Ginger Nuts of Horror
Interview by Tony Jones
Today we have the pleasure of having an indepth chat with YA horror writer Leo Hunt who has just released the final book in his supernatural trilogy which began with Thirteen days of Midnight which was first published in 2015. Before we introduce Leo here’s a very brief recap on this terrific trilogy
Leo Hunt graduated from UEA in 2014 with a First in Creative Writing and American Literature. He is now a full-time writer. His first novel, Thirteen Days of Midnight, was published in summer 2015 and shortlisted for the Waterstone's Children's Prize 2016.
Thirteen days of Midnight is about Sixteen year old Luke who inherits a lot of money from his estranged father ( a relatively well known celebrity magician) without realising there are some very nasty consequences to claiming the cash. Always read the small print when you sign a contract.... He soon discovers his father was really a powerful necromancer who had the power to control ghosts and use them as slaves. Luke is now the unlucky ‘Daddy’ to these ghosts, who really don’t like him and will do anything to break free and create havoc.... The interconnected trilogy expertly blends strong supernatural storylines with teenage angst, girl-trouble and small-town life. Luke realises it’s tough fighting for your life when your GCSEs are just around the corner! Luke really grows as the trilogy develops, but little does he know before long he will have to do battle with The Devil himself....
GnoH: Welcome Leo. It’s a pleasure to discuss horror with you. The blurb on your novels states that you started writing horror fiction when you were a university student. Tell us how it all began?
Leo Hunt: I was 19 and I’d just started a course in American Literature and Creative Writing at UEA. We were doing short pieces of prose fiction for the Creative Writing classes but the tutors encouraged everyone to write longer projects outside of class time. Thirteen Days of Midnight was mine. I wrote the scene where Luke gets a letter from his father’s lawyer and it flowed from there. The first book went through roughly four years of revisions, but that’s where it all starts. I lived near to the university library so on nights where nothing was going on I’d walk over there and sit up writing. I really miss doing that.
GNoH: When you were studying Literature at University of East Anglia did you cover horror or weird fiction at all? I’ve found these types of courses pretty snobbish about genre fiction myself…..
Leo Hunt: I can’t say we did; the course was focused on the historical canon of American novels, and in my final year I studied contemporary fiction that related to the War on Terror and the W. Bush presidency. I’m not sure that I encountered much overt genre snobbery, but no, Stephen King isn’t on the undergraduate American Literature syllabus. I did study Science Fiction novels while on my year abroad and I think genre writing has a lot to offer academically as long as you approach it as a scholar rather than a fan.
GNoH: Did you read much horror or weird fiction as a kid? Who were your favourite authors when you were 13 or 14?
Leo Hunt: Absolutely. I was obsessed. In fact the idea of writing a YA horror was natural to me because of how keen I was on the genre at that age. I was really writing the Luke Manchett books for myself as a younger teenager. I was very keen on Stephen King, Lovecraft, some Peter Straub stuff. I also loved the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix, which is sort of fantasy/horror for YA readers.
GNoH: Which kid’s horror or other genre authors do you like to read? Ginger Nuts mainly focuses on adult stuff but we love teen stuff also….
Leo Hunt: My favourite YA horror novel is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which if people aren’t familiar is the story of a young girl who discovers another, darkly mirrored version of her house hidden beyond a strange door. The other house is ruled over by her Other Mother, as terrifying a character as exists in children’s fiction.
GNoH: Do you think many kids will realise that your trilogy is a riff on one of the oldest and most famous supernatural stories, that of selling your soul, or being tricked, to the Devil?
Leo Hunt: I hope some of them do! I suppose the thing about the Devil that I find interesting in folk tales is how active and present he is. God feels quite remote. He does speak to people of course, but He doesn’t roam around the landscape the same way the Devil does. Every village in England seems to have a rock the Devil rolled there or a field he ploughed as part of a wager or something of that nature. There’s this real sense in the old folk stories that he’s abroad in the world and could be right at your shoulder if you did the wrong thing. He could be waiting to meet you at any crossroads. I wanted Luke’s world to feel that way too.
GNoH: The idea of ‘inheriting’ ghosts, as an initial premise, was a really good one. Was that a useful pitch in getting the novel picked up for publication?
Leo Hunt: It definitely helps to have a ‘hook’ for the story, a short description that will get people interested. I think the idea of inheriting a ghost collection is the hook for my story, and I’m certain that would’ve helped interest publishers.
