Category Archives: Horror

Marcus Sedgwick on horror and sheds

The Marcus Sedgwick interview is ready for your entertainment today. I wish you could hear Marcus, as well as just read. He laughs a lot and he talks ‘just right’ by which I mean that he is interesting on whatever stupid question someone like me might ask, and he spends time on them, but not too long.

Lagom, as we say in Sweden.

He is someone who has been on my interview radar for years, and it’s mainly coincidence that it was his new adult novel, A Love Like Blood, that caused us to meet and talk (I ‘blame’ the very helpful Kerry at Hodder), which is why I used up some of our ‘adult’ time on talking about his – slightly – younger books as well.

Marcus Sedgwick

And his shed. (It’s not necessary to buy a house that has a good shed. You can actually build a nice shed once you’ve found the house of your dreams.)

Marcus claims not to be obsessed by horror, but he is a man who scares me a lot, through his books. They are the kind of books you read hiding behind the sofa.

A Love Like Blood

A book like The Thirty-Nine Steps, but with blood. Lots of it, and not for the faint-hearted. Like Marcus Sedgwick’s mother, who promised not to read her son’s first adult novel. I can see where they both are coming from.

I wanted to read this, because it is a Marcus Sedgwick novel, and I wanted to see what he’d get up to when writing for adults. Considering that his YA books are no picnic (ooh, bad word, under the circumstances), it is not surprising that Mrs Sedgwick abstained. I wish I’d known.

Marcus Sedgwick, A Love Like Blood

This is a thriller set over 24 years, starting in Paris in 1944 and ending in Italy in 1968. I thought I could guess how it would end. I was wrong. And that’s despite the ending coming at the beginning of the book, giving you a flavour of what might be.

Charles Jackson is a young-ish consultant haematologist in Cambridge. He’s rather a failure of a man in most other respects, and not terribly likeable. It is, however, quite easy to identify with him. At least it was for me. (Up to a point!)

The book reads like an old novel, from the period it is set in. It looks so easy, but I’m guessing it’s not. Setting aside one mention of ‘having sex’ which felt too modern and one possible fashion mistake, this is pure old style adventure. It feels really comfortable, even as you wince at the inept Charles. You are lulled into a false sense of knowing where this story is going. Very clever.

It is mostly about blood. Possibly there is a vampire. You can’t be sure. Partway through you get a very Buchan-ish adventure, making my spirits rise, only to be dashed soon again.

Dr Jackson looks like he won’t last long. And in a way you don’t mind, because he’s hard to love. On the other hand you feel that a main character ought to be allowed to have something positive happen to him.

This is a fantastically well written thriller. I just wish there’d been less blood.

The Scottish novelists

Lists will rarely be complete. But some are more complete than others.

On Monday Herald Scotland published a list of Scottish children’s authors.* What prompted this seems to have been Julia Donaldson’s decision to leave Scotland and move back to England. It felt like an ‘oh god who do we have left in Scotland if Julia Donaldson moves away?’ kind of list.

Don’t worry, J K Rowling is one of their ten ‘best.’ So are others that I know and admire, along with a few names I have never heard of. Which is fine, because I don’t know everything, and I’m sure they are great writers. I don’t even know who counts as Scottish for this purpose.

Although, with J K topping the list, I’m guessing they allow English writers living in Scotland. That makes my own list rather longer. Harry Potter isn’t particularly Scottish as a book, even if Hogwarts is in Scotland. Do Scottish authors living in England, or god forbid, even further afield qualify? (I’m not so good at keeping track of such people, so I’ll leave them out for the time being.)

As I said, I have no problem with who is on the Herald’s list. But along with quite a few Scottish authors, I gasped when I realised who weren’t on it. Catherine MacPhail and Gillian Philip, to mention two very Scottish ladies. Linda Strachan, Julie Bertagna and Theresa Breslin, who are also pretty well known and very Scottish indeed.

Keith Charters and Keith Gray. Damien M Love and Kirkland Ciccone. John Fardell. Lari Don, Lyn McNicol, Joan Lingard and Elizabeth Laird. Cathy Forde. Dare I mention the Barrowman siblings, Carole and John? Alexander McCall Smith writes for children, too. Roy Gill, Jackie Kay. Cat Clarke. And how could I forget Joan Lennon?

