It’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday night in Jackson, TN. You’re flipping through the channels. Rerun, rerun, local news. You stop clicking as you pass local-access channel 6, surprised to see two teenage girls in gothy makeup (think mall goth, not corpse paint) who are laughing hysterically at a basset hound in a suit. Colonel Buford T. Rutherford B. Hayes is being held up by his front paws as he marries a beagle named Magnolia P. Sugarbottom. The beagle has agreed to the marriage on the promise of unlimited chicken livers, and the show ends in a dance party complete with karate kicks and a back flip.
The fictional teen stars of the show are Rayne Ravenscroft and Delilah Darkwood—known in their non-TV life as Josie and Delia—and they are also the stars of Rayne & Delilah’s Midnight Matinee by Nashville YA author Jeff Zentner.
These two friends are connected on a seemingly astral level, but Delia and Josie come from very different homes. Delia lives in a trailer with her mother, a psychic who works at Target on the side. Abandoned by her father when she was seven, Delia maintains a connection with him, of sorts, by way of a library of B-movie horror films he left behind.
Josie lives with two parents and a sister in a middle-class home. She dreams of a career in television after high school, but when her parents offer to arrange an internship with the Food Network in Knoxville, on the other side of the state, Josie thinks of all she must leave behind—namely, the Midnite Matinee and Delia.
Delia’s dream of bringing the show to wider audiences leads her to reach out to horror legend Jack Divine, who agrees to grant her a meeting if she and Josie can make it down to ShiverCon—in Florida. When Delia learns that her estranged father lives in Florida, too, she struggles to know whether to look for him or continue the radio silence between them.
Unbeknownst to Delia, Josie’s parents allow the trip to ShiverCon on one condition: if expansion plans for the Midnite Matinee don’t work out, she must move to Knoxville and take the internship. But Delia isn’t the only one Josie is reluctant to leave: she has just started dating Lawson, an MMA fighter and pop-country fan who surprises her with his secret love for reading. As Delia watches the two of them growing closer, she feels the abandonment of her past creeping into her present. If things don’t go right at ShiverCon, what will she have left?
In many ways, Rayne & Delilah’s Midnight Matinee is far lighter than the author’s other award-winning books, The Serpent King (winner of the 2017 Morris Award) and Goodbye Days. It feels a lot like a gothy Southern Gilmore Girls with a Dollar General where Doose’s Market should be. But lighter, in this case, in no way implies “shallow.” Zentner perfectly captures that magical time in high school when you have almost-adult reasoning power, few adult responsibilities, and a lot of free time. In other words, the perfect conditions for friendship.
Rayne & Delilah’s Midnight Matinee also offers the Zentner-esque sensory descriptions that faithful readers have come to know and love. For example, when the girls go to watch Lawson fight, Zentner writes, “If the color neon green had a smell, it would be composed of the odor of nervous boys jacked up on adrenaline, beer, and industrial disinfectant.” Spot. On.
Despite an extremely specific (and extremely accurate) setting, the novel connects with many universal themes, especially the issues surrounding loss: “Everything ends. Some things last longer than others, but everything ends,” Josie observes. “[I]t forces you to love them ferociously while you have them.”
This line brings me to my highest praise for the novel. I have been a teacher for more than ten years, and I have listened to a lot of teenagers talking. A lot of teenagers. And I can confirm that Zentner’s use of dialogue is legit—so legit that I had to put the book down once or twice because reading it made me feel I was still at school. To duplicate the vernacular of teens while celebrating its complexity and not overdosing on its silliness is a true feat, and one with which younger readers will immediately identify.
[To read an excerpt from Rayne & Delilah’s Midnight Matinee, click here.]
Sarah Carter is a high-school English teacher in Lebanon, Tennessee. She recently earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Sewanee School of Letters.