I’ve been asked about a hundred times to list ten books that made an impression on me and led me to become a writer. When I sat down to try and do so, I discovered I simply couldn’t, so instead I’m going to do writers who impacted me.
Here’s writer Number 1: Enid Blyton.
To be honest, Blyton is the first writer whose work I really got to know. And the first book I can remember reading by myself was the flagship title in the Noddy series, Noddy goes to Toyland. It’s a very strange story that starts out a bit like Pinnochio, with a toy maker carving a doll out of wood. When the toy maker decides to make a lion next, the doll gets scared and runs off, hiding in the woods, where he is found by Bigears, a brownie, who takes in the lost and naked creature and brings him to Toytown. The first book focuses on Noddy being put on trial to decide whether he’s a toy or not and can stay in his new home. There’s been a lot of revisionism when it comes to Blyton, and Noddy in particular has fallen victim. Looking back, there’s a lot of homo-eroticism (Bigears takes the naked Noddy right to bed when he finds him) racism (the golliwogs get some very bad press) and classism (Bigears is rich, and is treated with respect and given authority. Noddy has nothing and has to prove his worth and earn his right to stay). But as a kid all this went over my head. I just loved the gorgeous artwork, the colourful characters and the imaginative plots. I probably read most of the series before I decided I’d grown out of them. But I was far from finished with Blyton.
In the late 70s/early 80s the televised version of Blyton’s crime-fighting gang, The Famous Five was massively popular, and it prompted me to explore the books.
It would be an understatement to say they were formulaic – how many spies, smugglers and bank robbers can one group of kids come across during their school holidays? And there always seemed to be a secret passageway just around the corner! But the series was simply great fun. Again, today’s readers will be struck by the sexism towards young Ann, who gets told repeatedly that she needs looking after because she’s a girl, and then there’s the whole business with George (real name Georgina) who is obviously trans, but keeps getting told she’s ALMOST as good as a boy and to just get over herself. And don’t get me started on why these children never want to spend a moment at home, but go from boarding school to hiking trips, caravan holidays, camping excursions… basically anything not to spend time with their parents. I also calculated at one stage that by the time the series finished Julian, the eldest of the five, would be in his twenties. But who cares? For me, the Famous Five were like a comfortable jumper. I simply adored them. From this series I graduated on to one of Blyton’s other crime franchises, The Five Find-outers and Dog.
These books were meant for older readers, and were clearly inspired by Agatha Christie. Fatty, the main character in the series, was very Poirot-like, and I used to love his clashes with the unfortunate village policeman, Mr Goon. I’m not going to pretend I ever enjoyed these as much as The Famous Five, but it showed me how a different approach could be applied to similar material with very interesting effect. I think I came across The Magic Faraway Tree books when I was about 10 years old.
The concept for the books is beautifully simple: three children and their parents move to the country to become self-sufficient. There is a wood behind their house which the locals shun, as it is rumoured to be haunted. The children explore it, and find it full of talking animals and fairy-folk, and in the middle of the wood they discover the oldest tree in the world, The Faraway Tree, whose topmost branch reaches so high it touches strange and distant lands. The stories in the three books that make up the series are reminiscent of much sci-fi and fantasy: the children and their friends (Blyton comes up with some truly memorable characters in Moonface, Silky, Saucepan Man, Mr Watsizname, The Angry Pixie, Dame Washalot and so on) go up the tree to visit the lands that come to the top and they invariably get stuck. The tension is created by wondering how they’ll get back and the different ways they manage it. This may seem dull, but it’s not. Blyton’s great gift is her pacing and her limitless imagination. I have read and reread these books to my own children countless times and will again to my grandchildren and have still not tired of them. Just like the others I’ve mentioned the revisionists have been at work: the children were originally called Jo, Bessie and Fanny. In more recent editions you will find Joe, Beth and Frannie. My favourite passage in the books involves the kids getting trapped in Dame Slap’s school for Naughty Pixies, a place where corporal punishment is doled out with wild abandon. In the modern versions, Dame Slap has become Dame SNAP, and she uses harsh tones on her charges. I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t do it for me!
Yet these are small criticisms. If you haven’t read these books do yourself a favour and do so. They are joyful things. And your kids will love you for it.Enid Blyton made me want to read and she definitely inspired me to write. Her books are object lessons in plot, character building and beautiful simplicity of language – not a word is ever out of place.Is she politically incorrect? Of course she is! But so are lots of authors who were products of their time. Explain the bits that jar to your kids and just enjoy the stories.
Here’s writer Number 2: CS Lewis.
I came to CS Lewis through the animated version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which was a staple of the Christmas TV schedule during the late ’70s. I think I was about ten or eleven when I first saw it, and I was immediately entranced by the idea that a different world could be accessed through something as mundane as a bedroom cupboard. There is a beautiful passage at the beginning of the book where Peter and Susan ask the Professor whose house they are staying in (this is set in World War II, when city kids were sent to stay with families in the country to escape the blitz) about the tall tale their younger sister has just told them, how she visited a strange, snowy world by going through an old wooden storage unit. The scientist takes the story quite seriously, and actually talks to the children about Einstein’s many universes theory. I loved that – here was some science to make the whole thing more fun and believable.
I think what I was particularly taken with in that seminal book was how real the children seemed, too. Peter, the older brother, was bossy but doing his best to be responsible. Susan was prissy and a reluctant participant, always wanting to just go home. Lucy was the sweet, slightly coddled youngest child, a bit sheltered by the others. And then there was Edmund… the snotty, jealous middle child who sells them all out for a box of Turkish Delight.
I’ve read and reread the Narnia series many times over the years, and now I can see the very clear Christian allegory in all of the books, but particularly this first one. Narnia is the world before the fall of humanity. The Snow Queen (who we learn in later books is named Lilith, after Adam’s first wife who turned out to be a wrong ‘un and was written out of the Old Testament) is the serpent in the garden. And Aslan, the talking Lion and leaders of the resistance, is (of course) the Christ figure, sacrificing himself to atone for Edmund’s sins and returning to save the day.
But I got none of this on my first reading. I just thought it was a fantastic adventure fantasy story, a work of remarkable imagination and world-building. I collected the whole series over the space of a couple of years. Some I loved almost as much as the first one – Prince Caspian is a smaller tale about a political upheaval, based on some aspects of religious reformation in England’s history.
There’s lots of sword fighting and evil dwarfs and a talking badger. What’s not to like? The Voyage of the Dawn Treader I wasn’t so fond of. It gets a bit hallucinogenic, with one of the characters getting turned into a dragon to teach him a lesson in humility. The Last Battle is based on the book of Enoch, with the forces of Heaven and Hell facing off against one another, a skirmish that is sparked by an ape that gets ideas above its station (a comment on Darwinism, perhaps).
In the end, I tend to feel the adventure and fantasy aspects of the stories, which are all well-written, expertly paced and feature wonderful characters, outweigh the at times heavy-handed allegorical undertones. Many of us writers are guilty of weaving messages into our text (a recent review of my own Dunnigan series accuses me of just that), so I can forgive Lewis for trying to push Christianity on an unsuspecting group of young readers who were only in it for the sword-fights and the talking mice.
