Where does it end? A brief look at children’s ‘Gothic’ series fiction

Posted by Chloe Buckley on December 13, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Darren Shan, Birth of a Killer. HarperCollins, 2010. ISBN: 978-0007315857

Joseph Delaney, The Spook’s Sacrifice. Bodley Head, 2009. ISBN: 978-0370329321

Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coil. HarperCollins, 2010. ISBN: 978-0007325986

Reviewed by Chloe Buckley, Lancaster University

In a recent Guardian Books’ debate about whether or not J.K Rowling ought to write another Harry Potter, novelist Naomi Alderman begs the ever popular authoress: “Don’t do it.” Alderman exhorts Rowling to heed the monitory example of George Lucas: prequels, sequels, addendums and too much exposition just ruins a once well-loved yarn. My instincts tell me to go with Alderman on this one. (In fact, don’t even mention Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in my presence…)Yet, despite audible groans from many adult critics when someone suggests extending the series, Harry Potter is just one in a multitude of children’s books that are part of the growing trend of series fiction. Amazon’s specific ‘characters and series’ section suggests that children would choose to read book after book about the same character rather than pick up something new. Either that, or the children’s publishing industry assume they have a largely captive, passive audience, happy to consume monotonous iterations of the same story over and over. I’m particularly interested in exploring the children’s series to see if this rather cynical view is valid, or whether there’s something more to the phenomena of the long-running series.

Even more interesting is that a large number of these series could be categorised as Gothic or Fantastic. Walk into any large high-street book shop’s children’s section and, once you’ve recovered from the sheer number of Twilight imitations in the teen ‘Dark Romance’ section, you’ll also notice that the 9-11 and 12+ sections are similarly characterised by a decidedly ‘Gothic’ aesthetic. The book jackets display cloaked and hooded figures, swirled with eerie mists, graveyard scenes or Gothic castles, skeletal faces and terrifying masked visages. The covers of the three books under scrutiny in this particular review are, as you can see, emblematic of this growing ‘Gothic’ trend. Yet, despite the promise of these menacing and forbidding visuals, one has to ask what kind of ‘Gothic’ do these series books offer child readers? Is the bloodcurdling terror intimated by such chilling graphics ever delivered? And how can books which are fifth, sixth, seventh in a long running series still deliver a truly shocking read? Is it, after all, just canny “Gothic” marketing?

The cover art for Shan's latest offering

Darren Shan, the first of our three authors, is a popular name in the series fiction market. His first series,  Cirque du Freak – The Saga of Darren Shan is an astonishingly long 12-part vampire series, published in over 30 languages, and boasts a 2009 Universal Pictures film based on the first instalment. His second series, The Demonata, is another epic 10 part series focusing on the gory and brutal exploits of the demon underworld.  This most recent novel, Birth of a Killer, sees Shan kick-start yet another long running series, this time returning to the vampire theme. The tagline ‘The Epic new Saga begins’ might tempt the wary adult reader or critic to see the novel as a cynical marketing ploy or lazy money spinner.  The book, after all, returns to one of Cirque du Freak’s principal vampires, Larten Crepsley, in a rather Lucas-esque prequel, which promises to tell the story of the character’s early years, following the path which eventually leads him to becoming the scarred, moody Vampire mentor we see in Cirque du Freak.

Yet, Shan has undeniable power as a writer to shock, with surprisingly graphic depictions of violence and carnage perhaps explaining his enduring popularity with a pre-teen readership. The various arguments for why children seem to crave this kind of violent horror are well rehearsed in children’s literature criticism, with the mainstream media now actively promoting the aesthetic that the only ‘good’ children’s books are those which are truly and heart-stoppingly horrible. As the Guardian’s Sam Leith says, ‘Thumb amputation – that’s the stuff to throw at kids.’ From this point of view, Shan doesn’t disappoint, and Birth of a Killer begins with a particularly drawn-out and explicit description of the awful murder of Larten’s unfortunate cousin, Vur, by sadistic factory foreman Traz:

‘The gutter rat’s dead… I’m going to hang his body off a hook out back.’

The causal and savage violence displayed by Traz ignites Larten’s own vicious nature, and the young boy visits upon the foreman a fierce attack, which leaves the despicable Traz dead upon the factory floor in a scene which is truly disturbing and compulsively readable.

The pseudo-18th century early industrial urban nightmare created by Shan in these opening pages is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel. Potentially, Larten’s experiences as a brutalized and exploited child labourer in the huge, ugly machinery of the textile factory might allow Shan to explore the birth of violence and decay, and the disintegration of self and family, in a way that a more conventional vampire story cannot. However, the claustrophobic decay of the urban setting soon gives way to vistas more associated with traditional horror, as Larten flees the town, bedding down for the night in the cold stone crypt of a country graveyard, where he eats cobwebs for his tea. (Mmm… deliciously ‘gothic’…) This is where he meets reclusive ancient vampire, Seba Nile, who sees in the boy great potential for success in vampire society, and takes him on as an assistant. The two travel through the wild forests of Europe, refuge in crumbling medieval castles, encounter vicious vampaneze killers in deserted mansions, and, eventually, Larten ends up at the legendary Council of Vampires, deep in the dismal tunnels and cavernous halls of Vampire Mountain.

Despite the evocative locations, and the complex history of vampire society hinted at throughout the novel, and even Larten’s own brief rebellious attempts to seek out his lost family back in the grimy town where it started out, the book is seemingly more interested in quick paced action than in the psychological origins of the vampire. For the reader eager to explore the darker recesses of human nature and discover just why flame-haired Crepsley is the way he is, there’s little insight into inner motivations, turmoil and transformation. Instead, we get lots of fight scenes. Of course, for the adult reader to second guess the child reader is a fruitless exercise, and one hesitates to pass judgement on Shan’s latest offering on the basis that it simply isn’t ‘deep’ enough… I remember taking a group of 11 year olds to a Darren Shan reading. Their excitement as he read from the Demonata novel, Lord Loss, was palpable. This brief extract from the book might explain why:

Blood everywhere. Nightmarish splashes and gory pools. Wild streaks across the floor and walls… The dripping sound – a body hanging upside down. No head. Blood drops to the floor from the gaping red O of the neck. “Dad!” I scream…’

Now, before the psychoanalytically inclined readers among you point out the ‘Oedipus complex’ that leaps to our attention here, decked in neon lights and dripping with blood, I’m convinced my group of year sevens were just into it for the gore.

The mysteriously hooded 'Spook'

If Shan’s third bash at serial fiction feels a little fatigued, a recycling of previous ideas in a rather listless vampire romp, then Joseph Delaney’s Wardstone Chronicles series promises something a little different. Like Shan, Delaney sets his story in a non-specific past age, a setting that deliberately evokes the rural Lancashire of a pre-industrial age, and yet is not quite Lancashire at any time in its history. The choice to set the story in a pseudo-realistic past setting allows Delaney to delve into the genre of magical realism, without necessarily having to deal with the troublesome details of what the normal population think of the ghosts, witches and ghouls in their midst. It also gives Delaney free reign to incorporate an odd and unsettling mixture of mythical elements. Making use of Lancashire folklore, Greek myth and pure invention, The Spook’s Apprentice, tells the story of Tom, a seventh son of a seventh son, who is apprenticed out to the County ‘Spook’ to learn the dying trade of banishing boggarts, imprisoning witches and defeating ghouls and ghasts that threaten the well-being of honest county folk. This first book in the series is truly creepy. The description of Tom’s first night spent alone in a haunted house is terrifying by any standards on a first read:

‘There were rustlings and pattering coming from the walls. Just mice, I kept telling myself. We were certainly used to them on the farm. But then, suddenly, there came a disturbing new sound from down below in the depths of the dark cellar. At first it was faint, making me strain my ears, but gradually it grew until I was in no doubt about what I could hear. Down in the cellar something was happening that shouldn’t be happening. Someone was digging rhythmically, turning heavy earth with a sharp metal spade…’

Delaney delves deep into the aesthetics of fear, turning this scene from The Spook’s Apprentice into a master class of terror, which left me struggling to get to sleep when the lights went out.

