Hello everybody. The nights are getting darker and Halloween is getting closer. I hear you all asking, what's new in the scary kid's book world? What book is going to get your heart racing and your spine-tingling? Well, this is the book for you. It's the fantastic debut spooky mystery by Nick Tomlinson (illustrated by Kim Geyer). The Ghouls of Howlfair will be published by Walker Books this October (2019). This might just be the book that you've been looking for.
Welcome, Nick, to Mr. Ripley's Enchanted Books. Thank you for writing this guest post about the book and how you became a Horror writer. I am sure that this post will entice everyone to pick this book up and read it this coming autumn. Bookdepository.com
Firing Jacob and Hiring Molly – How I Became a Horror Writer
Aeons ago, after my first book (written for grown-ups) got good reviews but only sold four copies, I decided to become a children’s writer. Everyone was going loopy about Harry Potter, and becoming a famous children’s writer struck me as the best way to achieve my artistic dream of selling more than four books. Also, I’d had an amazing idea for a middle-grade fantasy story, and I wanted to write it before someone else got there first.
In kids’ fantasy books, you tend to get the main character who journeys to a magical world (say, Narnia) from somewhere real (say, Smethwick). Often there’s a reason why the character’s destined to go to that fantasy world. They have credentials - they’ve defeated Voldemort or they’re meant to fulfil an ancient prophecy or something. This is where I tripped myself up: I had a good reason why my character, Jacob, was supposed to journey to my fantasy land (Howlfair, a scary town full of monsters), but it was so flipping complicated that it took me half the book to explain it. Jacob and my book were doomed from the start, but I wrote it anyway, and rewrote it, and rewrote it.
There was something pure about my early efforts to write the book. Specifically, they were pure rubbish. Every other page saw some soothsayer step from behind a curtain and deliver a speech about a meaningful aspect of Jacob’s backstory. By the final scene, the monsters were so bored with delivering speeches that they wanted to be killed.
My agent didn’t deal with children’s books, so we parted ways and now I had no agent. I wrote hundreds of drafts and sent them to scores of agents; many liked the opening chapters but spat out their coffee when I told them the final word-count. They’d advise me to cut fifty-thousand words, so I’d chop the manuscript in half and then neaten up the edges by adding some clarifying dialogue about Jacob’s highly significant past, and suddenly presto! The manuscript was even bigger than before. Like a self-renewing monster from Greek myth.
I carried on hacking down and bulking up my manuscript for fifteen years, always convinced that the next draft would be the one that’d get published.
My fantasy setting, Howlfair, was a town built over a gateway to Hell. Miners had accidentally opened the gateway, flooding the whole valley with monsters. The townsfolk had organised themselves into special groups to take on the monsters – the Order of Noble Vampire Hunters, the Order of the Silver Bullet, etc. My protagonist, Jacob, accidentally found himself joining a group of wimpy warrior-farmers that everyone else laughed at. But, owing to a three-hundred-page backstory involving a potion Jacob had drunk when he was four, Jacob’s destiny was to lead this rag-tag group in a mission to save Howlfair from a demon. It was a pretty good premise, I thought - but I couldn’t make it work. It wasn’t until I was lounging in a beer-barrel hot-tub on a dog-friendly eco-holiday in Wales, a holiday my wife and I had booked after adopting a dog we’d found outside a petrol station in Birmingham, that I suddenly realised how to save the story.
What if I stopped trying to write a fantasy book and wrote horror instead? In horror, a character doesn’t go from Smethwick to Narnia. In horror, something malicious comes from Hell to Smethwick. Something evil invades the day-to-day. Your character doesn’t need a reason to go where the action happens, because in horror the action happens right here.
Unfortunately, this meant that I had to fire poor Jacob. His backstory was a many-tentacled presence in my mind. The thought of him gave me vertigo. I needed a new protagonist, one without baggage.
For a long time, a character called Molly Thompson had been patiently haunting my imagination. I’d never considered her for this story because she wasn’t a feisty brave hero like you nearly always get in kids’ fantasy books. She was a shy bookworm, based on the shy bookworms I’d taught in a Birmingham girls’ school, girls who described themselves as weird and clumsy and socially awkward. I’d hoped to write a book one day in which these girls could meet a character like themselves, a character who was shy and awkward but
unstoppable, and Molly would be the star of that book. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt as though Molly wanted to be in my Howlfair story.
I turned Howlfair from a fantasy world into a corny tourist town with lots of silly old legends about monsters, legends nobody believes in. Nobody, that is, except a shy, unstoppable amateur historian named Molly Thompson, who lives in the creepy Excelsior Guesthouse. Molly knows the old legends better than anyone else, and she certainly knows them well enough to spot when one of them – the legend of the Ghouls of Loonchance Manor – is starting to come true…
How does Molly fare? Well, she’s definitely not your usual brave adventurer. But, though I feel bad for Jacob, I hope readers will agree that once the scary old stories of Howlfair begin coming to life and someone needs to stop them, Molly turned out to be the right person for the job.