Three school friends decide to get their own back on the Ice-Cream Man after he deliberately drives away from them despite having seen them. That, they thought, was that. However the Ice-Cream Man has other ideas and he begins to make their lives hell, repeatedly passing by their homes, playing his tune, sending emails and calling their mobiles - always identifying himself as the Grim Reaper.
This book plays right into one of my pet hates. I have always felt ice cream vans to be creepy. These vehicles come into your neighbourhood playing a distorted, out-of-tune, monotone version of a typical children's song. No one bats an eyelid when they appear, and there is an instant trust to the person in the brightly painted van. Just the kind of thing to make a wonderful horror tale.
This has some of the elements of great boys-own fiction. The three lead characters are such a disparate bunch, each with their own problems. Rick is still mourning the death of his father, and trying to cope with his mother falling apart - spending much of her time passed out drunk. Marty is wheelchair bound, and fighting his mother's desire to molly-coddle him and stop him being a teenager. And Aaron is the fat kid, bullied by his older stepbrother.
These are not stereotypes though - we're not talking dial-a-troubled-kid clones, no just-add-water instant-mix characters. Mounfield makes you invest in these three kids; she involves you in their world and their fears.
The author has managed to walk a fine line. There is nothing in this book that I would make it unsuitable for younger readers. Indeed the bonding of these three, all somewhat broken, teenagers and their determination to overcome their handicaps and beat back anything life throws at them is admirable and, to a degree, inspiring. For adult readers she has managed to make you feel what your fourteen-year-old self would in the characters' places, bringing together the us-versus-them feeling kids have when dealing with their parents, and the unease around authority figures (adults in other words).
The horror element in this book is more an undercurrent of dread. It's not a book to pick if you enjoy hack-n-slash; our ice-cream seller is not a flesh eating zombie or a demon wishing to rearrange your limbs. This book will unsettle rather than gross you out. It plays on your fears that someone is watching you or out to get you and that no one will believe you. And it will definitely make you think twice when you next hear that reedy siren blaring out Teddy Bear's Picnic, Turkey in the Straw or, as in this case Pop Goes the Weasel — 'Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle…'
Ford Street Publishing 2008