Sunday, 29 April 2012

Review: Simon Bestwick, The Faceless (Solaris, 2012)

The Faceless is a new horror novel by Simon Bestwick, and published by Solaris. Set (mostly) in the Lancashire town on Kempforth, it tells the story of the investigation into a series of missing person cases, and the apparent appearance of the local bogeymen, ‘the Spindly Men’, previously only known as a nursery tale used to scare children. The blurb on the back of the cover promises that it will be ‘a breath-taking tale of the supernatural’.

I must admit, I was a little worried about reading this book and writing a review. Simon Bestwick was one of the writers I contacted in my role as Project Co-ordinator for Hic Dragones, and, as a result, he took part in the Manchester Monster Convention that my company organized. Simon was a great guest speaker – funny, engaging and supportive – and his novel, The Faceless, sounded so fascinating, so I was just a little bit nervous… what if the book was disappointing and I ended up having to write a bad review? That would have been awful!

Fortunately, and I’ll say this upfront, my worries were completely unfounded. The Faceless is well-written, compelling and utterly creepy.

Although the missing persons investigation is an important part of the plot, this is not a police procedural story. Sure, as detectives Joan Renwick and Mike Stakowski (and the rest of their team) begin their search for four people who don’t seem to have much in common – except that the ‘Spindly Men’ were sighted around the time each one disappeared – there are moments that will be recognizable from other crime fiction: the team don’t always trust Renwick’s methods; there’s pressure from a boss desperate for ‘results’; the lead detectives are haunted by the demons of their own pasts. However, Bestwick’s detectives (particularly Renwick and Stakowski) are three-dimensional and sympathetic – much more than simply generic stereotypes.

In addition to this, the police investigation is only one aspect of the story. It is intertwined with two other plotlines. The first involves Anna Mason, her brother Martyn and his child Mary. Anna is a local historian who has moved back to Kempforth to be with her family. Early on in the book, Martyn (recovering from a breakdown) has experienced a serious trauma, and Anna is trying to help him cope. After an early confrontation with the ‘Spindly Men’, Anna and Martyn become dragged into the horror that is beginning to engulf Kempforth.

At the same, celebrity psychic Allen Cowell is called by his apparent ‘spirit guides’ to return to his home town and assist the police investigate the disappearances. Allen and his sister, Vera, escaped their brutal childhood in Kempforth years earlier, and had vowed never to return. However, in order to escape his own personal ghosts, Allen must do as his guides instruct and head back to, as Vera puts it, ‘the bastard North’. I wasn’t expecting to find Allen and Vera particularly interesting – as, on face value, a celebrity psychic involved in a police investigation doesn’t seem to be anything too new – but Vera was, probably, my favourite character of the entire novel. The bleakness of the pair’s lives, and the brutality of their history, was really gripping.

These three main storylines weave around one another, before eventually coming together, as Renwick and Stakowski, Anna and Martyn, and Allen and Vera must team up to work out what exactly is going on. Again, while this might seem like a bit of a cliché, there is a fresh and engaging quality to the way Bestwick constructs it. A lot of this is a result of his ability to create real and believable characters. There are no cardboard cut-outs in this book.

That said, The Faceless is a horror novel. And while my own preference might be for horror that is driven by compelling and well-rounded characters, some of you might be wondering when I’m going to actually say something about the dark stuff…

In this respect as well, Bestwick’s novel does not disappoint. I must admit, I was somewhat skeptical about the return of childhood demons as actually figures of horror – I’ve read that in other books, so was not sure whether the ‘Spindly Men’ could go where other nursery rhyme monsters have not gone before. In fact, these are not the real vehicle of horror. Although they are truly creepy creations, they are far from being the most horrific things the protagonists must face. Readers, like the characters in the novel, might initially blame the deaths and disappearances on these supernatural beings, but the truth (as it is slowly revealed) is much, much more disturbing.

