Charlie Higson (2009)

This interview with Charlie Higson was one of the very last I did for Death Ray, completed for the never published issue #22 back in 2009. Here he talks about his zombie book, The Enemy. It’s really rather good. So good, in fact, it was one of three entertainments that stopped me hating zombies and begin to appreciate them.

Life After Laughs

Charlie Higson, Fast Show alumnus, has a whole new career – children’s author, and his latest is very good indeed. It’s kids versus adult zombies in The Enemy. 

Like the Monty Python team, the guys and gals of the Fast Show went their separate ways after a handful of glorious years, leaving an hilarious cultural relic in their wake. Now they’re producing new entertainments of varying kinds for we, the lucky public. Charlie Higson (Ted and Ralph, Swiss Toni, Bob Fleming et al.) has continued writing for TV, as well as penning a series of novels for adults, but it is as an author of children’s fiction that he has found his greatest success. A huge Bond fan, Higson was approached by the Ian Fleming Estate to pen a Young Bond series. It was a storming success, and Higson decided to continue writing books for kids.

Following a similar vein of juvenile protagonists and action sequences, his latest novel, The Enemy, sees Higson strike out into horror territory. Set in London after a plague has killed the majority of adults, the remaining few left as mindless, ravening beasts, it follows a group of kids as they attempt to survive. By turns gripping and horrific, we’re sure it’ll be a hit.

Death Ray: The Enemy is a great book, it’s really quite horrifying and scary.

Charlie Higson: That was my plan, just scare the shit out of some children!

DR: What’s the ideal number of kids traumatised?

CH: Millions would be nice! It’s amazing actually, kids are into scary stuff and horror. I mean, we did a launch at the London Tombs. There’s various things to look at, but the basis of the place is a walkthrough underground, through the ancient vaults beneath London Bridge, in the complete dark, while various people dressed as zombies leap out at you. My eldest two kids were there, and they are really into horror. They were pretty blase about it, they’d been to the London dungeon, and they were sort of laughing, they came out and they were absolutely shitting themselves! But the thing was they were then on this massive high for the rest of the evening, just incredibly exhilarated, talking about this stuff, so you could see that it had really given them a jolt, and I think that’s one of the joys of scary things, it is experiencing these emotions that you are not used to. What also struck me in the queue there, was that I’m going to start getting a lot of children dressed in black turning up at signings that I didn’t used to get. You realise what a big thing horror is for kids these days.

DR: Surely sneaking off to watch a horror movie without your parents knowing, has been a rite of passage for a long time.

CH: It always has been. Growing up in the 60s, for us it was Hammer Horror films, late night on TV. I mean, those today wouldn’t be x-certificate, 18s, they’d probably be 12s. Kids do have a greater tolerance for it, Harry Potter in the 60s would have been an x-certificate! You know, the worst thing was in the queue at the launch there was this tiny little girl, she can’t have been much more than ten, and I was like, ‘What’s the scariest film that you’ve seen?’ and she said ‘Hmm, I think probably Saw‘. She was really scared by the clown, I asked her and she wasn’t bothered by the gore. And her parents were there, with her! I mean, I wouldn’t let my ten year old watch Saw. I did let him watch Alien though.

DR: I think there’s a bit of a difference between, to my mind, something that is obviously fantasy like Alien and real people hurting real people…

CH: Yeah, nasty things, like you get in Eastenders! But it’s funny, my 10-year-old will happily watch Jaws or Alien, but he was absolutely terrified of Mathilda, because the teacher in it he found really scary, it was something he could relate to his own life.

DR:  Why go for horror, you’ve done Bond…

CH: I love genre fiction, I’ve got no time for literary fiction. I love thrillers, and the scary books as well. I wanted to do something that was different to Young Bond, I wanted to do something contemporary, in a different genre, something that wasn’t just repeating the same tricks. As a teenager I loved horror movies, so I thought if I can give some of that vibe to younger kids in a book, that would be good, and if you do have a book that really has a big emotional impact on someone then they will remember it for a long time.

DR: Zombies are really big at the moment. When did they get their claws into you?

CH: I’ve been into zombies ever since seeing Night of the Living Dead in the 70s. There’s something fascinating about zombies, but this explosion of zombie stuff recently, most of that has come since I made the decision to start writing the book. And my ten-year-old, he’s absolutely obsessed with zombies, they scare him, a lot, he won’t watch the zombie films, but they fascinate him.

In a kids book, particularly mine where you are dealing with ideas of violence and death, you have to be a bit careful about killing people willy-nilly, but the great thing about zombies is that you can do what you like to them. They are a nice safe target, they’re not controversial on any level. They are a perfect enemy for a kids book, because the kids can quite happily kill ’em, without getting into trouble.

DR: Another thing that is highlighted very well is that the book is that these are the people that used to protect them.

CH: I like that idea of sort of kids versus adults, it taps into the games you play with children, the classic game of being a scary monster and chasing kids around the house and them hiding and them getting too scared, getting overexcited and crying. And then you get a little bit scared doing it, because you have scared them so much. That goes right back to fairytales, little people facing up to ogres and giants, and the ogres and the witches and the giants trying to eat the children, basically. I mean that kind of idea, of adults being scary, out to consume you, is quite a potent one.

DR: What used to scare me as a kid was the feeling of being helpless in the face of something much stronger than you, which you touch on, but your kids aren’t helpless are they?

CH: I wanted to give them a sense of empowerment through the book. It’s not like Lord of the Flies, which is about children turning into savages when left to their own devices, it’s about actually children ganging together and helping each other and being strong in the face of all this. There’s a more positive message there, it’s not utterly bleak.