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.

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.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

My Book of the Month - April (plus contest)

Over the weekend I was looking back through some other book blogs and was reminded that at the end of 2009 many bloggers were finding it very difficult to name their Top 10 books of the year. With this in mind, I have decided that at the end of each month I will name a Book Zone Book of the Month. This will be a book that has had its official publication date during that month. So to kick everything off, my Book of the Month for April 2010 is Mortlock by Jon Mayhew.


This was not an easy choice as I have read many really good books that have been published this month. In the end I had a shortlist of Crawlers by Sam Enthoven, MeZolith by Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank and Mortlock by Jon Mayhew. Anyone who has been lucky enough to have read all three of these will know what a difficult choice this was, but somehow Mortlock is the book that has stuck in my mind the most. It has everything I would look for in a horror story - nail-biting scenes of extreme horror featuring terrifying supernatural creatures, a fast paced plot, thoroughly believable main characters, a well imagined Victorian London setting vividly described, and his creepiest creation of all - Lorenzo's Incredible Circus. My "To Be Read" pile is invariably huge but I have already made the time to re-read this book and it was just as good the second time around.

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And now you have a chance to win a signed copy of the book. Thanks to the generous people at Bloomsbury I have two signed copies of Mortlock up for grabs. In order to be in with a chance of winning one of these I want you to get creative. Mortlock contains a number of characters with great Victorian names (Sebastian Mortlock, Thurlough Corvis and Edwin Chrimes are all names that Dickens himself could have used in his books), so all you have to do is:

Come up with your own name for a character that would sit well in a Victorian gothic story like Mortlock and leave it as a comment on this blog post. Please also include your email address or twitter name.

The first two names drawn at random after the closing date will win a copy of this gorgeous book. Deadline for your comments is 8pm Friday 30th April. This contest is open to UK residents only.

Terms and conditions

Contest open to UK entrants only.
I will not be held responsible for items lost in the mail.
I hold the right to end a contest before its original deadline without any prior notice.
I hold the right to disqualify any entry as I see fit.

I will contact winning entrants for their postal address following the close of the competition. Winners have 48 hours to reply. Failure to do so in this time will result in another winner being randomly selected.


Monday, 26 April 2010

*** Interview with Jon Mayhew (author of Mortlock)

Back in February I published my review of Jon Mayhew's brilliant new horror book Mortlock. Back then I described is as "a dark and twisted horror story in a glorious Victorian setting; it is so good that I am still struggling to believe that this is Jon Mayhew's debut novel." And it would appear that I am not alone in thinking that this book is brilliant. It is receiving rave review after rave review across the blogosphere, and the Observer selected it as their Children's Book of the Month for April. You should also visit the book's great new website to find out more about Jon and his work.

Jon is very busy promoting Mortlock at the moment, but he kindly took time out to answer a few questions for The Book Zone. 

How would you describe Mortlock to a potential reader?

Mortlock is an exciting, adrenalin-surge of a story based in the dark streets of Victorian London. Josie and Alfie dodge, battle and flee from flesh-eating crow-like witches in a struggle to find the Amarant, the flower of life and its owner Mortlock. Only then can they stop the evil Lord Corvis and the crow-like ghuls from using the Amarant to comdemn the world to a living death.

You obviously have a strong interest in, maybe even a passion for the Victorian era. What is it about this period of time that appeals to you?

We often think of the Victorian Era as a civilised time when charity reigned and manners were everything but life was hard then. London and all major cities were rife with disease and crime. Going out on the streets could be an adventure and one you might not survive!

But it was the point at which things began to change and so you can see elements of our modern world forming. In one scene, Josie talks about the possibility of underground railways as a solution to the traffic congestion that was strangling London. Nothing changes really.

Whilst reading Mortlock the Victorian setting really came alive for me. How did you go about researching the book?

Some of it was from online sources like Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London other was looking at artefacts of the day, clothes, hearses all kinds of things. Ackroyd’s London: A Biography was important too but I think that a lot of it was ‘hard-wired’ into me. I’m of an age when I can remember the thick smogs that used to blow up over the Mersey where I grew up. My Grandmother was a Victorian and I can remember her attitudes. In fact Josie wakes up on a sofa, a battered old thing stuffed with horsehair. I remember sitting on one just like that at my Nan’s. And I can’t escape the influence of Hammer horror films which crystallised the stereotyped Victorian foggy street scene.

Did you research any real events, legends, or myths to get ideas?

Initially, I ploughed through a lot of London Illustrated News articles to drop into the story but they didn’t really stay. I did research London stage magicians of the time and one is mentioned in the early chapters. No myths or legends but of course, the ballads that permeate the story were important to me. I do believe that if you want to talk to the dead, listen to their music and song. You learn so much as well as discovering that they loved a gory, spooky tale as much as we do.

Who are your greatest literary influences?

Dickens is one. I love A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations. The Signal Man is a super creepy story. I also love the strong tradition of English Ghost Stories, MR James for example. The first novel I wrote tried to include creatures and ghosts from many of his stories. Being an English teacher by original profession, I love a lot of children’s literature. Holes by Louis Sachar and Skellig by David Almond are strong favourites of mine but I love Season of Secrets by Sally Nicholls too. Eoin Colfer and Darren Shan are firm favourites as well.

Are you a fan of horror literature? Do you have any favourites?

I’m a total coward. I remember reading the original short story that inspired the film The Fly and not being able to sleep for days after. The ghost stories of MR James make me shiver as I’ve said. My all time favourite story is The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs. So understated and it seems clich├ęd now but it is so powerful and turns your imagination against you.

I know you grew up watching the Hammer Horror films. What made these films so special for you?

Looking back now, they were so corny but they used to terrify me. Midnight sessions watching Dracula and Frankenstein followed by the panicky dash from my mate’s house back to mine used to leave me in a right state! I loved the characters, the over-the-top settings. They were the real horror stories of their time and great fun.

What do you think it is that draws so many young people to horror books?

I think imagination has a purpose when we used to squat at waterholes looking warily around us for the prowling sabretooth we needed our imaginations to keep us alive. What kept us out of those darker caves? Our imagination. What stopped us from wandering into the dark forest at night? Our imagination. Kids love to connect with that primal sense of threat and danger, it’s only natural.