As the novel progresses, the cruelty and brutality (some might say ‘evil’) that runs through Kempforth’s history begins to come to light. As Anna Mason’s historical research is added to Allen’s visions and the detectives’ investigations, the extent of the dangers becomes apparent and the protagonists’ search for answers leads them inextricably to the long-since abandoned hospital at Ash Fell. This hospital is at once a grotesque and a chilling creation. Like all good horror locations, Ash Fell has its ‘real life’ historical basis, but it is taken to its ultimate and terrible conclusion. Perhaps, again, this my own personal preference, but it was the historical basis for Ash Fell that chilled me the most, and it was this that lingered with me after I’d finished reading the book. I won’t say any more, plot-wise, as this book has a lot of twists and I don’t want to stumble into spoiler territory – suffice to say, a lot of things are not what they seem.

There is a lot of plot of in The Faceless, but this is not a bad thing. The main strengths of Bestwick’s writing, for me, lie in his constructions of people and place. (As I said, my own preference is for books where I am genuinely rooting for the characters, but I also like to feel immersed in the ‘world’ of the book.) However, I would say that Bestwick has also created a story that is original and memorable, and it unfolds at just the right pace. His version of ‘ghosts’ and ‘hauntings’ is also unusual, and unlike much recent horror and supernatural fiction.

Overall, I highly recommend The Faceless, as one of the best UK horror novels I have read recently. I always slightly distrust reviews of horror where the writer claims to have been left scared after finishing the book, so I won’t say that. I will say, though, that The Faceless left me distinctly unsettled and disturbed. And what more could you ask from a piece of horror fiction?

Friday, 27 April 2012

OUT NOW: Journal of Monsters and the Monstrous, Vol. 1, No. 2 (September 2011)


Freeing Woman from Truth and the Unknown: Using Kahlo and Irigaray to Liberate Woman from Haggard's She - Cameron Ellis

The Monstrification of the Monster: How Ceauşescu Became the Red Vampire - Peter Mario Kreuter

Monster as Victim, Victim as Monster: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Redemptive Suffering and the 'Undead' - Sarah Malik Bell

Digging Our Own Grave: Monster Trucks and America - Callie Clare

Monstrous Literature: The Case of Dacre Stoker's Dracula the Undead - Hannah Priest

Film Reviews:

The Dreamers of Dreams: Inception - Sarah Juliet Lauro

The Status is Not Quo: Reflections on Villains as Heroes in Despicable Me (2010), Megamind (2010) and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008) - Harvey O'Brien

Thirst - Colette Balmain

Book Reviews:

Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast - Lance Eaton

Monsters or Martyrs? A Review of Blood That Cries Out From the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism - John Donovan

Umwege in die Vergangenheit: Star Trek und die griechisch-römische Antike [Detours to the Past: Star Trek and the Greek-Roman Antiquity] - Peter Mario Kreuter

The Victorians and Old Age - C. Riley Augé

In a Glass Darkly - Lee Baxter

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - Lee Baxter

Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film - Colette Balmain

For more information, or for subscriptions, please click here.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Review: Naomi Clark, Dark Hunt (Queered Fiction, 2011)

Dark Hunt is the sequel to Naomi Clark’s first werewolf novel, Silver Kiss, which you may remember I reviewed on this site in October 2010, and the third instalment of her Urban Wolf series (which began with a short story published in the Queer Wolf anthology in 2009. Silver Kiss is an urban fantasy, telling the story of werewolf Ayla and her human girlfriend Shannon, who must deal with pack politics, a sinister drug being sold to young lycanthropes, a missing teenager, and, of course, the strain that all of this puts on Ayla and Shannon’s relationship.

This follow-up picks up where Silver Kiss left off. To recover from the horrors they have faced, Ayla and Shannon travel to Paris for a romantic holiday. Things don’t go to plan, however, as they soon find that there is a brutal creature (known as “Le Monstre”) stalking the Parisian streets. Is it a rogue werewolf? A human? Or something else altogether?

