After Kyle's ordeal at school, his mother packs him off to the safety of the countryside, where there will be no temptation to use his powers, and he can forget the bad things - like the fact that his dad is a monster determined to destroy the world.
But here's the thing about the countryside: it's full of nature, and nature sometimes has claws.
Followed by a spindly figure in the woods and attacked by crows, Kyle is about to discover that NOWHERE is safe from the invisible fiends…
Over the past twelve months Barry Hutchison's Invisible Fiends books have become my favourite horror series for kids. I have loved every one of them so far and on finishing each book I have waited impatiently for the next to be released, knowing that it will be brilliant. Yes, I meant to use the word 'knowing' there, rather than hoping, as by the time I had finished Mr Mumbles I was already convinced that Barry Hutchison had real writing talent, and he hasn't let me down yet. OK, so he might have to be a little sick in the head to come up with the likes of Mr Mumbles, Caddie and Raggy Maggie, but sometimes a warped mind can be a good thing.
I therefore didn't hesitate to answer a resounding "Yes please" when Tiffany at Harper Collins emailed me asking if I would be interested in taking part in a blog tour to celebrate the release of The Crowmaster, the third book in Barry Hutchison's Invisible Fiends series. I was even more chuffed when Barry said he would happily answer any questions I wanted to send on to him, and so today on The Book Zone we have a double-feature for you - a review of The Crowmaster followed by an interview with the author himself.
This book begins with Kyle seemingly being plagued by visions of the Fiends he thought he had managed to destroy. First there is Mr Mumbles in his living room, and then Caddie appears at the end of his bed. Unfortunately due to Kyle's special 'powers' when he imagines seeing these monsters they have a habit of actually materialising physically, and so the only option left for his mother is to send Kyle away to the countryside to stay with her cousin, and hopefully allow him to escape from the terrors of the previous few weeks.
I don't think you need me to tell you that things do not go as well as Kyle's mother had planned, although I am not going to expand much on this at all as this would certainly create spoilers. However, there are some truly delicious moments in this story which will have your flesh crawling, and the first of these occurs on Kyle's train journey up to Glasgow, not that Kyle realises at the time that this might have anything to do with the battles he has been fighting recently. Once he arrives at Cousin Marion's place things go rapidly from bad to worse, and as observers we are a few steps ahead of Kyle in piecing together the clues that suggest there are even greater horrors around the corner, right up until the penny drops for him as Marion utters five words that strike terror in Kyle's heart: "He was my imaginary friend".
Just as Caddie and Raggy Maggie were very different fiends in comparison with Mr Mumbles, The Crowmaster is different again. Mr M relied on brute force; Caddie brought intelligence and a warped mind to the party; and The Crowmaster.... well his name says it all - he is a master of crows. And he uses this power over the birds to devastating effect, turning them from creepy harbingers of doom into vicious weapons. What's more, he seems to enjoy every single second of it, chuckling away as they tear at his victim's flesh. Still not as psychotic as Caddie in my opinion, but not far off.
This book is no sequel in the way horror films have sequels and there is no feeling of "seen it all before" as you often get with franchises such as Friday 13th and Halloween. Barry Hutchison skilfully manages to make this book seem just as fresh and exciting as Kyle's previous two outings. We also see Kyle's character continue to develop as he becomes far more adept at rising to the terrors with which he is bombarded. It is, after all, only a short time since he was a pretty useless and confused boy, jumping at noises in the attic. Now he is starting to take the fight to the Fiends, as his powers continue to increase and become more second nature.
This is definitely a welcome addition to the series so far, and I can't wait to read the next book in the series, Doc Mortis, as Barry has suggested that this will be his most terrifying book to date. More chilling than Caddie in Raggy Maggie? Brilliant!
How would you describe your Invisible Fiends series to potential readers?
A black-comedy-horror-adventure-fantasy. With buddy movie elements. Obviously. I always wanted it to be funny and scary, rather than just scary, and to delve into a range of genres that I enjoy reading. You could just call them horror books, of course, but (I hope) there’s more to them than that!
What was the original inspiration for the series?
