When I wrote THE HUNTING ZONE I was really aware of a few things.
First, almost no one is writing what I would call genuinely frightening ghost stories of novel length for teenagers. Don’t get me wrong – ghost novels are being written, but the best of them tend to be fairly wistful mood-pieces like MY BROTHER’S GHOST by Allan Ahlberg – which is a wonderful piece about two brothers, one of whom dies (you’ll love it), but it’s a quiet contemplative piece. Nor do I have any objection to lighter ghost stories. There are loads of those – you know the type, where the ghost is more likely to go boo! from behind the fridge than scare anybody.
And there’s another point I’d like you to consider here – people THINK there are lots of ghost novels out there because they often appear as a secondary character in stories that are primarily not ghost stories. An example would be the minor characters Nearly Headless Nick/Moaning Myrtle (note they are funny ghosts again) in Harry Potter or, say, the creepy Victorian ghosts in the wardrobe in Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
But novels with a genuinely scary ghost at the heart of the story THAT ARE ANY GOOD are rarer than football books about kids secretly wanting to become ballerinas. The reason (having done two ghost novels now) is that ghost stories traditionally depend on suspense and tension, and it’s hard to sustain this over a novel. To combat that I turned both of mine into supernatural thrillers, with everyone being threatened with death.
Or worse than death, actually. One of the great things about a ghost novel, of course, is that as soon as you write something that supposes GHOSTS EXIST then automatically there must be an afterlife, a place where the dead, well, hang out. The really fascinating question for a writer or reader then is what is this place like? Is it like a traditional Heaven or Hell? Or something else?
In my last ghost novel BREATHE I wanted to create an absolutely terrifying afterlife place where you might end up – a region where you just get blown forever across a great plain by the wind, bits of your body slowly being destroyed. I called it the Nightmare Passage, and I’m pleased to say that many people remember that place more than anything else about the novel.
In my latest, THE HUNTING GROUND, I wanted to create another terrifying place, but this time one where the ghosts might trap the living. I came up with the East Wing – a huge part of a mansion house that is a labyrinth of similar rooms and corridors. You keep getting sucked in but you can’t get out – and it’s so dark you can’t see either. If you’re trapped in there all you can do is hold your nerve and try not to go crazy. I knew I needed a really strong boy to cope with that – so I created Elliott. But he’s not superhuman, he’s only a 16-year old boy who grits his teeth and gets on with doing what he has to do to survive and help his trapped brother.
It was obvious almost at once to me as well what sort of ghosts I was going to pit against Elliott and his younger brother, Ben. First, a male ghost of awesome power who exists only to terrify and hunt. He’s a classic bad guy, and I wanted him to be absolutely ice cold terrifying. But then what? As a contrast to him I knew what I needed – and I saw her right away in my mind. A little girl. A corrupted little ghost girl, bristling with terrifying power. Somehow it’s even more scary to wonder what a little girl might do if she can do almost anything to you, because she’s not going to think like an adult. She’s going to be more unpredictable, isn’t she? One minute she might want to play with you, the next she’s bored and dragging you to your death, and you can’t predict when that might happen. You end up talking to her very nicely, because you still think there’s a little girl in there you can appeal to – but is there? Or is she as bad as the male ghost who’s been developing her as his little protégé, his killer in waiting?
I very much enjoyed racking up the tension in THE HUNTING GROUND about as far as could. I hope you enjoy it.
Huge thanks to Cliff for taking the time to write this great guest post for The Book Zone. I for one would love to see more chilling ghost stories published for young people, especially those who think horror is all about blood and gore. Yes, these elements might make you go yuck, and cringe a little, but that isn't real horror that chills you to the bone and has you jumping at every little bump and creak during the night. The Hunting Ground will definitely have this effect on you. Please come back tomorrow when I will be giving you details about how you can win a copy of The Hunting Ground.