This is the first MG ghost story where I read and was truly creeped out. It gives me goosebumps writing the review! It was genuinely scary, for some reason, perhaps because the setting was so dark and the tone so incredibly genuine.
It helps to know a bit of Russian history, which is not traditionally covered in middle school grades, unfortunately. I fear many middle grade readers may miss some of the terrifying context of how the nobility treated the peasantry -- truly horrifically -- in the 19th century.
The book is a "translated" manuscript, with creepy black and white drawings, supposedly written and drawn by Prince Lev Lvov of Russia. I will not spoil the twist, I swear, but pay close attention to the drawing at the front of the book of the half-cat.
Lev's sent to live with an aunt, Olga Lvovna, and he's fuzzy on the reason why (I won't spoil it!), except that his family's name will get him admission to the royal academy where Lev can become a general with little or no effort.
She puts him up in his grandfather's study, an odd sleeping arrangement to be sure. A peasant boy and servant appears, Yanyousha, and the boys play tag, hide-and-seek -- but it quickly gets out of hand, when Lev uses his grandfather's sword against Yanyousha, and the boy disappears.
Lev can draw and once enjoyed sketching with his mother. Vanyousha notices Lev drawing. Soon Lev is drawing things with no conscious knowledge he's drawing at all, just his hand moving on the paper, and he almost can't control it. And of course, there is the portrait of his grandfather in the room, which Lev covers with a sheet because he can feel it watching him, which is absurd.
To reveal any more would utterly spoil the thrill of discovery in reading. Enjoy this creepy read for Halloween, and maybe it'll spark your interest in Russian history, as well.