Darren Shan and Charlie Higson get spooky at the Bath Festival of Children's Literature
It’s ‘Fright Night’ at Bath’s Guildhall, and the 18th-century room is swagged in red and lit in green. Added terror for me is that the audience is mostly male and aged about 13, including the two next to me who practically wriggle with glee as Darren Shan and Charlie Higson take to the stage, compered by the very dapper Toby Clements.
The two take turns to read from each other’s work – Higson reading a gut-wrenching (literally) excerpt from Shan’s very bloody Lord Loss, and Shan reading from Higson’s zombie novel The Fear. The boys next to me seem delighted by the gory imaginings of decapitated fathers, alligator-headed dogs and diseased-ravaged bodies splitting and oozing pus.
Both Higson and Shan are keen to stress that horror, at least in literature, is important for kids “because there is a strong fantasy element” Higson stressed. “It’s not going to happen in real life… There are nasty things in the world kids will have to grow up and deal with, it’s a way to get to grips with that.”
Shan added “[I’m] using fantasy to deal with death.” He likened reading his novels to kids having to get used to pets dying for dealing with human death: “It’s nicer than burying grandad,” he suggested, to roars of rather startled laughter.
Both had fascinating opinions on why vampires and zombies were so popular. Higson suggested our “obsession with death. You can’t have life without death,” and reminded us of the Christian myths: “Jesus didn’t die.”
Meanwhile Shan gave a rather terrifying history lesson of how, in the past, people were often buried alive in pits so it was not uncommon to see them “come back to life”. Bodies were often buried with stones in the mouths or “nailed to the ground” to keep them from coming back as zombies.
They both discussed “how far do you go” in terms of horror, with Shan explaining that while every publisher turned down his first book Cirque du Freak, he had the most trouble with Demonata even though no one died in it, because of the sexual undertones.
Higson, who admitted being inspired by Shan’s level of horror to write his own books, revealed that he tried out his nascent passages on his own 10-year-old son. After three increasingly gory bedtime stories, he gave up on trying to impress the boy – until his son burst into his room at 4am after a terrible nightmare “I thought: ‘Yes! Finally got the little bastard!’”
Many of the questions in the Q&A were reserved for Shan (who was wearing a T-shirt with his own book jacket on), but the “best question” of the night came when an angel-faced child piped up “Charlie, when you’re writing, do you think ‘Lovely jubbly I’m going to kill all these people off?’”
Laughing, Higson responded that it was “much scarier” to kill off characters that you care for, so he put a lot of work into their personalities, so “it was much harder to kill them off”. He added: “but if my kids are giving me a hard time, I think, great, I’m going to kill three children in my book!” The gore-hungry audience was delighted.
The Saga of Larton Crepsley: Palace of the Damned by Darren Shan is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
The Fear by Charlie Higson is published by Puffin.