I've been waiting especially until Halloween to share my review of the fantastically spooky The Ghouls of Howlfair by Nick Tomlinson with you as I've made this my Halloween highlight of 2019, and when better than Halloween to share it with you!
The Ghouls of Howlfair tells the thrillingly fun story of young historian and bookworm Molly Thompson and the creepy legends surrounding her hometown of Howlfair. But when these legends start coming true, Molly and her friends – scatty Lowry and guardian-cat Gabriel – become covert monster-hunters to keep Howlfair safe. With everyone in the touristy town becoming increasingly suspicious, is someone secretly trying to summon Howlfair’s mythical monster, and if so, can Molly and her – gang save the town before it’s too late!
Undead fiends, werewolves and monsters, ghouls and ghosts… The Ghouls of Howlfair is a spooktacular children’s book like no other, and one that isn’t just for Halloween
Tomlinson’s way with words is as distinctly profound as it is refreshingly hilarious! With monstrously gripping descriptions, witty dialogue and deliciously rewarding cliff-hangers, Tomlinson has cleverly crafted a full on page-turning frenzy! Pitching the perfect amount of twists and turns, with equal laugh out loud moments, I ate up Ghouls in all its ghostly gloriousness.
Molly, a young budding Sherlock Holmes, or better yet, a Buffy Summers (!) is as feisty and brave, as she is openly vulnerable and awkward. Her obsessive thirst for history and mystery so brilliantly consumes her character that there’s literally nothing she wouldn’t do to solve a creepy legend; or, as Lowry so brilliantly puts it, ‘she’s Molly flipping Thompson – she investigates everything!’
There are so many truly great and iconic girls of literature – Matilda and Pippi Longstocking, Jo March and Lyra Belacqua to name just a few. For me, the daringly, determined Molly Thompson lives amongst these legends now, with no doubt that she’ll become a timeless character of children’s fiction.
The cast of eccentric characters which Tomlinson has so skilfully put together gives a second heart to the narrative that so easily weaves between the spooky and the scary.
It would be here in my review that I’d write of my desperation to know that a sequel will be quick to follow the footsteps of this eerily, gripping book, but I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview the brilliant Nick Tomlinson and I got the answer I was hoping for…
An Interview with Nick Tomlinson
As we eagerly await The Ghouls of Howlfair’s pub date on 3rd October, can you give us a taste of what’s in store?
Readers will be spending a couple of weeks in a haunted town called Howlfair, which has more scary legends than anywhere on earth. It’s a lovely place, nestled in a beautiful valley, but it’s pretty flipping creepy so be prepared for some frights.
You’ll meet clumsy but brilliant amateur historian Molly Thompson, who suspects that someone has found a way to summon the ghouls from one of her town’s scariest old stories, and is using the ghouls to scare people to death. As the town’s resident folklore expert, it falls to Molly to investigate. But these monsters aren’t safely confined to the pages of books. And Molly isn’t a brave, fierce adventurer; she’s a shy, awkward bookworm with a mysteriously protective cat called Gabriel and a scatty best friend named Lowry who thinks she’s a werewolf. Pretty soon Molly’s in all sorts of danger.
Cue shape-shifting ghouls, monster hounds, demon apparitions, and a twist you might not see coming!
What was the original inspiration behind The Ghouls of Howlfair? And did you undergo any particular research whilst writing?
Ages ago I had the idea of writing a sort of mid-grade version of C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (which is about a senior demon advising a junior demon on how to ruin a human). My finished result was sheer rubbish, but over the years (sixteen years to be exact), with hundreds of rewrites, it gradually morphed into something like a horror version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It also was pretty rubbish. At last I ditched my main character, Jacob (sorry Jacob) and cast a serious, stubborn bookworm called Molly Thompson in the lead role. And finally it came alive!