In my review of Silver Kiss, I said that one of the real strengths of Clark’s writing is her creation of a believable world in which werewolves live alongside human beings (though not always completely comfortably). This is developed further in Dark Hunt. What I particularly liked was that, on arrival in France, Ayla and Shannon discover that the status of werewolves in Paris is subtly different to that in the UK. The relationship between werewolves and humans is not quite the same as they were expecting. This puts a nice lycanthropic spin on the ‘tourist abroad’, as Ayla must not only deal with not understanding the language, but must also quickly learn what werewolf behaviour is acceptable in this new city. As with Clark’s first novel, once you buy into the premise that werewolves exist, the world-building is consistent and plausible.

Another strength I commented on in my previous review was Clark’s creation of character. The presentation of Ayla and Shannon’s relationship was certainly one of the most compelling aspects of Silver Kiss, and this is developed even further in Dark Hunt. I find myself genuinely caring about Clark’s protagonists – I’m happy when things go well for them, and I sigh in frustration at their misunderstandings and miscommunications. For me, this is a very important part of a novel, and a lot of fantasy writers often sideline it in favour of world-building and plot. Whether or not she is a werewolf, Ayla is a well-rounded and three-dimensional character, and this really drives the novel’s story.

Dark Hunt also features an interesting supporting cast. It’s really good to see so many variations on the female werewolf in one novel. Early on, we are introduced to the heavily-pregnant werewolf Sun, who has left her pack (and the father of her unborn “cub”) in order to pursue a relationship with a human. In many ways, Sun’s story mirrors Ayla’s own, but she has chosen a different path. A werewolf’s relationship to her pack is a complex thing, and there are different ways to negotiate this. In later chapters, we meet Clémence and Thérèse, who (like Ayla and Shannon) are trying to deal with coming out as a couple as much as with their lycanthropy. Again, while their story (in some ways) mirrors that of the protagonists, they have chosen a different path.

That said, Dark Hunt is not simply a book about (wolf)women and their relationships. It is a thriller, and the hunt for “Le Monstre” is the main ‘meat’ of the story. As in Silver Kiss, Clark creates a mystery, throws her protagonists into it and has them try to survive and solves it. Again, as in the first novel, this means that Ayla and Shannon will have to face violence from both supernatural beings and angry and confused human beings. There is a puzzle that they must solve, and the answer to this shocks the protagonists as much as it will surprise the readers.

However, though I did enjoy Dark Hunt a lot, I didn’t find the storyline quite as compelling as that of Silver Kiss. I don’t want to say too much about what is responsible for the “Le Monstre” attacks, as I don’t want to give away the plot and its twists. I will say that I found it a really interesting and unusual take on a classic paranormal trope. But the overall story arc wasn’t as strong as that in Clark’s earlier novel. Much more attention was given to the ways in which the women dealt with what was going on, and the impact the attacks had on their everyday lives. While this was enjoyable, I did feel more could be have been made of the ‘scary monster stalking the streets’ story.

The fallout from the final showdown was, perhaps, the weakest part of the novel, and the ending seems rather abrupt. After a great climactic battle, the storyline seemed to be resolved so hastily that I was left almost expecting there to be more still to come. This was a shame, as the rest of the book was very gripping.

Nevertheless, it seems that there is more to come from Ayla and Shannon, and the (somewhat abrupt) ending does definitely leave room for a third instalment of the series. I certainly hope this is the case, as I’m very taken with Clark’s werewolves.
Dark Hunt also includes some bonus material – a short story entitled “A Wolf in Girl’s Clothing”, which tells the story of Ayla and Shannon’s first meeting, and a “sample chapter” from Desire by Moonlight, the “pulp novel of a werewolf assassin who takes out vampires for the government” (the “trashy novel” Ayla is reading throughout Dark Hunt). The former is a really nice addition to the series, and was definitely a “bonus” for me. The latter, though intended to be a parody, was actually completely believable! I have read my share of that type of urban fantasy, and, in fact, Desire by Moonlight was much better written than a lot I have read. But coming at the end of the second novel, it seems all the more silly and over-the-top, as it just doesn’t fit with the world of werewolves created in Silver Kiss and Dark Hunt.

