Friday, November 23, 2007

My mates’ scribbling #2

One way not to write is to spend lots of time deciding on names for your characters. Is he a George? Is he an Alan? Does that fit on the shoulders of a bloke who's just invented the warp drive and is, really, a Mim?

Some scribbling buddies pick place-names from maps or borrow surnames from the cast and crew in programme guides. Or you find that their aliens are anagrams of where they've worked. In Dr Who and the Pirate Loop, anyone who isn't Doctor Who or Martha is named after friends-of-mine's kids. (And their parents don't love them if they don't buy them copies.) And in Dr Who and the Time Travellers, it was all about killing my friends.

Because of the wibbly wobbly, timey wimey paradox going on in that book, one pal managed to get himself killed more times than any other. Colonel Scott Andrews is shot, he's strangled, I think he falls down some stairs and there's also a bit where half of him is embedded in a wall.

The real Scott Andrews is, as it happens, one of my scribbling pals. His latest book - and first novel - is School's Out, the third in Abaddon's Afterblight Chronicles, in which a mystery disease wipes out everyone who doesn't have O negative blood. Lee Keegan is just 15 when his mum is one of those to suffer the cull. Alone in a world descending into chaos, Lee heads for his public school. It's a place of weird rules and traditions, and institutionalised bullying - but it can't be any worse than anywhere else. Can it?

As you'd expect, this is a pulpy, violent shocker, a series of increasingly grotesque and bloody incidents. Chapter Ten features a glimpse of my corpse.
"'Still, couldn't they have just, y'know, knocked on the door and said, "hi, we're the neighbours, we baked you a cake?" I mean, there was no reason to come in guns blazing, no reason at all.'

'Look where it got them.'

'Look where it got Guerrier, Belcher, Griffiths and Zayn.'

I had no answer to that.

'I don't want to die like that,' he said eventually.

'If it's a choice of being shot or being bled and eaten, then I'll take a bullet every time, thanks. After all, been there, done that.'

'Yeah, yeah, stop boasting,' he teased, sarcastically. 'By my reckoning you've been shot, stabbed, strangled, hanged and savaged by a mad dog since you came back to school, three of those in the last twenty-four hours.'

'I also shat myself.'

'All right. You win. You are both vastly harder and more pathetic than any of us.'"

Scott Andrews, School's Out, p. 157.

The prose style is straightforward and things are kept moving quickly, which makes for an exciting read. While the pulp format doesn't exactly encourage any great depth, I was impressed by how often Scott muddied the moral waters. The insane tyrant who doles out macabre punishment is given an opportunity to put his case - and, as Lee himself admits, it's almost convincing.

There are also some fun tangents as Lee compares the events he's caught up in to those suffered by the school's other old boys. One particular drastic action is inspired by a former pupil who died in the First World War. This kind of thing helps make this more than just trashy, guilty pleasure.

Perhaps there are a few too many references to films and TV, and the "witty" quips as characters face death and dismemberment aren't as smart or funny as the characters might think. But then my own teens were all risible jokes and endless quotations from Blackadder. Lee is even accused of behaving like he's the hero in an action movie, rather than a spotty adolescent with a rubbish haircut. So it's all part of the point.

Lee narrates the story and we watch him changed by the events he's caught up in. He becomes a killer and learns some nasty truths about what it is to be a leader. The grim tone of the book then comes from him. Even early on, he shows (or recalls) little remorse for the loss of his friends. Scraps of detail show us that he's a snob and a hypocrit - a public-school boy who rants about posh kids. For most of the book he has to hold down fierce anger, and he's quick to judge other people. Yet it's not lost on him that his own mistakes have cost a lot of people their lives.

Lee is, in short, a bit of a dick. And that's what sets him apart from similar, self-reliant and righteous heroes of shocker fiction, such as Richard Hannay or Bill Masen. He also reminded me of Harry Potter's angry tantrums in The Order of the Phoenix - an element of the book kept thankfully to a minimum in the film.

As a result, I didn't ever really warm to him and was unmoved by the horrible things that befell him. Perhaps it would have helped to have had more from the perspective of the school's young matron - a character who's fate we really care for. But that's not to fault the book. It's a well-told, well-structured, inventive and absorbing example of its kind. The problem is that this genre of gritty misery is not entirely to my taste.

So if I'm picking any holes at all it's because I'd have wanted to do things differently. And that is no doubt why Abaddon employed Scott and turned down the five things I sent them. Pah.

Oh, and what a cop-out. The wuss only got to kill me once.

1 comment:

leslie said...

They Keep Killing Andrews. I've not killed off any of my friends, I don't think. I keep a running file of interesting names and use those, though sometimes I use others that are closer at hand. (The rakish Regency hero of the book I wrote when I was fifteen was named Simon, ha.)