GNoH: Luke Manchett is a pretty engaging main character, a pretty normal teenage boy. Was there something of you in him? He goes through a lot in two years…..
Leo Hunt: In the sense there’s something of yourself in every character you write then definitely. Luke’s a lot more confident and athletic than me. I felt like it was more interesting if he started the novel as an insider and was then drawn into this dark outside world. Elza Moss is the character I gave my actual hobbies and interests.
GNoH: I thought the trilogy would lend itself well to cinema, has there been any interest? I think different aspects of the books compressed into one film might work well?
Leo Hunt: I think so too, in fact my dream would be for the rights to be picked up by an online video streaming service like Netflix. You get less budget in TV but a longer screen time for character to develop. Unfortunately, although the series has been moderately successful sales-wise, I don’t think I’m at the level where you get approached with these kind of deals. I suppose it depends whose eye your work can catch.
GNoH: Kids are increasingly living in an online world and many no longer seem to be scared or intrigued by the world of ghosts and cursed books. But the supernatural world you have created is very well drawn and vivid. Where did your initial idea for a teenage Necromancer originate?
Leo Hunt: Various places, it’s hard to thread together exactly how it happened. I was in a nightclub in my hometown and imagined what would happen if I saw someone in the crowd I knew was supposed to be dead. That was the flashpoint. Of course in the end when Luke does go into the nightclub he’s the one that’s a spirit, but you change things up as you draft. The teenage necromancer thing also comes from stuff like Buffy and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but I tried to meld that teen paranormal genre with stuff that’s a little bit creepier to me. Stone circles and blood magic. Just enough so the spirit world feels genuinely threatening, I hope.
GNoH: You must be a horror film fan. What are your favourites? I noticed the sneaky “Herbert West Scholarship” in book 3, a reference to “Reanimator” if ever I saw one…..
Leo Hunt: I actually somehow haven’t seen the film Reanimator, Elza’s scholarship was a small reference to the original short story. I did enjoy Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond which is another of his Lovecraft adaptations. Very funny and gory, some great practical monster effects. I’d say I really love some of the classics like Alien, The Thing, Rosemary’s Baby, The Blair Witch Project, and so on. There’s been this wave of arty indie horror recently that I’ve adored as well, films like It Follows, The Babadook, The Invitation, The Witch. I was blown away by The Witch; I saw it three times in the cinema. The idea I talked about earlier, how in folk tales the Devil is present in the world, in the forest around you, is captured in that film perfectly.
GNoH: Do you read adult horror? Tell us about your favourites.
Leo Hunt: I recently read The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, which is fantastic folk horror story in the vein of The Wicker Man. I’ve also discovered the work of Thomas Ligotti this year thanks to his early books being reprinted by Penguin Classics. Shirley Jackson writes terrifying fiction. Perhaps my all time favourite ghost story, which I can’t talk about Luke’s story without mentioning, is Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel. The protagonist is an overweight psychic medium living in a rootless Blair-era Middle England town who’s something of an inspiration for Luke’s father. It’s fantastic work, if not quite conventional horror.
GNoH: Do you have any plans for an adult horror novel? Warning, Not many authors do kids and adult well…..
Leo Hunt: I can’t say that I do. I think if I ever wrote horror for adult audiences it would be a film script. I did have this idea about a Silicon Valley type tech innovator who creates this device that prevents him from having to sleep, so he can spend 24 hours a day being innovative and coding and such. Unfortunately after a few weeks of this he starts seeing the ‘real’ world around him and the nightmare consciousnesses that reside beyond the veil. Something along those lines.
GNoH: The dodgy and dangerous “Book of Eight” Luke inherits from his father almost threads the three novels together. What was your thinking here? There are lots of powerful books in classic horror fiction….
Leo Hunt: The Book of Eight has some pretty clear fictional ancestors: there’s Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, of course, which is the archetypal evil book. Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books have their own Book of the Dead, which also has a green leather cover and can alter its contents. The other big influence is Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Book of Sand, which isn’t strictly horror, but concerns a rare book dealer who obtains an otherworldly volume with an infinite number of pages. It’s written in a language he can’t decipher, but he becomes addicted to the tome and loses years of his life flipping through page after page.
GNoH: The location of the novel Dunbarrow is made up right? As are the surrounding towns mentioned? Why did you choose to do this?