The inspiration came from a variety of sources, really, but one of the main ones was my sister’s imaginary friend, Caddie (I stole the name for book 2). Caddie, my sister believed, lived inside a narrow air duct in my mum and dad’s house. In order to fit inside, her bones had been broken in several places, and her face was wedged up tight against the metal bars of the vent. The idea of this invisible girl, with her skeleton all snapped, lurking in the bowels of the central heating system really gave me the willies.
I first heard about Caddie when I was 12, and the idea of creepy imaginary friends bounced around in my head for almost two decades before I decided to do something about it.
The Crowmaster is the third book in the series. Do you know how many books there will be in the series and have you planned them out already?
There will be six books in the series and they’ve all been loosely planned out since day one. The prologue from the beginning of each book is actually a direct extract from book six, so I had to plan ahead to figure out where the scene was going to be taking place, who was going to be in it and what was happening. Hopefully by the sixth book anyone who has been following the series will think “So that’s what’s going on!” when they finally reach that scene in the proper context.
I think the invisible fiends concept is great. Do you have a favourite ‘fiend’ from those that you have created?
‘Favourite’ is a strong word. I think Caddie/Raggy Maggie win on pure heart-stopping scariness, and the Crowmaster has a sort of repulsive appeal to him. Or is that just me?
Bizarrely, I’ve actually grown quite fond of Mr Mumbles in the year since the first book was released. I wrote him as a monster, but in the end I found myself feeling quite sorry for the freaky big psycho. He had a terrible time of it, all things considered.
Could you tell us a little more about your latest fiend, The Crowmaster?
The Crowmaster is a big, spindly, Redneck scarecrow (very) loosely based on Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. He has no eyes, but can see through the eyes of the army of flesh-eating crows over which he has complete command.
He’s probably the most twisted of the fiends so far, and takes great delight in the thought of inflicting unimaginable agonies on everyone he meets. The Crowmaster, more than any of the fiends so far, is capable of absolutely anything. He will tear the skin from your flesh and the eyes from your sockets and he’ll laugh as he does it. The charmer that he is.
Where did your inspiration for the various invisible friends come from?
The first piece of advice I give anyone interested in becoming a writer is to write a story that you would like to read. There’s no point trying to second-guess what other people might like, so you should always write for you and you alone.
So, with that in mind, I set about trying to scare the bejeesus out of myself, and based the fiends on things that scared me as a child, and sort of still scare me now a bit.
When I was about four I fell and cracked my head open and had to get stitches right across my scalp. I still remember seeing my reflection in the mirror with these stitches puckering the skin on my head, and still feel uncomfortable whenever I think about it. So that’s where Mr Mumbles came from – an unstoppable maniac with his mouth stitched shut.
When I was younger, I remember being really creeped out by these porcelain dolls my gran had in her house. She had them all over the place – the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, wherever you could think of, really. They were horrible things, all fixed grins and painted eyes, and I thought even then how terrifying they would be should they somehow come to life. And lo, Raggy Maggie was born.
In book three, The Crowmaster has control over flesh-eating birds. I’ve been a bit wary of birds ever since one got caught in my hair when I was eight or nine, and promptly set about pecking and clawing at my face as it attempted to break free. I’m sure you can figure out the connection.
As for the other fiends... well, you’ll just have to wait and see.
Jonny Duddle has done a great job on the Invisible Fiends covers. Have you had any input outside of writing the stories?
Jonny did a lot of the artwork before second book was even underway, so before he could start I had to write fairly detailed descriptions of the characters for him to work from. I was a fan of Jonny’s work before Fiends, so I knew I was in safe hands, and I never worried that the artwork would be anything less than spectacular.
I’ve seen most of the covers for the remaining books, and I can only say that they just get better and better. I can’t wait until I have them all together on my bookshelf. Each cover is a work of art in its own right.
Why do you think young people find the horror genre so appealing?
Because people – kids especially, but adults, too – enjoy being scared in a safe way. They enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with a good horror, while also enjoying the fact they’re safe in bed, or on the train, or in school or wherever.
It’s a primal thing in many ways, I reckon. When we were hunting Sabre-toothed tigers we must’ve been terrified pretty much every waking moment of the day, and I think that sort of heightened state is good for us, and actually very enjoyable when you don’t have the threat of being eaten alive hanging over your head.