So, overall, I recommend Dark Hunt, as a well-written and plausible story of female werewolves (and humans) who are much more than simply lycanthropic. If you enjoyed Silver Kiss, then you should certainly give the sequel a go. If you haven’t yet read any of Clark’s work, then I politely suggest you start.

Click here to read my review of Silver Kiss.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Grimmfest's Zombie Night - Friday 27th April

Grimm Up North Presents...

A trio of unrelenting zombie films for you to get your teeth into.

Venue: The Dancehouse
Tickets: £8.00
Start Time: 7.30pm
Cheap bar: Bottle beer from £1.50 per bottle!

It's gonna be a blast! Fancy dress (optional), beer from £1.50 per bottle, late night bar, three great zombie flicks (two premieres and one HD remastered classic) on the big screen. What more could any self respecting horror fan want?

Juan of The Dead (Pre-Release Screening): Official media refer to the attacks as isolated incidents provoked by Cuban dissidents paid by the US government. Little by little Juan and his friends start to realize that the attackers are not normal human beings and that killing them is quite a difficult task. They’re not vampires, they’re not possessed, but they’re definitely not dissidents; a simple bite turns the victim into other violent killing machine and the only way to beat them is destroying their brains…

War of The Dead (Northwest Premiere): A platoon of American and Finnish soldiers is driven deep into a Russian forest where its Captain discovers a terrifying secret.

The Return of the Living Dead (Remastered): In this genre defining classic, , three men and a gang of punks must do what they can to quell the threat that the now undead pose to an unsuspecting town., after the accidental release of chemicals that bring the dead back to life.

For more information, or to book tickets, go to the Grimm Up North website.

CFP: Medievalism Transformed: Putting Women in their Place(s)?

Constructions of Femininity in the Middle Ages

Postgraduate Conference
Bangor University
8-9 June 2012

Keynote Speakers:

Dr. Carol M Meale (University of Bristol)
Dr. Susan M. Johns (Bangor University)
Dr. Mari Hughes-Edwards (Edge Hill University)
Dr. Sue Niebrzydowski (Bangor University

Call for Papers:

The eighth annual Bangor University Medievalism Transformed Conference will be held 8-9 June, 2012. This is an interdisciplinary postgraduate conference and we warmly invite papers on women in the medieval period from graduate students working in literature, art, medicine, music, theology, archaeology and history; other subjects will also be considered.

Suggested topics are as follows, but are not limited to:

• Traditions and settings of women’s writing and reading practices
• Gender and place
• Construction of gendered spaces
• Relationships between verbal and visual artifacts
• Women’s use of devotional images
• Gendered architecture/architectural spaces

Please send a 250-300 word abstract to the conference convenors by 18 May 2012. Papers will be of 20 minutes duration with an additional 5 minutes for questions. In addition to your abstract, please include a short (no longer than 50 words) paragraph describing your area of study, institution and contact details.

Medievalism Transformed Conference
c/o School of English,
Bangor University,
Gwynedd LL57 2DG

This event is supported by the Centre for Medieval Studies, Bangor University and the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS – Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities)

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Monster High vs. Sweet Valley High

A while ago, I wrote a post on Mattel’s range of ‘Monster High’ dolls, particularly on their female werewolf, Clawdeen. Not long afterwards, I picked up a copy on Lisi Harrison’s first Monster High novel to see if Clawdeen shaped up any differently in print than in plastic. Like the toy range, Harrison’s novel is aimed at the ‘tween’ market – specifically pre-teen girls – which made me think back to what I used to read when I was a pre-teen girl myself. Some people may be surprised by this, but I actually devoted quite a scary amount of my ‘tween’ years to working my way through Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series. (For those of you who either don’t remember, or don’t want to remember, this series, the Sweet Valley High books were about identical twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, from California, who had to deal with all the usual high school problems of growing up, falling in love, being ridiculously rich and beautiful, and coping with jealousy from people marginally less rich and beautiful than themselves.)