Delaney writes with much less emphasis on action and violence than Shan, using the dreary moorland settings, bleak early industrial Lancashire landscapes and isolated country farmhouses to explore the potentials of psychological horror for both reader and poor apprentice, Tom. What is also interesting is that as the series develops, Tom and his Spook master face increasingly grey moral choices in their fight against ‘the dark’. The Spook’s Secret is a particularly interesting development in the representation of the initially stoic and dogmatic Spook, revealing that the moral certainties that allow him to place himself and Tom firmly as servants of ‘the light’, justifying his rather ruthless practice of imprisoning witches in stone pits under the ground, for example, might be a cover for a more uncertain relationship with elements of the dark and his own desires. Tucked away in his bleak winter hideaway on the moors, Tom’s master spares at least one witch the fate of the pit… For a book written for younger readers, certainly, such murky morality is a significant contrast to much of the more simplistic fare on offer in the flooded children’s fantasy market.

The Spook’s Sacrifice is an interesting development in the series as it sees the scope of the story expand outward into more epic vistas, moving from the confines of ‘the county’, beyond the hills of Pendle and the crypts of ‘Priest Town’, to the global arena. In this instalment of the series, Tom and the Spook must travel to the Grecian plains to take part in a large-scale battle, teaming up with an unlikely alliance of witches and hired mercenaries, to lay to rest ‘the Ordeen’, an evil demonic power which seeks to destroy the world. The evocative, frightening descriptions found in the earlier books are still present. There’s one particularly creepy scene in which Tom must try to rescue his friend, Alice, from a ‘Lamia’ witch who has dragged her deep into a confusing system of caves, around which Tom stumbles blindly, the walls pressing about him, listening to the witch slowly suck his friend’s blood. Furthermore, the moral choices for our heroes are no less simple now they have become embroiled in a more epic battle. And yet, something of the effective eeriness of the earlier novels dissipates in the face of this new heroic narrative direction. It seems that the demands of series fiction necessitate this kind of move outward from the domestic and claustrophobic to the epic and fantastic. After all, six books on, how much more psychological horror can be derived from Delaney’s rural Lancashire setting? Certainly, this book leaves behind many of those characteristics which might be read as more Gothic, in favour of epic battle scenes, and exploring the mythical hero’s role in a perpetual, universal battle between good and evil. In this way, it’s less successful for me than its predecessors, taking the series away from what made it uncanny, creepy and eerily readable, to the realms of the more standard fantasy romp. Perhaps this is why Delaney’s subsequent novel was a standalone return to the more provincial theme of the Pendle witches: The Spook’s Stories: Witches.

The deadly cool PI, Skulduggery

Derek Landy’s hugely popular Skulduggery Pleasant series might also be accused of the same tendency as Delaney’s Spook’s books. Sporting similarly brooding cover art to its rivals, Mortal Coil nevertheless turns further away from the murky, gothic world of the PI and his small band of associates towards more epic and global concerns. Will Valkyrie, Skulduggery’s fesity teenage skide-kick, fulfil the prophecy and become “Darquesse”, an evil necromancer fated to destroy the world? Will the political machinations of the other ‘Sanctuaries’ around the globe consume Ireland’s own band of magicians and sorcerers? And, can Skulduggery and his friends turn back the sweeping tide of un-dead ‘remnants’ who have escaped in their thousands to possess the minds of sorcerers and civilians alike? Despite their skeletal hero, ghostly characters and gothic settings, Landy’s books have always been more well placed in the Action-Adventure category, than in the Horror section. Consisting of fast-moving fight scenes, high speed car chases, daring escapes from dastardly villains, and the unlikely triumph of a small band of heroes in the face of certain defeat, Mortal Coil is, in this respect, a slick thriller interested in delivering high octane excitement for the teen reader.

