Archive for the ‘1980s’ Tag
It’s the 50th anniversary of the TV show ‘Dr Who’, and the UK has Who mania. The anniversary episode airs here tomorrow night, and it has been much hyped.
So I thought a post about this unique TV show was appropriate.
‘Dr Who’ first aired on British TV in 1963. The story goes that this little quirky science fiction show about an eccentric alien time traveller became so popular, that when its star William Hartnell decided he wanted to leave the show, the producers were so reluctant to finish the series they came up with the idea that since the character wasn’t human, he could regenerate into someone else so they could carry on with the series. They subsequently cast Patrick Troughton as The Doctor.
Every British kid has grown up with Dr Who since 1963. I know my dad has watched every episode. My earliest memory of the show is the episode in which Jon Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker. That was 1974 – I would have been four years old. I remember it nonetheless. Tom Baker is the Doctor I grew up with – he played the part from 1974 to 1981. Sometimes it scared me silly (“The Hand of Fear” gave me nightmares for weeks), but I watched it every week anyway.
At the end of January 1980, we moved to Canada. At that time, ‘Dr Who’ wasn’t on over there. I pretty much missed everything between Peter Davidson and Sylvester McCoy, until I moved back to England in 1988 – until the early 1990s, when we got cable TV, and UK Gold repeated them all, and I was able to catch up.
Then there was a one-off TV movie, featuring Paul McGann as The Doctor, released in 1996 but set in 1999. It had American backing, was heavily Americanised and a lot of fans think it took too much creative licence to be true to the series.
Then in 2005 the series was relaunched again, internationally. Suddenly Americans and Canadians were big fans of ‘Dr Who’. Following Christopher Eccleston’s departure David Tennant played the role for five years, and when he left it was Matt Smith.
In my opinion, there are two types of Dr Who fans. There are those who have been following the series since its early days. And there are those who have been following it since its 21st century relaunch. This latter category of fans were a bit floored in a David Tennant episode when he made passing reference to having been a dad – the reaction was, “What? Where’s that come from? You can’t leave it there!” Those of us who have been with the show since the early days know that The Doctor’s first companion was his granddaughter Susan, and therefore we already know he must have been a dad once.
The fans who have only been watching it in the last eight years are getting a different sort of experience. The 21st century ‘Dr Who’ has a bigger budget, more spectacular special effects and far more complex story lines. The last couple of years have been even more complex. Once upon a time, you could sum up ‘Dr Who’ in one sentence: “Eccentric 900-year-old alien travels through space and time in a space ship that looks like a police box”. Try and sum up the last two seasons of ‘Dr Who’ in one sentence, and you’ll struggle.
There has also been a precedent, in recent years, to cast young good-looking men in the role of The Doctor, and have attractive female companions who he gets to snog. This is, as I understand it, to attract more young women into watching the show, but it has given it a whole new dimension that just wasn’t present in the old days. Could you imagine Tom Baker’s Doctor snogging Sarah Jane Smith? It was unthinkable. He just wasn’t that sort of Doctor.
In the UK, you can generally tell people’s age by which Doctor they grew up with. Tom Baker remains my favourite – he was constant throughout my childhood. David Tennant is a close second, but it’s a different league because he is one of the new incarnations of The Doctor.
The much-anticipated 50th anniversary episode is on tomorrow night, and sneak previews have been promising. I remain optimistic that this show will marry the old series with the new – and therefore unite all fans. That’s a tall order, I know, for a TV show. Whether or not it will deliver, remains to be seen. Every ‘Dr Who’ fan in the UK will be glued to the TV tomorrow night.
As a further homage to ‘Dr Who’, it seems appropriate to end on this Youtube video, which merges every single sequence of opening credits, from 1963 to 2013. You can tell from this how the show has changed over the years. At some point in the 1970s, it changed to colour. The sequence from the Paul McGann film has a definite ‘Hollywood’ influence. Sylvester McCoy’s opening sequence has a suspiciously 1980s flavour. And the practice of including the current face of The Doctor in the credits, which was dropped in the 21st century series, returns for the last season of Matt Smith’s run – hinting of a return to the original storyline.
