We’re positively thrilled to have published Sticky Pines: The Valley of the Strange last month – the latest explosive instalment of the cult sci-fi series for children. And today we’re very excited to be sharing a guest post from Dashe!
‘And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver / For no mere mortal can resist the evil of the thriller…’ – Vincent Price
Shhh… Listen… Can you hear it? The rasp of dry leaves blowing across the grass? The whistle of the wind through spindly bare branches? The bubble of spiced lattes brewing in darkened cafes? The telltale signs of the Spooky Season are upon us, bringing a chill to the air, a gossamer coat of spiderwebs to our windowsills, and a creepy, kooky, decidedly ooky flavour to our reading diets. But what makes a good thriller? And, more importantly, are scary stories making a comeback in the children’s book market, where tales of talking animals and magic schools tend to keep the tone as cosy as a four seat sofa.
I think they are, and as a writer of spine-tingling books, I couldn’t be more excited.
From the rib-tickling horror of Jennifer Killick’s Crater Lake and Dreadwood to the wildly inventive monsters lurking in Aisling Fowler’s Fireborn, thrilling, scary stories are on the rise.
Frightening themes have always been present in children’s literature, designed to instruct kids about the scary realities that exist in the world, as evidenced by the evil stepmothers, shapeshifters, ogres, and child-devouring witches found in old fairytales. Folklore was a source of great inspiration for my own Sticky Pines series, as were the popular American horror books of the 1990s. Growing up as a child attending school in California, my friends and I furtively passed around our prized copies of Goosebumps by R.L. Stine or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, a collection of nightmare-inducing tales as old as time.
Gawking and gagging at the wonderfully hideous illustrations by Stephen Gammell, we delighted in spooking each other silly. Why did we do it? As kids know quite well, there is something deeply empowering about facing your fears, torch in hand and heart aflutter, from the safety of your own bedroom.
Scary stories have evolved since their nascent days, and it now takes more than simple jump scares and dark omens to tickle a horror fan’s fancy. So, what makes a good modern thriller? The best have several qualities in common: immersive atmosphere, great characters, and sophisticated pacing.
The first challenge to creating a spooky tale is crafting the perfect setting. Your world must envelop the reader, evoking a sense of foreboding from all the senses: the creak of floorboards, the scent of fresh mud, or the dusty, claustrophobia of a room that hasn’t seen daylight in decades… A fabulous example is the Lockwood & Co series by Jonathan Stroud, set in a world where ghosts are real, dangerous, and terrorising the countryside. Stroud’s Britain is altered to fit this circumstance, with ghost-repelling lamps planted on every street corner and spook-busting businesses run by teenagers, as young people are the only ones who can clearly see the apparitions. A particularly evocative sequence appears in The Screaming Staircase, when the series’ protagonist Lucy slowly realises, through the creep of shadows and chill air, that there is a particularly nasty spectre lurking in her bedroom.
The next step is to populate your world with compelling characters. These are people you grow to know inside and out, whose lives and wellbeing you become as invested in as you would a dear friend. In Aisling Fowler’s Fireborn, Twelve is a young girl trained in the art of battling fearsome monsters. But despite her toughness, Twelve is plagued by anxieties and nightmares that she must overcome in order to defeat the creatures who have thrown her world into turmoil. When I wrote Sticky Pines, I wanted to create two protagonists who viewed life through opposing lenses, but who eventually had to come together for the greater good. Lucy Sladan is a working-class girl obsessed with proving the existence of the Unknown. Milo Fisher is a wealthy boy whose father may be up to no good but who unquestioningly believes in a rational world where adults have our best interests at heart. Through several monstrous trials, the two must overcome their differences to face down an existential threat to the human race.
And lastly, a good thriller is a total page-turner. Readers should be chewing their nails as they flip through each chapter, desperate to find out what misfortune befalls the main characters next, and how on earth they might find their way out of trouble. In Alastair Chisholm’s The Consequence Girl, Cora flees her home when she is pursued by nefarious government agents determined to use her amazing, dangerous powers to their ownadvantage. Cora and her friends travel from town to town across a post-apocalyptic landscape. At every turn, their pursuers are just a few steps behind, with high-tech weapons and eerie tracking tools at their disposal. Chisholm’s skillful storytelling, thought-provoking themes, and continual raising of stakes make it impossible to put this brilliant high-concept thriller down.
This is an exciting time for stories featuring action-packed, evocative, goosebump- inducing thrills. So, asthe nights grow longer and the cool air nips at your toes, grab your torch and blanket, stock up on pumpkin pie, and reach for your favourite spooky story. And don’t forget to turn oﬀ the lights!
Thank you, Dashe! You can order a copy of Sticky Pines: The Valley of the Strange from Waterstones here, Bookshop.org here, or from Amazon here.
Read the first few chapters below: