mini family saga and some coming of age playing out around the edges. And let's not forget a plot to take over the world. But what about the basic premise: a playland where guests can interact with vampires, be chased by werewolves and walk among zombies? From there, specific storylines can be drawn as easily as picking one from Column A and one from Column B.

And I mean really, what did you expect from Michael Okon, who has also given us the clever Witches Protection Program, the witty title describing an agency created to protect good witches from bad witches in everyday society.

" 'Monsterland' always resided within me from the first time I stepped into a theme park as a kid," says Okon. "While I enjoyed conventional rides with both anticipation and fear, I never understood why there wasn't a more primal theme park created, one that captured what scares us most – monsters."

Even Disney's rides and movies have a strong fear factor. And let's pay homage to "Jurassic Park," which Okon watched with his kids as his idea percolated. "It was born on a lazy summer afternoon, after a classic-movies marathon binge. The story took shape and became so much more than a fear of monsters, but that of a group of teens teetering on the cusp of adulthood. And as the story grew, so many current issues from bullying to finding acceptance and happiness in one's own skin, found their way into the manuscript."

If you know Okon, you know he doesn't waste words. In fact, his books are relatively short. This puts the pressure on to capture readers from the get-go.

So what does he do? On the first page, he takes us inside the mind of Billy, a werewolf camped out in the Everglades, still in human form. Life is going to change dramatically for Billy, as men with rifles come after him and his friends.

Okon brilliantly describes Billy's bodily transformation, right before his capture: "A howl erupted from his throat, followed by another, and then another. Grabbing handfuls of dirt, he tried to fight the awful change, but as the sun set, the moon took control of his life and the unnatural force tore through his unwilling body."

Billy's capture is a microcosm of how Monsterland the park comes about. With the world still recovering from a pandemic, plague victims isolated in settlement camps, and economies shattered, the unnerving Dr. Vincent Konrad steps in as an apparent savior. With government support, he creates an amusement park (seven actually) of monsters, cleaning up wastelands, providing many new jobs, and bringing plague victims into the park for what in theory would be their own protection and welfare.

" 'Monsterland' is dedicated to the nightmares that have created this world," says Konrad. "They have kept us frozen in fear and unable to move forward as a society. Only when we are no longer afraid do we truly begin to live."

Konrad goes about the business of securing werewolves, zombies and vampires as the park's main attractions. His security systems and safeguards seem foolproof.

As the opening of the amusement park nears, we are introduced to Wyatt Baldwin, a high school senior of sound mind and morals dealing with typical adolescent funk. He manages to secure four invitations to the grand opening.

Meanwhile, Wyatt also is trying to come to terms with Carter, his well-meaning stepfather, a good person facing the usual dilemma of stepping into the dad role without the official dad title. As a police officer, he too finds himself at the grand opening, but in a professional capacity.

As the park opens, skepticism creeps in from various corners, and readers can't help but wonder whether things – and intentions – are not as they seem.

Without giving away more, one might best be served to heed the words of Okon from a recent BookTrib interview when he said, "In Monsterland, I basically humanize the monsters and monsterize the humans."

What did you expect? Cotton candy?

"Monsterland" is available for purchase.

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