Thursday, 29 April 2010

Review: Hellion: The Curse of Snakes by Christopher Fowler

Red Hellion lives opposite the creepy, tightly locked Torrington Park, or 'Viper's Green'. Walking home from school one day, he meets Max, who is trying to break in. Before he knows it, Red finds himself sucked into Max's plans to discover the whereabouts of his father, who disappeared weeks before under sinister circumstances connected with the park. But neither Max nor Red realize just how much their lives are at risk for their investigations into the park, are linked to the terrible the legend of Medusa, and are about to lead them into horrific danger...

Christopher Fowler has been keeping me entertained for a number of years with his Bryant and May detective series for adults. This series kicked off in 2004 with the release of Full Dark House, although the characters of Bryant and May first appeared in Mr Fowler's Darkest Day, published in 1993. This book underwent a rewrite to late appear as Seventy-Seven Clocks in 2003, although the original book with its significant supernatural element running throughout the plot (including zombies) is something of a guilty pleasure of mine.

Imagine my delight then when I discovered that he had written his first teen horror book, entitled Hellion: The Curse of Snakes. Then I read the opening paragraph online and I was straight away rattling off an email to the publisher. As opening lines for a teen horror novel go these are perfect:

"Something had been released into the night streets. It moved unnoticed and sucked the life from people. It caused slow painful death, but even those who could sense its presence were too scared to admit it was there. 

And now, with quiet deliberation, it was heading for the street where I lived."  
Fortunately the kind people at Andersen Press felt me worthy enough to receive an early copy of the book and I finished it in one sitting. As YA books go it is quite short at 197 pages, and I feel that many confident readers below the age of 13 will have no problem coping with the language or the themes within the story. However, ophidiophobia sufferers beware - this will probably scare the pants off you.
One of the principle themes running through Mr Fowler's work to date is his portrayal of London, a city he obviously loves with a passion. His descriptive writing of the city will strike a chord with Londonphiles everywhere, especially in the way he works the everyday idiosynchrasies of the city and its inhabitants into his writing, and I was overjoyed to find that The Curse of Snakes is no different. Long-time readers of this blog will know I am a sucker for a good horror or urban fantasy story set in London; in my opinion it is the most amazing city in the world, a modern, vibrant metropolis with a history rich in blood, violence and mythology - what more could an author ask for?

The cover of this book leaves us in no doubt that this story revolves around the Medusa/gorgon myth. You may well now be asking what on earth this ancient greek myth has to do with London. I asked the same question myself as I started reading this book. However, those questioning voices in my head were soon quietened as Mr Fowler has created a very credible extension to the traditional gorgon myth, and in doing so has created a story that is 100% creepy from beginning to end.

The synopsis tells you everything you need to know about this story. Just like Scared to Death by Alan Gibbons which I reviewed recently, the story focuses on a 'nice' boy. He doesn't bunk school, he gets home on time, he does chores for his mother. Red is a normal boy, not an action hero in-waiting. In Red's own words: "My dad's half-Indian (on his mum's side), my mum's half-English, half-Don't Know, my rellies are all sorts from New Zealand to French, but I'm just a Londoner, which can mean anything". Yes, the book is written in the first person, with Red as the narrator, and this is one of the book's real strengths as Christopher Fowler has imbued his main character with a voice laced with charm and humour. Kids will love Red; they will find it very easy to associate with his personality, and when things start to hot up and the horror kicks in they will also find it easy to imagine how they would react in his situation.

Like Scared to Death, this nice boy also find himself led astray by a rebellious older boy, although in this case Max is no demon, he is just another ordinary boy who is desperate to find out what happened to his father on the night he disappeared - did he just walk out on Max and his mother or is there a more sinister explanation? Red's words to us as readers on meeting Max for the first time will strike a chord with children all over the world:

"... I came from a long line of people who always did what they were told. Max was exactly the kind of kid I was warned away from. It should have made me turn and leave the park. But there was something about him that made me curious enough to stick around."

Secondary characters have always played a big part in the Bryant and May stories, and the author has treated this book for younger readers no differently. In addition to Red and Max, Mr Fowler has used his magic to create a string of colourful characters, which really help add another level to this traditional urban horror story. There is the "pale and haunted" Emma, a fellow inhabitant of the run-down Torrington Estate where Max resides with his depressed and possibly alcoholic mother; Emma's mother, seemingly crazy; and Josun, the wild-haired old caretaker of the mysterious, locked park that Max persuades Red to venture into wih him.

I do not know for sure, but I have a feeling that this could be the first in a series of book featuring Red Hellion, and I really hope that I am correct in surmising this. Interestingly lovereading4kids has this labelled as a book for the 14+ age group. I would suggest that many young people of this age would find it a little too easy a read, although it would suit perfectly struggling readers in this age group. I know many horror-loving 11+ boys (and girls) who would love this story, especially with the current proliferation of greek mythology associated books and movies around at the moment. Hellion: The Curse of Snakes is published by Andersen Press and is officially released today. You can also find out more about the book and it's author at this fab new website.


  1. Here's my honest oprinion. I am glad that slowly we are seeing less vampire novels however, after Percy Jackson and Clash of the Titans (which I did not like), I hope that Greek Mythology wont be the next fad. Although the synopsis is quite interesting, I am curious how the author can separate the reader's imagination from the mentioned titles above.

  2. When I read this book I hadn't at that point seen Clash of the Titans. However, at no point did my mind make the association with Percy Jackson, I am guessing because PJ is a fantasy story and this is very obviously a horror story.

  3. I think Percy Jackson as a book series was great, though I know what you mean about Clash of the Titans.
    I'll look out for this, especially for the London setting.

  4. Thanks very much for your kind words about the book. I was very nervous about writing a novel for younger readers, but had a ball with connecting the Gorgon myth to London. I started it before I knew about Percy Jackson or the Clash Of The Titans film - it's just coincidence that they came out at the same time.
    I hope there'll be more in the series - I have big plans for Red...

    Best wishes,
    Christopher Fowler

  5. I think that a lot of kids even from a very young age engage with this kind of mythological story telling. Really creative story telling and vivid characters that have more depth than can be created off the cuff in some modern literature. Intertwining classic Greek mythology with a modern setting however, can make it difficult to maintain the sense of mystery and fortitude of the characters. I'm interested by the synopsis and certainly think this could be a success.

    P.S. I certainly wouldn't lump all Greek mythology together as it's so expansive. Consider the fact that the movie 'O brother where art thou' is based on Homers Odysius.