Category Archives: Horror

Embracing the Darkness

At one point last week I got so desperate for blogging assistance that I rounded a few likely people up. I’d like to say that Danny Weston volunteered his services, but in actual fact it was a ‘pal’ of his who made him ‘speak up.’ If he hadn’t, I’d have forced him. I mean, if he’d been anywhere near. I hope he isn’t – wasn’t – but since I don’t know this Weston chap, I can’t be sure. As long as he keeps that creepy Mr Sparks away from me!

“They say the devil has all the best tunes. That may be the single thought that fuelled my debut novel, The Piper.

Looking back, it’s hard to say exactly where the idea came from. I know I wanted to write a good old-fashioned ghost story and at the back of my mind, I was thinking about The Pied Piper of Hamelin; that much misunderstood tale that had the greedy burghers of a German town paying the ultimate price for double-crossing its eponymous hero.

And I thought about an old saying that I’d heard many times, but rarely paused to consider fully.

‘Who pays the piper calls the tune.’

So, I decided, my story would involve music. It would involve water. And it would feature a supernatural presence that has returned over the centuries to seek its revenge. Scaring people with mere words on paper is a real challenge. I knew that I needed to find a suitable landscape in which to set my story and I found it in Romney Marsh, that bleak almost treeless wilderness down on the South coast, replete with streams, lakes and canals. After some research, I found out about a church, St Leonard’s in Hythe, one of only two in the UK that house an ossuary – a place where bones are stored. As soon as I read about what was stored down in ‘the crypt,’ I knew it would feature in my story.

I decided early on that I also wanted to set the book in the past, merely because it seemed easier to convince an audience of ghostly happenings back in the day, rather than the perfectly lit interiors of the present. I focused on two time periods – the early 1800s and the eve of World War Two. My lead characters, I decided, would be evacuees, a fourteen-year-old boy, Peter and his seven-year-old sister, Daisy, exiled from their home in Dagenham and sent out into the countryside to face a terror that is centuries old. When I learned that this mass exodus, which involved 3.5 million children, was actually called ‘Operation Pied Piper,’ I realised that I had just been handed something that felt very much like a perfectly-wrapped gift. I had to use it.

In early October my new book, Mr Sparks will be released. The eponymous character is not human. He is a ventriloquist’s doll. He’s been around for a long time… a very long time. He tells everyone he meets that he used to be a real boy and quite frankly, his talents exceed those of the various ‘operators’ he’s picked up along the way. His latest sidekick is a young Welsh boy called Owen, who finds himself going to places he doesn’t really want to visit. The same places where I intend to take my readers.

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Once again, I’m riffing on a classic fairy tale here; in this case Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. And once again, my aim with these particular words on paper is to make the reader feel uneasy… unsettled… and dare I say it? Scared.

Have I succeeded? We’ll have to wait and see.”

Danny Weston

Eek.

 

Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

Yesterday saw the long awaited birth of Kirkland Ciccone’s first ever Scottish YA book festival Yay! YA+, and I really appreciate his thoughtfulness in arranging it for the day on which I celebrated my first year in Scotland. Kirkie had lined up ten teen authors, 200 teens and one tardis-like venue in the shape of the Cumbernauld Theatre. In Cumbernauld. He also arranged for the lovely people of Scotia Books to come and sell books, and between you and me, they not only had the good taste to like my sense of humour, but their mobile shop was the best I’ve seen.

Scotia Books

Once we were all in, Kirkland explained how some authors would ‘be taken out’ and split up into tiny pieces. Yeah. I don’t think he meant that literally. He wanted to say that six of the authors would be ensconced in their own little rooms (=bars and subterranean dressing rooms), where smaller groups of the audience would come to hear them read from their books, or talk about their writing, or anything else they might want to do. Ten times. Eek!