Horror stories, by their very nature, often contain some degree of violence and Mortlock has some pretty gory moments – how do you gauge the right level of violence in your stories?

Erm… I’m not sure really. I don’t think there’s a need to go over the top with graphic description. Shan usually drops in one hideously graphic scene in a book and then gets on with the plot. It’s not an endless gorefest. I suppose I ask myself if I’d be comfortable with my own children reading a scene. Much of the violence is implied in Mortlock rather than full on description. Apart from the bag of entrails of course…

Have you ever come up with anything so wild that you scared yourself?

There is one thing I wrote which lingered in my mind but that doesn’t crop up in any of the Gothic stuff. I try to keep it reasonable, remembering that I’m a total wuss myself when it comes to scarey stuff.

Do you have time to read any of the many books for children that are published these days? If so, are there any other books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read?

I try to read as much as I can which never seems enough these days. I have so many unfinished books. I love the Demonata series by Darren Shan, particularly Demon Thief. Eoin Colfer too, I love Artemis Fowl. I also enjoy Chris Priestly’s stuff, Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, which carries on that great tradition of telling ghost stories. Kate Thompson’s New Policeman is great as well. Devil’s Kiss by my mate Sarwat Chadda is a good read for older followers of the blog.

Mortlock is the first in a ‘trilogy’ of books set in the same Victorian era – what can we expect from you in the future?

The next offering is The Demon Collector which involves a young man called Edgy Taylor who gets involved with the intrigue and adventure in the Royal Society of Daemonologie, nearly dying in the process.

Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers of this blog?

Just thanks for taking the time to read this and if you haven’t read Mortlock yet, get out there and do so before the ghuls get you!


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A big thank you to Jon for providing us with some great answers to my questions. I agree with Jon - if you have not yet read Mortlock then get your hands on a copy as soon as you can. Coming up in the next day or two I will also be giving you a chance to win one of two signed copies of Mortlock so please watch this space.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Review: The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan


In a harsh, unforgiving world of slavery and glorified executions, one boy's humiliation leads him to embark on a perilous quest to the faraway lair of a mysterious god. It is a dark, brutal, nightmarish journey which few have ever survived. But to Jebel Rum, the risk is worth it… to retrieve his honour… to win the hand of the girl he loves… to wield unimaginable power… and to become… THE THIN EXECUTIONER.

Darren Shan has become one of the best-selling YA authors of recent years through his Saga of Darren Shan and Demonata books. These books have invariably contained pages and pages of gory horror, some of which gets particularly graphic at times (just read the first few chapters of Lord Loss if you doubt me). Simply put, his readers have known exactly what to expect when picking up a new Darren Shan book for the first time. However, with the imminent publication of his latest book, entitled The Thin Executioner, those days are over.

As this is The Book Zone's Horror Month I was very chuffed to receive an early review copy from HarperCollins. Little did I know that this is an entirely new direction for Mr Shan and the book fits far more comfortably into the fantasy genre than the horror genre. Yes, there are a number of his trademark gory moments, but these are definitely in the minority and for the first time the story is not set on earth. At the beginning of the book Mr Shan credits the country of Jordan and its villages as providing many of the character names for The Thin Executioner, and the ties to this country don't end there. The world inhabited by these characters is disctinctly Middle Eastern in flavour, albeit a fantastical version of the area and its cultures, and at one point our hero even comes across a 'tribe' of cliff-dwellers whose homes obviously inspired by the amazing dwelings in Jordan's Petra.

The story focuses on Jebel, the youngest son of the Chief Executioner of Wadi. This position is held in great esteem by the citizens of this region, almost to the point of garnering more respect than the country's ruler himself. Nobody is fined or imprisoned in this place, everyone who is found guilty of committing a crime very quickly finds themselves facing the dreaded axe. Unlike his father and brothers Jebel is thin and lacking in the physical qualities required for the position of Executioner, so when his father announces his retirement and fails to mention Jebel as a potential successor, Jebel decides that the only way to regain his honour is to embark on a quest. Legend has it that by making the arduous journey to the mountain of Tubaygat, with a slave willing to be sacrificed at the journey's end, then the great god Sabbah Eid will grant the questor invincibility.

I have been a huge Darren Shan fan ever since I first read Cirque du Freak. I will happily concede that he is not the best of writers, but he knows what his fans like and he has always delivered it by the truckload. However, I really did struggle to get into this book at first. I think the main reason for this is that Jebel is not a particularly pleasant main character. In fact, I think the words odious, bigoted, selfish and arrogant would be the best way to describe his personality. He is very much a product of his environment - his father's elevated status in society, the way his fellow citizens treat their slaves, the emphasis on execution as the only viable form of punishment - all these contribute to making him a particularly nasty piece of work. However, once he actually got into his quest I started to warm to the book, although it is still a long way off being my favourite from this author.

The journey that Jebel experiences is not just a physical one from Wadi to Tubaygat. Author Sarwat Chadda recently described the book as like "Pilgrim's Progress but with decapitations", and I'm not sure I could come up with a better analogy if I sat here all week as Jebel's journey is much more one of personal discovery - as the story progresses all of his deeply ingrained notions on honour, slavery, punishment and religion are challenged in one way or another. I won't spoil the story by telling you whether he is successful in his quest or of his personality is permanently changed for the better - although I didn't think this the best of Darren Shan's work it is certainly worth reading.

This book will be a big test of Darren Shan's true popularity as a writer. The story has a pleasingly fast pace for most of the book, although there are one or two painfully slow passages, but I am not sure the hard-core horror fans will enjoy this anywhere near as much as they did his other books. As I have previously mentioned, this book does contain some gory moments, and true to form Mr Shan is far from restrained in his descriptions of them (what the Um Saga do to each other under the instruction of their vile leader Qasr Bint is particularly nasty) but is there enough of this to sate his fans' appetites for all things grim? Perhaps they are ready for a story that deals with more real-life issues such as crime and punishment, personal freedom and religion? Maybe they will find the way he deals with these subjects a little too moralistic in places as I did? I feel the technical quality of the writing is an improvement on some of his other books but whether this will help sales only time will tell.