Leo Hunt: Dunbarrow, along with Brackford, is an invented place. Dunbarrow is a mixture of Morpeth and Rothbury, the two towns where I grew up in Northumberland. Brackford is a version of Newcastle upon Tyne. As for why I did this, it’s mainly so I can play fast and loose with geography. There is no stone circle in the woods near Morpeth, but in Dunbarrow I get to have whatever I like. I also enjoy coming up with place and street names.
GNoH: Book one flows well into book two with only five months separating the plots. Did you always intend a sequel and was it sold to the publisher as a trilogy?
Leo Hunt: No, the first book was supposed to stand alone. I like open endings. The trilogy thing was my publisher’s idea, but I have to say I’ve found the world that got set up in the first book had more than enough going on to sustain further Luke stories. I’m glad you think it flows well because that was completely improvised.
GNoH: The location the ‘Devil’s Footsteps’ is important in the books. Were you aware that this was a VERY cool kid’s horror novel by a reclusive writer called EE Richardson who has disappeared from the scene somewhat? If you haven’t read it, you really should…..
Leo Hunt: I didn’t know this, mine was inspired by a river bend in Northumberland known as the Devil’s Elbow. I’m interested in this reclusive writer and their children’s horror novel now.
GNoH: Was your version of The Devil inspired by any other literary or cinematic creation? He reminded me of a cross between De Niro in “Angel Heart” and Pacino in “The Devil’s Advocate”….
Leo Hunt: I actually haven’t seen either of those movies, but maybe my idea of the Devil being a lawyer comes from there. It’s quite difficult to track down where some of these tropes begin. I suppose I just felt like the Devil needed to be this handsome figure with enormous charisma. When I physically describe Mr Berkley I’m actually describing a photograph of a bearded George Clooney. Of course this charming lawyer persona is just his mask, and if you read the whole trilogy you’ll discover his inhuman, monstrous side in the later books.
GNoH: Personally I think YA horror in the UK is really in the doldrums, apart from William Hussey and a few others, there doesn’t seem to be much new stuff around. What do you think? Is there a renaissance around the corner?
Leo Hunt: I don’t read a great deal of YA so I’ll have to defer to your judgement on this one. If there is a lack of YA horror fiction, it might be because teenagers who like the genre have plenty of adult horror fiction to read which is perfectly accessible in terms of how it’s written. I know when I was 15 I mostly read adult horror novels. They’re more gory than I’m allowed to be and they often have lots of sex in them as well, which is a pretty appealing prospect at that age. If there’s a dearth of new material that might be part of the problem. That said, I think genres can always experience revivals, although I have to admit I’m moving away from horror myself with my new work, so if there is a YA horror renaissance coming to the UK I probably won’t be part of it.
GNoH: Do you have a particular daily routine for your writing?
Leo Hunt: I wish! I’m incredibly lazy and disorganised. The writing happens when it happens. I give aspiring authors lectures about self discipline and hard work and it’s really me I’m talking to. I don’t take my own advice.
GNoH: Have the novels seen any success abroad?
Leo Hunt: They’ve been published in foreign editions in America, Germany, Portugal, and Thailand. I don’t know that they’ve had any significant sales in those countries; that said, having an international reach is very humbling even if it’s a small one. I’ve had letters from young readers in places like the Philippines, Hong Kong, and South Africa, all of which seem like another planet compared to rainy old Northumberland where I set these books.
GNoH: What or whom have been the biggest influences on your writing outside of horror?
Novelist and editor Sol Stein wrote a book called Stein on Writing, which was a huge influence for me as I turned 18 and started getting more serious about storytelling and crafting prose. He taught me how to look for ‘bad’ writing and what to catch in your own paragraphs. He has his own prejudices and of course art is subjective but I think that book gave me a solid grounding in how to edit my own work and know what to cut.
GNoH: If you could erase one YA literature cliché what would it be?
Leo Hunt: The love triangle. We all know which one the protagonist will end up with. And I don’t think you should resolve that kind of plot line by having the werewolf character fall in love with a newborn baby, while we’re on the subject.
GNoH: If you were to branch your horror fiction into other areas are there any subjects you would never write about? Some of the most controversial teen novels such as Kevin Brooks “The Bunker Diaries” look at everyday horror, rather than supernatural fiction….
