Will Hill is the author of one of my favourite books of 2011, Department 19. The sequel, Department 19: The Rising came out earlier this year and was even better. To celebrate the release of The Rising, Will Hill wrote this fantastic guest post about why he reads (and writes) scary books. Since it’s nearly Halloween I thought I’d re-post it. Enjoy his post and make sure you grab the Department 19 books for some seriously creepy, gory and action-packed reading.
When I was about 12 I was so scared by Stephen King’s It that I slept with the light on, having placed the book, a beautiful old library hardback with a terrifying oil-painted amusement park clown on the cover, in the middle of my bedroom floor where I could keep an eye on it.
It was the prologue that did it.
George Denbrough chases a paper boat down the flooded streets of his hometown, until he loses it down an overflowing drain. A drain in which he finds a friendly, charming clown. A clown that suddenly changes shape and pulls George’s arm off at the shoulder, leaving him to bleed to death in the rain and the rushing water.
That was it for me.
Not only was it the moment when I closed that particular book and asked my mum to take it back to the library for me, as I was too scared to touch the thing myself, but it was also when I first understood the power that certain books can possess. The power to scare you silly.
I wrote Department 19 because I wanted to tell a story, about an ordinary boy called Jamie Carpenter who is thrown into an extraordinary world where he is forced to sink or swim, where he finds out who he really is. But I’ll be totally honest – I wanted to scare readers as well. Not because I’m mean, or vicious, or some kind of sadist, but because I think that books have a unique quality that I wanted to take advantage of – how scary they are is limited only by the power of the reader’s imagination.
I can describe the vampires in Department 19 in as much detail as I choose, but the picture of them that appears in one reader’s head is still going to be very different to that in someone else’s. In films and TV, the monsters, the villains, the frightening and scary things, are fully formed and shown, decisions that the director and the makeup department have made and then presented to you, whole. That doesn’t mean they can’t be scary, not at all – The Exorcist, The Omen, the original A Nightmare On Elm Street, all scared the hell out of me when I was younger than I am now. But they’re a communal experience, where everyone who sees them sees the same thing.
Books are different. With books, it’s just the words on the page and the power of your own mind. It’s personal.
When I was a teenager, I went straight from reading children’s books to reading Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert etc. My mother, who always encouraged me to read, and who would regularly bring me horror paperbacks home from the second-hand shops near where we lived, even though she didn’t really approve of them, would often ask me “Why do you read all that horrible stuff?” She still asks me that question, but now she also adds “How can you think of the horrible stuff you write?” I didn’t have an answer for her when I was younger, but I think I understand it a bit better now.
I loved (and still love) horror because nothing makes you feel more alive than staring into the darkness and confronting the things that scare you.
It’s placing yourself in harm’s way, without actually taking any physical risk. It’s like being on a rollercoaster – you know full well that it’s safe, you know that nothing genuinely bad is going to happen to you, but your heart is still pounding, your palms are still clammy, and you’re still wearing that slightly hysterical grin that is meant to show you’re not scared, but in fact gives you away completely. And while the ride may be horrible, may be a terrible, gut-churning ordeal that you never, ever, ever want to do again, when you get off at the other end, your legs wobbling and your face pale, the sensation of being alive, of having survived, is wonderful. It’s adrenaline and it’s probably mild hysteria, but ultimately it’s the primal, joyous sense of being alive.
That’s what scary books did for me.
You can confront terrible things, evils both great and small, violence and pain and anguish and loss, and you can do it all from the comfort of your favourite chair, or lying in bed with a lamp on, the one that’s light doesn’t quite reach the corners of the room, the dark corners where things can hide, and wait. And if it gets too much, you can simply close the book, and come back to the real world for a while.
For some reason, the human brain seems to contain a tendency towards the masochistic; it’s the bit of your mind that looks at the rollercoaster tracks and thinks it can see cracks in the metal, that looks at the dog being walked innocently in the park and imagines it suddenly accelerating towards you, its jaws wide, foam frothing from its mouth. This is the bit of our brains that give horror its power. And it’s why I still read scary books, and why I write them. Because I love the thought of tapping into something primal, of experiencing something visceral.
Because being scared is good.
It’s one of the ways that you know you’re alive.
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