So, fellow, Who fans, I want to hear from you. What’s your earliest memory of The Doctor? Though I ask you not to comment on the 50th anniversary episode for the time being, at least – let’s avoid spoilers for those who will be catching up with it later!
(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)
I’ve been wanting to go to the Winchester Mystery House for nearly 30 years – ever since I saw it featured on TV. It was on either “That’s Incredible” or “Ripley’s Believe it or not”, I can’t remember which – both featured the bizarre and the strange, and were on TV in the early 1980s when I lived in Canada.
Somehow we never got there on our previous two trips to San Francisco. I was very glad that on our third and recent trip there, we were able to hire a car and get to San Jose to pay a visit to this fascinating house.
Chances are, you’ve heard of this place already. It’s the house built by Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Sarah and her husband had only one child, Annie, who died of a rare childhood disease when she was six weeks old. A few years after that, Sarah’s husband died of tuberculosis. Some say she was driven mad with grief, and never got over the death of her baby. Whatever the case, Sarah got it into her head that she was cursed by the vengeful spirits of all of those who had been killed by the Winchester rifles her husband’s family had produced, and the only way to break the curse was to buy an unfinished house and keep on building.
She moved from her home in Connecticut and bought an unfinished eight-room farmhouse in California. She hired servants, gardeners, and a crew of carpenters, who kept building. In fact they didn’t stop. These carpenters worked in shifts, and the work carried on continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until Sarah’s death 38 years later.
It’s a bizarre house. It has 160 rooms and 40 bedrooms. There are stairs that go nowhere, doors that open onto blank walls, other doors that lead to two-storey drops, secret passages, rooms with no floors, windows that look out onto brick walls. Sarah Winchester designed most of the house herself. Some say she built the house the way she did to confuse the spirits. I think she was likely suffering from paranoid schizophrenia – she thought spirits were speaking to her, and the servants were conspiring against her. But she was also stupidly rich, and therefore it didn’t matter how mad she was, people would do what she said. Apparently she paid all her staff twice the going rate, but she paid them daily in cash, so that if she had the whim to fire anyone, she could do so on the spot. Arguing with her about her illogical building plans was apparently a cause for instant dismissal.
Sarah WInchester was obsessed with the number 13, which is a recurring motif throughout the house. Windows have 13 panes of glass. Ceilings have 13 panels. There is even a chandelier with 13 light fittings. Apparently it originally came with 12, but Sarah wasn’t having that and she added the thirteenth herself – and you can tell which one she added, because it’s wonky and obviously stuck on.
Naturally there are many stories about the Winchester house being haunted. It does have a decidedly creepy appearance. With so much building work the house is not symmetrical, and viewing it from the outside it looks odd. Inside, there are so many rooms many of them don’t have any windows or natural light, so it is rather dark and dim. But we saw it on an exceptionally hot and sunny day – positively balmy for the time of year – and it was full of tourists, so it didn’t seem particularly creepy. Then again, I have no psychic sensitivities whatsoever. I’d like to remain open minded about the existence of ghosts, but if there are any, I’m unlikely to ever see any. I don’t get easily creeped out. So saying, I rather wish we could have gone at Hallowe’en, when they do a ‘ghost tour’ by torch light. The place might be a whole lot creepier then.
I did feel rather sorry for Sarah Winchester. She lived alone in this house apart from her staff, and apparently never had visitors – the rest of the family thought she was nuts and stayed away. So she rattled around alone in this immense house, working her way around the 40 bedrooms – never sleeping in the same room more than one night in a row, allegedly to confuse the spirits she was convinced were out to get her.
You are not allowed to take pictures inside the Winchester Mystery House, and any that are on the internet are copyright and not able to be used without permission. Which I don’t have. So I can only include here pictures of the outside. But a Google search of the Winchester Mystery House will take you to plenty of websites that do include images of some of the bizarre features of the house.
If you are ever in the San Jose area of California, do visit the Winchester Mystery House if you can. It’s a fascinating tour. And is the house really full of vengeful ghosts, or was Sarah Winchester as mad as a box of frogs? Well, you’ll have to make up your own mind about that.