By the time I was thirteen I’d had my fill of Lewis and Narnia, but my brother, Karl, wanted more. He found a new series by the author in Wexford library. This one was science fiction – in fact it was called The Space Trilogy.
Celestine, the lady who worked in the library warned my brother that these were much more grown up than the Narnia books, but like all good librarians, she didn’t stop him from giving them a go.
He loved them, and persuaded me to try them out, too.
I would say these stories resonated with me even more than Narnia did, and I have gone back to them many, many times. In fact, I have a framed triptych of the covers on the wall of my office at work. They meant THAT much to me.
In the books Elwin Ransom is an academic, an expert in medieval literature who was wounded in WWI and has no family. He is brilliant, open-minded and selfless, and as the three books evolve, he becomes something more than human.
In the first book, Ransom travels to Mars, where he meets several different races and learns that Earth has been cut off from the rest of the solar system due to having fallen to a demonic force in its early history. In the second book he travels to Venus, just as a new race of humanoids are emerging, and sees what we could have been as a species. And in the third book (my personal favourite) Ransom, now a kind of super-being due to the knowledge he has gained from his travels, does battle with the demons that have earth in thrall, and through self-sacrifice and courage, saves humanity.
Just as with Narnia, these books can be read as allegory, this time encapsulating Lewis’s philosophical ideas about the very nature of the human experience, but for me they have always been deeply intelligent sci-fi, not to mention setting the blueprint for some of the better and more well reasoned superhero stories (Alan Moore’s Miracleman relies heavily on Book 3, That Hideous Strength).
Lewis examines the real impact of super-beings doing battle on the streets of London – thousands are massacred as buildings are shattered and collapse, the Thames boils due to lazer bolts, cooking great crowds of people alive in its steam, children are used as living projectiles by the evil force, and Ransom vainly tries to catch them, but of course their bones shatter as they careen into him.
This is dark, grown-up stuff.
In college, I read some of Lewis’s writings on faith and religion (the ones where he’s up-front about it!) and I found them really interesting. My favourite is called The Screwtape Letters, and it contains reproductions of scripts he wrote for a series of lectures about Christian thinking that were broadcast on BBC Radio.
They’re not for everyone, and I’m the last person to force religion in any form on you. But if you’re interested in that sort of thing, they’re worth a look. Why do I love CS Lewis? Because he took something very ordinary and made it magical. He took a group of absolutely normal children, who had never done anything unusual or special, put them in extraordinary circumstances, and showed how they found their own nobility and strength. There probably is sexism in Lewis’s work (the Snow Queen is certainly a fallen woman) but in the main, the girls fight side-by-side with the boys and are just as tough and kick-ass.In Lewis’s books centaurs and fauns and dwarves and Dryads live side-by-side, and college lecturers become super-heroes and save the world.
Those are my kind of books.
Here’s Number 3, and it’s not an author, but an entire series: Moby Books Illustrated Classics.
I’m in second class in primary school, and my teacher is a man called Pat Goff. If I had to identify a teacher who had more to do with my becoming a writer than any other, it would be Pat Goff. The year we had Pat, we spent more time on creative stuff than any other teacher I’ve ever encountered. We were encouraged to write stories. We made papier mache dinosaurs. We drew comic books. He read to us every day. And he operated a class lending library. Every Monday he laid out a collection of books on a large table, and we got to borrow one until the following Monday. The first time he did this, I noticed among the titles a bunch that looked completely different than all the others. They were physically smaller – 5 1/2 ” by 4″, and seemed to have a lot more pages. Their covers were really eye-catching, seemingly painted in an impressionistic style (although I wouldn’t have known to call it that at the time). I recognised all the names, as these were books I’d heard of. These were classics, books I’d always been led to believe were just for adults. I would have been about 8 at the time, so the idea of tackling stories like this was really challenging.But Pat saw me eyeballing one, and suggested I give it a go. The book I picked was The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, by Howard Pyle,and I remember bringing it home and devouring it overnight.
I read it again the following night, and the night after that. With the Moby editions, I was to learn, each page of text was accompanied by a page that had a picture, drawn very much in a comic-book style (as an adult, I know they were attempting to mimic the work of an artist like Neal Adams, who was on a hugely successful run on Batman in the late 70s), and this made the books really easy for a child to read.
The Moby Classics have been criticised in some circles for being abridged verions of these classic stories, but what they did, for me, was act as a gateway to complete editions., which I sought out when I was older. These little books made me hungry for more. Abridged or not, by the time I was eleven years old I could walk you through the plot of most classic stories, and knew many sections of text and dialogue by heart.How can this be a bad thing?
Because I read Robin Hood and loved it, I immediately wanted another. Moby, an American company based out of New York, published 36 of these gems between 1977 and 1983, and they proved hugely popular – they even gave some away as the gifts in Happy meals for a time. The next book I attempted was Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
I’d seen the Disney movie, and adored it, but I found that I loved the book even more. I almost wore out the pages that told how the Nautilus was attacked by the Giant Squid, so many times did I read them. Young as I was, I understood the environmental message, and the commentary on colonialism. I remember having long conversations with my pals about whether or not Captain Nemo was a good guy or a bad guy, and we were all a bit perplexed when we decided he was a little bit of both. This was complicated stuff. 20,000 Leagues led me to Around the World in 80 Days. Around the World in 80 Days led me to The Count of Monte Cristo. And so on.
What the Moby Illustrated Classic series taught me was that there is never anything to be afraid of between the covers of a book. I’d never had a great desire to read Moby Dick, for example, but one of my pals told me he enjoyed it, and advised me to risk it. I remember starting it tentatively, but within five pages I was hooked. The illustrations in the book are still the images that come to my mind when I think about the White Whale, and Queequeg remains one of my favourite characters in literature.
The greatest debt I owe this series of books, however, is that they introduced me to Sherlock Holmes. Their version of The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first Holmes story I ever read, and the first horror story I ever read, and it sparked a love affair with both genres that remains with me to this day.
I was fascinated by the character of Holmes, knowing even then that there was much about him that was not likeable. Yet he commanded the attention of the reader completely. He was COMPELLING. That resonated.
Over the years I’ve lost most of my collection of Moby Illustrated Classics. But I still have my first one, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (my mother saw how much I loved it, and bought me my own copy), I still have 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and I still have Moby Dick. They all have loose pages, and they’re all creased and well thumbed, but I wouldn’t part with them.These books mark a hugely important step in my evolution as a writer, but more importantly, as a READER. They taught me to relish stories. And that is a powerful thing.
Here’s Number 4, and it’s not an author, but a type of book: comics – particularly British comic books.
I can remember being bought comic books when I was very, very young. The very first one I think I encountered featured Andy Pandy, which means I must have been given it in the early 1970s. I remember almost nothing about it other than the cover (Andy Pandy was a talking doll, but I don’t recall much else about him). I think, though, that the first comic book I read regularly was TV Comic, which ran from the late 1960s until the early 80s, and featured scripts based on popular TV shows – some were American (I can definitely remember Charlie’s Angels and the Six Million Dollar Man) but most were English – Doctor Who, Basil Brush, even some soap operas made it in there. They had some eccentric stuff, too – I became a big fan of Laurel and Hardy based on a strip in TV Comic.