Reading the Monster High novel stirred a distant memory of a werewolf-themed Sweet Valley High mini-series. I got rid of all my Sweet Valley High books when my tastes turned to more blood-thirsty fare, but I seemed to remember keeping hold of one of the werewolf books (A Date With a Werewolf)… obviously knowing where my future career would lead me. Sure enough, I managed to dig it out (along with a whole load of other books from my pre-teen/teen years that I don’t think I’ll mention here).

So, I thought it would be kind of interesting to compare Monster High and Sweet Valley High’s take on werewolves, and to see if anything has changed in the world of tween lycanthropes in the last two decades.

Monster High

Harrison’s novel, in a wonderfully late-capitalist way, is an adaptation of a toy range. While the Monster High dolls are simply ‘characters’ with profiles, outfits and accessories, the book seeks to offer some backstory and ‘depth’ to their presentation. The story takes place in Salem, Oregon, where monsters (or RADs – Regular Attribute Dodgers – as they call themselves) have taken refuge, believing a) they are in Salem, Massachusetts and b) Salem, Massachusetts is a safe haven for monsters, given that a lot of witches live there happily. I’ll just leave that odd logic to one side for now, as Harrison does in the novel.

The story follows the parallel experiences of two new girls at Merston High. The first is Melody Carver, a human (or ‘normie’ as the monsters call them) girl who has experienced bullying due to her physical appearance at her old school. Her father, a plastic surgeon, has ‘corrected’ her face, leaving Melody feeling hollow as people now only like her because she is pretty. Her airheaded and materialistic sister, Candace, ignores any sign of Melody being bullied, calls her by the name (‘Smellody’) her bullies have used, and seems only to care about designer labels and expensive accessories. The second new girl at the school is Frankie Stein, the newly-created and green-skinned ‘daughter’ of Viktor and Viveka Stein, and granddaughter of ‘Dr. Viktor Frankenstein’ (a weird amalgam of the creator and the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel, viewed through the lens of subsequent films and Hallowe’en costumes). Though Frankie has had 15 years of memories and knowledge placed into her head – including, apparently, literature, art, culture, science and history – she is an extraordinarily shallow creation, who is absolutely obsessed with fashion and celebrity. Both Frankie and Melody are desperate to make friends at their new school, but both encounter problems with ‘fitting in’.

On her first day at Merston High, and in a scene which should be familiar to anyone who has seen any films about high school girls, Melody bumps into one of the popular girls and is humiliated in front of the entire cafeteria. The difference here, though, is that the girl she gets on the wrong side of is Cleo (a mummy), who is accompanied by Claudine (a werewolf). Melody is consistently snubbed and mocked by Cleo and Claudine, and also by Blue (a mermaid) and Lala (Draculaura, a vampire). The only friends she can make are a couple of rather odd human girls, who have also been slighted by Cleo and are out for revenge. Frankie, on the other hand, is immediately accepted by Blue and Lala, who introduce her to Cleo and Claudine, and soon the girls are all heading off to an expensive spa for the day. They admit later that they all suspected she was a monster, even before this fact was confirmed. Despite its tagline of ‘Fitting in is out’, the message of the book seems fairly clear: in a world where the popular girls are all monsters, you’re nothing without monstrosity. In fact, Melody’s experience at Merston High seems to suggest that the monsters are just as superficial, cliquey and bitchy as the girls she has left behind in Beverly Hills – only the criteria for acceptance have changed.

But what of the werewolf (since Clawdeen/Claudine was the creature that sparked my interest in the first place)?

The first description of Claudine reads as follows:
Two attractive alternative girls, consumed by their own conversation, tried to squeeze past them. The Shakira-looking one, who had auburn curls and a tray stacked with Kobe beef sliders, made it by Jackson. […] ‘Untrue!’ barked the girl with the sliders. […] The barker wore purple leggings and a black bomber jacket lined in fur the same color as her hair. (pp. 54-5)

The second:
Claudine turned away from the window. “Hey,” she said, tearing open a bag of organic turkey jerky. Her looks – yellowish-brown eyes, a mess of auburn curls, long manicured fingernails painted bronze – were just as striking as Cleo’s but in a more wild, feral way. Her style, however, seemed tamer: all-American with a touch of old-world Hollywood glamour. (p. 83)