Molly’s a bit of an expert on monsters, so I did lots of research into scary legends from all over the world. I did this by traveling from continent to continent having heroic adventures where I rescued whole towns from monsters. Or maybe I just used Google, I can’t remember. Actually, I did go on a tour of haunted hotels across South West England with my wife, in order to find out how it feels to face supernatural peril. The main thing I learned from that tour was that my wife would make a very brave ghost story hero, and I… wouldn’t.
What was your favourite part about writing The Ghouls of Howlfair?
I didn’t plan the character of Molly’s best friend Lowry, so when she climbed through the window of the Excelsior Guesthouse wearing a skeleton mask, I didn’t know how she’d turn out. But it was as though she arrived fully-formed, with her silly jokes and her simmering rivalry with Molly’s cat Gabriel. As soon as Lowry was part of the story, she and Molly really came to life for me and it was a lot of fun putting their friendship into words.
What are some of your favourite scariest legends?
The legend of the Croglin Grange vampire is a good one, and quite well-known; I read about it as a child and it scared me silly. I went through a phase of drawing crosses on bits of paper and plastering my room with them every night before going to bed, and my mum would throw them away the next day and tell me to stop being silly. There are nods toward the legend in The Ghouls of Howlfair – Lowry thinks her family is somehow connected to an ancient family called the Kroglins (though my Kroglins are werewolves, not vampires).
Speaking of werewolves! I was fascinated with them as a boy, and I fancied becoming one myself; I was bullied at school and I thought that fewer people would beat me up in the playground if I was a slavering monster. So I performed a spell I’d found in the Pan Book of Horror, which I took to be a reliable resource, one full moon. Alas, it didn’t work, so I resorted to plan B and spent the rest of my school days hiding in toilet cubicles.
Favourite monster/magical being of all time?
Definitely the vampire. I think it’s the distorted humanness of vampires that makes them so fascinating. There’s a huge amount of variation in vampire legends across the world, and reading the legends gives you creepy insights into how different cultures personified their primal fears.
What are your go to spooky/Halloweeny books for children?
Mid-grade horror is ON FIRE at the moment. The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street by Lindsay Currie is a great modern take on the classic haunted house story, and I’ve really enjoyed the Devin Dexter series by Jonathan Rosen, the Legends of the Lost Causes books by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester (horror Westerns!), The Goolz Next Door by Gary Ghislain… cripes, I could go on and on. I’ve been saving The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner to read this Halloween, but I’m not sure if I can wait that long.
And it’s early-YA, but I have no words for how much I love Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Co. series. Some of the best horror books ever written. My original pitch to agents for The Ghouls of Howlfair was ‘Lockwood and Co. for mid-grade readers’!
Molly Thompson is such a brilliant protagonist and has quickly become one of my all time favourite MG characters! Where do you get your inspiration to write your characters?
Ah, thank you so much! I spent a few years as an academic learning mentor in a girls’ school in Birmingham, and Molly is a tribute to the bookworms I taught there. They never did any schoolwork because they were too busy writing mad elaborate fan-fiction, so working with them was like pulling teeth - but they were so fun and funny and sharp. They described themselves as socially awkward, as weirdos, but actually they were something really amazing: they were dual-citizens of the real world and of the boundless fictional universe. There are already plenty of books about fierce, brave girls; I wanted to write a book in which awkward weirdos could meet someone just like them, someone they’d love to hang out with and befriend. Also, I wanted to show them that, like Molly, you can be weird and awkward but still be completely unstoppable, even as you find yourself hurtling towards your biggest fears.
Please tell us this won’t be the last we see of Molly Thompson! Any hints on a sequel?
Yes! The next book is written and with the publisher, and it's called The Scream of the Silentman. Apparently it's a bit too scary at the moment, so I've had to add some more jokes…
I thought that after The Ghouls of Howlfair, Molly would probably be in shock; she wouldn't just bounce back ready to face another wave of horror. At the start of the next book she’s suffering from self-doubt and feels like something’s blocking her mystery-solving talents. In particular, there’s someone she really, really needs to forgive, though she doesn’t fully realise this at first.
