I’ll start by saying that I grew up in New Jersey, and while I haven’t lived there in many years (more than I care to count), I’m still oddly protective of the Garden State. So when I started The Devil and Winnie Flynn and saw that it took place in NJ, my defenses were up. I wasn’t in the mood for the usual Jersey Shore references and jokes about girls with big hair. But what I got instead was a clever book about a girl trying to connect with distant family after a tragedy all while on the set of a reality TV show about paranormal investigators in search of the mythical Jersey Devil. It was certainly not what I expected, but this twisted tale had me hooked immediately.
17 year old Winnie Flynn is spending the summer in NJ on the set of Fantastic Fearsome, the wildly popular paranormal reality TV series created and starring her aunt Maggie. Maggie Leader is worshipped in the world of the weird but not by Winnie. In fact, the first time Winnie met her aunt was at her mother’s funeral, just a few months ago. After her mother’s sudden death, Winnie’s father and her best friend Lucia (Lu for short) cajole Winnie into traveling across the country to accept Maggie’s offer to be production assistant on the set of Fantastic Fearsome for the summer. The show is heading to New Jersey, where Maggie and Winnie’s mother grew up, to search for the Jersey Devil, a mythical creature said to be kangaroo-like in appearance with bat wings, clawed hands and cloven hooves (I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s a Jersey thing). Instead of the usual cast of aged experts and academic types Fantastic Fearsome usually features, this season Maggie has cast a group of young devil hunters. Casey is a bossy college freshman with a slick black bob who fancies herself a psychic (and poet), Ivan, an overly eager high school student who is more friend seeker than ghost hunter and Seth, who is the oldest of the three and the most knowledgeable. And most attractive.
Winnie is an avid horror fan, but there is no way she takes any of this ghost hunting business seriously. And she’s surprised that anyone else does either. But the Devil Hunters take themselves VERY seriously and they have no doubt that they will find the Jersey Devil. [Insert Winnie’s eye roll here]. Even her aunt Maggie seems to genuinely believe in the paranormal, even though everyone knows there is little reality in reality TV. Seth is convinced that by the end of the summer, he can change Winnie from a skeptic to a true believer and Winnie is willing to let him try. What’s the worst that can happen?
The Devil and Winnie Flynn is narrated by Winnie through a series of letters (more like journal entries) to her best friend Lu and the one-sided conversation makes for very witty banter. Winnie has a way with words and describes the situations and people she encounters with humorously brutal honesty. “His hair is an explosion of curls with no place to grow but out. Maybe that’s why he’s here with this group. Maybe with hair like that, his options were limited”. From the first chapter you get a sense for this girl’s humor and you know it’s going to be a devilishly good time.
The story isn’t just told through Winnie’s letter to Lu. It’s also told through a collection of archival documents like Casey’s written application to the show, Seth’s video diary, transcripts of interviews for Fantastic Fearsome and other various material. There are also the cunning illustrations by David Ostow that act as a supporting character to the narration. The real locations and historical myths told in the story add weight to the tale and make the whole thing a little more real. When you get to Part Two of the book, do yourself a favor and google image search the Overbrook Insane Asylum in Cedar Hill New Jersey, the real life asylum that must be the inspiration for the Overlook Asylum referred to in the book. Winnie describes the asylum as “one part Hogwarts, two parts Grey Gardens, as envisioned by Guillermo del Toro”, which is pretty spot on.
The more we learn about Winnie’s life before her summer of ghost hunting, the more we’re left to wonder about the circumstances of her mother’s death. Why were her mother and aunt Maggie estranged for Winnie’s entire life? Can Maggie be trusted or was her mother trying to protect Winnie from something dangerous? Is there is hint of a romance between Seth and Winnie? Or Seth and Casey? How much is reality and how much is orchestrated by the film crew for the sake of reality TV? And the biggest mystery of all- is the devil real?
On some levels, The Devil and Winnie Flynn is your typical horror thriller but Micol Ostow acknowledges this and cleverly embraces the horror clichés and tropes. Winnie is laughing at the absurdity of the situation and we are laughing with her. But as the story progresses, the joke’s on us when things start to happen that can’t be explained away as camera tricks and good editing.
From the Pine Barrens to the Stone Pony to the Overlook Asylum, The Devil and Winnie Flynn is a paranormal panoramic of New Jersey. Micol Ostow and David Ostow have created a horror story in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scream and Evil Dead- a little creepy, a little campy, but all good fun. The Devil And Winnie Flynn may not keep you up at night out of fright, but it will certainly keep you up because you won’t be able to put it down!