It should be remembered, at this point, that Harrison has not actually revealed that Claudine is a werewolf. In fact, apart from Frankie, we’re not yet sure that any of the other characters are ‘RADs’. However, there are a good few clues as to Claudine’s nature here. She is often seen eating meat, unlike the rest of the characters who are remarkably picky about food (Lala is a vegan, and the school cafeteria is divided up into coloured ‘zones’ for people with restricted diets). Not only that, but she eats larger quantities of meat, and eats them impatiently: her tray is ‘stacked’ with beef sliders and she tears into the bag of jerky. Perhaps a bigger giveaway is her fur, which she is always seen wearing, and which is the same colour as her hair. Later on, it is revealed that this is because it is her hair. Notice as well that Claudine has a ‘mess’ of curls and ‘wild, feral’ eyes. Compared with the Elizabeth Taylor –esque look of Cleo and the pale Goth-look of vampire Lala, and it’s not difficult to play spot-the-werewolf.

In my previous post on Mattel’s Clawdeen Wolf doll, I commented on the focus on her sexual identity. The character’s profile on the official website, for instance, refers to one of her hobbies as ‘flirting’. This is not as evident in the novel, as all the female characters are obsessed with either attracting males or with punishing other females who have attracted the males they were after. What is introduced in Harrison’s novel, however, is that other mainstay of recent female werewolf fiction – the pack. Apart from Frankie’s creators/parents, Claudine’s family is the only monster family introduced in any detail. She has a large group of overprotective brothers, who are leery, hairy and generally hyper-masculine (in a frat-boy kind of way). Claudine is both resentful of their protectiveness and mindful of the need to stay loyal to them, which is fairly typical of the way the ‘pack’ is presented in much recent fiction.

What is interesting, perhaps, in the Monster High book and toy range (and I’ve only read the first book in a series, so I don’t know if this comes up later on) is that any question of transformation is avoided. Claudine/Clawdeen appears to be more a hybrid half-wolf, half-woman than a woman who transforms into a wolf. She has a pelt while clearly in ‘human’ form, which allows her to hide her lycanthropy by getting body waxes at an exclusive spa (where mermaids can take salt baths and mummies can get massages). At no point is it suggested that she, or her brothers, will undergo a complete bodily transformation, nor that she will pose any particular threat to human beings should this happen. Indeed, the only monster who causes harm to humans is the (bizarrely male) gorgon, Deuce, who accidentally drops his sunglasses and turns an innocent bystander to stone (which is dismissed rather callously by the narrator).

Sweet Valley High

How, then, does this compare to a tween novel of nearly twenty years ago? In many ways, the world of Sweet Valley High and Monster High are scarily similar. High school cliques, ‘girl politics’ and the need to attract good-looking males are consistent themes of both series. The materialistic world of these teenagers is also similar in both series. The characters of Monster High are so obsessed with designer clothes and labels, it is difficult to read some passages due to the sheer number of brand names. Even the supposedly ‘alternative’ Melody, who is explicitly described as rejecting her contemporaries’ obsession with fashion, doesn’t wear trainers, but ‘Converse’, and is attracted to a young man when she notices that he also wears this brand of shoe.

This is not a million miles away from the world of Sweet Valley High, where Jessica Wakefield’s focus on appearances is often held up as a contrast to Elizabeth’s studious and serious persona (studious and serious while dressed in expensive clothes, of course). At one point in A Date With a Werewolf, Jessica is musing on a series of gruesome murderers which may have been perpetrated by her boyfriend (who may also be a werewolf); her reaction to this, and to the discovery of a mutilated body in her own bed, is to go to Harrods. After all, she thinks, ‘If shopping wouldn’t cheer her up, nothing would.’ (p. 131).

