Ginger Nuts of Horror
by Tony Jones
Today we have the pleasure of having a long chat with YA horror writer Alex Bell who is the author of the successful chiller Frozen Charlotte, which in early September is joined by her fantastic prequel Charlotte Says. It’s been an exciting time for Alex as Frozen Charlotte has been highly visible (a rare honour for a horror novel!) in the WH Smith chain for a number of months now after being featured on the Zoella Book Club last year.
Alex Bell, welcome to the Ginger Nuts of Horror…
GNoH: Tell us how you ended up writing horror for kids and young teens and the YA horror Red Eye brand in particular?
Alex Bell: My agent had heard about the new Red Eye series and asked me if I’d be interested in submitting something for it. I’d always enjoyed reading horror, especially as a teenager, so I was keen to have a go at writing one of my own.
GNoH: Are you a full-time writer? Fantastic Fiction says you studied to be a lawyer “off and on”?
Alex Bell: I didn’t actually study to be a lawyer as such, but I did do a law degree at university. I also started the LPC, which is the professional qualification you need to become a solicitor, but I dropped out before completing it as I realised it definitely wasn’t something I wanted to do. I did write full time for a while but now I also work three days a week at the Citizens Advice Bureau. I really like the mix of writing and having a day job. Writing full time is too reclusive for me, even though I’m a total introvert.
GNoH: Did you read much horror or weird fiction as a kid? Who were your favourite authors when you were 13 or 14?
Alex Bell: I did read the Point Horror books when I was a teenager, but I read a lot of other stuff too. My favourite books were definitely the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. I was very unhappy at secondary school and these books were much-needed escapism for me. I also had a bit of a Charles Dickens phase around this age.
GNoH: I absolutely loved both Frozen Charlotte books. The idea that horrible miniature dolls come alive and blind children with tiny needles was very unpleasant and I imagine has readers looking under their beds. Did you have any direct inspiration for these creations? It’s obviously an area well covered in horror fiction, fairly recently for example with Susan Hill’s Dolly or Adam Nevill’s The House of Small Shadows. The latter I highly recommend if you haven’t read it...
Alex Bell: Frozen Charlotte dolls are actually real. They were popular during the Victorian and Edwardian era. I stumbled across them accidentally one day whilst doing research about dolls online. I loved the fact that they were supposed to be corpses and yet they were playthings for children. It’s so typical of the Victorian taste for the macabre. Also, I hadn’t come across them before so I thought it would be a nice twist on the scary doll theme which, like you say, has been covered many times before. I haven’t read either of the books you mention but am always looking for recommendations so will definitely look them up!
GNoH: The first Frozen Charlotte book has a phone App for an Ouija board and the prequel has séances, did you muck around with this sort of dodgy stuff as a kid?
Alex Bell: My friends and I went through a phase of making our own Ouija boards out of paper, but I don’t think we were ever brave enough to get them out at night. We mostly just used it to entertain ourselves at school during break time. I’m a bit of a wimp about stuff like this, actually, so I would be pretty wary about going near a real Ouija board.
GNoH: Sometimes I think prequels are often pretty redundant, however, that wasn’t the case with Charlotte Says, the 1910 backstory on the origins of the dolls was really convincing and it also reads as a terrific standalone novel. When you were writing Frozen Charlotte at what stage did you realise there was more to come, or did the publisher prod you for it?
Alex Bell: After Frozen Charlotte was published, quite a few readers emailed me saying they would have liked to know more about where the dolls came from, what made them evil, how they first came to be in the school house etc. So when my publisher asked if I’d be interested in writing a prequel I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore their origins a little more.
GNoH: You must surely be a horror film fan... What are your favourites? I think I read you were a Vincent Price fan? What’s the last horror film you watched at the cinema and when were you last truly scared watching a film?
Alex Bell: I just love horror films, although I scare really easily and tend to scream out loud whenever anything jumps out, which must be pretty irritating for anyone watching the film with me! The last horror film I saw at the cinema was A Cure For Wellness. It was terrifying in places, and I absolutely loved the setting of a remote sanatorium for a horror film. And, yes, I am partial to a Vincent Price schlock horror film, cheesy though they are.
GNoH: Do you read adult horror? Tell us about your favourites? Influences?
Yes, I do read adult horror. I love Stephen King, of course. Recently, though, I’ve really enjoyed Thin Air by Michelle Paver and also Rawblood by Catriona Ward. They were both incredibly atmospheric and understated. My all time favourite is probably The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
GNoH: Do you have any plans for an adult horror novel? Warning, Not many authors ‘mix’ kids and adult writing particularly well…..