The Thin Executioner is Darren Shan's first standalone novel so who knows what he will deliver next (I really hope it doesn't contain vampires or angels). The book is published by HarperCollins and is due to be in stores on 29th April.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

*** Interview with Steve Feasey (author of the Changeling series)

Steve Feasey is the man who is almost single-handedly making werewolves cool with his Changeling series of books (known as Wereling in the USA). I wrote a review of the first three books in this series recently and Steve very kindly volunteered to answer a few questions for The Book Zone as part of my horror month.

First of all..... why werewolves? What makes them so special in your eyes?

I suppose we’re on the crest of a vampire phenomenon at the moment, but I’ve always loved the brutal animality of werewolves. Let’s face it, in a straight-up, one-on-one fight between a vamp and a lyco, there really is only going to be one winner isn’t there? Having a teenage protagonist who also happens to be a werewolf allows me to explore the analogy between shapeshifting and the child-teenager-adult change. And werewolf transformation scenes are SUCH great fun to write!

What sort of research have you carried out when writing the Changeling series? Did you discover any really interesting facts during your research that you would like to share with us?

I did a lot of looking into the ancient werewolf and vampire legends. I needed to know which aspects of the legends I wanted to keep, and which parts I would make up to suit the world I was going to be imagining. The internet is great for that sort of thing. You can quickly build up a large information dump of the useless, the quirky, the helpful, and the downright scary. Sifting through it all is another matter…

I was amazed at how some of the beliefs in these supernatural creatures were still in existence today. At school visits I often tell the true story about a family in Romania who, because they believed their neighbour was a vampire, carried out the most bizarre ritual at his grave. This was as recent as five or six years ago!

Do you visit the locations that you write about?

I have visited most of the places that the books have been set in so far (London, Amsterdam, Iceland). I’ve never been to Canada which is the setting for most of book three, Changeling: Blood Wolf, but as it was a remote rural woodland setting, I figured I could get away with making most of that up.

Book Four is set in the Netherworld, and I’ve been visiting that every time I’ve sat at my desk in the last six months.

What do you see as the main influences on your writing?

I think I get influences from lots of different sources. I don’t particularly have a favourite sort of book, and I enjoy switching between genres and authors. But I think the fantasy adventure and sci-fi stuff I read as a teenager have had a big influence on the Changeling books.

What is it about the horror genre that interests you so much?

Imperilment. Good fiction relies on placing your protagonist in dire situations. The bigger the peril, the more impact that it will have on the character, whether in a positive or negative way. Horror allows you to place your characters in the direst of situations, and for me it is those characters’ reactions to those situations that makes horror so much fun to write (and hopefully to read).

What was your first introduction to horror in literature?

I was about twelve years old and I was at a loss for something to read, having just finished a book. I wandered into my older sisters’ room and found a copy of Carrie by Stephen King on the bedside table. I read it and it scared the living wits out of me (I had to sleep with the light on that night).

Do you have a favourite horror book or horror movie?

I think that my favourite horror book is Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. I read it on holiday as a teenager and fell in love with the dark, gothic feel that it had, despite the fact that it is set in the deep south of America. It was one of those books that I came across quite by accident, and it has a great twist at the end.

Do you remember the first horror movie you ever saw?

It was one of the Hammer Horror vampire movies. They were really corny, and I think I’d laugh at it now. But at the time I was terrified.

Who/what in your opinion is the ultimate horror movie monster?


Alien. It’s my favourite horror movie. As I’ve said, I used to read quite a bit of sci-fi when I was younger. When I saw Alien, I was blown away. You get three monsters for the price of one. *SPOILER ALERT* Firstly, you get the crab-like monster that attaches itself to the astronaut’s face, and plants something in his stomach. Next is the thing that bursts out of his stomach in one of the great movie scenes, and this grows into a thing with more teeth than you can shake a stick at. It has acid for blood, for heaven’s sake! Of course, the monster sets about killing the entire crew. Hey, there’s nowhere to run in space. Classic stuff.

What scares you?

Now I’m an adult, proper scary stuff like income tax.
I’m still capable of scaring myself witless if I’m in the house alone with a good book or film.

Some people think that horror writers must be a little weird to come up with their stories. Would you agree with them?

I think writers as a whole have to be a bit weird to do what they do. But yeah, I think it helps if you have a taste for the macabre if you want to write stuff that makes other people reluctant to turn the light out at night.

What do you think it is that draws so many young people to horror books?

I think that most people, but particularly younger people, like being scared. Hey, there’s a reason that rollercoasters are so popular with teenagers. The cool monsters help too.

What would you say to people who think that horror stories are not suitable for young people?

I would have to choose my words carefully. There is no such thing as a ‘type’ of book that is unsuitable for young people (just as there is, with a couple of obvious exceptions, no subject matter that is unsuitable). I think it’s the way that the ‘genre’ is handled. Clearly, a stomach-churning gore-fest book like Jack Ketchum’s cannibal stuff is not suitable for younger readers, but would anyone seriously think that it could be bad for someone to read Stoker or Shelley (Dracula and Frankenstein)?

There are some pretty violent moments in your books. How do you gauge the right level of violence?

They always start out, in the earlier drafts of the books, more violent than they end up. If I only listened to the majority of young boys that I meet during events, I’d end up with something like the Ketchum books I referred to in the last answer. But I think it’s better to hold back the violence a bit, and I tend to get a feel for when I’ve gone too far. Besides, if there is too much gore, the readers get inured to it, and it loses any impact that you hoped it to have.

Do you have time to read any of the many books for children that are published these days? If so, are there any other books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read?

To be honest, I don’t read much YA fiction. That’s not to say I don’t read any, and recently I enjoyed Meteorite Strike by A.G. Taylor as well as Sebastian Faulks’s Revolver. I’m also re-reading His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman at the moment.

I recently had a Graphic Novel themed month on my blog. Do you read graphic novels and if so do you have any favourites?

I love Graphic Novels. I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead series, and I also like The Punisher books. Oh, and Batman. Everyone loves Batman, right?

I know Blood Wolf has only recently been released but can you give us any hints as to what you have planned for Trey next? How many more books are planned in the series?

I’m writing book four at the moment, which will be called Changeling: Demon Games. It’s a slightly different format from the other books because it is set exclusively in the Netherworld. It’s great fun, but a difficult book to write. I plan for there to be five books in total.

Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers of this blog?

