Category Archives: Horror

After the First Death

Almost forty years on I’m guessing Robert Cormier couldn’t have imagined that his early YA novel After the First Death would feel so current. Or maybe he would. Perhaps his journalist’s instinct knew that the world wasn’t about to become a better place.

Robert Cormier, After the First Death

He certainly knew how to paint a dark picture of terror back in the 1970s. This was my first book by Robert, whose name I’ve heard mentioned by authors who have strived to write as well as him. And, you know, if someone you admire, admires someone, you need to have a look for yourself.

Reading After the First Death post-Manchester and during the next London terror attack, I couldn’t help but feel it’s always the same. My own mental image of terrorists forty years ago was not that which is in this story, which feels totally up-to-date as far as what we are witnessing today is concerned.

A bunch of unidentified terrorists have seized a bus carrying 16 five-year-old children, holding them and the teenage girl driving the bus hostage. One of the terrorists is also a teenager, as is the boy who ends up as a go-between. The naïve reader imagines a bond forming, somehow.

You learn much about how adults groom younger people to help do their dirty work. We discover that the bus driver is a normal human being from her helpless reactions to the situation; none of this fictional hero stuff. The go-between fares not much better. And the children…

The title suggests this won’t be easily solved. You know there has to be at least one death. You just can’t tell how bad it might get.

This excellent but chilling book is one of the recently re-issued classics from Penguin.

Flesh and Blood

‘How scary can it be?’ I asked myself. ‘It’s a book for young children, after all.’ I was looking at the cover of Chris Priestley’s new book for Barrington Stoke, which shows a bandaged head, with just a hole for one eye. It’s an excellent cover. If you want to be scared witless.

Chris Priestley, Flesh and Blood

I took the precaution of not reading it at night, when the Resident IT Consultant was away. But I felt a bright afternoon would be OK. As OK as a book by Chris ever will be, I mean.

It’s really very nicely old-fashioned, in a way. Set during WWII Bill and his sister Jane seem like model children. If it weren’t for the fact that Bill would rather have a brother, which he wishes for during an air raid. And then, he sort of gets one, because they end up ‘adopting’ a young boy his own age who is found severely injured in a deserted and spooky house, and who seems to have no one.

Well, anyway, you know as well as I do that you should be careful what you wish for.

Bill feels uncomfortable, and so does his mother, and his sister. And then, one day those bandages come off…

Yeah, not sure that the bright afternoon was enough.

Bookwitch bites #142

It was nice to find myself in the company of Chris Riddell* and Judith Kerr for breakfast yesterday. Not for real, and it’s not as we were all in Hay or anything, but these two lovely people had dragged themselves into a radio studio ‘early’ on a Sunday morning to share their thoughts about Manchester and Hitler and whether to keep the truth from children.

Judit Kerr, stolen, borrowed from Chris Riddell

The downside to that, as Judith said, is that children think anyway and come up with the oddest ideas. So Hitler wasn’t actually hiding behind the hanging decoration in the toilet. But she sort of believed he might be. And Chris mentioned that his immediate reaction on hearing the Manchester news was to think of his daughter, recently graduated from University there. It’s how we function; we grab something close to ourselves.

In the Guardian Review we could read an extract from Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. It didn’t take more than a few sentences and I was back in Lyra’s world. I already like Malcolm and his suspicious mind.

Jonathan Stroud, The Empty Grave

Another book to look forward to is Jonathan Stroud’s last Lockwood – The Empty Grave – which had a cover reveal this week. I tend to sneer a bit at reveals like this, but I found myself quite taken with it. Lovely to see George at long last. And I’d say that whereas an empty grave could be seen as a positive thing, I don’t think we should have such sweet expectations here (because where is the corpse?).

Awards are good. Especially when given to the right people for the right books. Some favourites of mine have recently managed this. Simon Mason was awarded Best Crime Novel for Young Adults at CrimeFest for Kid Got Shot. Robin Stevens got the award for Best Crime Novel for Children. I’m simply pleased that the younger books are getting attention like this.

Adrian McKinty won the Edgar for Rain Dogs, which is no minor thing, and is well deserved. He seems quite pleased, judging by this blog post. At home in Australia minding the children, Adrian sent his wife to receive the prize.

(*I’m counting on Mr Riddell’s goodwill in not minding having his sketch stolen by me, as usual.)