There is still a loyal following for this anachronistic publication, particularly the Doctor Who strips, but the moment I truly fell in love with comic books was when I started to read The Beano, which has become a tradition in my family, handed down from me to all my kids.
The Beano is, I believe, as perfect a piece of creative brilliance as you’ll find.
Think about the beautiful simplicity of many of those stories. The concept of most of them is this: kids are smart and resourceful, and will, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, get the better of the adults in their lives. You see it played out again and again in strip after strip – Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger, Ball Boy, Little Plum, The Bash Street Kids, all pit children against the tyrannical rule of adult authority, and the kids win.
Growing up as I did in the grim, grey, miserable Ireland of the 1970s and 80s, a message like this was liberating and joyful. In the days when I collected the Beano, Dennis or Minnie often ended up getting spanked at the end of their adventures, and in the days before corporal punishment was banned from schools (and, let’s face it, before that ban was actually enforced) this was a familiar experience for most kids who read the stories. But in the Beano, it was a hollow victory for the parent or teacher delivering the punishment, because every reader knew their heroes would be back wreaking havoc the following week.
What I loved then, and what I still love, about comics like The Beano – and I soon discovered many other similar publications, like Whizzer and Chips, which was two comics in one, or Cheeky Comic, which was a bit lewder than The Beano and always reminded me of a Carry On film in comic form – was the economy of story-telling.
If you think about your average two page comic strip, you are dealing with perhaps 12 to 14 pictures, with maybe 100 to 150 words, often even less, to get your story told. This means that the writer has to be incredibly economical, and the artist has to communicate vast quantities of information in their 14 images.In a comic like The Beano the writer and artist was often the same person. In adulthood I learned the names of people like Trevor Baxendale and Ken Reid, but as a kid I had no idea who was behind my favourite characters and their weekly antics.I continued to read the Beano well into my teens, but by then i had discovered comic books could be serious and challenging as well as funny and mischevious. My introduction to this was through the pages of one of the most radical and remarkable comics of its day: 2000AD, which was the home of stories like Judge Dredd, about a fascist police force; Strontium Dog, about a post-apocalyptic Britain where mutants were forced to work as bounty-hunters because they couldn’t get any other work; Rogue Trooper, a geneticallty modified soldier fighting a lone war on a planet where conditions are so bad humans wouldn’t survive them; Nemesis the Warlock, set in a future where Earth is governed by a new version of the Spanish Inquisition, but this time it’s not heretics, it’s all non-human life that is being wiped out.
2000AD was political, violent, occasionally shocking, but remarkably well written and thought-provoking. The art work was gorgeous, and even though this was a comic aimed squarely at adolescents, I soon realised that the editors, writers and artists (people like Steve MacManus, Ian Gibson, Alan Moore, Pat Mills, Alan Grant) were treating us readers with respect. The economic and cultural crises of the 80s were examined through satire and science fiction allegory, and it was wonderful to explore these topics in articulate and colourfully rendered stories. 2000AD led me on to what remains for me one of the greatest comics ever created: Warrior.
Edited by Dez Skinn, this was an experimental and daring publication that was the first home for two ground-breaking stories, both penned by the contrary genius that is Alan Moore: V for Vendetta and Marvelman (later published as Miracleman when Marvel comics came for their slice of the pie). V for Vendetta, set in the Britain of George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most powerful pieces of writing and art you will ever encounter, David Llyod’s dark, brooding images matching Moore’s poetic words perfectly.
V is an inspired creation, a force of absolute chaos and anarchy forged in the melting pot of fascism and cruelty. If you haven’t read it, you’ve truly missed something special. The image of V, that Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of revolution, has become synonymous with the Occupy Movement, but the book long predates it.Miracleman is based on a British rip-off of Captain Marvel, published by L Miller and Son in 1954. Alan Moore takes what was a daft, Golden Age character and twists it into something mould-breaking – a real world application of what would happen if super-heroes existed in the space the rest of us inhabit, where a falling building will kill countless people and the appearance of someone with apparently godlike powers can alter the course of human history. We’ve since seen stuff like this examined in movies like Man of Steel, and of course Moore’s subsequent graphic novel, Watchmen, pushed the idea to its logical conclusion, but Miracleman was where it began, and it remains a hugely important story for me.Warrior was, alas, short-lived, and I drifted on to another UK title, Captain Britain, from the also tragically brief run of Marvel UK.
By then, Frank Miller had published the seminal (and never bested) Dark Knight Returns, and comics were changed forever.I still read a lot of comics, of all kinds. I collect annuals from UK comics of the 60s, 70s and 80s, and I try and keep up with the changes in the medium. With the MCU and DC Cinematic Universe, comics have never been so popular. But for me, those exciting days of the 80s, when it all seemed fresh and new and just a little bit dangerous, are very special.Comics taught me that simplicity is usually best. That you should always treat your reader as if they are a thinking, intelligent person. That no subject, regardless how seemingly challenging, is taboo so long as you approach it with sensitivity and deftness of touch. That pride in your work and integrity will always be rewarded in the end.Without comics, I never would have become the writer I am today. They formed me and my approach to art perhaps more than any other media I consumed.
Here’s Number 5, and again, it’s not an author, but a type of book: movie and TV novelizations.
My fourth class teacher was a man called Seamus Griffin. Right after the lunchbreak every day he would read to us for half an hour to give us a chance to settle down after the boistrousness of our yard time. I noticed right away that the material my new teacher chose was somewhat different to the usual classroom fare. He read us funny stories by Brendan Behan – this was the first time I heard Behan’s brilliant short story, The Confirmation Suit, for example. Generally, for the first month or so, story time involved a short story each day, which we would all look forward to. Then one day, Mr Griffin informed us we were going to read a full book together. A novel. The name of this book was Time Bandits, and during the two weeks it took to read, I had no idea it was the novelization of a movie. I just thought it was the most exciting, imaginative and subversive adventure story I’d ever heard.
For those of you not in the know, Time Bandits is a 1981 fantasy film directed by Terry Gilliam. It is the story of a young boy named Kevin who loves history and mythology, but whose parents are emotionally neglectful of him, far more interested in cashing in on the ‘greed is good’ consumerism of the early 80s. One night, while Kevin is sleeping, a knight on horesback rides out of his wardrobe door. Convinced something strange is going on, Kevin is waiting for the armoured interloper the following night, but this time six strangely dressed dwarves tumble into his room. Kevin learns these dwarves work for The Supreme Being – God – repairing gaps in creation. They have, however, decided to capitalize on these holes, using them to travel from one moment in history to another, stealing treasure as they go. The dwarves are being pursued by both God and Satan, and they take Kevin along with them as they flee.
The novelization, by Charles Alverson, is pretty faithful to the movie (which I didn’t see for many years after this literary introduction), meaning it is dark, funny, satirical, irreverent and anarchic in equal measure. As a 10 year old growing up in Holy Catholic Ireland, a story that portrayed God as incompetent and largely absent was just too delicious for words. When Mr Griffin finished reading the book, I gingerly asked him if I could borrow it, and to my delight, he handed it over without a pause. I took it home and devoured it all over again that weekend. When I returned it to my teacher on Monday morning, he grinned and, gave me another book in exchange, the noveilzation of Star Wars, by George Lucas himself!
