REVIEW: The Naughty List is One Weird Sleigh Ride

The cover for the Naughty List shows an old-fashioned wooden soldier with a red coat, white pants, black boots and hat, holding a golden-tipped black spear against a grey and white background. Snowflakes border the cover, as well as cobwebs in the corners

The Naughty List provided the most bizarre reading experience I’ve ever had in my life. Filled with mixed messages — anti-capitalist statements that clash with frantic pro-Santa propaganda along with anti-video game statements — and extremely bizarre plot choices, it often plays like an Ed Wood fever dream. I don’t recommend reading it, and yet I confess I was compelled to finish it in one sitting.

The Naughty List

Thomas Conway (Writer)
Skylands Publishing House
December 2020

The cover for the Naughty List shows an old-fashioned wooden soldier with a red coat, white pants, black boots and hat, holding a golden-tipped black spear against a grey and white background. Snowflakes border the cover, as well as cobwebs in the corners

The continuance of Christmas as we know it is threatened. Santa Claus has not shown up in Times Square at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and few seem to notice. Caught up in the commercialism of the holiday, parents are more focused on the gifts than the symbolism of the season; one less Santa in the world seems to mean nothing horrifying or revolutionary to the general Christmastime Process. But most of those adults don’t know the horrifying truth: this Santa is the real Santa, and he has gone missing.

It falls to Hermey Kringle, a retired children’s dentist and lapsed Friend of Santa (strongly implied to be the same elf who befriended Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the Rankin and Bass special)  to figure out what’s gone on. He’s joined by his grandson Tiberius, aka Tiber, a young brat who loves video games. The answer is simple – Santa’s been kidnapped by Eastern Industries, the makers of Legend Quest, an immersive MMORPG. They hope that without the distraction of Santa Claus, people will be too busy playing the latest Legend Quest expansion pack to do anything else for the entire season except give them money. With no Santa Claus around, there can be no Christmas, and Eastern Industries plan on replacing Christmas with Winterval (you’d think the Catholic church would have something to say about that, but no), and their own Santa-lite mascot, Grandfather Frost. Their revised season heads up an orgy of shopping and spending that ends on Christmas Day. Worse, Hermey’s son Rudi is tangled up in the mess, having shunned his humble roots and disliking that Santa’s free enterprise cuts into his profits.

Only one team of kids can rescue Santa from a fate far worse than death – and they’ve been drawn from Santa’s Naughty List. Tiberius naturally tops the pile, but five other members from the naughty list are brought to the North Pole to help

They are Gus Raunch, who is able to understand the language of animals and shuns the commercial nature of the holidays for spiritual joys; Mithra Bentley, whose knowledge of weather patterns and love of snowflakes is only matched by her ability to fall asleep in class; Ben David, a Jewish kid from Israel who loves military strategy and world history (just let that implication settle in) (In this book, Santa is an all-loving presence who doesn’t care if your theology accepts him as a part of belief system and appears to any child who needs him, by the way); Josef Ruperchet, a plus-sized computer genius with a God complex whose main flaw is that he “doesn’t apply his skills as a computer expert to good use,” instead becoming an all-around player in Empire Battle, Legend Quest’s successor game and a fading YouTube star; Nebo, an Iraqi orphan who believes Santa Claus is the most recent reincarnation of Marduk, a God worshipped by his people hundreds of years ago; and finally Tomo Gozen, the youngest person to climb Mount Everest at twelve, part of a high-achieving high-pressure family, but a cheater. All of them retain their special skills for the Advent season, then lose them once the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day. Mrs. Claus, Scout, and Ziggy (keeper of the Naughty List and Santa’s envoy respectively) round out the ensemble.

As a group, they formulate a plan to storm the halls of Eastern Industries’ headquarters in Baekdu Island, where Santa Claus is being held in a fortress. Sacrifices must be made, but a family is built. Will Santa Claus be rescued?

The Naughty List left my mind and opinion divided for the duration of its page length. Its premise is fun and unique, its discussion about the importance of belief in the world and the worth of magic are lovely. The winks and nods back to other Santa-centric canons (everything from the Robin William vehicle Toys to the aforementioned Rankin-Bass nods to references) aren’t too heavy-handed. I liked some of its messages: that no child should be punished for their behavior with naughty lists and the importance of the evolution of customs and traditions with time. But ultimately, the cynic in me had to rise up and rebuke it. I’m sure young children won’t make quite so harsh an audience, but its confused value system will likely befuddle them.

The Christmas envisioned as ‘right’ in The Naughty List isn’t as uncommercialized and family-togetherness-is-the-most-important-thing as it thinks it is. It deifies ‘60s TV specials and Macy’s Parades as a pure ethos, the best way to celebrate the holiday as if they aren’t prefabricated traditions that have their own level of cheap commercialization. The book simultaneously denigrates all that is virtual, modern, and shiny — specifically video games as represented by a thinly-veiled parody of Fortnite mashed into World of Warcraft.