Just that there’s a book for everyone out there. Whatever floats your boat, there are people writing to suit your tastes.I’m really glad that it’s seen as cool to read again. Maybe that makes me cool by association? Hmm, maybe not…

~~~~

Another great interview on The Book Zone from another great horror writer. Thank you Steve for taking the time to answer your questions - I hope we can do something again in the future. If you want to read more about Steve and his books then you can find his website here.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Review: The Scream Street series by Tommy Donbavand


After Luke Watson transforms into a werewolf for the third time, he and his parents are moved by the Government Housing of Unusual Lifeforms (G.H.O.U.L.) to Scream Street – a community of vampires, zombies, witches and more. In Scream Street, Luke and his parents discover a nightmarish world of the undead. Luke soon makes friends with vampire Resus Negative and mummy Cleo Farr, but he remains determined to take his terrified parents home. After liberating the powerful book Tales of Scream Street from his new landlord, Otto Sneer, Luke learns that the founding fathers of the community each left behind a powerful relic. Collecting together all six is his only hope of opening a doorway out of the street, so with the help of Resus and Cleo he sets out to find the first one, the vampire’s fang. But with Otto Sneer determined to thwart him at every turn, will Luke even get past the first hurdle alive?

Do you have children under the age of 10? If so, have they read any of Tommy Donbavand's Scream Street books yet? If the answer is yes to both of these questions then you will already know how good they are. If your answer is yes to the first question, but no to the second, then you really must try to get your hands on these. Kids love horror stories, the past success of the Goosebumps books are testament to this, and the Scream Street books are a perfect introduction to this horror genre for younger readers. They feature classic characters of the genre including vampires, werewolves, mummies and zombies, and with a heavy dose of Tommy's sparkling humour they do so in a way that is far from scary. I know a six year old boy who reads these with his parents at bed time and there are smiles all round.

Tommy Donbavand has an incredible and hilarious imagination; in these books he has delved into the most famous of the classic horror stories and used elements from them to create a new and original series that is perfect for the under 10s. There have been similar books in the past, Anthony Horowitz's Groosham Grange being an obvious example, but in my opinion Scream Street beats Mr H's ghoulish school hands down, and the principle reason for this is the fascinating array of characters that Mr Donbavand has created. Aside from main character Luke, we have the wonderfully names Resus Negative, the normal son of vampiric parents - as a wannabe vampire the lengths he goes to in order to fit in with popular image of a vampire are laugh out loud funny. Making up the trio of friends is Cleo, the ancient Egyptian mummy -  a lot of rather nasty things eem to happen to Cleo, but it is ok as she is already dead and her vital organs are stored in jars. Of course, all of these characters have parents, each of whom bring many comic elements to the stories. However, my personal favourite is Doug the zombie. All I will say about Doug is that his character is based heavily on a stereotypical surf dude - now your imaginations can do the rest.

Tommy Donbavand is assisted in his work by the delightful illustrations of Lily Bernard. Younger kids love illustrations in their books - it helps them to visualise the characters and make the story even more fun to read. Ms Bernard's images capture the comic elements of Tommy's writing perfectly, and I mean no disrepect to Mr Donbavand when I say that the books would be very different without them. Think of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake - Mr Dahl's books are obviously fantastic without illustrations, but Mr Blake's images are the icing on an already perfect cake. This is how I feel about the Donbavand/Bernard partnership.

There are currently seven books published by Walker Books in the Scream Street series, with the eighth, Attack of the Trolls, scheduled to be released on 4th May 2010, and a total of thirteen books planned overall. So far I have only read the first four books in the series but my godsons have told me the next three are just as good, if not better. You can get a good feel for Tommy's sense of humour by watching some of his homemade book trailer videos that I have included for you at the end of this post. Tommy has also written a book called Zombie! for Barrington Stoke, which I believe will be released as an audio book sometime in the future (read by none other than the author himself).



Saturday, 17 April 2010

Review: Plague of the Dead by Z.A. Recht


The end begins with a viral outbreak unlike anything mankind has ever encountered before. The infected are subject to delirium, fever, a dramatic increase in violent behavior, and a one-hundred percent mortality rate. Death. But it doesn't end there. The victims return from death to walk the earth. When a massive military operation fails to contain the plague of the living dead it escalates into a global pandemic. In one fell swoop, the necessities of life become much more basic. Gone are petty everyday concerns. Gone are the amenities of civilized life. Yet a single law of nature remains: Live, or die. Kill, or be killed. On one side of the world, a battle-hardened General surveys the remnants of his command: a young medic, a veteran photographer, a brash Private, and dozens of refugees, all are his responsibility-all thousands of miles from home. Back in the United States, an Army Colonel discovers the darker side of Morningstar virus and begins to collaborate with a well-known journalist to leak the information to the public...The Morningstar Saga has begun.

From time to time I also review books that will appeal to older boys who are ready to read something of a more adult nature and Plague of the Dead is certainly one of these books. This is one of the best zombie books I have read in years - imagine the likes of Romero's zombie films, or the 28 Days/28 Months Later films, translated onto paper and this is what you would get.

Plague of the Dead was first released in the US several years ago, and is now going to be released in the UK by Pocket Books (an imprint of Simon and Schuster) on 13th May 2010. During the years since its release it has gained quite a following and is now recognised as being up there amongst the best books in the zombie genre. The artwork for this new release is perfect for this kind of book - green is such a great colour for horror book covers, and the combination of the deaying skull and biohazard symbol work perfectly to deliver an immediate impact; you know pretty well what to expect before you even open the book.

The story focuses on the Morningstar virus, a deadly new disease that, in the tradition of the great zombie movies turns anyone who contracts it into a human flesh-hungry zombie. These creatures are christened 'sprinters' in the story - they still have full control over their limbs and balance and are able to move at a considerable pace. However, if these creatures are killed they are then reanimated by the virus to become the more traditional slow-moving, porrly co-ordinated zombie, referred to as a 'shambler'. Both can be put down permanently by a shot to the brain or removing the head, but one bite from either of these and consider yourself infected! Having two different types of zombies brings a new element to the traditional mythology and the author uses this well to create different types of peril for the story's heroes.

In order to fully enjoy this book you have to be able to suspend your disbelief considerably as otherwise you will end up questioning many of the significant decisions made by the main characters. For example, the virus starts in Africa and the majority of non-African nations decide that the way to prevent the spread is to quarantine the whole continent. Thus, in order to stop the virus reaching the Middle East a final blockade is constructed at Suez, yet for some reason this defence of this blockade is left mainly to ground troops with little of the shock and awe air strikes that we have become used to seeing in modern warfare. This was just one of the scenes where I had to quash the niggling questions that were burrowing their way to the front of my mind. But hell, this book is about zombies, so suspension of disbelief was always going to be essential.

Character development is also lacking in places, to the point of being non-existant for some of the characters. This means that when some of these characters contract the virus and are then killed we do not really feel any remorse as we haven't really go to know them well enough. However, this weakness in their development also seems to transfer over to other characters all also don't seem to respond to these deaths in the way we would normally expect, and their feelings of loss are barely touched on. Yes, this is an event of apocalyptic proportions and some people harden themselves under extreme circumstances and bottle their emotions, but surely not as much as we see at times in this story.