At this stage, I hadn’t seen the film (I would later that same year), but I was almost beside myself with delight.
I vividly remember reading Star Wars. I could smell the sand and the diesel smoke on the streets of Mos Eisley. In my imagination, Greedo was a scaly, hissing, terrifying being (and there was no issue about who shot first). I was breathless at the scale of the Death Star, and I fell head-over-heels in love with Leia before ever setting eyes on Carrie Fisher.
That book was like a fever dream. I relished every word.
In the early 1980s, VCR players were still a new thing in Ireland. There was no streaming, and you might see a movie twice or even three times in the cinema if you could afford to, but once it left the theatre you might have to wait years before that movie was shown again (usually in heavily edited form) on TV.
This meant that the only way you could relive the joy of your favourite films was through the novels that were invariably published, often in advance of the movie hitting the Irish cinemas. My brother and I would pool our pocket money and buy the book versions of our favourite films, rotating who got to read them first. It’s interesting that I recall some being wonderful (like Lucas’s Star Wars) and some not so good (the novel of Ghostbusters, for example, was written in the present tense by Richard Mueller, and I really struggled with it). Good or not, however, buying the books was a huge part of the whole movie experience.
It also sparked in me a true hunger to have a go at writing movie noveliizations myself. I remember thinking that this was a job I would truly love – in my mind’s eye, the writer had to be on set, soaking up the atmosphere, getting a sense of what the world of the movie was like so he could communicate all the sights, sounds and smells. I wanted some of that action!
I started practising by taking a notebook to the cinema with me and taking notes as I watched. I then went home and wrote my own versions. The first one I attempted was Raiders of the Lost Ark. I even did illustrations. Some of my friends read it, and told me they enjoyed my retelling, and that cemented my determination to continue in my quest to score the job of my dreams.Other movie books I remember loving were William Kotzwinkle’s adaptation of ET and James Kahn’s visceral version of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Around this time I learned that it wasn’t just movies that got the book treatment, but TV shows, too. I discovered the Target novelizations of Doctor Who stories through a second-hand bookshop in St Patrick’s Square in Wexford. The first one I bought was Terrance Dick’s Talons of Weng Chiang. I had never seen the TV version, so was completely drawn into the Gothic horror of the story (I was COMPLETELY terrified by the idea of a ventriloquist’s dummy coming to murderous life).
I immediately bought more. I have wonderful memories of a rainy camping trip with my parents that should have been miserable but was saved because I spent the entire weekend reading Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowman in my tent – time well spent, as far as I was concerned.
TV brought me to Douglas Adams, too. RTE started showing the 1970s BBC version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy late on Tuesday evenings, and my brother and I watched it on the grainy black and white TV in our bedroom. I loved it, and immediately sought out the book. It became one of my favourite sci-fi novels of all time.
Interestingly, there was one book I read because I THOUGHT it was an adaptation of a movie, but it had not, in fact, been made into a film when I bought it. That was Isaac Asimov’s seminal short story collection I, Robot. It was another find from that secondhand store, and I remember being drawn to the cover, which I assumed was a shot from whichever film the book was based on.I hoovered it, and its sequel, The Rest of the Robots, up in quick succession. For about a month all I could think about were those Three Laws of Robotics – I was trying to work out an idea for a book in which a robot finds a way to circumvent those famous rules and runs amok. I never could find one that Asimov hadn’t already used in one of his stories, though.
What these books did for me was massively important – they GOT ME WRITING. I’ve always said that the only way to truly be a writer is to actually WRITE. There’s no shortcut – you absolutely must write. It was these novelizations that pushed me to pick up a pen.For that I am truly, deeply grateful.
Here’s Number 6: Stephen King.
I read and wrote right the way through primary school, but my secondary school years were not good for my literary development. While I loved the poems and short stories we studied in English, and had two very good English teachers in Jim Campbell and Tom Sheridan, I had a pretty miserable five years in St Peter’s College, during which I sought solace in rock music and comic books, media where the anger and rebellion were much more upfront than in the novels I had enjoyed in the past.
I did try my hand at some pretty awful poetry, but other than that I expressed my creativity through being part of a rock band, an outlet I used as a vehicle to thumb my nose at a world I felt had let me down.
I didn’t pick up a book again until the Christmas after I completed my Leaving Cert. I was working in a unit for adults with intellectual disabilities, and we were on our yuletide break. One evening my parents were watching a movie I wasn’t interested in, and someone had given me a gift of Stephen King’s Firestarter. I recollect idly picking it up and absent-mindedly reading the first few pages. I was still reading two hours later – and I knew I had stumbled onto something special.
Firestarter explores many of the themes King returns to regularly in his work: parenthood, the resilience of children, paranoia about the motivations of the people holding the reins of power, the innate potential of the subconscious as an escape from the tougher realities we face daily… all this is wrapped up in a pacy, violent thriller with incredibly vivid characters, told in Kings direct, conversational style.
The father/daughter combination of Andy and Charlene McGee are beautifully drawn, a pair on the run from a shadowy agency who want to utilise their telekinetic powers, and John Rainbird, the operative sent to track them down, is terrifying and compelling all at once.
I remember finishing it one Sunday morning, having purposely woken up early to get some reading in before church (I was still going to keep my mother happy), and lying back and thinking that it was as if I had come home. King’s books had, somehow, reignited my love of the novel.The wonderful thing about King’s back catalogue is that it is broad and varied. Having enjoyed the ‘horror thriller’ style of Firestarter, I sought out another title that seemed similar. The Dead Zone didn’t disappoint – Johnny Smith is a believable, flawed character, a gentle, thoughtful man who finds himself swept up in events he has no control over but is honour bound to face.
Smith is a worthy addition to the gallery of teachers and writers who make up King’s heroes.Then my girlfriend (later to be my wife) Deirdre loaned me a copy of the King novel that was to become my favourite, and it still holds the title. The Stand.
In this post-Covid world, the novel, King’s longest, seems remarkably prophetic, telling the story of Captain Trips, a virus that wipes out a 99.4% of the population. Those surviving on the American continent divide into two disparate societies: one in Nebraska, led by Mother Abagail, a 108 year old guitar-playing former preacher. The other is based in Las Vegas and revolves around Randall Flagg, the Walking Man, a supernatural figure who, we learn, is either The Devil or a demon in human form.
As a confrontation draws closer, themes like the importance of community, the power of democracy and what it means to be human are all explored through a rich tapestry of characters.
King has admitted he was attempting to create a book along the same lines as Lord of the Rings when he sat down to write The Stand, and I think he succeeded. Tolkien’s work is a comment on the divides created by the Industrial Revolution and the evils of war, while King’s magnum opus is a comment on class and racial troubles the US was experiencing as the 1970s careened into the 80s and the economic fallout libertarian politics was forcing on the West .