The book’s non-nuanced opinions about video games come within inches of reading like non-denominational Chick Tracts. Letting your children play video games in this universe is tantamount to letting them swallow rat poison. Only Jack Thompson hates video games as much as the people in this book do. Tiberius plays so much Legend Quest that nothing in the real world can compare to it, and he becomes frantic with rage over losing his status in the virtual world if he’s disconnected from the game for even a moment; Josef is so obsessed with his status as a YouTuber and Empire Battle king that he threatens his family for trying to get him help. He also falls under that hoariest of cliches — the mean fat kid who needs to be rescued by the power of Christmas. The book gives into stereotypes in other ways, too — most notably with high-achieving Tomo’s Tiger Mom-like background.

While there are serious things to be said about video game addiction, the way The Naughty List shuns modern convenience in favor of magic grates then opens up plot holes. Why DOESN’T Santa Claus have email or a text messaging service? He might have even been able to message for help when he’d been kidnapped! Why is the anti-capitalist, pro-tradition narrative dependent on a department store’s nationally televised commercial – I mean, parade — dictating when the magic of the Christmas season begins? Why does it worship a man whose most popular image stems from a Coca-Cola ad campaign as the emblem of anti-Capitalist, non-denominational populism? There is even time for rants about department stores that use mood-altering scents to force a response out of its shoppers (does the narrative believe that Macy’s parade is put on every year out of the goodness of the store founder‘s hearts?)

And the book worships Santa Claus and the general ethos of Christmas to the point of making it sound like a religious experience (and tries to have it both ways by mocking those who worship the “false Gods” of capitalism). Quote Mrs. Bentley, mother of Mithra, whose life has been nothing but working upon the family’s farm until now:

“After years of dedicated farming and toil, she now believed there was more to life than material success. She believed in Santa, in Christmas, and most importantly she believed she was still a kid at heart.”

These faffy sentiments are as deep as the narrative gets, and Mrs. Bentley mortgages the farm to support it — literally for an ostentatious Christmas display with giant trees and light displays and animatronic figures of the kids to give the proverbial middle finger to Winterval and force people to remember Christmas. And “remembering Christmas” does not involve, say, going to church, or feeding the poor — it involves eating with your family, or playing in the snow, or enjoying “good old fashioned toys.” Actions like these read as brainwashed cultism and, with a couple of rewrites, could make the bare bones of an amazing horror film. It conjures to mind the Santa worshiping neighbors from Christmas with the Kranks, who verbally assault the titular family for not putting on performative displays of holiday joy. The book does best when it sticks with this horrifying ethos than when it tries to probe other religions for answers and comes up lacking. The name of Jesus Christ is wisely not mentioned once in its pages (characters sing Christmas carols instead of hymns, though “Silent Night” is thrown around a lot) and there are no atheists in these foxholes; there is only Santa, cookies for breakfast, and throwing snowballs at your fellow man and vague blandishments about peace and forgiveness and goodwill (except for people who don’t believe in some form of Santa Claus, because fuck them).

I would not call out the book so hard if it did not buy so thoroughly into its own anti-capitalism message while serving its audience something else. It tries to insist that the Santa experience is much more inclusive than it is, and not as alienating as it often turns out to be for many Muslim and Jewish children (and again – Muslim and Jewish children are drawn into this celebration, in which Santa is a giant symbol for peace, love, and old-fashioned togetherness instead of part and parcel of the Christian/Catholic December ethos). It tries to sell the audience on the joy of family togetherness, wooden toys, and snowball fights while preaching the joys of fast food and corporate-sponsored parades. It shuns concepts like people calling Santa a bad role model because he’s fat or finding being wished a Merry Christmas offensive while making its only central fat child figure the subject of a fat camp ruse. It has a character literally cry out during the big battle scene “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” in a moment that would make Ernest Cline weep with jy (this is followed by a pro-pacifism speech by Mrs. Claus that promotes following your own lifestyle, which is hilarious when you remember all the Claus propaganda that’s come before it) It is one weird piece of work, and by the last 10 pages, I’m shocked Conway doesn’t have his fleet of kids and snowmen and toy soldiers sailing on magical ice ships solve the Palestine/Israel conflict.

It’s a shame because in its own way The Naughty List is highly memorable — really the most bizarre reading experience I’ve had all year and worth a read to watch the narrative ping pong a million concepts in the air. Little kids might enjoy the show. Real little kids. If they don’t like video games, that is.

And y’know what? It’s okay to like video games in whatever moderation you choose to! It’s okay if you think toy soldiers are silly, and to hide from your family on the holidays, and to eat crackers and ketchup for Christmas dinner if that’s all you have in the house. It’s OK not to worship Santa Claus. And it’s OK to be miserable and not to believe in the innate goodness of your fellow man and give to charities in the summer, when they actually need your help, because every person assuages their holly jolly guilt complex by donating in December. Embrace progress where you can, kids. I’m going to spend the afternoon with a Silent Night, Deadly Night marathon to wash the treacle out of my hair. The Naughty List is enough to turn any adult into a big old Grinch.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Naughty List is One Weird Sleigh Ride

  1. Thanks for reviewing my book. I am happy to hear it stoked such passion even if it was not all positive. You actually provided one of the more thorough reviews of the work, despite it not fitting your preference.

    I have to admit, I looked up “treacle” since I had not heard that word used in this context before.

    Hang on for Naughty List 2!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind reply to my review – I’m glad you enjoyed it even though the review wasn’t thoroughly positive. It really is one of the most interesting and un-putdownable books I read last year!

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