(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)
When we first moved to Canada from England in 1980, I was ten years old. There was no email, in those days. The World Wide Web was not available to all. In order to stay in touch with all the people I’d left behind, I’d started writing letters. There were a lot of people I wanted to stay in contact with. School friends. Aunts, uncles and cousins. Grandparents. My father and step-mother, who were still back in England.
Most people wrote back. I would look forward to getting home from school and checking the mail, to see if any letters had arrived for me. I made a point of replying to every one. I became very good at writing letters, and the process became a ritual. I kept every letter I received in a letter rack, stacked in order of receipt with the oldest in front. When I sat down to write a reply, I would reply to the person whose letter I’d had the longest. If the person had asked any questions in their letter, I would make a point of replying to them, whether it was something generic like “how is school?”, or as specific as, “how did that play go you were rehearsing for last time?” I would also write about any news that had occurred since last time I wrote to the person.
My letters were long, generally running to at least six pages, sometimes more. A lot of people gave me stationery sets when we moved to Canada. Generally they contained a number of decorated front sheets, the same number of envelopes, and half as many continuation sheets. I never understood this, because it wasn’t enough. I used up all the continuation sheets within two or three letters and then either had to use more than one of the front sheets, or carry on with pieces of ordinary lined notepaper. I always wondered why there were never more continuation sheets than front sheets. How could anyone possibly have so little to say they could do it in a letter only a page long?
Somewhere in the last 20 years, the art of letter writing has been lost. I admit I don’t write letters any more. Many of the people I used to write letters to are now on Facebook, so I keep up with their news that way. Pretty much all of them are on email, and I will occasionally send people newsy emails.
I write emails the way I write letters – in fact, the way I write anything. Sentences are complete, with all the punctuation in the correct place. They tend to be very long. Sometimes I miss writing letters, but it occurs to me that writing this blog is, for me, the modern equivalent of writing letters. I can relay my news via the World Wide Web, and I don’t have to repeat myself – something of an advantage over letter writing, I must admit, as in my letter-writing heyday I was repeating the same news in every letter.
Nobody writes letters anymore, and not many people write long emails, either. I can’t decide if this is down to laziness, to the fact that life has just got so busy, or that people’s attention span has got shorter in the last 20 years. We are used to being fed instantaneous information, in short bursts – Tweets; texts; 30 second commercials. Now nobody wants to be bothered to read to the end of a lengthy email. A lot of people seem to write emails the way they write text messages – devoid of grammatical structure, and full of crass abbreviations (“u” instead of “you”) and erroneous spellings.
Most people do not communicate via lengthy emails. Some people communicate entirely by mobile phone. I have always been a person who prefers written communication to verbal. There are very few people I have long telephone conversations with. If I’ve not seen you in a while and I want to chat, I am more likely to send you a long chatty email than I am to pick up the phone. But, I am a writer. Written communication is and always has been my strength.
Sometimes I mourn the lost art of letter writing. I sometimes regret we can’t go back to those long-gone days when I used to look forward to getting home and reading a letter that had arrived in the post for me.
I also mourn the correct use of English. I don’t know if grammar has been removed from the school curriculum these days – the appalling state of some people’s Facebook statuses makes me suspect it has been – but certainly letter writing has been.
It may be that people have no need to write letters any more, but kids should still be taught how to form a sentence. Effective written communication, even by email, is an essential life skill. What chance have you got of getting the job if the cover email that accompanies your CV is written in text-speak? If I received a job application like this I would delete the email without even bothering to look at the CV. If I get an advertising brochure from anyone featuring a misplaced apostrophe in the word “its”, I will make a point of avoiding whatever product it is advertising. There is no excuse for poor grammar, and no excuse for not knowing how to form a correct sentence.
If we were all taught how to write letters, we’d all be aware of that.
(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)
I read a great many books – on average, just over one a week. I have read so many books that I find it impossible to pick out just one favourite.
I do, however, have several favourite authors. Authors whose books I constantly go back to, and it feels like visiting an old friend. Books which affect me in such a way I have to choose carefully what I read following them, because everything else will just seem inferior.
