Wednesday 28 April 2010

Review: The Hell's Underground Series by Alan Gibbons

Late one night after a strange tube journey to Whitechapel in East London, Paul makes a new friend, John Redman - daring and enigmatic, just as Paul longs to be, away from his cloying mother (his only family - so he thinks). Redman charms Paul at once, but also a girl called Jude they meet on a night about town. A few days later, Paul learns that Jude has mysteriously died, and Redman has disappeared. Shortly after that, one of Paul's teacher dies suddenly - frightened to death - near where Jude's body was found. A link for sure. And Paul feels implicated, because both victims were known to him. He senses Redman, who comes and goes as it suits him, is involved as well. His new friend is dangerous. But so, we learn, is Paul. In uncovering the truth about Redman he learns shocking facts about himself. There's an evil curse loose in his family and Paul is the latest inheritor. The spree of death - camouflagued as copycat Jack the Ripper-style murders - will continue until Paul confronts the demon in himself head on. (synopsis for Scared To Death taken from Orion website)

As a result of his organisation of The Campaign for the Book, Alan Gibbons is considered something of a legend by librarians and those amongst us who recognise the importance of public and school libraries. He is also the author of one of my favourite series of YA horror books. In fact, having recently re-read the first two books in the Hell's Underground series and then Renegade, the third book (thanks to the generosity of Nina Douglas at Orion Books) I am now more than confident in rating these above Darren Shan's Demonata series (they are certainly much better written for a start).

The series kicks off with Scared To Death, the prologue of which leaves the reader in no doubt at all as the the kind of book they are reading. This opening 'chapter' is creepy and gruesome, and the perfect hook and bait with which to reel in a reluctant teenage reader. Jump forward a number of years and Paul Rector, first seen having a 'heated' exchange with his tormenting brother, has now reached his mid teens and is enjoying the kind of life every normal teenager does. There is nothing at all special about him at this moment in time..... but then Redman appears on the scene. As a teacher I have seen this many times - normal, happy teenager comes under the spell of confident older boy/girl, normal kid starts to do things they wouldn't previously have done like stay out late, gate-crash parties, joy-riding, that sort of thing. Paul has the night of his life, although being a 'nice boy' the events of the night are already nibbling away at his conscience by the time he gets home. 

Unfortunately for Paul though there is a lot more to Redman than just being a bad influence - this person is Dangerous (capital D intended), and very soon people start to die, and all of these people are linked to Paul in some way. Firstly, the young student they met at the party, then one of Paul's teachers, and as Paul starts to put the pieces of this macabre jigsaw together he realises that Redman is somehow up to his neck in all this. However, as he starts to dig Paul begins to find out disturbing things about himself, and what he really his. His life will never be the same again.

I loved Scared To Death. It is one of the few horror books that has had me feeling more than a little nervous as I read it. This is because Alan Gibbons is a master of the art of building tension slowly, so the horror levels creep up page by page, without you consciously realising, but leaving you feeling uncomfortable at the same time. This is no crash, bang, whallop action horror story like we have become accustomed to seeing from some authors - this is Stephen King and James Herbert territory we are entering, and the story is all the better for this. As with both of these authors there is also a pleasing level of gore, and teenage horror fans will lap this up, especially with it involving elements of time travel and the Jack the Ripper story. These people die in absolute terror as their world changes around them and they find themselves fleeing for their lives in what appears to be Victorian London, the domain of Jack himself.

Scared To Death ends on a cliffhanger with Paul choosing to leave his friends and family to journey back in time in order to try to use his new found supernatural powers to battle an ancient evil, and in doing so hopefully break the curse that has haunted male members of the Rector family for centuries. In The Demon Assassin we follow Paul into World War II London during the Blitz, and a demonic attempt on the life Winston Churchill, and then Renegade takes us even further back in time to the 1830s. Having established the nature of the horror facing Paul in the first book, Alan Gibbons ramps up the action in these two. Whilst they still engender the reader with that feeling of creepiness, this is balanced out with many more scenes of action as Paul's powers begin to grow, as well as his abilities to control them. Again, we see Mr Gibbons' mastery of the genre - where lesser authors could have made the mistake of turning these sequels in a action-fest, he somehow manages to ensure that the horror remains the key element in the story. This is especially the case in Renegade - the scenes featuring a girl called Victoria and her gradual possession by demonic influences are spine chilling. 

In both of these sequels Paul is aided and abetted by an array of colourful characters, many of whom have their own flaws, but as they begin to realise the horror facing their world they become almost willing to lay their lives on the line for the mysterious Paul and his quest to rid the world of the evil King Lud. How many of these characters end up making the ultimate sacrifice I will not even hint at, but the reader is certainly left in no doubt that anyone is fair game in these stories.... just don't get too attached to a particular character! 

Of course, to maintain balance, Alan Gibbons also throws a vicious mix of villains into the pot, and if you thought Redman was nasty just wait until you come across the villains in Renegade. Imagine what you would get if you took Fagin, the Artful Dodger and their band of boy thieves to hell, left them there for a few centuries to get acquainted with the devil and develop a few satanic powers of their own and then brought them back to 1830s London and told them the city was theirs to play with - enter Samuel Rector and his Rat Boys.

Three books in the series so far and the fourth, entitled Witch Breed, is now due to be published on 1st July 2010. Having just read the synopsis for Witch Breed I am already begin to salivate with anticipation:

When Paul arrives in 17th century London, he expects to be thrown into a life or death struggle for the three gates that imprison the ancient King Lud. But the battle doesn't come. Instead, Paul roams alone, learning how to survive in a city where all the talk is of the savage civil war that rages beyond its ramparts. Somewhere underground, Lud is waiting in his crypt, preparing to rise again. War, fear and want are his tools. But Paul too has his own weapons and is gaining strength and losing inhibitions about using it. Meanwhile, beyond the city, innocent women are being killed for it is so easy to claim that they are witches. One woman - whether innocent or guilty - possesses the only power available that can help Paul in his quest.

Scared To Death, The Demon Assassin and Renegade are published by Orion and are all available to buy right now, although you may have to hunt around a bit for Scared To Death (books 1 and 2 are being reissued later this year). If you haven't yet discovered them they I envy you as you have the opportunity to read three great series books back-to-back and then go straight into what I expect will be an equally fantastic Book Four.


  1. Alexander Waverly6 June 2010 at 10:07

    I agree with every word. Having spent many hours reading supernatural fiction, and I'm talking Lovecraft, M.R.James,William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashston Smith here, [not keen on the modern scribblers], 'Scared To Death' came to my attention, grabbed me from the quite horrific beginning, and neither let me go or let me down. A young person's book featuring Jack The Ripper, that doesn't look away at the last moment - I was both shocked and elated by the depth of the writing; the fear is tangible throughout. Strong stuff indeed, even to the point of giving me the first nightmare I can recall since I was a child [and that was from reading 'The Nemesis Of Fire' by Algernon Blackwood, aged 10],which shows the power of the writing. The two sequels to this book are both excellent, with 'The Demon Assassin' having a truly heartbreaking final act.[Read it. I'm not going to spoil it for you]. I'm now in my mid forties, and would heartily recommend this series to anyone, whatever age, who enjoys a great story, beautifully and terrifyingly told. Kudos, Mr. Gibbons!

  2. Hi Alexander
    Thanks for your great comment. I have mentioned it to the publisher and I am sure she will be passing it on to Alan Gibbons. I have only read a small amount of Lovecraft and James, so cannot really make an expert comparison. However, I recently read King's 'Salem's Lot for the first time and had the same feeling of creeping terror as I did when I read Scared To Death.

  3. Just to let you know, I'm a girl, so I'm putting it out there, girls read this stuff too (it's much better than those "teenage fiction" books with vampires and werewolves *cough* Twilight *cough*). I found Scared To Death enthralling! I loved it so much. Though he was slightly predictable with Netty at the end, nonetheless, amazing. I've read my fair share of horror books - most of them ending in a heartfelt, crying scene to end with - but this one jumped out; it slapped me across the face and held my mind captive.
    Jack the Ripper: that's something I'd never thought of. It's engaging, it's utterly horrifying. I think that Mr. Gibbons has just obtained a new fan. Oh, and I plan to read the other books, I am determined to feel like my heart has stopped due to fear.
    I'm only 15 but I already know that I want to be an author one day. Alan Gibbons, you have just set me a new challenge. I'm going to work so hard and long to produce a book as good as (and maybe, maybe, maybe the slightest bit better)than this one. Fantastic job, props for the continuous paranoia.

  4. Hi every1
    Im in my teens and after reading up to wichbreed i have been gobsmacked...I have to say that it is 'the best series of book i have ever read'...Just want to know when hell's underground 5 is released...I really can't wait
    Thx in advance.

  5. hey people,
    Alan Gibbons truly is an amazing author,he keeps you on the edge of your seat at all times,im 15 years old and have read many books but this series has stood out,i cannot wait for book 5:)

  6. i've read every book of this series 5 times and counting, yet i am still engaged everytime without fail. i am extremely excited for the fifth book- thank you alan gibbons for entertaining year 7-8 for me!

  7. where is the fifth book, as much as I love alan gibbons he is losing the fans of this eries due to the wait