If the reference to Harrods threw you there, I should probably give some summary of the plot of A Date With a Werewolf. This is the second book in the Horror in London mini-series (I’m afraid I haven’t kept, or maybe never read, the other two). Elizabeth and (implausibly) Jessica have won prestigious internships with the London Journal, and are spending the summer in England. Jessica has caught the eye of Lord Robert Pembroke, a member of the aristocracy, and Elizabeth is sort of cheating on her long-time boyfriend with ‘sensitive’ poet Luke. Meanwhile, a series of brutal murders are occurring in London, and are being covered up by the papers. Luke has persuaded Elizabeth that these murders are the work of a werewolf, and, worse, that the lycanthrope is none other than Robert Pembroke. Believing her sister to be in danger, Elizabeth investigates further…

I could dwell on the ludicrousness of this storyline, but I won’t. Suffice to say, the version of lycanthropy in Sweet Valley High is quite different to that presented in Monster High. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the werewolf is a vicious killer. Within the opening pages of this book, Elizabeth finds a dead woman: ‘And her throat had been ripped open… as if by a wild beast.’ (p. 2) In case we didn’t get the beast reference, we are then told: ‘And as if to add credence to the werewolf theory, some of the Pembrokes’ sheep had been found with their throats ripped open – just hours before Joy’s murder.’ (p. 3)

As the story progresses, it’s clear that we’re in ‘Wolfman’ territory (in fact, the sequel to this book was called Beware the Wolfman). The werewolf is a lone predator, possibly an aristocratic male transformed by some sort of curse, who is changed from human form to wolf, and is consumed by an uncontrollable blood lust. To underline this, the book contains a veritable encyclopaedia of lycanthropy, including warnings from gypsies, a silver talisman with a pentagram on it, wolfsbane, full moons, ‘wolf imagery in Native-American rites and rituals’ (p. 37), silver bullets and ‘medieval werewolf trials’ (p. 90). The book owes much of its presentation of werewolfism to The Wolfman, particularly in the presentation of the alleged werewolf’s father, who seeks to both protect his son and understand his curse. Weirdly, the book seems almost prescient, as its presentation of Lord Pembroke Sr. seems to point forwards to the recent remake of The Wolfman more than the original.

Obviously, with the books being set in London, there are nods to An American Werewolf in London, particularly the fact that Luke takes Elizabeth to drink in a pub called ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’. I can only assume that this pub is a little different to its famous namesake, as it is in central London and apparently serves coffee.

The London setting of the book is not very convincing, to say the least. This version of London is a couple of miles away from Stonehenge, has large country estates (with sheep) close by and has a royal family who all live cosily in Buckingham Palace. One of the subplots features the ‘youngest daughter of the Queen of England’, who has escapes from Buckingham Palace, pretends to be a ‘working-class girl from Liverpool’ and helps her boyfriend to set up ‘free medical care for the poor’ (clearly, all that time locked up in Buckingham Palace means she hasn’t heard of the NHS).

This inaccurate and romanticized version of ‘London’ has a direct impact on the version of lycanthropy in A Date With a Werewolf. We are in the Victorian Gothic world of the tortured, but killer, werewolf, rather than the North American world of the wolf pack. The London that Elizabeth and Jessica visit is the home of Jack the Ripper, and an ‘eerie werewolf exhibit at the wax museum’ (p. 16). It is a world in which a member of the aristocracy can murder his servants with impunity, as his father has ultimate control of the press. There is even a secret door that opens from a wood-panelled library, activated by removing a first edition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Gothicism of this fictional London is what allows for suspension of disbelief, both on the part of the implied readers and on the part of Elizabeth, the supposedly ‘level-headed’ heroine. This is noted clearly in the book, when it is stated that: ‘…ideas that would have sounded ridiculous to Elizabeth under the bright California sun somehow seemed more reasonable when voiced through an English fog’ (p. 4). (I’m sure it goes without saying that, for the entire duration of the girls’ trip, London appears to be engulfed by an inexplicably nineteenth-century fog).

So, what have we learned from this? Anything?

