Monday, 29 October 2012

My Recommended Halloween Reading

It's that time of year again. Out come the pumpkins, cheap vampire fangs, and opportunities for fancy dress (think I might be a witch or a zombie this year... :P). Halloween isn't celebrated as much here in the UK as it is over in the States, but at university, any chance to dress up goes!  This week I'm going on a ghost walk in Lancaster which should be awesome (we're going around all the old pubs, listening to supposedly true local ghost stories along the way!), and also to a zombie-themed Halloween party on the 31st. Looking forward to getting the face paint out again!

So I've decided to dedicate this blog post to good books to read at this spooky time of year. I don't generally read horror (although I've started branching out into dark fantasy in the last few months - triggered by starting writing my new Darkworld series!) but I can remember the ones I have read pretty vividly!

Dracula by Bram Stoker
You can't beat the classics. Stoker's Dracula established the vampire myth as we know it today, and the vampire novel has become a genre of its own (I actively despise Twilight for removing the threatening aspect and turning vampires into sparkly, controlling immortals who do nothing of consequence with their endless existence...but that's another debate entirely!). Some recent vampire novels that look worth a read are The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa and The Dark Heroine: Dinner with a Vampire by Abigail Gibbs. Also, check out this great blog post about Dracula, posted on the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker's death:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray

Not necessarily horror, but pretty chilling all the same. Oscar Wilde's tale of the boy who sells his soul for eternal youth, leading him into total corruption and murder, remains a classic tale today.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
The Woman in Black

I admit it: the film scared me more than the books did, and for hours after watching it, I saw the face of the woman in black every time I shut my eyes! Still, the book is also pretty creepy. The solicitor Arthur Kipps is hired to sort out the papers of an old woman who recently died, leaving her house vacant. Kipps first sees the mysterious black-clad figure whilst at the house, and the horror grows as he is continually haunted by her and starts to realise the truth behind the rumours that she is responsible for the unexplained deaths of local children. Will there ever be an end to her curse?

It by Stephen King

This book scared the hell out of me. I read it when I was 18 and despite its pretty impressive length, I made myself read it in two days because it was depriving me of sleep! But It is a fantastic story. It's about a group of people who were once friends as children when they were growing up in the small town of Derry, and promised to reunite if the monster they encountered in their childhood returned to the town. IT is a sinister creature which lives in the sewers beneath the town, taking the form of a clown (anyone scared of clowns will find this even more scary!) in order to murder children. With brilliant characterisation and a heart-racing plot, you can't go wrong with this genuinely terrifying horror story.

Hollowland by Amanda Hocking

Hollowland (The Hollows, #1)

This is a self-published book by Amanda Hocking, who is one of the authors I most admire for her perseverance with self-publishing in the face of rejections from traditional agents and publishers and managing to make millions from selling her e-books herself. Whilst not as good as Switched in my opinion, Hollowland is a great zombie novel, which is something considering I don't normally read zombie stories! The heroine, Remy, is fearless and strong, fighting her way across a zombie-stricken America in order to rescue her brother. With civilisation in a state of collapse and zombies roaming free, nowhere is truly safe, and I couldn't stop turning the pages. Definitely worth a read.

And finally...

The Hunting Ground by Cliff McNish

The Hunting Ground

I haven't actually had time to read this yet, but I got a copy signed by the author at Litfest last week and I intend to read it soon! Here's the Goodreads description: 

'When Elliott and his brother move into the old and crumbling Glebe House they don't expect to find themselves sharing it with ghosts. But soon sinister events are unfolding. An old diary reveals glimpses of the mansion's past - and of a terrible tragedy. An old woman talks to ghosts - but is she in fact being controlled by them? And what of the sinister East Wing - a hideous labyrinth devised by a truly twisted mind? Can Elliott and his family escape the clutches of Glebe House? Or will they end up trapped in the endless maze of corridors, forever hunted by the dead?'

I'm looking forward to this one! 

I'd also like to say a massive thank you to anyone reading my blog, supporting my Facebook Page, and following me on Twitter or Goodreads - you rock! :)

Thursday, 18 October 2012

I write for the monsters

Right now, Lancaster's annual literature festival, Litfest, is in full swing, which means there are all sorts of cool events happening in Lancaster. Yesterday I went to a discussion on Young Adult Gothic Fiction which was led by Dr Catherine Spooner, an English Literature lecturer at my university, and featured YA authors Celia Rees (author of Witch Child), Chris Priestley (author of the Tales of Terror books), and Cliff McNish (author of The Hunting Ground and Breathe). It was really interesting! The topic under discussion was why Gothic has become so popular over the last few years, and why it's so appealing as a genre. I love the Gothic - I just find it fascinating, both to study and to write (I've never exactly written a Gothic novel, but there are definitely elements of it in my Darkworld series, what with all the graveyards, demons and possession...), so this was right up my street!

First came a discussion of what exactly Gothic is, and it's pretty hard to define! The actual term Gothic comes from the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages, in which there was a revived interest in the 18th century, when Horace Walpole wrote what is known as the first 'Gothic story', The Castle of Otranto. It's a pretty bizarre story, to be honest. I mean, in the opening scenes, a gigantic helmet falls from the sky and crushes the King's son to death. Honestly. Despite this, there's no denying that the book contains many elements we recognise in Gothic novels today - spooky settings (including a Gothic castle), darkness, hauntings and apparitions, the revelation of hidden crimes and murder. Another, very popular, book in the late 18th century was Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, in which a series of supernatural occurrences seem to befall the heroine, only to be revealed to have a rational explanation in the end. On the other hand, there are books like The Monk, which is pretty macabre. Of course, one of the best-known Gothic novels is Bram Stoker's Dracula, written in the late 19th century, and Gothic short stories by authors like Edgar Allen Poe were also very popular in the Victorian era. I apologise for letting my inner literature geek out for a bit there - I studied Romanticism and Victorian Literature last year so I know all this random stuff!

