running with the devil

Anne Fine's new children's book The Devil Walks is her first attempt at a sinister story. She tells WLTB what inspired her

Now that I've done it, I can't imagine why it took so many years for me to sit down with the set intention of writing a sinister book. Enough of my readers have said that my novel The Tulip Touch unnerved or scared them; but, however dark, that was at least a realistic story set in the modern world.

The Devil Walks (Doubleday) is different. A mix of ghost story and gothic tale, it all stemmed from of a haunting of my own – my inability to get two lines from John Betjeman's Original Sin on the Sussex Coast out of my mind:

"As certain as the sun behind the Downs
   And quite as plain to see, the Devil walks"

The germ of a book is so often a phrase or image that comes into the author's brain and just won't leave. Instead it grows, and it's the writer's job to find out what it wanted to become. I find the process is like brushing sand away from deeply buried stones to find the pattern lying underneath. False trail. Dead end. But gradually you begin to get the sense of where your story's going. And then you're off.

And so The Devil Walks took on a double meaning – of not just evil on the march, but of a sinister spiral of tall-grown hedges within the grounds of a neglected great house – hedges grown especially so that, in earlier times, a man might stride there out of sight whenever he was in a temper and likely to scandalise the ladies of the house with all his cursing: 'The devil take him!' 'Damn him to hell and back!'  And it is to this house that young Daniel Cunningham, piteously raised and horribly orphaned, is finally sent - away from the adoptive family he has begun to love - to live with the uncle he has never known.

A house in which old devilries begin to stir.

I loved weird, sinister tales when I was a child. Some adults worry that these sorts of books disturb young readers. But to be scared is not the same as being horrified. I see why many parents keep the worst of the new style of horror books – some now aimed even at the very young – off their home shelves. A lot of the images are too vivid, gory and cruel for any child to banish easily from the mind.

But scary books are different. After all, most of us can remember lying awake, petrified, forcing our eyes open so we could keep checking on that peculiar dark shape which looked so menacing – are those its ears? Did it just move? - but which, in morning light, turned out as usual to be yesterday's clothes untidily tossed on the chair. Choosing to scare yourself by reading a book you can put down at any time is pretty well a luxury to the imaginative child. Almost all parents and teachers will, after all, assure you that there are no such things as ghosts, and in the daylight it will be easy to believe them. Confront those same adults with some almost unimaginable human cruelty culled from a horror book and watch them squirm, since no such comfort will be easily forthcoming. The real world's not an easy place.

When I was nine I truly did believe that I was haunted. My parents moved us from our council estate to a lonely, tumbledown house that overlooked a graveyard. On my wall every night, a tiny golden skull shape gleamed. Time and again I called my parents upstairs, but once they were standing there – "Where is it? I can't see a thing!” - the skull had vanished.

Their patience drained away, so it was weeks before anyone realised that the golden skull haunting me was simply the light from the hall lamp shining through the old-fashioned keyhole, and each time either of my tired parents had leaned back against that same door, demanding to see what it was bothering me, they had blocked off the light. By then, I was a wreck.  (Though, all these years later, my comedy The Haunting of Pip Parker, based on the story, is still popular in the early years of primary schools.)

I no longer believe in ghosts. (Indeed, I am so sure they don't exist that I am terrified I'll see one, since that would upset my whole view of the world and cause me endless anguish by making me instantly and forever doubt my own brain.) But I still adore creepy stories. I love the way they start in such a normal fashion. A walk on a summer's day. A conversation with a stranger. An overnight stay in some drab hotel bedroom. Then comes that first slight twist that lets the reader know that all is not exactly as it seems. An odd sound here, a figure glimpsed where nobody should be. Gradually the shadows of the story gather. The unease grows. It is the expectation that compels us to read on. We all know that, no matter who or what it is that's lurking in the next room, the terrifying moment will be the one in which the trembling hand reaches out to open the door.

It's difficult to keep the tension to the very end. But, as in any novel, what matters most is that we care about what happens to the characters we've come to know. In The Devil Walks, Daniel has been on a momentous journey. Raised in seclusion by his half-mad mother, he's grown in stature, character and experience. We've felt for him through all his solitude and burgeoning fears. We need to know, not just whether he is finally out of danger, but how it's changed him and what his plans are now.

"Tell me a story!" is a perennial plea.  And when the time is right – the candle flickering and the shadows billowing up the walls – "Tell me a creepy story" is heard almost as often.

So step into my world, where The Devil Walks...
The Devil Walks by Anne Fine is published by Doubleday, £10.99, on 7th July