The differences in the werewolves in these books points to diverging traditions of lycanthropy. A Date With a Werewolf is the older, Western European tradition (which was dominant from the late Middle Ages onwards, and was refracted through the lens of late Victorian Gothic), in which the werewolf is a tortured, yet brutal and animalistic, loner, whose human form disguises the beast within. Monster High belongs to a newer pattern of presenting werewolves – particularly female werewolves – that is rapidly superseding the older type. I call this the ‘American’ tradition, as it is more common in countries with native wolves. These werewolves are not loners, but rather members of a hierarchical (and often patriarchal) pack structure, which is constructed as both a source of support and constraint. That the earlier book takes place in a foggy and Victorian-esque London, the later in a small town in Oregon, highlights this.

While the werewolves may be different, the modes of femininity presented in tween fiction have sadly not changed much over the past two decades. Materialistic, narcissistic and obsessed with attracting the most popular and best-looking boys (despite occasional nods to ‘sisterhood’ and ‘friendship’), the girls at Monster High are little different to those of Sweet Valley High. Sadly, the only lesson I can really take from my comparison of these two books is that this particular construction of the vain and shallow teenage girl clearly transcends species.

It's enough to make you howl, really.

Manchester Monster Convention

Saturday 14th – Sunday 15th April 2012
Sachas Hotel, Tib Street, Manchester

Weekend Tickets: just £10
For more information on this event, and to book tickets, please visit the Hic Dragones website.

Saturday 14th April
Doors open at 10am

Talks (Jefferson Suite)

11.00am Before Dawn - a new British horror film set in Yorkshire
Dominic Brunt (Actor/Director) and Neale Myers (Cameraman/Digital Effects Artist) will be showing clips from their new Yorkshire horror movie, Before Dawn, talking about the movie and answering questions

12.30pm Q&A with Sam Stone and David J Howe
Sam is the author of the Vampire Gene series, and David has written numerous books on Doctor Who. Both authors will be reading from their work, answering questions and generally talking vampires, monsters and Who.

2.00pm Tales from the Crypt: Two Real-Life Vampire Cases
Talk by Geoff Holder, author of Paranormal Glasgow and Paranormal Cumbria, covering the hunt for the Vampire with Iron Teeth, and the infamous case of the Vampire of Croglin Grange.

3.30pm In Search of Real Monsters
Talk by Richard Freeman, Zoological Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology

Signings (Washington Suite)

1.20pm Sam Stone and David J Howe
2.50pm Geoff Holder

The Monster Market (Washington Suite)
Stalls will be open from 10am to 5pm

Film Screenings (Jefferson Suite)

From 6pm Monster Movie Triple Bill (sponsored by Grimm Up North)
Island of Lost Souls
Whisperer in the Darkness
Reel Zombies

Sunday 15th April
Doors open at 10am

Talks (Jefferson Suite)

11.00am How to Make a Monster
A talk on creative writing, horror and monsters by Rick Hudson. Rick's work has been published by a wide variety of magazines in the UK, US and Europe as well as appearing in collections and broadcast by the BBC. He is currently working on a documentary for the BBC and a film for a leading Hollywood studio.

12.30pm Psychopaths, Deviants and Serial Killers, Oh My!
A talk on the psychology of 'human monsters' by Jacquelyn Bent, who is currently completing a doctorate in Criminal Psychology at the University of Huddersfield

2.00pm Q&A with Leah Moore and John Reppion
Graphic novelists, creators of the Wild Girls series, the Albion series (with Alan Moore and Shane Oakley) and the Raise the Dead series (with Hugo Petrus). The duo have also created The Complete Dracula and The Complete Alice in Wonderland, and are currently working on the Thrill Electric, a motion comic set in Victorian Manchester.

3.30pm Writers Panel: Readings and Q&A
With Wayne Simmons (author of Flu and Fever) Simon Bestwick (author of The Faceless, Tide of Souls and Pictures of the Dark) and Scott Stanford (author of Dorothy - The Darker Side of Oz and Abaddon Rising)

Signings (Washington Suite)

2.50pm Leah Moore and John Reppion
4.20pm Wayne Simmons, Simon Bestwick and Scott Stanford

The Monster Market (Washington Suite)
Stalls will be open from 10am to 5pm

Convention closes at 5pm
Tickets for the event cost just £10. To book, please visit the Hic Dragones website.