Kirkland Ciccone

Cathy MacPhail

Meanwhile, Cathy MacPhail, Theresa Breslin and Barry Hutchison stayed in the main theatre and each had 25 minutes in which to charm the half of the audience left behind, which they did with real style. Twice. Multi award-winner Cathy started by sharing the trailer to her film Another Me, based on a nightmare she once had. She can see a story in anything (perhaps because she’s from Greenock, where you know everyone), and Cathy is surprised she writes such scary books, when she really is such a nice person.

Theresa Breslin

Theresa brought her gasmask, which looked quite uncomfortable to wear, and some shrapnel from WWI. She reminisced about travelling to America a month after September 11th, and hearing he same words then, that soldiers used a 90 years earlier to describe why they went to war. Some things never change. She read a tense bit from Remembrance, before telling us how good it is to write YA for teens, as they will read everything, with no set ideas of what a book has to be.

Barry Hutchison

Last but not least, Barry Hutchison talked about his fears, so it was back to his perennially entertaining tales of ‘Death and Squirrels’ and his childhood concern whether the dead squirrel was ‘proper dead’ or might come back and attack the young Barry. I can listen to his tale of weeing in the kitchen sink as many times as he will tell it. Or about his friend Derek. Barry read from The 13th Horseman, which must have made half the children want to buy a copy.

Roy Gill and Lari Don

There was lunch – with cupcakes and fruit – and signings and even some time for hanging out. Keith Charters turned up, and admitted to a life-long ignorance of sharpies. That’s not why he came, but, still. I contemplated stealing Kirkie’s sharpies-filled lunchbox, but didn’t.

Keith Charters

After the eating I aligned myself with half the group from Cumbernauld Academy for my rounds of the nether regions of the theatre, and they were both lovely and polite as well as interested in books. Although, I joined them after their session with Linda Strachan – in the bar – which unfortunately meant I actually missed Linda’s seven minute show, as I was sitting out the empty slot with Alex Nye (one school was missing). And you’ll think I have something against Linda, since she is the only one who does not appear in any of my – frankly substandard – photos (photographer had better things to do…).

Alex Nye

Anyway, Alex spoke about her cool books, Chill and Shiver, featuring snow and ghosts, before we went to join Matt Cartney who not only sat in a warm bar, but who had been to the Sahara. Admittedly, he had been to Hardangervidda as well. His Danny Lansing Adventures (Matt loves adventures!) are set in sand, and snow, and wherever else Matt might find inspiration.

Matt Cartney

Lari Don read from Mind Blind, which was her first non-fantasy, for older readers. She had been troubled by not being able to solve problems with magic. Lari is very good with school children. We then found Roy Gill in one of the dressing rooms, and the poor man was only allowed five minutes with us, so raced like crazy through his werewolves and a reading from his latest book.

Kirkland Ciccone

We finished in another dressing room where Victoria Campbell had brought her Viking weapons. Just imagine, small basement room full of young teenagers and some – possibly not totally lethal – weapons. She dressed one volunteer in a spiky helmet but didn’t let go of either the Dane Axe or the sword. Victoria asked what the best thing so far had been, and my group reckoned it was the selfies! Apparently some of her Viking interest comes from a short period living in Sweden (good taste). Before we left her, there was an almighty scream from – I would guess – Roy’s dressing room.

Victoria Campbell with Viking

Ever the optimist, Kirkie had scheduled a panel session at the end (a full 20 minutes!), chaired by Keith. Unsurprisingly, the authors had different opinions on nearly everything. But the questions were good. Very good. This was one fine audience.

KIrkland Ciccone tweets

Theresa brought out a gift for Kirkie, which might have been a chocolate boot. And while the panel wound things up, he and some of the others hastily got ready to run off to Edinburgh, where they had an(other) event to go to. All good things come in twos.

Theresa Breslin gives Kirkland Ciccone the chocolate boot at Yay! YA+

The very lovely Barry Hutchison offered to remove me from the premises, on his way home to Fort William, which meant I was able to actually leave Cumbernauld – something that had worried me considerably earlier in the week. He set me down outside the newsagent’s after some nice conversation, and a secret.