One such author is Sara Paretsky. I discovered her V I Warshawski series in the early 1990s, back when I was first aware of enthusiastically embracing feminism. It was a revelation. Here for the first time I encountered a heroine who represented everything I wanted to be. A fiercely independent woman who was brave, resourceful, unafraid to speak her mind and without need of a man to define her existence. Single and childless, V I is sarcastic, blunt and able to hold her own in a fight. I thought then, and still think now, that she is a fantastic role model for young women.
And even in the 21st century, there are few heroines like her. Sue Grafton has a similar independent minded, single and childless heroine in Kinsey Milhone. Kathy Reichs, another writer I admire, has a strong woman in Temperance Brennan, but unlike V I Tempe is a mother, and does occasionally need rescuing by men.
Not everyone shares my adoration of V I, as reviews on Goodreads and Amazon testify. Some readers – among them women, I was surprised to note – find her too unlikeable. They don’t like her sarcasm and confrontational manner.
I do not deny that my amateur sleuth Shara Summers was inspired by V I Warshawski. When I set out to write a crime series, I wanted a heroine like V I – someone courageous and independent minded, who was not afraid to speak her mind. But I wasn’t brave enough to write a police procedural, so I went for an amateur sleuth. And in many ways Shara is very different from V I. She’s not as brave. She’s not the champion of the underdog the way that V I is. And she does occasionally get rescued by men. And because I’m just not as good a writer as Sara Paretsky, sometimes I don’t pull off what I’m trying to do. Maybe Shara just comes across sometimes as being bitchy instead of courageous.
It’s also clear that Shara is not everyone’s cup of tea. DEATH SCENE racked up 31 rejections before it was published by Lyrical Press. One of the most common reasons for the book being rejected was the character not being likeable enough to take through a series.
The revelation that not everyone loves V I Warshawski – because I’ve been enthusiastically recommending these books to everyone for the last 20 years – was a bit of a surprise, and I’ve recently been ruminating on that. V I is sarcastic, snarky, and blunt. She can be downright rude – especially to arrogant and patronising men. In the early books, which seem to be set in the early 1980s, V I is unusual in being a woman P I, and she encounters a hostile reaction to this by many people. Especially men.
Women are not supposed to embody these qualities. Even in these times, they are generally expected to be soft, caring and nurturing, and I think this is the main reason that women who don’t possess these qualities are regarded with suspicion. They are considered to be not ‘normal’ women.
I like the fact that V I is snarky, blunt and rude. But there are some people out there who might say I embody similar qualities. And the same people who wouldn’t like V I for these qualities probably don’t like me much, either.
I must confess that now I’m the wrong side of 40 I’ve got to a point in life where I don’t really care if people don’t like me for being me. As a woman gamer, role-player, and horror writer, I’ve encountered a number of men over the years who don’t know what to make of me. The fact that I’m deliberately childless also causes resentment in certain people – it’s surprising (and depressing) how many people, even in this day and age, who assume that all women want children and any who don’t are instantly labelled as being abnormal and not to be trusted.
None of these things matter that much to me these days, but I’m pretty sure that the people that fall into the aforementioned categories are not my target readership.
For the length of time that human beings have existed on this planet, we’ve proved to be depressingly stagnant in moving on with our thinking. I will go on recommending Sara Paretsky’s books to everyone I have a conversation about crime books with – particularly women. I would like every young women to read at least one V I Warshawski book. For every one who comes away thinking, “this is the sort of woman I want to be,” then a battle will be won.
There’s a long way to go before we win the war, though.
When I was 14, my sister and I spent the summer holiday in England with our dad (we were living in Canada with my mother). I’d already discovered Stephen King and my step-mother, herself a big reader, had this one on the shelf. So I read it that summer, and once I started, I found I could not put it down.
The book runs along two separate time lines. A group of five children, all considered freaks and weirdos by their classmates, become firm friends and form what they call “The Losers’ Club”. But in their little town of Derry, Maine, a brooding evil lurks – a supernatural creature that can take on the form of whatever scares you the most. It lives in the drains and it’s preying on the townspeople. The five children are the only ones who discover how to stop it, and they undertake a terrifying ordeal to banish the monster.