In his long essay on horror, Danse Macabre, King writes with passion about how horror and allegory go hand-in-hand. King is a master of symbolism. Salem’s Lot, his great vampire novel, is a dark examination of middle-class conformity in middle America, as well as a deep dive into the responsibilities of fatherhood.
The Shining casts alcoholism (something King fought for years) as a kind of demonic possession, and also takes a hard look at the agony of writer’s block. Cujo, the novel King has no memory of writing due to his drug and alcohol usage in the early 80s, is a study on domestic violence and how it can trap women and children in awful circumstances.
Perhaps the most famous and iconic of King’s books is IT, the story of a group of friends in a small town periodically haunted by Pennywise, a demonic force that takes the form of a child murdering, dancing clown.
Due to the power of King’s prose (and an inspired performance by Tim Curry in the TV mini-series), clown phobia is now a fully accepted and pretty wide-spread thing. The book is another long, intensely detailed character study, divided into two distinct sections, one when the Losers’ Club are in their early teens, the other when they are adults and must return to finish the battle they began with Pennywise when they were kids.
IT is about the power of memory, the importance of friendship, the impact of childhood trauma and the evil of bullying. King has since said that he really wanted to create a monster as impactfull as the Troll in the Three Billy Goats Gruff, lying in wait under the bridge for unsuspecting prey to wander past. Who would disagree that the image of Pennywise, peering out the sewer grate at the tragic Georgie, has not achieved folk-tale status?
To illustrate, my grandson who is 7 years old, told me the story of IT only yesterday as we went for a walk (he got a few of the details wrong, but in the main he was pretty close). A friend had told the story to him, and he was anxious to pass it on.
That, ladies and gentlemen is how folktales grow.
King is still going strong, and has done some of his best work in recent years – The Bill Hodges series is a case in point, but I also loved From a Buick 8 and Doctor Sleep. I recently listened to the audiobook of The Outsider, and couldn’t wait for my dog walks and to mow the lawn so I could plug back into the story.
What King taught me more than anything else is that plot is everything. If it doesn’t serve the story, it doesn’t belong. Take those two long novels I mentioned, The Stand and It. Those books have multiple characters and cover years of time. But each strand is carefully teased out and every word pays off – the stories are layered and complex and beautifully thought out.And the characters always come alive. You WANT to spend time with them. Stephen King rekindled my faith in books, took me by the hand and brought me to beautiful, dark and terrifying places. I have no doubt I’ll be visiting some of those places with him again, very soon.
Here’s Number 7: Robert B Parker.
1994 was a big year for me.
I finished college, I got married, and I started my career in Social Care, getting a job in residential care with the HSE (or the Eastern Health Board, as it was known at the time). This meant commuting several times a week from Waterford, where Deirdre and I were living while she completed her degree, to Athy where the unit was based.
The job gave me a lot of time to read. There were long bus and train journeys and even longer night shifts. The public library in Waterford became a valued resource, and I made the decision to push myself out of my literary comfort zone as much as I could. I hadn’t read crime fiction since devouring my father’s copy of the Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes in my early teens, so I spent a few months working my way through the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
I loved them, but it was obvious they were writing about a place and a time far removed from the one I was living in, and the isolation of Marlowe and his ilk felt very alien to me, newly married and working as part of a tight team in my new job.
One morning I was on my way to catch the bus and popped into the library to grab a book for the trip. I was late, and didn’t have time to hunt about as I usually did, so I just grabbed the first title that came to hand in the crime section. It was a hardback with a white cover, a purple rose with a black line smeared across it in the middle of the whit plain. The book was Crimson Joy, the author was Robert B Parker, and I was about to embark on a relationship with a writer and a character that would become colossally important to me.
Crimson Joy, I was to discover, is the 15th novel in Parker’s Spenser series. Spenser (we never learn his first name) is a Boston based Private Investigator, a military veteran and ex-boxer who was an investigator for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office before he was fired for insubordination. Spenser is modeled on Chandler’s Marlowe, but he is also very different. In the series he is in a committed relationship with one woman, Susan Silverman, a Jewish psychiatrist. The ups and downs of their relationship form a big part of the ongoing plot, with them separating at one point due to very realistic, complex problems.
Susan is a challenging character – there are times she is sparkling and funny, but plenty of others when she comes off as smug, snobby and VERY high maintenance. That said, Spenser does get a bit self-congratulatory as the books evolve, so you end up thinking they deserve one another.
The other main character in the novels is Spenser’s friend, Hawk (we assume he wasn’t given the name at birth, but we never learn what his real name is), an enforcer and freelance thug Spenser once boxed against and who he calls on to help him out on a regular basis. Spenser, you see, operates a personal code of ethics which prevents him from crossing certain moral lines in the sand. When those lines need to be stepped over, Hawk is always there. It’s a bit of a cop-out, but means that Spenser can maintain the high moral ground.
Crimson Joy revolves around a serial killer who is murdering women in Boston, and the clues begin to suggest that one of Susan’s patients may well be the main suspect. Havoc ensues.
My own writing owes a major debt to Parker. His books are dialogue heavy, feature short chapters and give just the amount of description you need to get by. Parker once wrote: ‘If your characters walk into a bar, do you really need to spend three paragraphs telling your readers what the bar looks like? Chances are they’ve been in a bar and can fill in most of the details themselves.’ I think there is a LOT to be said for that.
I love that Parker includes scenes of Spenser cooking (I put some of that into my own books) and pursuing his hobbies (he likes to work out and jog, I like to include music sessions and Doctor Who). At one point Spenser gets a dog, Pearl, and she becomes a feature of the books, too – I have long included my dogs in my books.
In these novels, we get more than the standard lonely detective. We get a real, living person and a true, rich life.
If you only ever read one Spenser book, let me propose a beauty. Early Autumn is my favourite.
Our hero is asked to act as a bodyguard for a teenaged boy, Paul Giacomin, whose parents are going through a divorce. Paul’s mother is afraid her husband will snatch the lad, and Spenser is there to make sure it doesn’t happen. As the sleuth spends time around the family, he learns that neither parent truly wants or cares for the boy, and he abducts him, much to Susan’s chagrin.The book is beautifully written, surprisingly touching, and incredibly compulsive reading. Paul Giacomin, who becomes a regular player in the books, starts out as a genuinely obnoxious kid, who becomes more human by degrees. The scenes where Susan is clearly pissed off that this teenaged monster has become a part of their little family are brilliantly paced and very realistic.
Another great introduction to the series is Looking for Rachel Wallace.
Spenser is asked to be head of security on the literary tour of a feminist writer and lesbian activist, Rachel Wallace. Despite his best efforts, she refuses to cooperate with his safety regime and is taken. Spenser suspects a family of right wing extremists, and effectively turns Boston upside down as he searches for her.
Parker wrote 40 Spenser novels, and it is true that the law of diminishing returns does kick in. Some of the later titles (The Professional springs to mind as a perfect case-in-point) are formulaic to the extreme. I must assert, however, that even a bad Robert B Parker book is better than the best work of a lot of his competitors. And there are some classics still to be discovered: Potshot is Parker’s answer to The Magnificent Seven, as we follow Spenser as he recruits a team of shooters from among the good and bad guys he has encountered in previous novels to defend a desert town against a gang of desperadoes.
