The Curse Of The Curse


There are a couple of books that have entirely vanished in my occasionally ropey oeuvre. One is ‘Breathe’, a small press thriller I knocked out at great speed, and the other was a YA novel updating a Greek legend.

‘The Curse of Snakes’ was truly cursed. Timing is everything, and everything conspired against me in its writing. First, I hit the problem of my readers’ ages. I’m not a fan of placing age categories on my books – as a child I was reading above my actual age, as I think most voracious readers do. You don’t pick up a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ and find an ‘Suitable for boys aged 12-14’ sticker on it, do you? (At least, I hope not.)

I had written the novel ‘Calabash’ with a young protagonist, but never imagined its readership being limited by age. I figured whether you were young or old you’d find something in it that rang a bell. The same was true of ‘The Curse of Snakes’, but I very much wanted to write in the voice of its teenaged hero. I had written a few short stories with teenaged protagonists and enjoyed myself, so why not a novel creepily updating the Medusa legend to an ordinary London park?

Well, it turned out that there were several reasons why not. First, my new publisher nailed an age bracket on it and wanted me to trim out everything not ‘age appropriate’. I cut the material, rewrote and cut again. We fought over one particular scene toward the end of the book that I absolutely loved. My editor removed it, I put it back, and we played this game for ages, with me hoping I’d eventually wear her down. No such luck; I didn’t and I hated the result. The publisher had promised to set up an amazing interactive website for it, which turned out to consist of a visibly bored PA filming me on her phone. We went through a ridiculous number of cover designs, most of them appallingly cheesy.

Things got worse as not one but two terrible Medusa films came out. ‘Clash of the Titans’ and ‘Percy Jackson’ killed any remaining interest in the subject just as my book was about to be launched. Although I was very proud of the novel I think about eight people bought it. ‘Th Curse of Snakes’ was originally called ‘Hellion’, because I was going to write six Hellion novels, and even wrote plots for all of them – but the book barely appeared so it remained a one-off, rather like ‘Breathe’.

I was glad I found room in the novel to mention the Crazy Rainbow Lady.

18 comments on “The Curse Of The Curse”

  1. Mike says:

    No part of that film made any sense whatsoever.
    I am nervous about what goes on in the heads of some people.
    Soon I shall never leave the house

  2. Brooke says:

    What Mike said.

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    I always knew rainbows weren’t natural and that Zippy, George and Bungle were the spearhead of a government conspiracy to turn us into Guinea Pigs and possibly Gerbals.

    I wonder what she made of rainbows in oily puddles.

    Age apropreate good grief, censorship in other words. My little sister’s Ladybird Book of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde still had Hyde stomping the child, still one of the nastiest scenes in a book. It is like all those PG 13 horror films, dull and pointless.

    Have you ever thought of doing any teenage protagonists recently, like Bryant and May, although you’d have to recon the story as they say in the Super Hero genre.


  4. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I spent an afternoon trying to explain to my mother in law why you couldn’t walk under a rainbow and see it from the other side. Perhaps some of the rainbow craziness was because science wasn’t thought of as a suitable subject for women until fairly recently.
    When some of us wanted to do A level physics, we had to go to the boys school over the road because there wasn’t a teacher at our school who could teach it.
    The comments the teacher made about having girls in his class would probably get him sacked now.

  5. Liz Thompson says:

    At one time, all folktale collections, all myth retellings, were bound to be located in the children’s part of the bookstore. Usually without age classifications in the 1950s and 60s. And books were published for children in the 1980s that wouldn’t be considered suitable today without bowdlerisation and censorship, for example, my daughter’s favourite books, The Whitby Witches series. Libraries tended to apply arbitrary censorship on books by classifying them as ‘restricted’ and keeping them in a locked cupboard. Guess how I know that? It took me 20 minutes of solid argument with a female librarian to liberate a copy of Rabelais that was on my school reading list!
    My daughter read M.RJames at 10, my son enthusiastically had manga comics in his early teens. Books find their own age brackets, they shouldn’t be edited out of the author’s recognition, or classified. We said, if you don’t understand something you read, just ask us and we’ll explain.

  6. eggsy says:

    Oh dearie, dearie me. Somebody get her a darkened room, two blocks of glass and a split curtain (cat flap optional). And let her play, rather than standing slack-jawed looking without observing.
    She must have spent several decades of her life not noticing this phenomenon until she read something on an internet chatroom….

    Similarly as a nipper I read well in advance of my age, often finding the only difference was shoehorned-in passages of, er, adult interest (publishers, eh?). Anyone admit to reading under their age? I have been known to…
    Alas, ”suitable for” ought to be regarded as a guide, like children’s clothes sizes. You don’t try to force a sprog into ill-fitting clothes because they have the right age on the label? (Now if we extend the analogy we could usefully say “but they’ll grow into it”….)

  7. eggsy says:

    Oh, sorry, for “read something on an internet chatroom” read “watched lunatics on youtube”.
    Tch. Reading. The very idea.

  8. Ian Mason says:

    Sal and I watched that view, almost dumbfounded, until at the end:

    July 6, 2077 Northern

    scrolled past on the screen.

    Quoth I, “Ah, ‘California’. That explains it.”

