What do you think appeals to readers about scary stories? Is it fun to be frightened?
It’s never fun to be genuinely frightened. We always balk at that — though we sometimes learn something from such experiences.
I’m not sure why so many people like to read scary fiction. Without wanting to sound absurd or over-intellectual about something I don’t really understand, I suspect that at some primal level it reminds us that we are alive. Horror is true at some fundamental level, by which I mean that the world is not a safe, predictable place that has our interests at heart. It is far from that. It’s a more indifferent place than that. Most of the rules for living in it are made up by others for reasons that have nothing to do with us. In that sense it is a place of fear. We have remarkably little control over nearly everything; even our own state of mind is difficult to keep tabs on or grasp, let alone the activities and mental states of people we never meet or have no possibility of influencing.
I believe that most people, if they are honest with themselves, are never deeply comfortable in almost any aspect of their life — either professionally or in their personal relationships, or even their own feelings about themselves. Or if they do feel good about some of those things, they have a nasty feeling that some sneak is going to pull the safety blanket away any moment.
So, in that sense, horror feels real, it feels in its essence like real life, because the crux of horror as a genre is that nothing is clear, everything has a dangerous, chaotic feel, and you can’t understand the rules, or even if you can they’re made to benefit someone else.
Actually, I think this is why so many adults turn away from the horror genre as they age — they recognise too much of it in their own lives, thank you very much.
It’s one reason teenagers read far more dark fiction than most adults as well. Generally speaking, they’re a bit less infected than the adults by world-weariness.
They’re taking new risks all the time as they work out what kind of personalities they have, what their identify is going to be, and all of that is scary as hell. Horror, in that setting, is strangely a kind of comfort blanket. A sympathetic friend along for the ride.
What makes you lean towards the fantasy and horror genres, and which do you prefer?
I love both equally, actually. Fantasy with a dark edge sits very naturally with me.
As for why I like these genres, who can say? All I know is that unless I include a powerful element of real fantasy in my work I lose interest. But while my writing often includes dark scenes I don’t see the label 'horror' as helpful or even meaningful really.
My imagination does incline me towards dumping my characters into deeper and deeper trouble, but I think there are good writerly, structural, plot-related reasons why this makes sense.
On the other hand, I can’t deny that at some primal level heading for the night side appeals to me, and I’ve no idea why. I guess I’d feel more comfortable turning the question around to other novelists, and asking why they prefer, often, not to do that? I mean, to be blunt, why bother writing about happy friendly ghosts when you can do the scary stuff?
Are you satisfied with the quality of ghost stories out there for tweens and teens?
Not really. First, few people, certainly in the U.K., are 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. People often 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 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 intosupernatural 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.
A place becomes a kind of character, and I’ve always gravitated myself towards novels that do that. In my latest ghost story, 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 you give her enough power, 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? Could she stay innocent?
Or would she become more like him? In fact, if she had no other moral framework to compare against, how would that little girl even know she was becoming a monster? How could she tell good from evil at all? The great thing with modern teenage fiction is that you can explore these ideas. I very much enjoyed racking up the tension in The Hunting Ground about as far as I could.
Do you think the recent popularity of supernatural romance is good or bad?
It’s neither good nor bad in itself. It’s simply part of a trend.
I have no answer to why supernatural romance has become quite so popular recently, but I have a couple of thoughts about it.
First, in the western world generally, and especially amongst younger people, there has been a surge of interest over the past decade in the supernatural, magic, witchcraft, ghosts, angels, vampires etc – the whole unseen and unexplained world generally.
Exactly why I’m not sure, but you only have to get out a tv listing to see how many documentaries and fiction series are being shown on the supernatural, and these guys only make programmes they think people watch.
But there’s another point. Basically the Twilight-type stuff is not horror but romance.
You don’t agree? You think it’s basically horror? I don't think so.
There’s horror, yes, but romance has always been the world of fiction’s most popular genre, its mover and shaker, and it always will be as long as girls and women make up the majority of fiction readers.
The Romance genre has simply bucked up its ideas and turned its powerful dainty hand to the possibilities, co-opting those parts of dark fantasy and horror that are useful to it.
And if you are still in doubt that paranormal romance is mainly romance and not horror I challenge you to name a single male author of supernatural romance. Can you? If you can, I’m impressed.
It’s basically women writing for other women and girls. It’s a love-fest with a dark heart. The reason hardly any male authors make it onto bookshelves isn't because they can't write good gothic romance, but because most teenage girls simply don't trust them to get the romantic/emotional side right. If the horror was of equal importance, male authors would be far more common on the shelves.
Why are monsters so popular in fiction?
In his seminal work The Seven Basic Plots Christopher Booker says that there are seven great archetypal stories.
One is what he calls Overcoming the Monster. It’s really quite a simple story. There is a monster to be overcome. Sometimes it is a real monster like Medusa or Godzilla.
It might be a machine monster enslaving humanity, as in the film The Matrix. Usually it’s a person — someone powerful and evil who has to be stopped. And the story always goes something like this: the enemy, monster, villain, antagonist, whatever you want to call them, pose a terrible threat.
But luckily a hero or heroine, often reluctantly at first, emerges to fight them. That hero or heroine goes through all sorts of trials and tribulations, and near the end all hope seems lost. But at the last moment they snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, the monster is vanquished, order restored and the hero or heroine always get some kind of prize. In the case of Twilight Bella and Edward get each other.
Most of us love this monster story in all its infinite variations. Partly that’s because the monster story gives us a chance to truly hate at least one character, and that always feels good. Partly it’s because it’s great to explore the darker seam of our own nature. Even good old Harry Potter has his dark side. He’s got a nasty temper and he can speak parceltongue (and we know who was the last to be able to do that, don’t we?).
But the main reason we love our monster stories, of course, has nothing to do with the monsters themselves. It is because they bring our heroes and heroines so brilliantly to life. Try to imagine Lord of the Rings without Sauron or the orcs or Gollum? Or Roald Dahl’s Matilda without Miss Trunchbull? Where would Edward and Bella be in Twilight be without the James Coven? Or the film Jaws without the shark!
Twilight’s Edward himself is almost the perfect fictional character. Part-monster, but all hero. We love it when he gives up the thing he wants more than anything (to drink Bella’s blood) to instead do the right thing (put himself in maximum danger to save her life).