Tales from Weird Street

Anne Fine, Tales from Weird Street

Anne Fine’s Tales from WeirD Street for Barrington Stoke are a lot scarier than you’d think, but aimed at a youngish age group, not as horrible as they could be. I mean, I was fine. My interest wasn’t lost through the stories being too wimpy, or anything, but neither did they have me kicking and screaming. Much.

Three children – living in WeirD Street – compete to see who can tell the scariest story. Each has a story that purports to come from someone else; a friend or relative or neighbour. So it didn’t happen to them, but to someone close and reliable so obviously this really happened.

Someone tells of the photograph that caused a boy to drown. Another tale tells of a Chinese restaurant and its ‘fortune’ cookies. And then there is a ghost who…

I would say, beware of the fortune cookie!

(Illustrations by Vicki Gausden)

Dead of Night

It is World Book Day. Well, it is in the UK, anyway.

One of the £1 books this year is Dead of Night by Michael Grant. Which is a very good thing, as I was feeling the need for more stories about his girl GIs while I wait for the third full length book.

I’d been concerned it wouldn’t work, or that there would be confusion between this short book and the ‘real’ ones. Would there be spoilers?

Michael Grant, Dead of Night

But no. This is set soon after the squad arrives in Europe, and they are training – and spending Christmas 1942 – in a wet and grey Wales. They are not yet the fully fledged soldiers we met in Silver Stars. And, some of the people who die, are still alive.

This is very much Charles Dickens meets Michael Grant. It’s good.

Peter in Peril

Helen Bate’s graphic novel Peter in Peril is different from many other WWII stories. For one, it’s set in Budapest, which is less common, and two, it ends reasonably well for the people we get to know in the book. I’m not saying the war passed them by, exactly, but I was expecting something much worse.

Based on a ‘real’ Peter, who must have been about two when war broke out, we come to the by now so common story of Jews finding their lives changing almost overnight. First is the yellow star to be worn, and later losing their home, having to move into more camp-like places with other Jews, eventually escaping to hide alone.

Helen Bate, Peter in Peril

Because it’s about such a young child, and because we see it from his point of view, perhaps many of the worst things are less obvious. He has time to be bored without his toys, and he seems to find new playmates in the various places where they end up. There is food, even if it’s little and bad.

And as I said, the end is nowhere as immediately tragic as I’d been afraid. That doesn’t mean the war was better for Jews in Hungary, because this is merely the story about one family.

At the end we get to meet Peter as he is today, which is nice and reassuring for a young reader; that he survived and that he leads a normal life.

Helen’s graphic illustrations are just right for this kind of book, and should go down well with quite young readers. Let’s hope, too, that they can see the similarities with what’s happening today in far too many places. If it was wrong then, it is wrong now.

The Canterville Ghost

Soon after I’d started at my new secondary school, the school hall burned down. This was unfortunate, but certainly nothing to do with me. In fact, we were quite lucky, since it happened on sports day, when nearly everyone was out, and only [I think] the choir was there to practise. And the head teacher, who might have attempted to put the fire out.

The hall was almost brand new, so it was a shame, but the replacement hall was – probably – even better. I can barely remember what the unfortunate first hall was like.

Nor can I remember for how long we had to go without a hall while it was being rebuilt. We had assembly first thing every morning, which meant the school had to come up with alternatives. In effect this meant that the teacher who taught the first period got to ‘entertain’ the class for fifteen minutes before starting on the real stuff.

My Favourite Teacher ended up doing most of my assemblies, as I had him for two subjects, which managed to cover several mornings of the week. He very sensibly read to us, and his first choice was The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde.

Despite having him for English, our teacher read the story in Swedish. Perhaps it was just as well, since this way everyone in the class could enjoy it. And I believe learning to enjoy a good story rather than making it be too educational is the best way.

We had a lot of fun with the ghost and the Otis family. In actual fact, I still consider the name Otis to be a fun name, so I guess it’s just this happy memory.

After Canterville we had other books/stories to listen to and they were all excellent. But I can’t remember what they were. I was sad to return to the new assembly hall when the time came. Those assemblies were generally also fairly good, but not quite up to Canterville standards.

Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost and other stories

(There’s a new Canterville Ghost out now, along with other Oscar Wilde stories. Enjoy some fresh blood stains for Halloween!)