Allison's Book Bag

The Boy Who Couldn’t Die, by William Sleator

Posted on: November 30, 2013

The Boy Who Couldn't DieWe are all familiar with the zombies of movies, television, and books: reanimated corpses that feast on human brains and spread the zombie plague through their bite. But there is another kind of zombie– the zombies of folklore and witchcraft. The Boy Who Couldn’t Die, by William Sleator, is about the second kind.

Most teenagers do not think about death, but after Ken’s best friend died in a plane crash he becomes determined to avoid it. It’s not difficult to find psychics in New York, but it takes a bit of searching before Ken can find someone who can help him with his particular need. He finally finds an ad that offers “Freedom from Death” — at the bargain price of fifty dollars. Cheri Buttercup says she can make Ken invulnerable. He just has to die first. Then she will take his soul and hide it, and then bring him back to life. And with his soul hidden, nothing will harm him. Simple.

Ken has misgivings. But he really doesn’t want to die, so he goes through with the ritual. But did it work? He soon finds out. A hot dish doesn’t burn him. The punches of a beautiful girl’s enraged boyfriend feel like feathers to Ken and a brick wall to the boyfriend. Ken doesn’t quite feel himself, but he enjoys knowing that nothing can hurt him.

Ken talks his parents into taking him to the Caribbean so he can learn scuba diving and swim with sharks. Well, he leaves out the part about the sharks. The week-long vacation in St. Calao begins with a day of scuba training culminating in certification. On the following day the scuba instructors take their six students out to a reef to put their new training to use. Ken sneaks away with he can to go looking for sharks. He finds one, but discovers that he was followed by Sabine, the sixteen-year-old assistant  trainer. And the shark has his eye on both of them. Ken is forced to put his invulnerability to the ultimate test, offering his body to the shark to save Sabine.

Now that Sabine knows Ken’s secret, he tells her everything. But the ritual he experienced in New York is familiar to the Caribbean girl. Sabine tells Ken that by giving his soul to Cheri Buttercup, it is now under her control. This explains why Ken is having disturbing dreams in which he sees himself helping to reanimate his friend Roger, and killing a man on the streets of New York. Sabine tells Ken that he must reclaim his soul.

Back in New York, Cheri buttercup is only happy to oblige–for the less-than-bargain price of $50,000. There’s always a catch, isn’t there?

Sleator grabbed my attention early and held it throughout his 162-page book. The Boy Who Couldn’t Die is obviously a very different kind of zombie story, and as such is a welcome change of pace. It reminded me of Stephen King’s Thinner, which is about a man who is cursed by a gypsy. Both stories are about someone who races to reverse a supernatural spell. Sleator has a streamlined writing style that is suitable for younger teens and up. Any lover of the macabre will enjoy this creepy tale.

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