Mr Mumbles is a scary character and you introduce others throughout the story. Are your publishers open to all your ideas or do you have to censor yourself and tone down some of the horror elements because of your target audience?
They have been completely open to my ideas so far. Part of book two was questioned as they thought it might be a bit too scary, but I argued the case and it was allowed through. It was actually nowhere near as extreme as some of the other things happening in the story, but I think because it was a moment of quite “real” violence as opposed to the more exaggerated and fantastic violence happening throughout the series, it caused a few concerns.
That said, I’m expecting to have to tone down book four quite a bit. I’m really pushing children’s horror to its limits with this one – I’ve even been giving myself nightmares – and when my editor recovers from the shock I’m pretty much certain I’ll have to make some changes.
Self-censoring, I think, would be a big mistake. I’d rather go too far and have to tone things down, than set out to be reasonably scary and always wonder if I could’ve taken things further.
Mr Mumbles is scary but not bloody and gory. In the blood and gore stakes, do you think less is more, that suggesting horror can be more frightening than going into intricate detail?
Definitely. I think this comes from trying to write low-budget horror screenplays in my late teens. Special effects are expensive. A creepy noise coming from somewhere off screen isn’t.
I’ve carried that through into my novels, I think. There is virtually no blood in the Mr Mumbles story, but everyone who has read it has told me how much it frightened them. It’s the build up to the scares that are the most important thing. There are lots of creepy and disturbing moments in the book well before Mr Mumbles even shows his face. By the time he does make his appearance, you’re already on edge, so his spectacular entrance is even more terrifying.
Personally, I think some of the scariest moments in the whole book happen before Mr Mumbles is around. Reading those first four chapters, you know something terrible is coming, and that anticipation is almost worse than the terrible stuff itself.
Can there be such a thing as too much horror?
I think that’s down to individual choice. What I might consider to be “too much” could be mild for someone else. I didn’t set out to write the scariest horror books ever written, I set out to tell a story, which just happens to be bloody scary. I would never deliberately up the scares at the expense of character and plot. If the plot demands really full-on horror (like in book four), then I’ll write it. If it requires a lighter touch, then that’s what I’ll try to do. I never think “I’m going to write the scariest story I can”. I think “I’m going to write the best story I can”. For some people those stories might be almost too terrifying to bear, for others they’ll barely raise a goosebump. I’m not that fussed, as long as they enjoy the story.
What, if anything, do you think potential horror writers should bear in mind when writing for a younger audience?
Kids are tougher than we give them credit for. Boys especially are obsessed with people dying or being maimed in the most horrific ways possible. When I run my story-writing workshops I’m always stunned by some extreme level of violence or horror the kids come up with. Trust me, if you think you’re writing something too disturbing, it’s probably nothing compared to the carnage that’s already going on in the heads of most 10-year-old boys.
Do you think it’s important to inject moments of humour to help lighten the story?
I always have humour in everything I write, because I’m a firm believer than comedy exists in almost every situation. I have a very dark sense of humour, so that definitely helps when it comes to writing comedy scenes into an otherwise chilling horror, but I think without the humour the whole thing would feel quite flat.
In Invisible Fiends, the humour comes from the dialogue between the two main characters. It’s mostly quite droll, deadpan stuff, which contrasts with the elaborate nature of the situations they keep finding themselves thrust into.
The entire concept of the series is fairly ludicrous anyway, and without the humour it might come across as taking itself too seriously. Also, I think the darkness works better because of the lighter stuff. One moment you’re laughing, the next you’re being drowned in a filthy swimming pool. It gives the whole thing much more of a roller-coaster type feel!
What’s your experience of how children react to horror in books? Do they tend to love it more than perhaps the parents would like?
It depends on the child, but most kids I’ve spoken to have a real love of the genre – more so than most adults, I think.
Boys are notoriously quite reluctant readers, and when I do my workshops I often come across a few who claim to hate reading, and who think all stories are boring. As soon as you start talking about scary men with axes or flesh-eating birds, though, their eyes light up and suddenly they want to know more.
I think kids are fascinated by the unknown – the monsters under the bed – and they haven’t yet fully formed that sensible, boring part we adults have that tells us not to be so silly, and that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
I also think that the better your imagination, the easier you are to scare. When kids tell me they’re scared of the dark, for example, I point out to them that they aren’t. They’re scared of what their imaginations are telling them might be lurking in the dark, waiting to grab them. As we get older, we stop using our imaginations as much, so we stop being as scared of the unknown. Kids don’t have that problem, though, which is why, I think, they soak up horror stories to the extent they do.
INVISIBLE FIENDS ~ MR MUMBLES BOOK RECOMMENDATION
BARRY HUTCHISON INTERVIEW