Ursula Vernon’s latest book, Castle Hangnail, may be aimed at middle-schoolers, but it’s a delightful story for anyone who has wondered about the practicalities of running an evil castle. In this case, a young wicked witch must protect her new home from real estate developers, magical bureaucracy, and a truly evil rival.
I’ve long been a fan of Vernon’s writing. Her Hugo Award-winning epic Digger, about a very pragmatic wombat caught up in mystical shenanigans far from home, is one of my favorite webcomics, and every short story of hers I’ve read has been a gem. Castle Hangnail is no different.
The titular castle is one of those creepy and rather decrepit buildings from horror movies — the type that usually houses vampires or beast lords or evil sorcerers. The problem is that Castle Hangnail has gone too long without a master, and risks being decommissioned by the Board of Magic. Finally, the castle’s guardian (a man of many talents — and many borrowed body parts) receives word that a new mistress is on her way. He’s shocked, however, when the mistress turns out to be 12-year-old Molly, a self-proclaimed wicked witch who adores bats and cobwebs but seems a tad too nice to rule over a castle of minions.
Molly has more to worry about than convincing the castle guardian that she’s wicked enough and powerful enough for Castle Hangnail. She also has to fulfill the tasks set for her by the Board of Magic and defend that castle from other folks who have their own designs on the property. Plus, it turns out that even horror movie castles occasionally need to call a plumber. More importantly, though, Molly needs to find confidence in her own abilities and figure out the line between being a wicked witch and a bad person.
As you may have gathered from that description, Castle Hangnail is a rather cheerfully goth book, one where monsters can coexist with nice middle class folks in the surrounding village. Vernon manages to keep her tone both friendly and droll. On the one hand, Castle Hangnail is filled with such inventions as a hypochondriac goldfish and a minotaur who hates the letter “Q.” On the other, it’s set in a world where minions belong to a union and creepy castles, just like so many homes, rely on their water heaters. Vernon balances the two in a way that makes the book both grounded and fun.
It’s also a book that has a great deal of respect for children and what they’re capable of. Vernon speaks to younger readers confidentially, imparting wisdoms that the narrator feels children will innately understand. But Molly embodies plenty of qualities that adults can find to admire as well: She’s a girl who romanticizes living in a creaky old castle, but she’s ready to push up her sleeves and get her hands dirty when there’s work to be done. And, like any good witch (or person) she knows when to be friendly and nice and when to be a little wicked.