My verdict of the day is that if we can only get Kirkland to speak less loudly in places, this worked really quite well. Might let him repeat it, if he can find more dark corners in which to stash Scotland’s finest.

(I found the photo below on facebook, and because it has Linda Strachan in it, I decided to borrow the picture, a little.)

Linda Strachan, Lari Don, Roy Gill, Alex Nye and Kirkland Ciccone

In the dark

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. Well here you have four pictures. The first one shows you the lovely Helen Grant somewhere in some pleasant countryside, sunshine and all. What could possibly go wrong?

Helen Grant

The second picture is a bit darker, although you could be fooled by the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe this is the tunnel Helen has invited me to come and walk with her. Hah! As if I would, after all she’s put me through in Urban Legends. Could, even. She’d sit me down and tell me one of those legends, and then where would I be?

Helen Grant

You can see the other two, fleeing while Helen’s attention is on me. (If I was in there, in the first place. I’m not an idiot.)

Tunnel

Finally, we have the storyteller looking all atmospheric, getting ready to start on one of her legends. And it’s too late for me to leave. She’s looking right at me…

Helen Grant

Aarrgghh!!!

I’ll send the rest of the family in my place.

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

is how Helen Grant describes her younger self, in the days when her pudding basin hairstyle made people think she was a boy. Well, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake any more. Helen is a beautiful woman, who feels that Hannibal Lecter got a bit tame in the end, and that’s not how she wants to write her books.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

The Bookwitch family were part of the discerning, quality audience at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening, there to launch Urban Legends. Admittedly, Son only popped in to say he couldn’t stay, but it was still somewhat of a witchy family gathering. The way I like it when an author reads from her book and chooses the bit where the killer eases off the strangling of his victim, because he has to have a hand free to grab his axe.

Even the lovely Susy McPhee, whose task it was to chat to Helen and ask her difficult questions, admitted she had been rather terrified of Urban Legends. Whereas Helen actually reads her own book in the bath (one assumes to relax…), which is why her copy looks decidedly dogeared.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

Susy started off by asking what the difference is between entertaining books and literature. Helen reckons she is neither a Dan Brown nor a Nobel prize hopeful, but somewhere in-between. She doesn’t want to be more literary than she is. With her earlier books Helen pussy-footed around, while now she’s ready to ‘go for it, gloves off.’

Quite.

Helen Grant

If Urban Legends was a television programme, Susy said she would have switched off when they got to page 38. Helen admits Urban Legends is not for younger readers. She likes creepy, not bloody, and doesn’t set out to be deliberately gross. Here she used the word eviscerated, which Susy said she’d have to look up. And to make her pay, Susy had prepared some tricky words for the audience to test Helen on. Mine was vivandiere. Helen ‘cheated’ by knowing Latin too well.

The weirdest thing Helen has eaten is probably not crocodile (which Susy agreed is delicious), but the fried ants as served in Jericho in Oxford. (At this point I could see Daughter silently removing Jericho as somewhere she would ever return to. She had already decided she’s not up to reading Urban Legends.)

This might be a trilogy, but Helen won’t rule out more books. She likes Veerle’s world, and would love to write more. She herself has tried a lot of what’s in the books, visiting sewers and getting herself inside a forbidden church, for example. Her favourite is the definitely-not-allowed visit to a former factory, which she put most of into her book, in a most charming way… She likes a high body count.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

On that note Susy brought the conversation and the questions to an end, and we mingled over the wine and the literary discussions. I introduced the Resident IT Consultant to the man [Roy Gill] who did interesting things to Jenners department store in one of his books.

Once I’d secured a signature in my copy of Helen’s book, we left in search of a bus to take us to the tram, which took us to the car and home.