However, this is not to say that Mortal Coil doesn’t explore some more intriguing ‘gothic’ terrain. If we are to define contemporary gothic as that which is more concerned with internal threats to the self, with ‘the dark’ that lies within the psyche, than with external threats such as headless nuns and roaming ghouls, then Mortal Coil might well still have some place in the Gothic canon. Ignoring the epic fantasy elements of the developing Valkyrie / Darquesse story-line, we might read the teenage girl’s struggle with her own identity as an analogy of the gothic struggle of the split self, exploring the notion that identity is never quite within the individual’s grasp or control. Increasingly in the twenty-first century, critics have associated gothic and fantasy teen texts in particular with a growing concern centring on the instability of identity, on the anxiety of disintegration. In Mortal Coil, for example, Valkyrie is so consumed by fear of what her future self might become, that she allows horrific psychic surgery to be performed on her body:

‘Valkyrie looked down at herself as her flesh came apart as easily as a zipper being undone… watched her heart being placed on a tray by the pruning shears… watched the vice being tightened, and a part of her mind started to scream, fearing the heart would burst… The scalpel went from her heart back to the flame, then to her heart. Slight trails of smoke rose from the lines being carved. Valkyrie could hear the soft sizzle of meat.’

But even the trauma of having her internal organs removed and carved with the name of her secret self so that no one else can control her destiny is not enough to prevent Valkyrie’s other self, Darquesse, from making an appearance. The hoards of ‘remnants’, which escape in their thousands to wreak havoc on Dublin, indicate that such a loss of identity is not simply a matter of giving up control of one’s mind and body to an ‘other’, external force. Demonic possession by a ‘remnant’ turns out to be a more ambiguous puzzle, and not something that can simply be reversed with the right spell or incantation. In fact, those ‘possessed’ find that once their self begins to merges with the other there’s no sense of where the original identity ends and the ‘invading’ consciousness begins. Indeed, the end of Mortal Coil leaves the matter unsettlingly open, with more than one character utterly and irrevocably  transformed by the experience of this demonic ‘possession’.

Another tricky element of these otherwise seemingly straightforward action stories is the fact that Landy doesn’t side-step the issue of cross-contamination of reality and fantasy, as the other two books in this review do. The setting is unequivocally modern day Dublin: there are normal families; petrol stations; teenage night clubs; suburban streets with saloon cars in the driveways; and, of course, everyday inhabitants with no knowledge of the dark underworld that seethes around them in the shadows. All of this is affected when the destabilising elements of the sorcerers’ actions spill out into everyday society. In one disturbing scene, reminiscent of Terminator II, a suburban housewife takes a phone call from her distressed daughter, who frantically pleads for help as she is pursued by violent fiends through the chaotic streets. Sweetly, the mother placates her daughter, obviously not believing her wild tales. As she puts the phone down, she turns to smile at her concerned husband, before brutally knocking him to the floor, revealing that she too is another of the ‘possessed’. Handily, the mess is all cleared up again at the end, with the intervention of some clever science that allows the sorcerers to blame the outbursts of violence on a virus. Yet, the quick resolution doesn’t quite retract from the horror witnessed on the streets and in the homes of Dublin, nor does it fully reverse the subversive potential of ‘magic’ to turn the everyday landscape into something uncanny and terrifying.

In the end, though, Landy’s book, like Shan and Delaney, asks us to look forwards and outwards to the next chapter in the ongoing story, a chapter that will, undoubtedly, be characterised by a growing concern with the epic struggle between external forces of good and evil, than with the internal concerns of the originally more local, ‘gothic’ setting. One is tempted to ask: where does it end? How many more books can Shan, Delaney and Landy write before they must finally conclude their epic battle of good versus evil, before they must complete the tale and finish the series with a neat flourish? Part of me doesn’t want to read that book. It wouldn’t be as good as what came before. Children and young adult literature has long been criticised for relying too much on the restitutive narrative that sees good triumph and order restored and one appealing thing about the series novel is that, whilst we’re waiting for the next instalment, the narrative thread is left tantalizingly open. For now, at least, the heroes must keep fighting. On the other hand, each subsequent book in the series seems to take us further and further away from the fascinating arena of the claustrophobic, internal and local to the tired, well-worn global terrain of the epic fantasy novel. So what’s a writer to do? Should we join Alderman’s plea and scream: ‘Don’t do it!’ Is it better to never know if Valkyrie becomes Darquesse? If Tom defeats ‘the Dark’? If Crepsley completely gives up his humanity once and for all?

Sadly, my guess is that the stories will keep coming as long as the publishers think their readers haven’t got bored.

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