If you like zombie stories then you will enjoy this book. The zombies are particularly nasty and unrelenting - I love one scene where they pursue a lone truck driver from Cairo all the way to Suez, just because he is fresh meat. Their singlemindedness in their 'quest' for himan flesh is what really makes this story for me. Plague of the Dead is the first in what was a planned trilogy, with the second Morningstar Strain book entitled Thunder and Ashes. Tragically, Mr Recht died suddenly at the end of 2009 although there are rumours that the third book is completed and his family plan to have it published at some point in the future. My thanks go to the generous people at Simon and Schuster who sent me a copy of this book to review.   

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

*** Interview with Nick Lake (author of Blood Ninja)

Last week I posted a review of Blood Ninja, the first book in a vampire ninja trilogy by author Nick Lake. Nick very kindly consented to answering a few question for The Book Zone. 

How would you describe Blood Ninja to potential readers?

Good question – partly because I don’t really know the answer! I guess I’d say that it’s a sort of horror adventure. It features a teenage boy who gets drawn into the mysterious world of ninjas in feudal Japan, and a secret feud between two deadly warlords… all while slowly realising that he might be more than he seems. If you don’t like decapitations, I’d give it a miss. But if you like samurais, swords, throwing stars, beautiful princesses, secret lairs and assassinations, then it should be right up your street.

I don’t think we are giving too much away by saying that Blood Ninja is about vampire ninjas. This is such a great idea, do you remember when it first came to you?

I wish I could give a better answer to this but the truth is that it came about as the result of a joke. I was talking to a fellow editor – I edit children’s books as my day job – and we were trying to come up with good concepts for teenage boys. I mentioned vampire ninjas – not at all seriously – and instead of laughing, she said I should write it. So I did.

Blood Ninja is the first in a series. Do you know how many books you hope to have in the series and have you plotted out the storylines for these already?

Yes, it’s always been planned as a trilogy – and there is a very definite end point, so it wouldn’t go any further than that. I’ve written the second book already, which will be out this time next year. Also, this seems like a good opportunity to say that there might be some surprises coming. On the face of it, this may seem like a familiar ‘boy with a destiny’ story – but things are not necessarily what they seem... Fair warning!


I’ve had some lovely reviews in the US, but a couple of them have said, ‘oh, the story’s a bit predictable because there are lots of children’s books about boys with a destiny’. I want to say, ‘wait till you read the next two books!’ I mean, the question you have to ask yourself is – spoiler alert here – do we see Taro fulfil his destiny in book 1? No, we don’t. It’s all still up in the air.

What do you see as the main influences on your writing?

I don’t know, really. That’s a rubbish answer isn’t it? I suppose everything I read and watch and listen to. In particular I’d have to say James Clavell’s Shogun, Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori, and Stephen King. I think Philip Reeve, in the Moving Cities series, has set the standard for books that blur the obvious lines between good and bad, morally speaking, and I’d like to think that some of that ambiguity is in Blood Ninja – more so in the second book! Kenji Kira is actually my favourite character. Taro annoys the hell out of me, and he will pay for it. Trust me, he’ll pay.

You obviously have a passion for Japanese history. How did you carry out the research when writing Blood Ninja? Have you ever lived in Japan?

No, I’ve never even been there. This is my second book, and the first one was set in the Arctic, which I’ve never been to either. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m starting to think that I can’t write anything set in a place or a time that I know too well, and I’m going to just keep writing stuff set in places I don’t have much of a clue about. Maybe that’s because I find books set in present day Britain boring as a reader. I read to get away from my day-to-day life, not to see it reflected.


Hmm… I’ve got away from the question, haven’t I? Um – research. The truth is I didn’t really do any. People never believe me but it’s true. I think I just picked stuff up from reading novels set in Japan. I’m a bit of a mythology freak so I had read a fair number of Japanese fairy tales and ghost stories anyway. Some of those have ended up in the books.

Did you research into Japanese mythology to help you in writing the book?

Yes, absolutely. Or at least, it helped me to put together 80,000 words, or however long the book is. I like to include little side stories in there because otherwise I get bored and worry about how I’m going to fill so many pages! In the first draft the book wasn’t working, though, and that was when I read the story – which is real – of the Ama diver and the Buddha Ball. It just seemed to me that I could use the Ball to tie everything together, so I was happy about that. In that sense, the mythology provided the extra dimension that allowed the story to work.

Vampires are everywhere at the moment. What do you think it is about them that has such great appeal to kids and Young Adults?

I actually don’t think vampires appeal to boys that much – boys are much more about the zombies. Vampires have a predominantly sexual appeal, I think, for girls in particular – and that’s for all kinds of reasons that it would be too boring to go into here (not to mention a little bit gross). I have a feeling that if boys are drawn to the book it’s probably more because of the ninja thing. We love a bit of ninja action, don’t we? Ninjas kick ass. And the only thing that could possibly kick more ass than a ninja is a vampire ninja. I like Shusaku because he could completely own Edward. The Cullens don’t have throwing stars. (Though I have to confess here that I do really love the first Twilight book. So shoot me.)

Blood Ninja has some pretty gory moments (I loved them) – how do you gauge the right level of violence to use when you are writing?

I don’t, at all. I actually had more violence in there but my agent thought I should tone it down a little bit. He’s probably right. I honestly don’t think about it at all – I just have lots of people’s heads cut off. I mean, I’ve literally never sat down and worried that it might be too violent. That’s terrible, actually, isn’t it? I’m pretty much a corrupting influence.

The thing is, though, the stories that interest me are about people who go through some kind of extreme experience, and come out the other end. That’s something that’s definitely happened to me, though there weren’t any swords involved. I’m sure there are kids who’ll read the book who’ve lost parents, or dealt with serious illness, or any number of terrible things. But they get through it. Human beings are built to survive, and I think that’s something stories help us to realise. You know, Taro’s dad gets killed horribly, but in the end he finds a reason to fight. Horrible things happen in real life – I don’t see the point of leaving them out of stories, even ones for children. Horrible things happen to children, too. All the time.

I don’t really know what I’m trying to say. I guess it’s that I think the violence is an integral part of the story. It’s important, because if there weren’t real consequences and real horrors in this fictional world, then there would be no challenge for the hero. Anyway, there are different kinds of violence. I actually find things like the Saw films quite unpleasant and weird. I don’t get the appeal at all. This is much more cartoonish violence.

There are many great characters in Blood Ninja – do you have a personal favourite?

Kenji Kira! I love him. I identify with him more than with Taro, which is pretty worrying. I suppose because I can understand his fear of death, of putrefaction. He’s completely terrified by the prospect of his body rotting and being eaten by worms and so on – because he got trapped on a battlefield, and saw his comrades rotting around him. I get that. Also, he’s just horrible – it’s so much fun to write a scene where the villain chops an old man’s head off, just because he annoys him.

The UK cover of Blood Ninja is probably my favourite of the year so far. What did you think when you first saw it?

It’s awesome, isn’t it? To be honest I was a little bit worried when I heard that Corvus were going to design their own cover – because I really loved the American cover, even though it’s very different. But when I saw what they’d done… I was pretty stunned. The idea of using an illustrator who usually does skateboards and album covers and stuff was just a stroke of genius. It’s cooler than I deserve.

Are there any books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read? 

Yes – Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series (I edit Derek, and I think his books are the funniest and most action-packed around).

Can you recommend one book that you think every boy should read at some point?

Er… Gormenghast, maybe? Every boy has to fantasise about being Steerpike at some point. He’s the ultimate antihero.

Can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from your next book in the series and when it might be published?

Book 2 will be out in April 2011. What to expect? Mayhem. Lots of blood. Some surprises, definitely… Oh, and Yukiko becomes really, really evil. I don’t think that’s giving too much away.

Is it true that you are a vampire ninja yourself?

I can’t confirm or deny that. But I don’t recommend tapping me on the shoulder when I’m not expecting it.

Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of this blog?

Yes! Buy the book. It’s very gory, and there’s lots of sneaking about with swords.