Urban Legends

It’s not so much the ease with which Helen Grant kills in Urban Legends that scares me. It’s more how she scares me while she scares me. As it says on the cover of the book, ‘no one is safe.’ You’d better believe it.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

I read slowly to begin with, because I was that scared. Really. What’s worst with this kind of plot* is when no one knows anything, when no one suspects or realises they need to look out. So, once Kris and Veerle are aware that De Jager – The Hunter – is once again after them and that he’d quite like to kill them, and probably slowly and painfully, you can half relax as they at least know what they are up against.

I say relax, but I don’t mean that. Readers have been forced to sleep with the lights on. Because Veerle and Kris understand De Jager, and will recognise him if they see him (apart from the fact they thought he’d died, twice). But all those others, who walk like lambs to slaughter, or who maybe suspect they’ve made a mistake but can’t do anything to escape? Yes, them.

The first two brilliant books in the trilogy were ‘merely’ about setting up this final (?) one. You see the point of every detail from those books when you get to Urban Legends. And you rather wish you didn’t. The urban legends; they are the tales told by one of the group of people who regularly meet in out-of-the-way places to explore and listen to stories, before someone departs for the afterlife in ways recently described in these ‘legends.’

It would be easy to ask why I read Urban Legends all the way to the end if I was that frightened. The answer is that Helen writes so perfectly, that you just can’t not read. She knows precisely how to play on all your inner fears, and then some. (You do need to get past p 38, however.)

*As if there could be an archetypal plot where Helen is concerned. Read, and shiver. But first close the blinds.

A reading update

Let me see.., so after my lovely glow from reading about the horrors of war in Abyssinia, I moved swiftly on to Helen Grant’s Urban Legends, her third book about teenagers in Belgium who break into people’s homes, or climb up onto the rooftops of Ghent, encountering murderers and dead bodies galore.

I thought the first one – Silent Saturday – was quite cosy, for a thrillery, horror novel.

Let me tell you how I am doing so far. I have read 24 pages. Seven of those I’d already read (I don’t think it’s déjà vu, but more that the first chapter was printed at the end of book two) and it came back to me quite how scary I felt they seemed last year.

Well this year, my dears, I am scared witless, and I’m only on p 24. As I said.

I hope things will turn rosier as I go along. Because I’m never going to get braver or more fond of horror. I mean, how could those characters just walk with you-know-who, or let someone into their home like that, or go and live all alone, or anything else which Helen no doubt will have written, but which I have not as yet encountered?

I’ll be fine. Really.

But please leave the lights on.

And please tell me he’s not behind me.

The Dogs

Somehow there is nothing innocent about the title of Allan Stratton’s novel The Dogs. You just know they aren’t going to be cute, floppy-eared creatures, loved by everyone. And they’re not.

Allan Stratton, The Dogs

There’s a slow, menacing start to the story, and while it does pick up speed, it doesn’t become truly scary until closer to the end, when I defy anyone’s heart rate not to thump a lot faster.

13-year-old Cameron has to keep moving house when his mother suspects that his father is on their tracks yet again. He was abusive (although when Cameron thinks back, he makes excuses for his father, deciding that maybe he wasn’t all that bad) and fearing for their lives, Cameron’s mother keeps moving them to new places.

This time the new house is a decrepit farmhouse, somewhere that feels like the American Midwest, although it never says. You know the kind of place; flat farmland, weird neighbours, nearby town with the standard American services and some suspicious people. It was made for thrillers.

Cameron discovers there are dogs near the farm. He sees, or senses, the presence of a boy his own age. There is a mystery, somewhere, and he needs to work out what it is. The former owner was eaten by his dogs. No one else sees the boy and Cameron worries he’s going crazy. His mother wonders if he’s turning out just like his father.

So yeah, there are things to worry about. Who’ll be dog food next? Will the townspeople chase them out? Who is that boy, and what happened to him and his family, and did their landlord have anything to do with it?