It is completely daft and brilliant fun.
You’ve probably encountered the TV series from the 1980s, Spenser: For Hire, with Robert Urich and Avery Brooks. Might I just suggest you forget about it altogether and treat it as a wholly different thing to the books? Similarly, let us not mention the new Netflix version with Mark Wahlberg. Frankly, I shudder just thinking about it.
Another great series Dr Parker brought to us are the Jesse Stone books. Stone is a former baseball player and LAPD detective who is forced out of the force due to his alcoholism. He gets a job as head of the Paradise Police Department (Paradise is a small seaside community in Massachusetts), a position he is given in the hopes his drunkenness will prevent him from detecting an organised crime ring operating out of the town, which many of the Town Council are involved in. Stone, of course, gradually pulls himself together and shuts the scam down, although he struggles with his drinking across the novels.
There has been a series of TV movies based on the Jesse Stone books, starring Tom Selleck in the title role. These are, actually, very good, and remarkably close to the spirit of the novels. Selleck is a bit older than he is supposed to be, but he delivers a slow, methodical performance, and is quite believable as a man who has lost everything and is desperately trying to find himself again.
Robert B Parker died on my birthday, 18th January, in 2010. About six months before his death I wrote to him to thank him for the impact his work had on mine. To my great delight, he replied. It was only a couple of lines, but they meant the world to me.
Robert B Parker taught me about discipline in writing: he got up every day and wrote five pages. If those pages were finished by midday, he stopped and did something else. If he was still at his keyboard at 8pm, then so be it. He did not leave until those five pages were complete. I like that idea – set achievable goals, and treat it like a job.
He also taught me the importance of place – in the Spenser books, Boston is very much a character. I’ve never been to the city, but I really feel like I know it. When I set out to write the Dunnigan series, I wanted Dublin to be a real, breathing presence. That’s all down to Robert B Parker.
I’ve read and reread the Spenser series more than anything else, and I know I’ll read them again. They are my comfort reads. I think we all need books like that.
Here’s Number 8: Anthony Bourdain.
I first encountered Anthony Bourdain through a review of his breakout book, Kitchen Confidential, in the Sunday Independent. I don’t recall who the reviewer was, but what punched me in the brain was their final verdict on the book. It read: The bastard love-child of AA Gill and Quentin Tarantino. Wow. How is anyone supposed to ignore that?
I picked up my copy of Bourdain’s masterpiece (because that is what Kitchen Confidential is) at Eason’s on O’Connell Street shortly afterwards. I was in Dublin for a job interview, and had flunked out badly – it was one of those experiences where everything you prepared seems to be exactly what the people on the other side of the desk DON’T want to know – and I was in need of something to perk me up.
I remember opening the book as the bus for home pulled out of Bus Aras, and it was if I had been transported to a world I somehow understood with a friend I knew was going to be a lifelong companion.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me admit that I have never cooked professionally. I’m an enthusiastic amateur, who has always had a fascination for the social history of food. I’d seen TV shows (many of them fronted by people like Gordon Ramsay) that depicted the the life of the restaurant kitchen as not for the faint-hearted, but I had never taken such a deep dive into that life before.
In Bourdain’s hands, the cooks at all levels of the ragtag culinary hierarchy became a manic, piratical bunch of misfits and savants, outsiders who form a twilight brotherhood as they grind out perfect plate after perfect plate, their halogen lit world fueled by raucous punk music and liberal snorts of cocaine.
Kitchen Confidential is lewd, foul-mouthed, hilarious, heart-felt, poetic and (occasionally) honest. Bourdain has admitted the broad plot-points (there is a kind of linear story among all the hijinx) are exaggerated and overblown, but where he tells the truth is in the litany of failure, both personal and professional, he describes. The vast majority of the restaurants Tony fronts end up going bust. He careens from addiction to emotional breakdown, loosing his home, his record collection, his relationship with his long-suffering parents, his self-respect.
What he NEVER loses is his love of food and for the people who work with it.
These individuals he paints for the reader in loving detail, portraying them as loyal, quirky, exasperating, but his family-of-choice, for all that. People like Stephen, his friend and sometime sous-chef; Adam Last-Name-Unknown, the self-destructive baker whose bread makes Bourdain believe there is a God; Bigfoot, the restaurant manager who taught him how to be a boss – these characters could sit comfortably in any Dickens novel.
His chapter on a day-in-the-life of a professional chef is a masterclass in non-fiction writing, a perfect example of how to structure a detailed essay on something obscure. This is a subject matter alien to most people, but Tony explains it in such a way you find it both fascinating and compelling.
I came away from Kitchen Confidential with that sense of incredible satisfaction you experience after a really wonderful reading experience. And I was really inspired.
Both my wife and my academic supervisor (I was working on a PhD thesis at the time) had been encouraging me to write a book about my experiences in child protection. I’d read some books in the ‘misery memoir’ genre, but had never been really excited by them. Bourdain showed me what could be done with a non-fiction book.
What I really dug about Bourdain’s writing, and this is something you see across his other titles as well, is that he doesn’t care what you think about him. He often comes across as deeply insecure, selfish, arrogant, self-sabotaging and desperately immature. Sure, he can be charming and he’s extremely witty and acerbic, but he can also be a colossal dick. I admired that level of honesty.
If I was going to lay my professional life bare, then I wanted to be able to operate along similar lines of openness.
I had, by the time I sat down to write Wednesday’s Child, stopped working in child protection fulltime, and a large reason for that was that I had learned that I really didn’t like the version of ‘me’ I become when I’m doing that work. So Wednesday’s Child, and the 8 other books that followed in that series, feature foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, often unbalanced child protection workers all teetering on the edge of burnout, committed to doing the job but often seeing their own lives crashing down around them.
As you can see, Bourdain was a major inspiration. That Wednesday’s Child went to Number 1 on the bestseller lists is in no small part a testimony to Tony’s blueprint.
Of his other books, A Cook’s Tour is probably my favourite.
He picks up the story right after Kitchen Confidential has become a worldwide hit. Tony is invited to a meeting with executives at The Food Network, a cookery channel in the US, and basically informed that he can make any show he wants. His pitch is simple: he wants to travel the world, eating unusual things, and filming his responses. The book is his record of that.
And it is as entertaining as you would expect: Tony had, at this time, barely been outside of the United States (he’d been to France and was sent to open a restaurant in Japan at one point, but other than that he’d done package holidays and little else). Suddenly he is given the license and the cash to go wherever he wishes – and that means he will be keeping well away from the standard tourist spots. So we go with him into the jungles of Vietnam, mob-run casinos in Cambodia, far-flung villages in rural Spain… and we get to share his sense of wonder at it all.
It was during the promotion for A Cook’s Tour that I had my brief personal encounter with Tony. Wednesday’s Child had been a runaway success, and I was by then doing a lot of journalism for various publications, one of which was The Dubliner magazine. Knowing one of my literary heroes was going to be in Ireland, I lobbied for all I was worth to be given the chance to interview him, and to my delight Trevor, the magazine’s editor, agreed.