~~~~

Thank you Nick for a great interview. I have to say that I am incredibly envious that you get to read the Skulduggery Pleasant books before the rest of the world.

Please watch this space as in the next few days I will be running a fantastic Blood Ninja book giveaway.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Review: Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda


Fifteen-year-old Billi SanGreal never meant to make history. Dragged at the age of ten into the modern-day Knights Templar by her father, the Grandmaster, Billi's the first girl ever to be a Templar warrior. Her life is a rigorous and brutal round of weapons' practice, demon killing and occult lore – and a lot of bruises. But then temptation is placed in Billi's path – an alternative to her isolated life. But temptation brings consequences. In this case – the tenth plague – the death of all first borns and so Billi must choose her destiny. And as she soon discovers, death isn't even the worst . . .

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to the London launch event of Jon Mayhew's debut novel Mortlock. A friend had told me that another author, Sarwat Chadda, might also be present and a quick look at Amazon suggested that his first novel, Devil's Kiss, was a book I really should have read. And then I forgot all about reading it until that day so I popped in in my bag so I could read some of it on the train. By the time I got to Waterloo I had to force myself to put it down I was enjoying it so much.

Fifteen-year-old Bilqis (known as Billi to pretty much everyone) is the daughter of a white British father and a Pakistani mother. All sounds pretty normal so far. However, Billi's life is anything but normal - her father is the Master of the order of the Knights Templar, and Billi is a Knight in training (and the only female one at that). The books starts with her Ordeal, a rite of passage that all 'trainees' must successfully pass in order to become a squire and move up the next rung of the ladder on the climg towards becoming a full-blown Knight. This Ordeal is a nasty and pretty terrifying episode and certainly gets the story moving with a bang, and the pace doesn't slacken until the very last page, and even then you are left wanting more.  

Sarwat Chadda obviously has a great interest for the history and legends surrounding the Templar Knights, but he is also more than happy to play around with these stories to create one of his own. Centuries ago, before falling foul of a paranoid King and a jealous Pope, they were medieval protectors of the Holy Land, and their Order has been mentioned in connection with the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, or some other powerful holy treasure.  Fast-forward to a modern day (but pretty spooky) London and now Mr Chadda has them as protectors of all that is good, and fighting a seemingly never-ending battle against the Unholy. 

Perhaps the idea of being an ass-kicking, sword wiedling heroine (or hero) might appeal to some teenagers, but Billi is a reluctant participant in this war. She has been forced into this hard life by her father and his not-so-merry band of Knights, and has none of the luxuries enjoyed by her peers - no friends, no social life, no chilling out after a busy day at school, nothing but a brutal regime of hard physical training in armed and unarmed combat. However, like most teenagers forced into doing things by their elders Billi harbours thoughts of rebellion, thoughts that are further compounded when she meets the mysterious Michael. And this is where things really begin to get nasty for Billi and the rest of the Knights.

Billi's character is devloped well throughout the book; at no point do we question her actions or motivations. Some of the other characters are less well detailed, perhaps deliberately so, as Mr Chadda wants his readers to dislike these Knights, despite their noble cause, and thus generate more sympathy for Billi and her situation. This is especially the case for Billi's father - as a reader I really did begin to strongly dislike him. However, this does mean that we hardly blink as some of these characters come to a sticky end.

Again, like other books I have reviewed such as Hattori Hachi and Heist Society, this book has a female main character, and as such some boys may not pick up this book. However, they would be doing themselves a disservice as this book is fast paced, full of particularly nasty demonic creatures and has many great action scenes. It is also a great book for horror fans - there are some scenes set in a hospital that are particularly disturbing and the author is not worried about scraing his readers. He also builds nicely on the history of the Templar Knights - not too much to make readers lose track of the story but enough that they get a real feel for these 'men' and their mission in life. As for the romance? Boys shouldn't be deterred by this - it is a small part of the plot, and by no means its central theme.