Anyway, Gothic resists definition to a certain extent. It's often used as a uniform term for any 'scary' story, but there are tales in other genres which can be classified as Gothic also. A defining factor is the evocation of a certain atmosphere. A sense of place is very important in Gothic, which is why so many settings recur throughout the genre: castles, graveyards, churches, foggy moors, deep forests, underground passages. A skilled author can create a spooky atmosphere with only a few words, and often the setting alone can unsettle us. Claustrophobia is often evoked through setting, confining the action to a small area, such as a house or building. An interesting point which was brought up was the technique of using settings like houses, which are supposedly safe, and turning them into places of danger. 

I think this is part of the appeal of Gothic: it frightens us, that's its aim. Gothic is concerned with the darker side of life, and things that unsettle us, so writers try to tap into our archetypal fears. The fear of being watched or followed, the threat of imminent harm, fear of being alone. The key question of the discussion was: why is the Gothic currently flourishing in young adult literature? The three authors on the discussion had interesting things to say about this! Cliff McNish's argument that we 'need' fear in a way because in the modern world, there is no longer anything major to be afraid of. All events can be explained rationally; we have cures for most diseases, or in any case can work out the cause; and most people live long lives. It's very different from what life was like when dangerous beasts lurked outside the small villages, and war and plague could decimate the population. Today we have technology and knowledge of the way the world works, and there is no longer any significant 'unknown' element. Is this the reason for the abundance of fear-filled tales: because we can't live without an outlet for fear? Part of the appeal of Gothic as a fiction form is that it isn't real; it's scary, but distanced from us because we experience it through the characters' eyes. How would people really react if we found proof of the existence of the supernatural? Life as we knew it would fall apart.

Gothic is often associated with the 'forbidden' or with transgression, breaking of boundaries. I'd say this also includes a breaking of the rules of reality we are used to. It's also - and I was pleased with the reference to Christopher Booker, one of the main focuses of my dissertation! - a version of the archetypal 'overcoming the monster' tale, whether the monster be human or supernatural. There were some interesting suggestions about what actually qualifies as 'Gothic'. Is the film Alien Gothic? Is Batman, which is set in the modern Gothic city of Gotham and features many staples of the genre? It's a debatable thing, and literature geek that I am, I find it all fascinating!

But of course it interests me as a writer, too. I also received some great advice on writing horror from the Cliff McNish, who signed my newly purchased copy of his novel The Hunting Ground, which looks like a pretty good read! His advice on scaring the reader is to think of a frightening situation and write it, then go back and think of a way to make it even scarier, to dig deeper. Then leave it for a while, come back to it, and take it a level deeper, make it even scarier. You start off with something generic, and end with something completely unique. When you delve into the darkest depths of your imagination, that's where true originality happens! 

My Darkworld series could probably be classified as Gothic fantasy, as the magic in the story is connected to dark forces, and the demons are really creepy. There are also some very Gothic-inspired settings (it's set in a little coastal town near dark forests and rugged cliffs, with a sinister abandoned cemetery and a network of tunnels beneath it!). The first book, Darkness Watching, relies on suspense and potential threat (the demons), but I didn't want to write out-and-out horror despite my rather morbid imagination! I think that writers often try to scare themselves. If I'd read my own books as a child, I'd probably have had nightmares! But the books that scare us are very often the ones we revisit again.  Darkness fascinates us.When asked 'Why do you write?', author China Mieville said, 'I do it for the monsters'. Seems like a good enough reason to me!

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Good sources of inspiration

What with the insanity of returning to university, I suddenly have a million things to do, which is why I haven't blogged in a while. I've barely even had time to keep on track with my writing, what with a dissertation to start and a stack of course books to read. But today I've decided to write a post about things I've found to be good sources of inspiration for my writing!

  • Life experiences. I don't mean literally tell your life story, but in my current book series, some of the things that happen are based on personal experience. For instance, the main character has a disastrous university interview, which actually happened to me (though not under the same circumstances). And the trauma of being stranded overnight in a minibus after getting caught in a blizzard in the Lake District was so scarring, I had to use it in a book! Now I need to write a story set in a jungle with killer bees...
  • Other books/films. Not plagiarism, but there's no harm in taking certain aspects of a book, such as the atmosphere or setting, and writing a completely different story. Plus, as I know from researching my dissertation, stories in totally different genres can actually have the same story arc, so it's good to look at a variety of different books or films to see how the author handles the story, maintains tension etc.
  • Look at other books of the same genre - and think about how you could do it differently. This can be a good way to make sure your book is different from others out there, and it's why it's a good idea to read other genres, too (a lot of writers don't read books in their genre whilst writing for fear of subconsciously taking on other writers' styles. Personally, I don't see the harm in this, but that's probably because I've learnt how to recognise when I'm taking on another writer's voice and can hopefully stop myself doing it by now!)
  • Listen to other people's stories about strange things that have happened to them. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!  Half the anecdotes I've heard at university are bizarre enough that I probably couldn't use them in a book for fear that the reader would say 'That could never happen!' (my creative writing seminar group were having an interesting discussion about this a few days ago!)
  • Dreams - a lot of great works of literature were actually inspired by dreams, so if you're lucky enough to remember an interesting one, it's a good idea to write it down.I have friends who have very strange, vivid dreams, which would make great stories!
That's all I can think of for now! Happy writing :)