Thirty years later, the children are grown up and have all dispersed. Four of them have left Derry and become financially successful. They all get married, but notably none of them have children. The one who remains in Derry, Mike, remains single, and brings in a modest income as a librarian. He has appointed himself Derry’s guardian, looking out for the return of the monster, which as children they defeated but did not kill. Having made a pact to return and go after it again should the creature return, Mike has kept track of his friends’ movements since they left Derry, and when the monster does return, he calls them all, and reminds them of their pact.
The book then follows the two timelines – the original journey the characters made as children, to defeat the creature, and the one they make in the present day, as adults. But the monster still knows their childhood fears, and they are forced to face up to some unpleasant long-hidden truths about themselves, as well as dealing with the creature.
Anyone who’s read SUFFER THE CHILDREN will probably have noticed that IT was an influence. To me, IT is the perfect horror novel. It has characters who are dealing with inner demons as well as an actual one, and a monster that has the ability to appear in the form of whatever scares you the most. My only criticism is that at the very end of the novel, when the monster finally reveals its true form, it was something of a disappointment, as it turns out not to be scary at all. But apparently this plays on Stephen King’s own phobia, so I guess to him the true form was pretty damn scary.
I would also have liked there to have been more than one girl amongst the five main characters. It’s not as if Stephen King can’t write female characters. Beverley is the lone female in the “losers’ club”, a girl suffering physical abuse at the hands of her father. She grows up and becomes a successful fashion designer, in partnership with her handsome and wealthy husband, but she’s been unable to break the pattern of her damaged childhood because her husband beats her up, too.
I also empathised with Eddie, the hypochrondriac weakling who lived with his obese and overbearing mother. He grows up to run a chauffeur service to the stars, along with his wife, who physically bears a striking resemblance to his mother.
There was a mini-series made of IT about 20 years ago, but it really wasn’t very good. I don’t think any visual representation of IT will ever do the book justice. Some books should just remain as books and this one, for me, will always be up there on the list of books that had the most influence on my writing. If people describe my writing as being like Stephen King’s, then I take that as an incredible compliment. Much as aspire to that, I don’t think I will ever write anything that can hold a candle to IT.
This was the second Stephen King book that I picked up, and again it was from the school library. This memorable tale of a bullied teenage girl with powers of telekinesis, who gets revenge on her classmates at the high school prom, really resonated with me. I, too, was a bullied teenager. After I read this book I started fantasising about what I might do to the bullies if I had telekinesis. Not surprising that I turned into a horror writer.
What also struck me about this book was how convincingly King, as a male writer, can write about teenage girls – something not all male writers are able to do.
Interspersed with Carrie’s story are extracts of fictitious newspaper reports and witness autobiographies. The first time I read this book, it struck me as unnecessary padding. I found out later that this was exactly what it was. CARRIE was Stephen King’s first published novel. The story goes that when he finished it, he was so unhappy with it he threw it in the trash. His wife extracted it, read it, and encouraged him to submit it. He did, and it was picked up, but the publisher decided it was too short for a novel – more novella length. King added all the newspaper reports and autobiography extracts to add to the word count. If only the publishers had known then just how huge King would become, maybe they wouldn’t have cared quite so much. I wonder if anyone nowadays would dare to tell Stephen King his book was too short (or too long).
The other thing that strikes me now is that if Stephen King was starting his career today, would he be labelled as a YA writer? A lot of his stories are about teenagers.
The main character of CARRIE was 16, but there was no such thing as YA fiction in the 1970s. CARRIE was always shelved in the horror section. Nowadays, it seems that if you write a book about a character who is under 18, it’s going to be labelled as Young Adult. Though I suppose the fact that my school library had a copy of the book suggests it was always considered an appropriate read for teenagers.
When I first wrote SUFFER THE CHILDREN, the main character, Leanne, was 14. It was rejected by several agents on the basis that they considered it a YA novel and they didn’t deal with YA. I always maintained it wasn’t. It was inspired by Stephen King. It seems some agents believe that Stephen King is only read by teenage boys. After getting this message several times, in the end I gave up and made Leanne 18, but since the tone of the story didn’t actually change I still maintain it was never YA to begin with.
I still hold the view that Stephen King fans fans are teens and adults, male and female, and not necessarily horror fans. King’s stories are accessible to all. Ultimately I think that’s the way it should be, rather than writers having to fit into tidy little boxes.