Plus, I think screaming in fear is quite closely linked to screaming with laughter. How often have you giggled when you’re nervous, for example? That’s one of the reasons I wanted the books to have humour running through them, so you’re never quite sure if you’re going to get a laugh next, or a scare. I think that keeps the reader more on edge than if they knew something else horrific was lurking on the next page.
Do you ever worry that some children may have nightmares after reading your books?
God, I hope so. People talk about nightmares as if they’re a bad thing, but they’re really just the ultimate 3D horror movie in which you are the star. I love nightmares, personally. And if a nightmare helps a child learn to deal with scary situations, that’s a skill that can only prove useful in the real world later on.
In reality, though, I think kids are actually pretty resilient. I’ve actually had more adults complain of nightmares than kids.
There are some pretty brutal scenes in your books. How do you gauge the right level of violence in your writing? Have you ever been asked to rewrite passages because they are too horrific?
Actually, it’s not until book three that there’s really all that much in the way of gore. There’s violence in the first two books, yes, but much of the actual horror is implied suspense stuff – the scratching in the attic, the Christmas Hits CD sticking at “You’d better watch out... You’d better watch out...” etc, etc. The scariest chapters of Mr Mumbles are the first few, before he actually arrives. After that it’s mostly action-adventure with horror elements.
Book two is more of a horror, but again a lot of it is left to the imagination. Caddie is terrifying, but she doesn’t actually do all that much to anyone when you think about it. It’s the threat of what she might do that makes her so terrifying.
I have to admit, though, I was surprised that one scene in particular in The Crowmaster got through unscathed. It’s the scene in Marion’s bedroom. If you’ve read the book you’ll know the one I mean. I fully expected some cuts to that, but nope.
I did, however, have to make a few cuts to book four. Two scene especially had to be toned down three or four times, but I can’t say I wasn’t expecting that. The scenes run into each other. One involves a baby, the other involves a clown. I will say no more than that...
Are you a fan of horror literature? Do you have any favourites?
I’m not really a fan of ‘straight’ horror, because I don’t find most of it scary. I think children’s horror is actually leading the way at the moment, though, outshining pretty much every adult horror novelist currently out there.
There are obvious big names – Darren Shan being the most famous by a long way – but there are some real stars to watch out for, too. William Hussey, David Gatward, Sam Enthoven to name a few. I’ve heard great things about Will Hill’s DEPARTMENT 19, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so I’ll have to wait and see.
I really enjoy comedy horror, so Skulduggery Pleasant is a favourite. My son really enjoys Tommy Donbavand’s Scream Street books, which are horror for 7-9 year olds. They’re scary enough for the age group, but with plenty of humour for the adults reading along, too.
I recently read LET THE RIGHT ONE IN by John Ajvide Lindqvist and really enjoyed it. Did I find it scary, though? No.
Do you have any favourite horror films?
Again, I don’t find many horror films scary. I enjoy some of the older classics – the Christopher Lee Draculas, Dawn of the Dead, The Shining, and the like – but most modern horror movies leave me a bit “meh”.
If I really want to scare myself, though, I’ll put on Fire Walk With Me, the prequel to David Lynch’s brilliant Twin Peaks TV series. The moment Bob appears on screen I swear I stop breathing, and don’t start again until the credits roll at the end. A masterclass in surreal horror.
What made you start writing for children and young adults? Do you read many books for this age group yourself?
I didn’t really set out to write for children and teenagers, I set out to write the type of stories I’d like to read. Clearly I have quite juvenile tastes, because everything I’ve come up with so far has translated well to children’s books.
At the age groups I’m writing for the language used is more or less on a level with that in mainstream blockbuster adult novels, so it’s not like I had to dumb anything down to write for children. It’s really just about finding stories that will appeal to each age group, and I’ve been lucking with Invisible Fiends in finding something that seems to appeal to a broad range of ages.
I do read a lot of books for younger people. I find they are usually bolder, more inventive, and just more fun than adult books. That’s not to say I don’t read books for grown-ups, too, but if I’m honest I probably enjoy the children’s/YA stuff more.
Which books/authors did you read as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare with the children’s/YA books available today?
Between the ages of about 6 and 9 I read almost exclusively comic books. British comics – The Beano, The Dandy, 2000AD and the like – but more of the mainstream American stuff from Marvel and DC. I actually think this helped shape my writing style – the supervillain-esque baddies in Invisible Fiends; the punchy dialogue; the slightly... um... off-kilter world of The 13th Horseman – it’s all down to reading so many comics.