Obviously, with a premise like this it is impossible to avoid drawing parallels with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, this is certainly no Buffy rip-off, although fans of the series will really enjoy this book. This is the first in a series featuring Billi and I look forward to seeing what the author delivers in his next book, Dark Goddess, which is due to be published in July of this year. Devil's Kiss finishes on a particularly harrowing note for Billi and I am intrigued to find out where the story will take her next as she "throws herself into the brutal regime of Templar duties with utter abandon". You can find out more about Mr Chadda and his books at this website.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Review: The Changeling Series by Steve Feasey


Trey thought he was an ordinary teenager. Then he meets a mysterious stranger, Lucien Charron – luminously pale, oddly powerful, with eyes that seem flecked with fire and skin that blisters in sunlight. Somehow Trey finds himself in a luxury London penthouse, like a Bond villain’s lair. It’s the heart of a sinister empire, built on the powers of the netherworld – werewolves, vampires, sorcerers, djinns. And Trey himself has a power that’s roaring to break free. Is he a boy or is he a beast?

The world has gone vampire crazy and adult books featuring these creatures of the night and a host of other supernatural beings are being released almost daily under the banner of Urban Fantasy. In YA literature however, vampires and Shan's demons were reigning supreme, until the beginning of 2009 when the first book in Steve Feasey's Changeling series was released (the series is known as Wereling in the USA). Having become a little bored with the genre I never picked up Changeling at the time, and it is only recently that I have read the books, thanks to Dom Kingston at Macmillan who sent me all three of the books released so far. I am so grateful that he got in touch through my blog - it was a rare luxury to be able to read three excellent books in a series for the first time, almost back-to-back.

The first book in the series focuses on orphan Trey's personal voyage of discovery as he finds out that he is a werewolf, the only pure blood still in existance. He is helped on this journey by his new vampire mentor Lucien Charron, Lucien's daughter Alexa, and tough guy/troubleshooter Tom Callaghan, one of the few humans we come across in these books. This new found 'family' aid Trey in coming to terms with his new abilities, and also train him in the skills he will need should he ever come face to face with his nemesis, the evil vampire Caliban, who is determined to wipe all pure blood werewolves off the face of the planet.

I am determined not to give too much away in case you have not yet read any of these books, so I am not going to mention too much of their plots. Suffice to say, Steve Feasey has created a well imagined world, where creatures of the netherworld are used for both good and bad. The author has dreamed up a myriad of these nether-creatures, including shapeshifters, a battle-angel and my favourite, the particularly nasty Necrotroph. This demon is pure evil, desribed as a "hard-to-kill parasitic demon. Inhabits a body and controls the victom's mind. Leaves its prey dead or insane". The Necrotroph plays a big part in the second and third books and the scenes in which it appears are particularly dark and terrifying. Steve Feasey very kindly provides us with a demon lexicon in each of the books, a nice reference aid to help the reader keep up with the array of creatures that appear throughout the story.

Boys will love these books (and probably a large number of girls as well). Trey is a very believable character and despite being a werewolf many boys will be able to identify with him and the challenges and new emotions he faces. The plot is very fast paced and full of great action scenes, and there are many quieter moments that help build the tension so that the final climactic scenes feel even more rewarding when you get to them. 

Trey is no Twilight Jacob Black-style shapeshifter; when he changes he becomes a werewolf in the traditional sense - half human, half wolf - a brutal, towering beast who manages to retain his human thoughts and emotions only by wearing an ancient amulet that prevents him from becoming Wolfan, when his animal side would completely take over. It is not until the third book, Blood Wolf, that we see what a Wolfan is really capable of, and it certainly ain't pretty. In this book Trey's voyage of discovery takes him further afield, when he flies to Canada to search for his long estranged Uncle Frank. Where the other books focused on Trey's fight against Caliban and his netherworld forces this book is much more about Trey trying to find somewhere he feels he truly belongs. During this Canadian visit he discovers the LG78, a pack of Wolfan living on Frank's land, and these creatures do not have an amulet to suppress their basic animal instincts, and at this point Steve Feasey really lets rip and we see far more blood than in either of the previous books.

The greatest benefit of reading a series of books back-to-back is seeing how the characters develop, especially the secondary ones. The first book in any series has to focus primarily on devloping a small handful of characters. This is especially the case in books in this genre where a main protagonist has to come to terms with discovering they are not human and Changeling is no exception. Dark Moon and Blood Wolf see characters other then Trey having to deal with new challenges and emotions and then leave us wanting even more. The great news is that according to Amazon Demon Games, the fourth book in the series, is due to be released in September. I am very excited about this book, but I am not going to say any more about it now as very soon The Book Zone will be featuring an interview with Steve Feasey in which he tells us a little more about this book.   

Saturday, 10 April 2010

*** Witchfinder Contest Result

The draw has just taken place and the lucky winners of the Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide contest are:

Sassyele
and
Kate Barber

Well done and thank you to everyone who entered. I will now endeavour to contact the winner through twitter. Please reply within 48 hours or I will draw another name out of the hat. Many thanks to William Hussey for providing this fabulous prize.

(Note: all names were drawn randomly using a nifty little freeware programme called The Hat)

Friday, 9 April 2010

TERRIFYING TALES FROM THE HAUNTED CRYPT… OF FEAR! - Guest Post by William Hussey (author of Witchfinder)



TERRIFYING TALES FROM THE HAUNTED CRYPT… OF FEAR!


or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Horror



Aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh!!!


Sorry, did I scare you? Well, it is sorta my job!

But here’s a real brain-buster: why, when you’re reading a really scary story, do you feel ‘the fear’? You know what I mean: the author has set the scene – something unearthly, unnatural, unholy has stirred in the pages of the book clasped in your quaking hand. The characters you have come to care about are in mortal danger. Death stalks them in the form of a vampire, a zombie, a demon or a ghoul risen from the grave. Now this creature is slipping stealthily out of the book. It crawls through your eyes and into your head, like a burglar breaking through a window and taking possession of an empty house. This stranger has complete control of your senses. You have been drawn into a world of horror and your body begins to respond to…

THE FEAR!