(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)
When I first started writing, I used to scribble in the back of school exercise books, in pencil. Towards the end of the 1980s I got my first computer – an Amstrad PCW. It was one of the machines with green fonts on a black background. It didn’t have a hard drive, so files had to be saved on floppy disks.
I tell this story because the influence that machine had on my writing is still with me today. Because the floppy disks didn’t have much memory, files had to be small. I used to save each chapter as a separate file, because it would take several disks to hold an entire novel. I still use this system of saving each chapter as a separate document. Only when the manuscript is nearing completion do I compile it all into a single document – and only then do I really know how many pages I’ve got.
Currently, I’m working on draft 2 of the horror WIP. Up to now this has largely been minor amendments to each of the early chapters, though as I go through it I start thinking about any major changes that might need to be made. Things were going quite well until I got to chapter 12. And then I realised chapter 12 was missing from my ‘Draft 1’ folder.
An extensive search failed to unearth the missing chapter, but because I keep meticulous logs of when I write each chapter, I have worked out what has happened. The early chapters of the first draft of this WIP were written from October to December last year. At that point, I was still on my clunky old laptop, and my old NetBook. My writing routine has always been fairly rigid. If I was writing the chapters in Starbucks during my early-morning writing session, they were written on my NetBook. When I got home I would boot up both machines and copy the files from one machine to the other, so that there was a back-up. If I was writing at home, then I would transfer them the other way.
However, the old laptop was very slow, and sometimes waiting for it to boot up to transfer files was a frustrating process. What clearly happened is that when I was copying over my new chapters from the NetBook to the laptop, I somehow overlooked chapter 12 and didn’t copy it.
I got my new laptop for Christmas, and copied the files from my old laptop to the new one. Then the hard drive on my NetBook died – suddenly, and without warning. All files were lost. That was OK, I thought, I had everything backed up. Or mostly everything. Only now have I realised I had failed to back up chapter 12, and the only copy of that chapter is now lost forever on the dead hard drive.
What I am left with is a log of how many words were in that chapter (1,330) and a summary of what it contained. But the file is gone. I have to rewrite it. And that realisation was a depressing thought.
So the next day, I got up early for a writing session, took the NetBook into London and sat in Starbucks staring at chapters 11 and 13 or quite a long time. I did not get hit with any inspiration to re-write chapter 12. What did occur to me, though, is that there are a lot of problems with this section of the novel, and there’s a lot of rewriting that needs to be done. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t write chapter 12 again. There are a lot of ‘talking heads’ – people talking about things instead of doing things. Too much ‘telling’, not enough ‘showing’, as the T Party writing group would probably say.
What I am attempting to demonstrate in this section of the novel is the changing personality of a character who is being possessed by a demonic creature, in the way he interacts with his friends, and how he’s becoming more violent to his girlfriend. At present, the girlfriend tearfully relays to her friends how her boyfriend raped her. I haven’t actually got a scene showing the rape. But I think I’m going to have to write it. The action will have a lot more impact than the telling.
I haven’t been able to face writing this scene in this week’s writing sessions. It’s going to be a very difficult and harrowing scene, and writing such scenes can be emotionally draining. But it needs to be done. Sometimes your WIP takes you to places you really don’t want to go to. But you have to go there anyway, in order to grow as a writer.
The ironic thing is, if chapter 12 had not disappeared, I would not have scrutinised that section of the novel quite so hard. Some times these things happen for a reason…
This book was on the curriculum for Grade 7 English. Quite a strange book to study at school, I thought at the time. Up until then, I’d thought that all books studied in English class had to be classic literary masterpieces, and here we were being presented with a contemporary mass market paperback.
It’s effectively the story of a gang of teenage boys in the 1960s, all of whom are from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. The narrator is Ponyboy Curtis, a sensitive young man who writes poems, but his sort aren’t encouraged to follow artistic pursuits.
The year we studied this book, the film was released, so a class trip to the cinema to see it was entirely justified. I quite liked the film, but I admit it was hard to hear much of it. This is a film packed full of hunky young actors (most of the so-called ‘brat packers’ were in it). Take a class full of hormonal 14-year-old girls to see it, and they aren’t going to be following the story. In fact, in retrospect I feel quite sorry for all the other cinema patrons. What must have been going through their heads when we all trooped in for the matinee showing?