I’m guessing former Kelpies Prize shortlistees Tracy Traynor, Rebecca Smith and Debbie Richardson belong. (There is one lady whose name is eluding me completely right now, but who appears at the book festival every year and seems very popular…) Have also been reminded of Margaret Ryan and Pamela Butchart. (Keep them coming!)

Most of the above have lovely Scottish accents and reasonably impeccable Scottish credentials. But what about the foreigners? We have the very English, but still Scottish residents, Vivian French, Helen Grant and Nicola Morgan. Americans Jane Yolen and Elizabeth Wein. Ex-Aussie Helen FitzGerald.

And I really don’t know about English Cathy Cassidy, who used to live in Scotland but has more recently returned to England. I think she counts, too, along with all those writers whose names simply escape me right now, but who will wake me up in the night reminding me of their existence.

I’m hoping to get to know all of you much better once this wretched move is over and done with. Unless you see me coming and make a swift exit, following Julia Donaldson south. Or anywhere else. I think Scotland has a great bunch of writers for children. (And also those lovely people who write adult crime, and who are not allowed on this list, even by me.)

Sorry for just listing names, but there are so many authors! One day I will do much more. Cinnamon buns, for starters. With tea. Or coffee. Irn Bru if absolutely necessary.

Theresa Breslin's boot

*For anyone who can’t access the Herald’s list, here are the other nine names: Mairi Hedderwick, Barry Hutchison, Chae Strathie, Claire McFall, Daniela Sacerdoti, Debi Gliori, Caroline Clough, Janis MacKay and Diana Hendry.

The Book of Dead Days

This has been the perfect in-between-days read. 270 pages of ‘dead stuff’ spread out over the five days leading up to New Year’s Eve. I managed to fit in my daily quota just as it was intended, which rather added to my feeling of satisfaction.

Marcus Sedgwick, The Book of Dead Days

I say ‘dead stuff’ and by that I mean suitably cosy horror; nothing too gruesome. Set in a nicely atmospheric fictional city somewhere in Europe – probably at the end of a fictional 19th century during those dead days after Christmas – there is snow and there are orphans and weird scientists. In short, everything you need during those days that are neither one thing nor the other.

Boy (that’s his name) is assistant to Valerian who works in the theatre. That’s where he meets Willow, who assists the fat lady who sings. Valerian grows rather strange in the dead days, by which we have to understand stranger than usual. He seems haunted, and he leads Boy and Willow on a hunt for something. Something that might save him. He’s got until midnight on New Year’s Eve.

It is cold, and it is dark, and Boy is hungry as usual. Valerian veers between his normal cruel behaviour and being almost kind and normal.

This is such a nice and easy and effortless read, while not being simple or intended for younger readers. Very, very enjoyable.

Don’t be late

You could interpret the above suggestion as a ‘don’t forget to return your library books on time,’ but there is also a slight warning about being dead, i.e. the other kind of ‘late.’

I’d not previously connected Christmas with ghost stories, but after the Christmas anthology I reviewed yesterday, I’m beginning to realise that some people do. I’m obviously not ‘some people.’

It’s been a while since Halloween, but I shall treat you to the recording of Helen Grant reading one of three ghost stories at Innerpeffray Library on the evening of October 31st. (That’s mere hours before Helen succeeded in getting stuck in the mud in a graveyard in the middle of the night…)

Here is Lilith’s Story. And here‘s Helen on her blog, enthusing about ghosts and Christmas. Whatever happened to light and happiness? (You might also consider very carefully if you really think becoming a librarian is a wise career move.)

Innerpeffray Library

At last!

I’m doing it! I’m actually, finally reading it! ‘It’ being An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories from 1986, edited by Dennis Pepper.

Dennis Pepper, An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories

Having bought the book well used from the school library ‘some’ years back, I always meant to read it over the immediate Christmas period. The one about ten years ago… The book emerged every December and waited hopefully by my side and then it retreated after yet another busy busy Christmas, where I got round to reading one book instead of the half dozen I’d fondly imagined I’d be relaxing with.

There are about 30 short stories, written by everybody from Dickens to Geraldine McCaughrean. (You have to remember the collection is 27 years old. Some authors hadn’t even been invented back then.)

I understand some stories were commissioned, while others have been chosen for their Christmassy theme from classics and elsewhere. Some authors I’d never heard of, while the story by Jacqueline Wilson is like no JW story you’ve ever read.

