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'The Gates' by John Connolly

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John Connolly's YA novel "The Gates" is the perfect book for Halloween -- a laugh-out-loud funny tale about a boy who must find a way to close the gates of hell (and save humanity!) after his goofy neighbors accidentally open them during a séance, unleashing a horde of demons.

The premise is nothing to sell your soul for but the execution is brilliant, and Connolly has a deft touch with character, slapstick humor, particle physics, footnotes and droll asides.

Here, the devil is named the Great Malevolence. But he resides mostly offstage, and it is a hapless minor demon named Nurd, the Scourge of Five Deities, who steals the show.

Nurd also steals a Porsche -- to the delight of 11-year-old boys everywhere -- and is enjoying his earthly joy ride when he is stopped by policemen who mistake him for a nut case in a Halloween costume. Later, Nurd manages a clever trick with an Aston Martin that brings the novel, which moves like a greased pig after the demons appear, to a satisfying close.

An Irishman who divides his time between Dublin and the United States, Connolly is known for adult thrillers with supernatural elements. But only a child's eye view of the world could produce "The Gates' " whimsical tone.

Demons materialize on Earth in blue flashes "accompanied by a smell like a fire in a rotten-egg factory." A wife calls to her husband from the kitchen door: "Barry! Christopher says the demonic horde are in your rose garden. They must be a band or something."

The old-fashioned story-telling in "The Gates" will also appeal to adults looking for a book to read aloud to kids. My 13-year old called it "a cross between Eoin Colfer and Terry Pratchett," and I'm stealing his description because he got it exactly right.

Connolly provides parents with a few winks also. His smart and quirky boy hero is named Samuel Johnson and he's accompanied everywhere by his dachshund Boswell. The demon-summoning Abernathys live at 666 Crowley Road.

And for those who fear schools don't teach enough science these days, "The Gates" discourses airily on quantum mechanics, wormholes, black holes, dark matter, the big bang, the Higgs boson "god particle" and Switzerland's Large Hadron Collider. This slows things down a bit in the beginning, but the reader's patience is soon rewarded.

Connolly includes a reproduction of the famous photo of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue, which pretty much sums up the irreverent silliness of this book, and an accompanying footnote warns against taking oneself too seriously, a dictum the author clearly has embraced.

Because the accident that opens the gates of hell occurs around Halloween, the demons who pour through the breach are at first indistinguishable from all the costumed kids and adults who roam the land raising holy, er, hell.

But the intrepid humans soon catch on. One family, outraged that 7-foot-tall hairy black demons have trampled their father's beloved rose garden and sullied their mother's newly remodeled kitchen, fight back with fireplace pokers, dustbin lids and coal tongs.

Connolly takes childlike glee in describing the demons' repulsive smells, scaly skin, oozing tentacles and strange eyes. He also plays adroitly with the trope that adults don't take their children's stories seriously.

One chapter is titled "In Which Samuel Learns That Someone Trying to Open the Gates of Hell Is Not of Particular Concern to His Mum."

There has long been a cornucopia of Halloween-themed picture books for young children. With its endearing protagonist, rollicking plot, and dollops of weird but mostly true science, "The Gates" has a shot at becoming a middle-school Halloween classic.

Hamilton is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Last Embrace" and editor of the Edgar Award-winning anthology "Los Angeles Noir."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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