I was scheduled to meet the great man on a Friday evening in between a radio interview and a slot on the Late Late Show. To my deep disappointment, something ran over, and as I was about to get a taxi to the Porterhouse, where we were to meet, I got call from his promoter, informing me that Tony was very sorry, but could he postpone?
I tried to be gracious, but in truth I was gutted. ‘He’ll give you a call at some point over the weekend’, I was promised, but I didn’t expect it to happen.So I was absolutely bowled over when, at noon the next day, my mobile phone rang and there was Anthony Bourdain on the other end.
‘Hey man, I want to apologise for standing you up,’ he said in that distinctive New Jersey accent.I’d like to pretend I was cool about chatting with one of my idols. But I wasn’t.
I’d been told we’d have ten minutes, and I spent five of those telling him how much his work meant to me, and how I wouldn’t be a writer at all without him, and how I’d read and reread Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour about FIVE MILLION times (and that was a conservative estimate). He was incredibly gracious and thanked me profusely, telling me how much it meant to him that others were writing because his books had lit a fire in them. I asked him about eating a cobra’s heart, and about Pho, the Vietnamese noodle dish he constantly stated was his death-row meal (if you want to read some real food porn, read Tony’s chapters on Pho!).
And that was about all we had time for.
He promised we’d meet face-to-face the next time he was in Dublin, but it never happened. I’ll always treasure those few minutes of conversation, though.
In light of what followed, they’ve come to mean the world to me.
You can trace Anthony Bourdain’s descent into self-loathing through his books. The Nasty Bits and Medium Raw, both collections of his essays and journalism, do not even attempt to hide the sense that he felt he had sold out badly, tarting his talent and dignity on the stage of food television. In the prologue of The Nasty Bits he writes about fleeing to an island community, a place where ‘rich assholes go to die’, spending his time drunk and high, lurching from brothel to brothel, driving a golf buggy recklessly close to the edge of a cliff as he made his way back to his hotel in the wee hours, almost wishing he would crash into oblivion.
There is a brief section later in the book where he accepts a dare to dive from an insanely high cliff into the ocean below, a feat only skilled and experienced divers should attempt. – Tony was a weak swimmer. Drunk and depressed, he admits that he truly does not care whether he makes it or not. He did, but found no joy in it.
I now know these passages were written as his marriage to his first wife, Nancy, was falling apart under the weight of his newfound fame and constant travelling. He remarried, and although this relationship gifted him a daughter, Ariane, the marriage itself was short-lived.
Having a child seemed to tame Tony’s wilder instincts.
He took up Judo and even won some tournaments. He attempted to give up smoking, and tried to adopt a healthier diet (he had a long-held antipathy to vegetarians, and particularly vegans).
Yet on June 8th, 2018, his friend and collaborator Eric Ripert found him dead in his hotel room – it seemed he had hanged himself in an act of impulsivity.
He left us his books, some amazing TV shows (my favourite is The Layover, but they’re all good) and, for me, a burning desire to write something even close to the perfection of Kitchen Confidential.
He remains a hero and an inspiration.
Here’s Number 9: Cormac McCarthy.
The first book by Cormac McCarthy I ever read was The Crossing, the second installment in The Border Trilogy.
I chose to read it because I liked the cover. I know this sounds deeply unintellectual (if that’s even a word) but it’s the truth. I was wandering about the library, looking for something interesting, and I was drawn to a book that had cattle skulls on the dust jacket.
I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I was getting a Western, and I suppose I was, but this was vastly different to anything I’d ever read in that genre.
The Crossing refers to the borderland between The Western United States and Mexico. The book recounts three journeys across this border, and focuses on a teenaged cowboy, Billy Parham, who is desperately trying to live the life he believes is his birthright in the years at the very beginning of World War II.
There are two central threads to the novel.
The first is Billy’s determination to save a wolf his father and he set out to capture. The boy forges a deep relationship with the animal, risking his life to protect it on numerous occasions.
The second deals with his bond with his brother, Boyd, a wild, dangerous youngster who is also entranced by the promise of the old West, and ultimately dies for it.
The Crossing, like all of McCarthy’s work, is sparsely (though beautifully) written, violent, mythic and intensely philosophical. Characters in these novels think nothing of sitting on a rock in the middle of the desert and recounting a dream they feel carries import, or debating the meaning of a biblical passage.
In McCarthy’s books boys become men early and death is always waiting around the corner.
The Crossing ends with Billy, his dreams shattered, his brother dead due to his own recklessness, his parents gone to make a better, easier life, on his knees in the dirt of the border country he loves, exhausted and heartbroken.
There are few happy endings in this world.
The other two novels in the series feature John Grady Cole, a much more romantic figure than Billy.
John Grady is in some ways a Western archetype: brave, tough, smart and devoted to a personal code of morality that he sticks to, regardless of the pain it often brings. In the first book of the trilogy, All The Pretty Horses, John Grady and his friend Lacey Rawlins travel to Mexico looking for ranch work, and end up in prison due to an ill-fated alliance with a young runaway and horse-thief, and in no small part because of an affair John Grady embarks upon with his boss’s daughter.
In the third book, Cities of the Plain, both John Grady and Billy find themselves working on a ranch in Alomagorda in New Mexico. They are happy, living the life of their dreams, when John Grady falls in love with a prostitute from a nearby brothel. Sadly, his love is also the object of desire of the brothel keeper, Eduardo, who orders her murder.
John Grady faces Eduardo in a fight to the death and kills him, though mortally wounded himself.
The trilogy is lyrical, dark, at times ponderous, often bleak, but never less than riveting. McCarthy’s prose is impossible to describe. There are sentences that simply go off on an arc that defies the laws of grammar or accepted syntax – but it is always beautiful.
If you are used to the works of Louis Lamour or Larry McMurtry, you may find the apocalyptic nature of these books jarring. But don’t be put off. They are worth the effort.
The Border Trilogy led me to seek out McCarthy’s earlier titles, and these are all remarkable in their own right. They are also, without exception, tough reads. Child of God is the story of an abused young man who becomes a serial killer and is reduced to the life of a cave dweller.
Outer Dark tells of an incestuous relationship between a poverty stricken, starving brother and sister. Blood Meridian features a band of psychotic scalp hunters. I have to admit, I found Blood Meridian in particular hard going, almost nightmarish at times.
McCarthy’s follow-ups to The Border Trilogy have all been much more accessible without selling out in any way. The Road, a short, shocking novel set in a post-apocalyptic world, charts a father’s attempt to build a life for his son in a place devoid of hope.
No Country For Old Men revisits the Western, but in modernity, throwing in drug gangs, modern law enforcement and the Border Patrol. It also presents one of the most chilling villains in literature in Anton Chigurh, as terrifying a force of chaos as you’ll find.
McCarthy hasn’t published a book since The Road in 2006. Maybe he’s done (at the age of 86 he’s entitled to be). But I hope not. His books taught me that darkness can be beautiful. That dreams are worth exploring.
And that sometimes the legend is worth fighting for.
Here’s Number 10: Charles Dickens.
I was drawn to Dickens because he scared me.