This physical response usually begins with what I call ‘Terror Worms’ wriggling in your stomach. Next, an icy chill snakes its way along your spine and makes the fine hairs at the nape of your neck bristle to attention. Your lips feel parched, your mouth dries up, your throat tightens with terror. You try to comfort yourself with a nervous laugh, holding humour out before you like a crucifix in the face of a vampire. But the laugh is feeble – no match for the imaginary monster that continues to haunt your dreams long after you have put down the book and turned off the nightlight…

Hmm. All this makes reading horror sound like a pretty unpleasant experience, doesn’t it? And for some people, it is just that. They just don’t get why anyone would want to put themselves through such an ordeal! But here’s the thing: being scared on your own terms is one of the purest, most primal, most pleasurable emotional experiences you can have. Some people love to laugh; others feel a huge emotional relief from a good cry: we horror hounds just enjoy being scared! There are any number of theories as to why this is the case. Some people put it down to the fact that the fear response is a basic part of our DNA – a powerful survival emotion programmed into our very souls. Without fear, our species would not have lasted very long. Our distant ancestors would have just toddled over to the nearest sabre-toothed tiger, pinched its fearsome cheeks, and cooed, ‘Who’s a cute li’l kitty cat, then? You are, that’s who! Yes, you are! Yes, you are! Yes, you aaaarrrrggghhhh!!!’ Fear taught us to head for the hills when faced with such danger and gave us the adrenalin to fight when we were cornered. Fear made us feel our mortality, our vulnerability, the fact that we were just one swipe of a sabre-toothed tiger’s paw away from death. In short, it made us feel alive.

I believe that experiencing such fear in a safe environment – reading a spooky book or watching a scary film – reignites those ancient survival instincts. Sure, a shudder of terror makes us feel uncomfortable, but it also reminds us that we exist, right here and now, in all our magnificent, vulnerable glory.

But to go back to the original question: why, when we know the monster in the book isn’t real, do we feel fear? I can only answer that question by delving into my own experiences. Let me take you back fifteen years: I’m six years old and it’s my birthday. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, tucking into a special birthday breakfast (spam and beans – yeah, I know, I was a weird kid!). The kitchen door is kicked open and my dad staggers into the room, his arms cradled around a huge cardboard box. Box lands on the table with a thump and my imagination runs wild. There really is nothing more exciting to a kid of six than an unopened box. Infinite possibilities encased in cardboard! My dad flips back the lid and takes out…

A tatty, torn, tired old comic book. My young heart sinks. As a big Transformers fan, I’d been hoping for Optimus Prime (the toy, you understand, not the real Optimus Prime – the box isn’t that big!)…

(Ok, so this story may seem a little familiar to those of you who have read Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide. Yup, Jake Harker is me! Except, he’s braver and can do magic!).

My dad hands me the first comic – it has a picture of a terrified man being dragged into a swamp by a hideous zombie. The title blazes, and my eyes go round with wonder:

TALES

FROM THE

CRYPT

From that very day, I was hooked on horror! (I should add that my mum was absolutely mortified by this gift. Horror comics for a SIX YEAR OLD???!!! What was my dad thinking???)…

Before we continue, I must say a quick word about Tales from the Crypt. Starting life as The Crypt of Terror, this landmark comic book series was the brainchild of publisher William M Gaines and his Entertainment Comics (EC). During the 1950s, Gaines employed some of the best artists and writers in the business to come up with sublime tales of terror. Such EC luminaries as Johnny Craig, Feldstein, and the immortal Jack Davis were as god-like to me as Marvel Comic’s Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Gaines also managed to convince horror authors of the stature of Ray Bradbury to write for his monster mag.

Each issue of Tales was graced with a startling full-colour cover that never failed to whet the appetite for the shiversome stories to come. And what stories they were! More often that not involving a femme fatale, a shady businessman or a mad scientist getting their comeuppance, these were morality tales populated by every classic monster you could think of: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, gremlins, zombies, even the odd killer robot!

The iconic ringmaster of this grisly crew was that old ‘GhouLunatic’ himself, The Crypt-Keeper! Aided by his friends, The Vault-Keeper and The Old Witch, good ol’ CK introduced most of the stories in Tales, and is now regarded as a proper horror icon in his own right.

Honestly, I could go on and on about the history of EC and the Tales comics: my favourite stories; the splendour of the cover artwork; how Gaines and his colleagues were eventually shut down by the infamous Comics Code; the intriguing story of how Tales from the Crypt was blamed for the weird incident of the ‘Gorbals Vampire’ in Scotland in the 1950s. So many brilliant and bizarre histories.

But we’re here to talk about my experience of reading horror, and why tales of terror still have the power to unnerve me.

I go back to Tales from the Crypt. Like all good horror stories, the best of these had the ability to draw you in completely. Time seemed to stop. The outside world faded and fell away, until all you could see, hear, smell, feel and taste was channelled through the world of the story. When reading a classic Tales story, or any good spooky book come to that, I find myself actually inside the horror scenario. I am living it with the characters. I am immersed in the world that has been created for me. And so my brain tells my body to respond in an authentic way. I shiver. I sweat. I fear. My heart begins to pound. That nervous laugh bubbles through my dry lips – it is an attempt to draw myself back to the real world, but it doesn’t work. The writer has sparked my imagination, and my imagination will not let me go. Such is the power of story. When, finally, I emerge from this fictitious realm the sense of fear has energized me, made me feel vital, real, alive. That is the buzz of horror, and that is why I return to it time and time again.

Since the age of six, I have felt the pleasure of being scared. Horror has introduced me to new and terrible worlds, vivid and wonderful dreamscapes. And the very first of those worlds came to me from the classic tales told by a certain cadaverous Crypt-Keeper….

And so thank you, CK, you loveable ol’ bag of bones – you’re forever in my nightmares!



~~~~

William Hussey is currently very busy promoting the release of Dawn of the Demontide, the first book in his Witchfinder series, as well as trying to meet writing deadlines so I am very grateful for the time he spent writing this fantastic article. You can read my review of Dawn of the Demontide here and a brilliant interview William did for The Book Zone here. If you like horror and haven't yet bought a copy of Dawn of the Demontide then why the hell not?