How long have you been frightening young people, and when did you decide to turn it from a hobby to a profession?
Well, it’s not as if I’ve hanging around in alleyways dressed as a scarecrow, waiting for frailer children to walk by – not that that doesn’t sound like fun, mind you. I suppose I always enjoyed scary stories and films as a child and a teenager, although part of the pleasure always lay in laughing after the scare, I think. It’s what the current generation of torture porn auteurs doesn’t seem to realize, and it’s why, say, the 2013 remake of Evil Dead is so much more unpleasant than the original: it’s completely lacking in humor. In that sense, the Samuel Johnston books are really meant to be funny books that are a bit scary, rather than scary books that are a bit funny. The primary intention is to make the reader laugh.
Why is it fun to be scared? Why do we look for scary things?
It’s fun to be scared in safety, and at one remove from the threat, and not quite so much fun to be scared in actuality. That’s why parents are wrong to get too worked up about mildly scary films, and especially about mildly scary books. They’re a safe way for younger people to explore emotions, and a huge part of your development as a human being is exploring, and developing, one’s emotional makeup. They’re also a way of negotiating the darkness of the adult world, because they give form to threats and fears that are often very nebulous in reality. Children and teenagers understand that the adult world is difficult, and complex, and sometimes frightening, and supernatural fiction gives substance to the insubstantial. Look, the Twilight series is a good example. Those books aren’t about vampires and werewolves: they’re about relationships, and the difficulties of being in love, and finding oneself uprooted from one place to another when your parents’ marriage collapses. The vampire and werewolf stuff is just a carrier for those issues. Genre fiction is a good carrier food.
What was the first scary book you read?
I was very taken with a series of books for younger readers in which stories of supposedly real-life supernatural encounters were retold. I can’t recall who wrote them, but I liked the fact that they began with the assumption that this stuff might be real. That added an extra frisson. I was also reading Herbert Van Thal’s Pan anthologies, although they tended to have one or two good stories and then a whole bunch of ropier ones, many of which were age inappropriate.
I’m on a roll now…
I also had two anthologies of novelizations of Hammer horror movies, which I dearly loved, especially as I was rarely allowed to stay up late enough to watch Hammer movies on BBC 2 on Saturdays, so the novelizations were my generation’s equivalent of dodgy videos to watch behind the backs of parents. I then graduated to Stephen King, and MR James.
What scared you when you were ten, and how was that different from what scares you now?
I don’t think horror movies scared me. I can remember staying with a friend of mine at his parents’ holiday home, and being allowed to watch Dracula, Prince of Darkness because my parents weren’t around to say otherwise. I loved it, but my mate wet the bed during the night because of it. I felt slightly responsible for that, but only slightly.
Later, I became concerned about my parents’ mortality, and a lot of that fed into The Book of Lost Things. Now, as I get older, I find myself still worried about my mother, who is in her eighties, but also becoming mildly concerned about my own mortality. Then again, maybe I’ll be the first to beat the odds.
Why is Boswell a Dachshund, specifically?
I always feel that they look like slightly worried, and vaguely thoughtful, little dogs. I suspect I have a natural empathy for them on that front.
You’ve said this was the most difficult of the three Samuel Johnson books to write. Why was that?
On one level it was because I was very anxious not to repeat myself, and I needed to find a way to make the book work after The Infernals/ Hell’s Bells. That was set in Hell, and so had a huge, mythic landscape against which to work. I couldn’t really improve upon that, so eventually it became clear that the way to go was to set the book in an enclosed space – in this case, a big old department store – but an enclosed space that also contained the entire Multiverse.
But on another level it’s a book about leaving childhood behind. Samuel is getting older, and there’s a growing distance between himself and Nurd, the demon who lives with him, but it’s Nurd who recognizes it, not Samuel. There’s a little undercurrent of sadness to the book, so it was a question of balancing that alongside the humor, and the supernatural elements.
Without giving too much away, THE CREEPS is rather clearly the end of a trilogy, but would you ever think about giving one of the secondary characters a book of his own — Nurd, perhaps, or Mr. Merryweather’s Elves? Follow-up question: do you have a favorite character, among Samuel’s infernal companions?
The book does hint at that possibility, and they are characters to whom I hope to return. I love doing these little books. They’re an escape for me, and I’m fond of all of the characters. I suspect, though, that the next book, whenever I choose to write it, may well concern itself with Nurd. I even have a title in mind…
Other than the main character being a young person, what’s the biggest difference between writing your adult books and writing the Samuel Johnson books?
I think I can let my imagination run riot with the Samuel books, and I can also be funny – or try to be funny – in a way that I can’t in the adult books. I suppose, too, that I’m aware of trying to pass on information about the world, but not in a preachy way. There’s a kind of dual narrative in the books: there’s the main story being told, using one particular voice, and then there are occasional interjections, either as footnotes or asides, by another voice. It’s sometimes sarky, and kind of amused. I’ve always thought of it as the tone of the uncle in your family who always seemed a bit cooler than your dad.
Will you continue to write books for young people, now that this trilogy is complete?
Well, in the UK The Creeps is being published simultaneously with a book called Conquest, which is the first of a series for slightly older teens written with my better half, Jennie Ridyard. That’s a different way of writing about childhood, and I’m enjoying that challenge. It’s likely that there will be four of those books. In the end, I’ll always return to writing for young people. It’s incredibly rewarding – not financially, but spiritually and emotionally. I’m happier for doing it.
What do you think about the categories of “young adult” and now “new adult” novels? Are these useful for readers, and do they/should they change the way authors write their books?
I think they’re useful for bookstores in terms of organizing their shelves, and for parents and slightly younger readers who are still negotiating the world of books. From my own experience, though, I moved very quickly from books written for younger readers to adult books, and I was certainly exploring the world of adult fiction before I entered my teens. In the end, it’s a question of the development of the individual reader, and his or her tastes and maturity. I think, though, that adults have to learn to trust young readers.
Kids, I find, are very good at discovering their own level when it comes to books. It can be a process of trial and error, but it’s a useful one. When it comes to books and reading, there’s a limit to how far wrong a kid can go!
THE CREEPS by John Connolly is published in hardcover by Hodder & Stoughton on September 28 at £12.99