My first encounter with the man who is, for my money, the greatest novelist of all time, was being told the story of Oliver Twist by my little brother, Karl, when we were both tucked up in bed with the lights out.
Karl was eight, which would have made me nine-and-a-half, and my brother was going to be playing the role of Fagin in his second-class Christmas concert (I seem to recall Oliver was played by Niall Colfer, but I may be wrong about that).
In preparation for the performance, Karl’s class watched the movie version of Lionel Bart’s musical, and it impressed my brother greatly. I have a powerful memory of my younger sibling telling me how Oliver was an orphan, raised in a horrible workhouse where the children never got enough to eat… and things just got worse from there.
I think what resonated with me so powerfully in Karl’s telling was how the awful experiences of this child never seemed to let up – it was clear that Fagin, the gang-leader of the pickpockets who took Oliver in was not a good bloke, and was using Oliver to do wrong.
Bill Sykes, the gang’s evil enforcer, was absolutely terrifying to me, and his death, hung by the rope he used to break into people’s homes as he is chased across the rooftops of London by the police, seemed macabre to the extreme.
Oliver Twist was unlike any story I’d ever heard. It had a happyish ending, but unlike a lot of the stories I’d read Oliver’s mother remained dead at the end, and the boy seemed to be so deeply traumatized by the horrors he experienced I doubted he’d ever recover.
As a kid I thought of Dickens as a Gothic horror writer – how could a man who ploughed such a dark furrow be anything else? I found the Moby Illustrated version of the novel (remember those?), and couldn’t believe that it was even bleaker than Lionel Bart’s film – in that musical version, Fagin and the Artful Dodger dance off into the sunset, bound for further adventures. In the novel, Fagin is arrested and Oliver and his grandfather, the kindly Mr Brownlow, visit him in prison the night before he is to be hanged, the scaffold standing in sillhouette beyond his cell window. Oliver is distraught, begging his grandfather to save this man who showed him some kindness in his hour of need – but alas, nothing can be done, and Oliver is led weeping from the prison.
I read this scene with my heart in my boots – I found it terribly upsetting, and was actually put off Dickens for a while. I now understand that the great writer was trying to make a point about the plight of street children and how poverty was damaging them irreparably. As a kid, I read stories purely for the sake of reading stories, and Dickens was just too tough for me to handle.
But damn it if he didn’t draw me back in. And it was that darkness that did it all over again.
In the early 80s, the BBC were going through something of a golden period, adapting a huge number of literary classics and showing serialised versions at 6.30pm on Sunday evenings after the news. I was introduced to many books this way – I remember really enjoying versions of Jane Eyre, Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles – and Great Expectations.
What hooked me into wanting to read the novel was the opening sequence, where Pip is visiting the graves of his parents and runs into an escaped convict, Magwitch, who forces him to bring him food and tools so he can remove his manacles. This passage of the story is so awful, Magwitch (who of course turns into a great benefactor for Pip) seems so violent and frightening, I simply couldn’t look away.
Add to this the gothically creepy Miss Havisham and the etheral Estella and I was convinced that here was another story that would certainly give me nightmares, but that I just had to read.
I wasn’t wrong.I found an abridged version somewhere and ate it up. Even at the age I was (I think I read this when I was eleven) I knew Pip was a dick. As soon as he gets out of his poverty-stricken situation and is accepted into London society, he turns his back on the few people who did care for him.
Yet Dickens is so subtle in his writing you can see why Pip is like this, and as he grows and learns the error of his ways, you forgive his folly.
But I was always in it for the chills. Great Expectations is full of gorgeous spooky passages: the cobweb strewn house where Miss Havisham has secluded herself, and where she ultimately meets her fiery end; the chase down the Thames at night as Pip tries to smuggle Magwitch to safety; Molly being rescued from the gallows just at the last minute.
By the time I was finished, I was hooked on Dickens, understanding that this was a master storyteller. I was determined to read one of his works in its complete unabridged form, and as luck would have it, my parents had a hardback copy of Little Dorrit on the shelf in the living room.
For a very long time, this was my favourite Dickens novel. William Dorrit has been incarcerated in Marshalsea debtors prison for twenty years. He has three daughters who are free to come and go from the prison as they wish, and William is viewed as the ‘Father’ of the gaol, treated with great respect by the other prisoners and even by the staff at Marshalsea – many, in fact, believe he chooses to live there.
The ‘Little Dorrit’ of the title is his youngest daughter, Amy, one of Dickens trademark saintly children, devoted to her father and apparently devoid of any selfish motivations.
The novel revolves around a convoluted plot in which Wiliam discovers he is in fact heir to a great fortune and manages to buy his way out of prison, at the same time drawing the villainous Rigaud (one of Dickens wonderfully grotesque baddies) to himself.
The book examines how wealth can turn inherently good people bad, and also works as a wonderful satire of the British bureaucracy.
The novel has great humour and some wonderful twists and turns, but what drew me in was the incredible realisation of the world of the prison. It had never occurred to me that somewhere like Marshalsea could exist (it genuinely did) and I was fascinated by how an entire community could revolve, seemingly happily, around an institution as awful as a debtor’s prison.
The book that completely stole my heart, and made Dickens my favourite author, however, was his own darling among all his novels, David Copperfield.
It is as close to an autobiography as anything Dickens ever wrote and is full of the most wonderfully vivid characters: the complex Steerforth, the sleazy and sinister Uriah Heep, the unlucky but optimistic Wilkins Micawber, the doomed Little Em’ly… to me they are like a ragtag bunch of beloved relatives you just can’t wait to spend time with.
I could write about the merits of David Copperfield all day – I’ve read it half a dozen times and each occasion shows me something new and delightful. But for now I want to mention that this is a book about the healing power of writing.
David is a character who uses writing to save himself, just as Dickens did (when you consider that Dickens literally wrote his way out of the Workhouse, you can’t help but admire him). This is a novel in which words are heroes, in which writing is not just an honourable profession, but an essential one.
David collects words, records phrases, associates sayings with people and loves them for it.
Every time I read this book I am proud that writing is my trade. Proud and grateful. You know a book is special when it makes you feel that way.
I can’t let a discussion of Dickens go by without mentioning Bleak House, a crime novel like no other and a damning indictment of the legal profession.
It contains one of my favourite characters in all of crime fiction, the dogged and indomitable Inspector Bucket of The Detective. Bucket is the blueprint for Colombo, for Miss Marple, probably even for Jessica Fletcher!
And if you want horror, Bleak House is the book in which one of the central characters spontaneously combusts – you don’t get much more horrific than that!
I suppose this has all been a roundabout way of saying that Charles Dickens has always been with me. I don’t remember ever NOT knowing about him. I see his books as a tremendous gift.
When I was first asked to write fiction, the writer I immediately thought of was Dickens – could I ever hope to create a novel with the scope, majesty, complexity and joy of David Copperfield, or the darkness, twists and wonder of Great Expectations?
I finally realised that it didn’t matter – the fun was in aspiring to such heights.
Dickens taught me that sometimes writing can save your life.
And that a tale told by a little boy to his brother in the dark can spark a lifelong love affair with language and story.