    On the subject of age-targeted novels: The “Young Adult” target market has become so prevalent that I know publishers and authors who contract that to “YA” even when speaking to a general audience. Personally I cringe a little but whenever I hear it, partly because it is *so* patronising to their target readers – pool little dears couldn’t cope with something unless it was specially tailored to them – and partially because as a “young adult” my taste was Mervyn Peake, Kafka, Chekov and I would have been deeply insulted to be fed the kind of simplistic bowderised pap that I imagine constitutes a “YA” novel.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    I don’t like age categories except in so far as they provide a rough guide for purchasers (as opposed to readers). My Mother-in-law bought a book for her grandson and I know that he never read it, although I never knew why. I used it later with a class of 12 year olds who were fascinated. You never know what will appeal – or not. Our librarian’s group argued classifications incessantly and about the only thing we agreed on was that full on sex scenes shouldn’t be in a pre teen collection. What individual readers read is up to them. Public libraries used to have two sections -Adults and Children. Most now have Teens as well In our local set in the adult area with Graphic novels running along an overlapping wall (Those are divided between Adult & Teen as well.) No one would think to stop a “child” from taking a book from the adult area, nor vice versa.
    A school where I was substituting for the librarian had a collection of “teen” novels written in simple language for ESL students who wanted something more than “little kids’ books”. I had a mother raging because her eight year old son had borrowed one of them and here he was reading about teenagers out sleeping together and shooting animals. That was an experience for my first day. There were family issues there as well, of course.
    I had students who were not allowed to bring home books with magic in any form. I was not about to undermine parents, but I certainly made sure they knew that I was not about to police their borrowings.
    I enjoyed Hellion but it seemed weak in places and now I know why. I would have had it in my library and wouldn’t have monitored anyone reading it. What angers me the most, Chris, is you being told the age limit and then having to write down to it. Why not mark it for ten and up and then do it however you like?
    My only query of a kid was whether they could read it comfortably. Pick a page at random and read it, bending down a finger at every unfamiliar word. Over 5 and you would be spending all your time with a dictionary, which wouldn’t be fun. Subject matter is up to the reader’s taste. Remember, too, that not everyone reads above their age as kids.

  10. Peter Tromans says:

    Why should books have target or suitable ages? What age group did Caravaggio target with his Medusa or anything else? We should all create what we like and let the reader, viewer or listener decide if it suits them or not.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    I was ill with tonsillitis. I’d read most of my books, and so my dad got me a book from downstairs, before he went to work.
    “You’ll like this – it’s got a map in it” he said, giving me the book, a slim paperback with a blue cover. Then he went to work. I started to read he book, and found I couldn’t put it down, although there were a couple of words that I didn’t know, and which were not in my dictionary. No matter, but I had the feeling that asking about them might be a bad idea. I read the whole book, and was enthralled by it, although I was sure that the last few paragraphs, were, in some way ‘naughty’, but I loved the story – it was so new to me, it was almost shocking.
    That book was ‘Goldfinger’. I was seven. Thanks, dad. You opened my eyes and mind to myriad possibilities.

  12. Roger says:

    “It took me 20 minutes of solid argument with a female librarian to liberate a copy of Rabelais that was on my school reading list!”
    What were you studying, Liz Thompson? Was it the wonderful Urquhart/Motteux “translation” or a modern taming-down or were “all licentious passages …left in the decent obscurity of a learned language”?

  13. Liz Thompson says:

    Neither Roger. It wasn’t in French. It was a translation, but at 14/15 I didn’t take much notice. But I can assure you it was translated in full, with the most amazing detail. Or at any rate, it seemed amazing detail at that age! One thing I learned was the meaning of the word scatalogical.
    The teacher whose list it appeared on, also told us that an unexpurgated copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales could be found in the school library, a matter of some interest, given how many lines had been omitted from our study copies.

  14. Jay Mackie says:

    Breathe was a little gem Chris and it’s actually one of my faves of your work. Very gripping and entertaining and I think I read it in only a few sittings. Would have made a great movie.

  15. John Griffin says:

    We got some of those rainbow types round here. Ignorance abounds in the UK

  16. Ian Luck says:

    When, you have to explain to someone in their mid-twenties what a soldering iron is, or what a vinyl record is, or explain thunder and lightning to a grown woman, then you know something is wrong with the world. It’s rather depressing.
    I’m with the late, great Tony Wilson, of Granada TV and Factory Records fame – he’d ask questions, and then say:
    “If you don’t know the answer, it’s okay – but you really should have read more books.”

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Pity the poor librarian who wants to have a wide range of fiction (and non-fiction) in her school but can”t read everything before purchasing. You develop a feel for various publishers and their age charts. You get to know authors, too, and the change in what is deemed appropriate. It’s public money and you should feel answerable for what you’re providing. Had a father astounded that I didn’t have an “approved list” for purchases. Never had a teacher or principal complain about what I bought. Had kids lining up to help with unpacking, checking packing lists, stamping and acquisitioning books. Not so many wanting to learn Dewy Decimal and help shelve, though.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    The other end of the scale is finding out about something deemed ‘complicated’, and discovering that it is anything but. When I was about 11, everything futuristic seemed to be atomic powered. Imagine my disappointment on finding out that the much touted nuclear power stations were, in fact, little more than horrendously expensive, potentially lethal kettles. I was gutted.

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