So Molly decides to take a break from researching scary legends. She accepts a fun assignment acting as a tour guide for some visiting journalists, odd siblings called Lucinda and Orson Corches. But she discovers that the Corches have actually come to Howlfair to secretly investigate (you guessed it) a scary legend. The Corches’ folklorist parents disappeared years ago while searching for the tomb of a horrifying folklore phantom called the Silentman, and the journalists have traced the legend to Molly’s town.
Things start to get scary when the Corches blackmail Molly into helping them find the secret tomb so they can try to learn what happened to their parents. Trouble is, whatever's in the tomb is definitely not resting in peace, and if Molly can’t get her mystery-solving mojo back in time, something evil is going to use her as its route into Howlfair.
Other than the soon to be published Ghouls of Howlfair, what else is on the horizon for you?
It’s quite nerve-wracking waiting to see if your book will sink or swim, so at the moment I’m finding it hard to concentrate on anything else! I’d like to keep writing books about Molly Thompson – I know how the series would end, but there’s space for any number of intervening adventures before the big showdown between the people of Howlfair and the demon Molly meets in the first book. It all depends on whether people like the first two books and want to read more. Longer term I’d love to get involved somehow in helping influence the direction of our education system. I’d like to see a primary curriculum one day that has, as its cornerstone, the teaching of kindness. Which sounds sappy, but I’ve arrived at the conclusion that focusing on teaching kindness could be a surprisingly practical basis for a whole curriculum.
And finally, I have to ask, what are your favourite children’s books at the moment? A childhood favourite and a current one!
For the current one, can I cheat and squish three together: Kate DiCamillo’s Three Rancheros sequence – Raymie Nightingale, Louisiana’s Way Home and Beverly, Right Here? If not, take your pick of the above! They’re completely amazing. Also, I met Kate DiCamillo just before reading Beverly, Right Here, which really influenced the experience of reading it. There was a bunch of us being interviewed at a Walker Books event, and I was sitting next to her. It was the longest time I’ve ever spent in the company of someone famous. I started my interview by saying ‘As I was just mentioning to Newbery winner Kate DiCamillo…’ and she shouted ‘WHO?’ Being heckled by Kate DiCamillo made me love her books all the more.
As for childhood favourites… My childhood was dominated by Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Sally and the rest of the Peanuts gang. Can I nominate 50+ years’ worth of Charles M Schultz’s comic strips? To me they’re pretty much the crowning glory of human civilisation. If not, I’d plump for The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth, which won the Newbery Medal in 1931. If you can find a copy, I recommend it – it’s completely gorgeous, but you might find you have something in your eye at the end…
And, if you could invite any five people – past and present – to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?
To be honest, I can’t imagine anything crueller than summoning a person from the afterlife just to make them eat my cooking and listen to me mumble, so I’m not sure I could bring myself to invite departed heroes. But if you twist my arm I’ll invite Charles M Schultz and C.S. Lewis. I’d quite like to meet G. K. Chesterton, but Charles M Schultz might find him a bit much, with his monocle and cape and sword-stick. Also, would Chesterton and Lewis like my hit-and-miss homemade pizza? Because that’s what they’re getting.
I live in quite a remote place and don’t know any writers in real life, so social media (a party to which I arrived late) has been a godsend; I’d love to hang out with some of the writers I’ve connected with online but who are scattered across the globe. Can I also issue extra invites for spouses and pets etc.? Edwina Wyatt is one of many I’d like to invite (this is her second mention in an interview on your blog - Karen Foxlee raved about her forthcoming book The Secrets of Magnolia Moon). And there are UK writers I fear I may never get to meet if I don’t have this magical dinner party, like the brilliant Imogen White and Francesca Armour-Chelu. And of course you are invited too.
With plus-ones that’s about twelve people, but I’m assuming that some, if not all, will be sensible enough to send apologies and stay home, especially if they’ve heard rumours about my pizza-making skills.
Thanks so much for taking the time to interview me, and keep up the wonderful work!