All of my classmates were swooning over either Patrick Swayze or Rob Lowe (or sometimes both). Me, I decided I liked C Thomas Howell, who played the artistic Ponyboy. It was more the character than the actor, I suppose – I’ve always gone for the sensitive artistic types.
In googling the image for this book, I came across a load of Grade 7 book reports on the Internet, so it would appear that it’s still on the curriculum for Grade 7 English, 30 years later, which I find very interesting. Then again, a book about a group of teenage outsiders will always hold universal appeal for teenagers, no matter what decade it is.
I am including here, as well as the book cover, the movie poster featuring all the stars, adopting mean and moody poses. No wonder, as adolescent hormone factories, we all got a bit flustered…
It wasn’t called that at the time. In the 1980s, Lois Duncan was a pioneer in this genre, writing a lot of very creepy books featuring teenagers. I don’t know how I got my hands on a copy of KILLING MR GRIFFIN, but I did have a battered copy on my book shelf at home, so I suspect I discovered it in a second hand book store somewhere. I didn’t buy too many books new when I was an impoverished high school student.
It is the story of a group of teenagers who decide to take revenge on their hard-nosed English teacher. They don’t mean to kill Mr Griffin – at least not at first. They kidnap him, tie him up, blindfold him so he can’t tell who they are, and lock him away. But Mr Griffin recognises his students by their voices, and during his incarceration he comes out with the same cutting remarks he gives to them in the classroom. What the group don’t know is that Mr Griffin suffers from a medical condition, and without his medication, he will die.
I was pleased to find this cover image, because this is the one that featured on the version I read, and it’s what drew me to the book. The current edition has a different cover but I’m happy to see it’s still in print – it’s a terrific book.
I must have been about 14 when I first read this book, and the characters really spoke to me. There are five students involved in the kidnapping plot. Jeff and David are jocks. Mark is Jeff’s best friend, highly intelligent and quick to anger, but at the same time he is incredibly charismatic and it is this charisma that persuades the others to go along with his plan. It’s his idea to kidnap Mr Griffin after suffering humiliation at the teacher’s hands. What the others don’t know until the end of the book is that Mark is a psychopath – in the clinical sense of the word.
As well as the three boys, two girls are drawn into this nefarious scheme. Betsy is a bubbly cheerleader type and Jeff’s girlfriend. She’s not very bright and is just out to have a good time, and it doesn’t take much to convince her that the plan to kidnap the English teacher is nothing more than a great prank. The fifth member of the group, Susan, is a more unwilling accomplice. A straight ‘A’ student, Susan is brought in as bait, to keep Mr Griffin talking in the car park about school work so that the others can pounce on him. She only agrees because she has a hopeless crush on David, and Mark hatches a plan to get David to go out with her, deducing – quite correctly – that once Susan has been lured into the inner circle of ‘popular kids’ she has up to now never dreamed she’d ever be a part of, she’ll be willing to go along with anything they suggest. Mark has also noticed that Mr Griffin’s class is the only one Susan ever receives a ‘B’ in, and this is something she’s not used to.
Naturally it was the nerdy, brainy loner Susan I identified with, though I recognised pretty much all of the other characters from my school (apart from Mark – there may well have been psychopaths at my high school for all I know, but if I did know any, I wasn’t aware of it at the time). And the situation was set up in such a way that it seemed entirely plausible. Having agreed to the initial plan to request a meeting with Mr Griffin in the car park, when the deed is actually done, Susan rapidly begins to have second thoughts. But since she knows what the group have done, they are not going to let her go that easily – especially Mark. Susan suddenly finds herself in a waking nightmare, when things start going from bad to worse, and she is unable to extricate herself from it. As the plot unfolds, Mark’s grip on reality rapidly unravels, and his descent into insanity is startling and terrifying. This is a genuinely creepy and gripping book, and it was one of the books that hooked me on horror for life.
Along with Stephen King, Lois Duncan was a major influence on my early attempts at writing horror, and I think her books will still resonate with teenagers today. Especially since YA horror is now a legitimate genre. In my day it was just ‘scary stories featuring teens’.