Last month I had the privilege of interviewing Charlie Higson for Gaskella – see my write-up
here. He was in town for a big schools event, promoting the third volume in his series of horror books for teens. So far, I’ve read the first two – The Enemy and The Dead.
His plan in writing them was to scare the pants off his son, who was ten at the time. I don’t know about him, for I was scared and shocked a few times too, but in an adult, sort of knowing way. I was thoroughly revolted many more times, and found time to chuckle too. Let me set the scene …
A deadly virus has killed the majority of humans over 14 years old. Those who do survive become zombies. The Enemy follows a group of children who had been holed up in a North London supermarket for some time after the outbreak of the virus. Hearing that another group of children has occupied Buckingham Palace and is successfully farming in the gardens, they set out to join them. The second novel The Dead, actually begins earlier in the virus’s timeline, following another group of children who start off at a school in Kent, and later end up at the Tower of London.
The groups of children quickly progress beyond the infighting one might expect in this dystopian Lord of the Flies type setting. Every time they have to venture out to scavenge for food, less of them come back – there’s no room to fight amongst themselves, they must join together in a common cause. Having said that though, each time one of the packs of children meets another pack, there has to be a squaring up and some posturing to sort out the natural order of things. However they all end up united against the enemy – the zombies!
Higson’s zombies are digustingly revolting. They are pus-ridden, covered with boils and blisters, necrotizing flesh, slobbering and slavering over their favourite food – children if they can get them. They tend to come out at night as strong sunlight can make them burst. But these zombies aren’t always just shuffling, they can shift if they want to. Some of them also still posess a glimmer of a brain – animal cunning if you will. There’s one zombie in particular – we meet him in the first book when he’s leading a group of them converging on the kids in the supermarket, but we find out more about who he is, or was, in the second. Through him find out a lot more about the zombification process of the disease.
If the gruesome horror in these books belong to the zombies and their never-ending quest for flesh to eat, the shocks often come from the way that Higson is not scared of killing off the children, especially those you least expected. There are no red shirts in these books – everyone is at risk!
The main characters are well-observed, and they’re not all boys either. There is a group of bolshy girls in The Dead who are particularly good value, (I’m thinking Sapphire types in the TV Tracey Beaker here). I particularly liked Ed, who starts off as weedy but has to find hidden reserves to get out of many very tricky situations.
A key moment for me came within the few chapters of The Enemy (p26). Arran, in charge of the supermarket crew, is leading a scavenging party. They decide to go into the swimming pool to see if there are any vending machines left, only to find a zombie ambush…
When a mother came at Arran, long hair flying, he gripped her by the throat and squeezed. Her head thrashed from side to side, her scabby hands flapped at him. Her hair whipped out of her face so that for a moment he saw her clearly.
Her nose was half rotted away by disease. There were boils and sores covering every inch of skin. Her lips were pulled back from broken teeth showing black shrunken gums.
Everything about her was disgusting, inhuman, degraded – apart from her eyes. Her eyes were beautiful.
Arran looked into them and for a moment he saw a flash of intelligence.
He froze. Time seemed to stop. He had the sudden vivid notion that this was all a stupid dream. He had imagined the whole thing: the collapse of society, the fear and confusion, the months spent hiding out in Waitrose. It wasn’t possible after all. It wasn’t possible that the world had changed as much. So quickly. It wasn’t possible that he had become a savage. A killer.
The mother tried to speak, her lips formed in a ghastly pucker and a single syllable came out.
Tears came into Arran’s eyes. He couldn’t do it any more.
He loosened his grip.
The mother wriggled free and sunk her teeth into his neck.
Wonderful stuff! There is plenty of adventure in these books, but the shock and horror quotient makes them ideal for readers of around twelve – and upwards, for I really loved them too. (9/10 for both) There are currently seven books planned in the series – so bring on number 3 – The Fear!
I’d also recommend you watch Charlie’s trailers for the books – they’re great fun.
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I bought my copies.