He remembers drowning.
That single sentence, recurring often in Hooked, A.C. Wise’s sequel to Wendy, Darling, is the cornerstone of the existential dread that permeates the story. Described as “dark fantasy” I think this book edges deeper into “horror”, more even than the first book, which had moments of horror. This is a mean tale and a reinvention of Neverland and the Peter Pan mythos into something modern and terrifying at its core.
What set Wendy, Darling apart from the pack of other modern takes on Peter Pan was the focus on Wendy Darling as the main character in multiple periods of her life. Episodes of her time in Neverland as a child are mixed with her time in a mental institution. Through the lens of adulthood the idea of immortality, of a place in which there are no rules and no consequences, is seen for the terrible thing it would be.
When Wendy arrived in Neverland as an adult she found a darker place than she left. The mermaids are skeletons rotting in their pools, Tiger Lilly and her tribe are emaciated and dying, and still, Peter Pan plays his never-ending games of war and hunting with his increasingly terrified Lost Boys. Wendy, Darling showed us Peter without changing very much about the character, as the true villain of Neverland. A petulant god-child at the best of times, now driven to madness by the escape of his great enemy, Captain Hook.
When Hooked begins, it is December 1939 and the world is again at war. It has been eight years since Wendy Darling rescued her daughter, Jane, from Neverland. In the years since then the two have grown apart. Jane attends university with hopes of becoming a doctor, driven partly by watching a friend die during her time in Neverland.
She distrusts her mother for all the years Wendy lied to her about Neverland, framing her real adventures into bedtime stories about a pirate prince. Never knowing Wendy had been institutionalized for her ravings by her own brothers who repressed all memory of their time with Peter Pan and wanted Wendy to do the same.
Unbeknownst to them both, someone else escaped Neverland: Wendy’s one-time enemy Captain James Hook. James has been living in London for the last twenty-two years. Now only a shadow of his former grandiose self, the former fierce villain spends most of that time in an opium haze mourning the loss of his lover, Samuel. In a drug-induced moment of weakness, James imagines himself in Neverland again, commanding his ship and pirate crew.
James’s desire for Neverland inadvertently opens a door between our world and Neverland. In that brief moment, a beast comes thru the portal, and claims Jane’s best friend and roommate, Peg, as its first victim. Peg will not be the last. Soon, the lives of James, Wendy, and Jane collide as they all must face what they left behind in the wreckage of Neverland if they will ever truly be free of Pan
The horror of immortality is front and center in Hooked. At the hands of Peter and the Lost Boys, Hook has died countless times in countless horrific ways. He remembers all of them and harbors a particular fear and dread for the great Beast, the crocodile that improbably swims in the ocean of Neverland. The origin of Hook is explained in the book. Like Wendy, he too was taken from our world.
After his ship was destroyed in a maelstrom, he awoke on the beach in Neverland as a sailor named James. But his role was to be that of villain to the great “hero” Peter Pan, so James was remade by Peter into Captain Hook, so named for the appendage Pan gives him after commanding his Beast to take James’ hand. It is a horrifying transformation, made all the more unsettling by how quickly James begins forgetting his former life under the spell of Peter Pan and Neverland.
With its focus on James, Hooked shows us a villain in name only asking what that word means. A man twisted to become something he wasn’t, through no choice of his own. James/Hook is trapped in Neverland, stoned on opium, and never retains enough of himself to mount an escape. When he does finally succeed in escaping, the cost is so high it eventually turns him into a shell of what he once was.
Wise also gives James a love interest in Samuel, the sole escapee with James from Neverland. Samuel helps James eventually side with his better angels, but unfortunately, Samuel is fridged early on making him less of a character and more of a trope. Complicating things further, I’m not sure if Samuel is real or a product of Neverland. I suspect the latter, making the romance even more complicated.
James is not the only focus of the book. Hooked splits its time between him, Jane, and to a lesser extent Wendy. The shared bond between the three is their time in Neverland. Jane has never gotten over the trauma of her time in Neverland, and what happened in the final moments of their time there. The beast that hunts James is hunting anything with the taint of Neverland on them, making all three potential victims.
Jane is headstrong and angry, and her relationship with both Wendy and James is complicated. Wendy still retains her link to Neverland, but she knows the way back for her is now closed. She greets this realization with both sadness and relief, mirroring her own love/hate relationship with Neverland. The sparks between all three characters make for a riveting read, the author wisely brings them together early on. By the end, you are rooting for these heroes, while still not sure which ones you can trust.
As a continuation (and a finale) Hooked works well to close the book on Wise’s darker, feminist take on the Peter Pan mythos. This is not Disney, it’s not YA, and it is at times chilling and terrifying. But for anyone that loved Wendy, Darling you will want to put this at the top of your list. And if you haven’t yet read Wendy, Darling, get on that immediately.