What would I never write about? That’s a great question. One horror film that I saw recently and loved but could never have written was Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which got a huge amount of attention, but in case anyone isn’t familiar with the film, it’s about a young African American man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time and slowly realising there’s something really wrong with her family. So a topic like that, the horror that comes from insidious white supremacism in your society, I don’t think I’m well equipped to speak on, because personally I don’t experience that horror, I can only imagine it. I don’t mean to say I would never write about racism, but I couldn’t tackle the subject in comedic horror fiction the way Peele was able to.
GNoH: What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
Leo Hunt: He’s not an author but I often think about something the cartoonist Gary Panter said: “If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!”
To me what he’s saying that it’s impossible to escape having creative influences, so what you need to be doing is casting your net as wide as possible, taking ideas from all over the place, in order to create something that will strike people as feeling fresh or unexpected. Try to experience and engage with as much art as you can and incorporate that into your own work.
GNoH: The blurbs of your books compare you to Tom Hoyle and Derek Landy. Who would YOU compare yourself to?
Leo Hunt: Tough one. I want to say Neil Gaiman. He’s a hundred times more successful than I’ll likely ever be, but I think we have a shared interest in myth and the earliest forms of storytelling. He does this uneasy blend of the mundane world and the supernatural that I’ve tried to draw from.
GNoH: What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
Leo Hunt: I just finished Rick Perelstein’s book Nixonland, which is an exhaustive document of the political turbulence of the 1960s and Richard Nixon’s rise to power. Very impressed with that. Nixon’s not a figure I knew an enormous amount about besides Watergate, and I think Perelstein’s writing about the formation of modern American conservatism is really important in understanding where we’re at in 2017.
I’m much more comfortable talking about work I enjoyed than work I didn’t, but I have to say I was pretty disappointed last year by Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Purity. It just did not work for me in any way. He’s very good at depicting contemporary American culture, but then he sets large parts of the novel in 1980s communist Germany and none of it feels real.
GNoH: If you could kill off any character from any other book (not your own) who would you chose and how would they die?
Leo Hunt: I’m going to shoot Humbert Humbert execution style in the back of the head before that book even starts in the hope that Dolores has a happy life without him around. I’m sure he would plead for his life very eloquently before I dumped him in an unmarked grave.
GNoH: If you could live in any fictional world where would you choose to live?
Leo Hunt: I’m very into the videogame Overwatch, which has a bright and cheerful utopian science-fiction aesthetic, something that’s relatively rare in the genre these days. So if we’re opening up a portal to any fictional world I want to go there.
GNoH: What’s next for you? It’s been billed as a trilogy, but the ending was left open for Luke to return? Please don’t drag this trilogy into a tedious never-ending ‘Skulduggery Pleasant’ style series….
Leo Hunt: I haven’t read Skulduggery Pleasant so I can’t speak to that series but it does bother me when creators won’t call time on a story that’s run its course; although if a series is successful and you’re making a living from it then I understand the pressure not to do so. But yes, most narrative spaces have a limited amount of juice in them. I think there was enough juice in Thirteen Days of Midnight to warrant the two sequels; characters I really like such as Ash and Darren, or events like the journey through Deadside in the second book, would never have existed if my publisher hadn't pushed for a bit more from this world. But at the same time you have to know when to say goodbye and I think Luke’s story is over now. Everything that needed to happen has happened. Luke and Elza might be travelling on to something new but we won’t be going with them.
What’s next for me will be another YA novel, although it’s going to be cyberpunk rather than supernatural horror. I’m leaving the stone circles and ancient tomes behind and drawing from material like Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell. I’m grappling with a first draft of this novel as we speak. It’s a big change of setting with a narrator who's a very different person to Luke. She’s a lot less sarcastic and jokey; I suppose with the world being how it is, I haven’t been feeling as comedic this year.
A thrilling supernatural adventure: dark, funny, with twists at every turn. Shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Prize 2016.
When Luke Manchett's estranged father dies suddenly, he leaves his son a dark inheritance. Luke has been left in charge of his father's ghost collection: eight restless spirits. They want revenge for their long enslavement, and in the absence of the father, they're more than happy to take his son. It isn't fair, but you try and reason with the vengeful dead.
Halloween, the night when the ghosts reach the height of their power, is fast approaching. With the help of school witchlet Elza Moss, and his cowardly dog Ham, Luke has just thirteen days to uncover the closely guarded secrets of black magic, and send the unquiet spirits to their eternal rest. The alternative doesn't bear thinking about.