Alex Bell: I’ve already written an adult horror novel, actually. I wrote it a few years ago but it’s one of the (many) unpublished manuscripts hidden away in my desk drawer. Perhaps I’ll get it out again one day.
GNoH: I’ve read all the Red Eye horror novels and a few of them remind me of the popular Point Horror brand from the 1980s and 1990s a little bit too much. I did find your Haunting novel to be one of the better ones. When you were writing or researching this particular at what stage did you decide the main character was confined to a wheel-chair?
Alex Bell: I actually really enjoyed Point Horror when I was a teenager! (Although some of the books were better than others). As for The Haunting, I always knew that Emma, the main character, was going to be in a wheelchair. That’s just the way she appeared inside my head.
GNoH: Tell us a little bit about your fantasy novels? They’re for younger children right?
Alex Bell: My first middle grade novel (8-12) is called The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club, and is going to be published this November. It’s about a group of junior explorers who get separated from the rest of their expedition in the snowy Icelands and have to face yetis and snow queens all by themselves.
GNoH: Adult horror readers, often of an older and more cynical age, sometimes comment that YA horror is a waste of time and kids should just make the natural job to adult horror without the teen stuff at all. What do you think? Don’t do yourself out of a job…
Alex Bell: I don’t agree. When I was a teenager I was happy to read adult fiction but I also sometimes wanted to read books where the protagonist was a similar age to myself. You can engage more with a character if they have some of the same problems and concerns that you do, and this is more likely if they’re the same kind of age. Plus, teenagers don’t have the same autonomy that adults do and are constrained, to some extent, by authority figures like parents, teachers etc. This is useful for horror because it means you can trap your characters in situations that they can’t easily escape from. A teenager with no job or money can’t just decide to leave the haunted house they’ve moved to, for example.
GNoH: Although I think YA horror does need an injection of new authors, there are most definitely some highly underrated teen horror writers out there. Two of my favourites are Amy Lukavics (The Woman in the Walls, Daughters Unto Devils) and Dawn Kurtagich (The Creeper Man, The Dead House) neither get much exposure or appear on teen prize short-lists but are putting out amazing stuff. Can you recommend us some good YA horror, either authors or specific titles? Are you connected with any reading/writing groups which benefits your own work?
Alex Bell: Jekyll’s Mirror by William Hussey is a wonderful horror book that focuses on cyber-bullying, whilst drawing some inspiration from the famous story by Robert Louis Stevenson.
I’m not part of a reading/writing group as such, but I do have a small group of authors who I am good friends with, and we meet up semi-regularly in London to share our experiences, talk books, drink booze and share the ups and downs of the writer’s life. It’s great to have that support and friendship, both when things are going well, and when they’re not.
GNoH: Do you have a particular daily routine for your writing?
Alex Bell: Not especially. I just try to make sure that I write at least 2,000 words if it’s a writing day. Normally I’ll get up and try to get started straight away, then have a break in the middle of the day to do some pilates or yoga before going back to work in the afternoon. But it does vary a bit.
GNoH: Moving away from horror for a moment, what else do you read?
Alex Bell: I read anything and everything! Adult, YA, middle grade. New books, classics. I love ‘em all.
GnoH: What or whom have been the biggest influences on your writing outside of horror?
Alex Bell: I think you’re influenced to some extent by all the writers that you read. But there are a few that I think are just phenomenal and even if I spent the rest of my life learning and improving, I would never be as good as these writers. Cassandra Clare, Dennis Lehane, John Boyne and Frances Hardinge all come under this category.
GNoH: If you could live in any fictional world where would you choose to live?
Alex Bell: It would have to be Harry Potter. Who doesn’t want to go to Hogwarts? I’d want to be put straight into Ravenclaw.
GNoH: What’s next for you? Do you intend to continue mixing up the genres?
Alex Bell: I have two dark fantasy novels coming from Stripes and three middle grade books from Faber over the next few years. After that, we’ll see. I’d definitely like to write more horror in the future, though.
GNoH: It’s been a pleasure chatting horror with you Alex. Ginger Nuts of Horror would like to wish you all the best of success for Charlotte Says and a speedy return to YA horror. I am also pleased to say that in the time taken to conduct and process this interview my twelve year old daughter has since read Frozen Charlotte and did so in two days without taking much of a breath…