Jesus is there, from the school nativity to actual Bethlehem, but mostly you get a tremendous amount of carol singing, with a few ghosts and the odd vampire. More vicars and snowy landscapes than you can shake a stick at, so really very traditional. It’s nice. The stories are mostly no more than five pages each, so they make for quick nostalgic dips in between whatever else you need to do at this time of year.

I was especially happy to get re-acquainted with David Henry Wilson’s Jeremy James, who Son and I used to like a lot. Among the other names that I do know are Jan Mark, Sue Townsend, James Riordan, Laurie Lee and Robert Swindells. But as with so many anthologies you don’t need to know the writers. You simply discover new-old authors as you read along.

In a way it’s quite good I waited, because I’m enjoying myself. I’ve still got a few stories to go, but I’ve also got a few more days until I ‘must’ read a ‘mellandags’ book. I shall explain that one later.

Suitcase

After a while I became afraid I’d lose ‘my group’ as we walked round Piccadilly station in Manchester yesterday. Despite the fact I know the station well, I could begin to understand the anxiety the children of the Kindertransport must have felt on arriving in Britain.

Suitcase - Hanni

It began with me feeling anxious I wouldn’t be allowed on ‘the journey’ because I’d booked too late and every place was already spoken for. And all I wanted was to watch a drama; not to save my life.

I became aware of the production of Suitcase only a couple of weeks ago, as it was about to premiere at Glasgow Central. A crowd-funded drama about the Kindertransport, it was free and it was coming to a railway station near me. Or you. I felt despondent when I realised my only opportunity of seeing it was on my way to Scotland, as I passed through Piccadilly. And then I couldn’t get a ticket!

A very kind person suggested I call at the ‘box office’ (a suitcase, actually) for returns, and I did, and then I was shunted aside and had to wait and that’s when my anxiety levels rose. Just like a refugee. But then the suitcase lady handed me my own numbered label and gave me permission to join the blue group.

Only an idiot like me would go to a promenade theatre performance wheeling a suitcase round with them. But that’s what I did. It seemed almost appropriate, although the superior – and nasty – English lady having tea frowned at it for being red. (And before you are up in arms over my rudeness; this woman was an actor, showing us how some British people didn’t want the refugees.)

Suitcase - English lady

We started under the escalators, where we witnessed the children’s tearful goodbyes, as well as their arrival here, being serenaded with cheery songs. At times the noise and bustle of normal station activities almost drowned out what the actors were saying, but that too fitted in with what it must have been like back then.

Suitcase - Railway porter

As we shuffled between various corners of the station for more intimate sketches with one or two people, refugees, host families, fundraisers and volunteers, it felt as if the real passengers at Piccadilly didn’t really notice us. Rather like it might have been for the original children.

Suitcase - Czech boy and host's daughter

There was the Czech boy who begged us to find work for his clever mother. The railway porter who collected money for the refugees. We met a sister and brother, arguing like siblings do, before they were separated forever. The boy was desperate for the toilet, but they were in a new and strange place.

Suitcase - Kurt

My suitcase lady who objected to the workshy foreigners coming here and ruining things for the English. The couple who ‘knew’ they were getting a young boy, but ended up with a much older girl. Who didn’t even speak English!

Suitcase - volunteer

The volunteer organiser, trying to keep track of everyone, and wondering what to do with the leftover children no one wanted. And at the end, the children writing home, and reading letters from their parents, exhorting them to behave. When the letters stopped coming.

Here one lady had to be led away on a friendly arm. It could easily be too much for anyone. I felt like crying, and my country wasn’t even in the war.

Most of the children assimilated eventually. But Kurt, the one who needed the toilet, never got over the loss of his sister, of having to be grateful all the time, and being passed round lots of families. Heartbreaking.

Suitcase - red

There was music, and there was dancing. They even offered round baskets of doughnuts at the end. And I picked up my suitcase and went to find a train, still wearing my label. I’m so grateful I was allowed to join in.

War and football

Here are two books about WWI, both featuring ‘ordinary’ boys, and both with their own version of that Christmas Eve and the singing and the football.

It makes for heart-rending reading. Obviously, all war tales do, and some more than others. But rarely – probably never – have I come across the war at the lowest levels of the battlefields like this. Not even in Private Peaceful or War Horse, which both featured officers as well as brave Tommies.

In James Riordan’s When the Guns Fall Silent, and in Michaela Morgan’s Walter Tull’s Scrapbook we see only the modest lives their heroes led at home before the war, and then it’s straight to the trenches and the mud and death.

Both books are very brief, which makes the sheer volume of suffering all the more poignant. In one the main character dies, and in the other he lives. It’s almost as if it makes no difference. Better out of it, if you are dead? Or it’s no life, even when you survive?

Michaela Morgan, Walter Tull's Scrapbook

Walter Tull was a real person; the first black professional football player, and eventually the first black British officer. Michaela’s book is a pretend scrapbook of his life, with real documents and photos and facts. You read, and you like Walter so much, and you want him to live to go on to do more great things.

James’s story is about two boys from the same street and school in Portsmouth. Despite being only 17 they are ‘blackmailed’ into signing on. They, too, are great football players and had hoped to go on to play professionally, now that so many players, just like Walter Tull, sign on, leaving big gaps in their teams.

Before long they are in the trenches, and before much longer they are in a bad shape, and only one of them will eventually return home. But not before they have played in that Christmas soccer game.

James Riordan, When the Guns Fall Silent

When the Guns Fall Silent has a second part set in the 1960s, when Jack takes his grandson to visit the battlefields, hoping it will show him the true horrors of what went on, and how it wasn’t fun or exciting.

I’m just surprised that anyone survived this war. You hear about the numbers who died. I wonder how many went out and came back home again.

(Some of the best WWI poems by the great war poets in James’s book, and some surprisingly modern quality sports action photos of Walter.)

Skulduggery Pleasant – Last Stand of Dead Men

Not all characters die quite as much as others. Being dead is not necessarily a permanent position, nor is being reduced to existing as merely a head. Though not all dead characters return to life, unfortunately.

And I had no idea that Darquesse had a sense of humour!

I can’t believe I missed the arrival of Skulduggery Pleasant’s penultimate outing in Last Stand of Dead Men. Somehow this time of year comes round far too quickly on occasion. A witch shouldn’t have to stand in a bookshop and think ‘Funny, I don’t recognise that Skulduggery cover. Or the title…’

Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant Last Stand of Dead Men

This is war, and it is very bloody indeed. And don’t believe what you see on the cover.

In fact, don’t believe what you thought as the last book ended. It’s not going to be quite like that. That’s how Derek Landy keeps his Minions on their toes. Besides, I know of no other books where the characters change sides so often you don’t even remember what side they’ve just changed from. Or how many times.

Someone you like will die. Not everyone, though, because there will be one more book, and it will want a few people in it.

I am not twelve and I don’t look like Valkyrie, but that doesn’t prevent me from loving these books. They are exciting and they are funny. I’d like to quote a bit, but there are too many potential quotes for it to be possible to pick just the one.

Valkyrie – or perhaps I mean Stephanie – has just left school with excellent results. She needs to decide what to do. Valkyrie wants to continue doing what she does with Skulduggery. The reflection wants to live Valkyrie’s perfect life at home.

And then a lot of hells break lose all over the place.

As for the surprise traitor, I had been expecting it, because there was such a heavy hint (more than a hint, actually) a few books ago that it didn’t seem like a surprise.

Did I mention that Darquesse has a sense of humour? Who’d have thought?

Wolven

I simply had to investigate when I was told off for not knowing Di Toft. I googled and found she has written a few books about, well, the opposite of werewolves, I suppose. And now I have read Wolven, which is the first book!

It starts with a both hilarious and very sweet scene where Nat and his  mum and granddad are in the process of viewing a dog for sale. It’s not a puppy and it’s not exactly normal, but it wins Nat’s heart and the adults are sort of convinced, too.

Di Toft, Wolven

They take Woody home, and Nat soon learns that this is no ordinary dog. (We had guessed as much.) Woody is the last of the Wolven; a dog who sometimes turns into a human. Nat and Woody become friends, and that’s when the trouble starts. Some locals do not like Nat, and they soon decide they don’t care for Woody, and that he might be dangerous.

Woody is actually an escapee from a secret project, supposedly run by the government, and now the bad guys want to find him and bring him back.

This is the kind of story where the author doesn’t need to kill off the parents or portray them as stupid, making them the enemy. I love it when the adults are allowed to do unexpected things and where they end up helping the main character(s) with what’s going on. And in Wolven you get more of that than in many books. Those adults have got courage and imagination and are pretty free thinking. (Which bodes well for the next instalments.)

But I never got a proper explanation for the green grass…