When I hit about 9 or 10 I expanded my horizons, but skipped over reading kids books in favour of things like Hitchhiker’s Guide and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The humour in those books really appealed to me, and I’ve absorbed some of that into my own writing, too.
I have to say, I think children’s writing is going through a real Golden Age at the moment. The stuff being published at the moment is much better than I remember there being available when I was in school. That’s why I didn’t bother to read any of it.
And I think publishers are still willing to take risks with children’s fiction, which they might not be comfortable doing with adult novels. That’s why there’s such a range of great books available for kids, covering pretty much everything under the sun. They’re spoiled for choice, and that can only be a good thing.
If you were to have a dinner party and you were able to invite any three people alive or from the past, who would those three people be and why?
OK, let’s establish some ground rules first. I’m assuming that if I invite someone who is dead they’re not going to turn up as a zombie and devour my other guests? Let’s work on the basis that they’ll be alive.
In fact, let’s say I have a time machine which allows me to nip back in time and pluck people out of history so I can take them round my house for a bite to eat and some chat, before returning them to their own time.
So, with that in mind, my first dinner party guest might seem an unusual choice. I’d invite Hitler. Specifically, I’d invite Hitler from 1938, just before he was declared TIME magazine’s Man of the Year. I’ll explain why in a moment.
My next guest would be Bill Murray. Why? Because he’s Bill Murray. He’s in Ghostbusters. He’s in Groundhog Day. He’s in Scrooged. Have you seen his cameo in Zombieland? On the strength of that cameo alone, he should be invited to every dinner party ever held. Ever.
You’d think I’d have some authors on this list, but the thing with authors is that so many of them are socially inept. Me in particular. I can’t see the banter flowing particularly freely with a room full of authors, so I’m not going to have any on my list.
Mind you, I’d quite like to meet Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk and countless other comic book characters, but I suspect he might get quite tiring after a while, and I’d be regretting inviting him by the time we were onto the main course.
It’s tricky this.
Stephen Fry would probably be the ultimate dinner party guest, but A) he’s an author, and B) he’s several hundred times more intelligent than I am. I reckon I could just about hold my own in conversation with Bill Murray and Hitler, but with Stephen Fry in the room I’d come across like some kind of gibbering ape-man, barely capable of stringing words together to form sentences. That’d do nothing for my ego, that.
So, taking all that into account, I’d probably invite Warwick Davies, the pint-sized star of Willow and The Leprechaun movies. No real reason, other than that I always think he seems like a nice bloke. And I don’t imagine he’d each very much.
I’m fairly confident that between me, Bill Murray and Warwick Davies, we could talk some sense into 1938 Hitler before he started killing and invading everyone. Try to steer him away from the mass-murder and into something less destructive. Latin American dance, maybe. Or ornithology.
Failing that, Warwick Davies could crouch behind him at the top of some stone steps, then I could push him down them. Meanwhile, Bill Murray could be out in the back garden, digging a hole in his inimitable sardonic way.
Maybe I’ve overthought this a bit. Let’s move on.
I know The Crowmaster has only just been published, but is there anything you can tell us about the next book in the series, Doc Mortis?
I can’t tell you much, other than that Doc Mortis himself is far and away the most disturbing, twisted, demented, psychotic, sadistic and downright unpleasant villain in the series this far. It sees Kyle trapped in the Darkest Corners, powerless, and trapped inside the barricaded hospital that Doc Mortis calls home...
It’s definitely scarier than the first three books, but it’s got a bit more depth to it, too. In fact, I think some readers may even have a few tears in their eyes by the end of it.
It introduces a new ‘good’ character, too, who was a lot of fun to write. But you’ll have to wait until the book is published in August 2011 to find out more about him/her/it.
Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of The Book Zone?
Never ask me to organise a dinner party.
Huge thanks to Barry for taking the time to provide such lengthy and interesting answers to these questions - if you can squeeze an extra seat at your table I would definitely like to be at that dinner party! The Crowmaster is available to buy right now and my thanks got to Harper Collins for sending me a copy and helping to organise the interview.