F.E. Higgins is a master storyteller of Gothic tales. Starting with her debut novel, The Black Book of Secrets, a mysterious and thrilling story of a travelling pawnbroker who buys up people’s darkest confessions, and subsequent novels such as The Lunatic’s Curse and The Eyeball Collector, Higgins has delighted her readers with eerie tales of the haunted and the uncanny.
On the inside cover of her books, an explanation is offered for her dark and sinister stories. As a child she had an encounter with a ghost that she has never forgotten, and ever since she has been inspired to dwell on the grotesque. Higgins recalls with some amusement how, when she was five or six, her father heard her conversing with someone after lights out. When he asked who she was talking to, the young girl matter-of-factly stated that it was the old lady beside her – a lady invisible, of course, to her father. Higgins can’t be certain whether this was a regular occurrence or just a once-off, but it is entirely credible to imagine the author maintaining a friendly relationship with the apparition, completely at ease chewing the ethereal fat with a phantom visitor, even as an adult. As she says in response to whether she still believes in ghosts: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in most people’s philosophy.
I can still remember first picking up The Black Book of Secrets, and the joy I felt at how fresh and exciting it was. In her Tales from the Sinister City series, Higgins has created a Dickensian world of fiendish horrors and gruesome delights that could only come from one so steeped in the Gothic. The mischievous gallows humour that pervades the dark themes keeps the whole premise ticking along and never lets the grim subject matter overwhelm the narrative. Each novel is set in the same universe but runs parallel to the other stories in a line of books that have become known as ‘paraquels’.
Expanding her writing in a new direction, in January Higgins published A Tangle of Traitors, the first novel in a new series called The Phenomenals, which follows a group of unlikely heroes battling to save a city from the clutches of wraith-like ‘lurids’. The main challenge she enjoyed was creating a set of characters she could work with and develop as the series continues. Readers often write in to her wondering about the various inhabitants of the Sinister City world and whether they would ever see them again, and she leapt at the chance to let her characters grow up with her audience and construct a continuous narrative. Like the Sinister City books, The Phenomenals takes place in an alternate world with a Victorian feel.
Higgins isn’t sure why, but the Victorian era has always appealed to her. The old-fashioned turns of phrase, winding sentences and complex vocabulary come naturally to her and she enjoys getting lost in the mists of that murky, treacherous environment. Her natural affinity for language and her love of the logic of grammar certainly allow her to excel in this style – in what other setting could you read a sentence such as ‘In the adumbral komaterion the air of abandonment was tangible’? The intricacy of the wordplay trickles off the tongue, more poetry than prose, and the vivid words scattered throughout her novels, whether Latin neologisms or the inimitable character names, paint a quirky, vivid picture of a truly unique world. Along with historical Victorian society, the steampunk movement also interests her: the designs, clothes and technology of an age built on the power of coal and clockwork leave ample room for mystery and romance. The Phenomenals picks up on this in particular; one of the protagonists even benefits from metal fingers – with a suitably nasty explanation for how he comes to need them.
Why it is that she is so drawn to the macabre, Higgins cannot say. For one thing, she insists she doesn’t set out to write sinister books, but whatever ideas she has, they always end up with grisly twists. Higgins’ favourite characters are usually the villains; as she puts it, ‘They get the best lines and, lacking a moral code, can do things that others would only dream of.’
The gruesome, the grisly, the bleak and the horrible have always drawn young readers over the ages in to staying up reading classic authors under the covers and giving themselves nightmares – be it Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl or Neil Gaiman. It can be a way of dealing with difficult topics that seem too abstract to confront head on. Certainly death and decay can seem impossible to understand and often make more sense as fantastical representations. Even harder is the gradual realisation that things in the real world are not how they are depicted in simpler children’s fare — villains are not marked out by hideous scars nor do they get their comeuppance in the end; heroes are not the poster boys or princesses of popular movies. Treachery, inequality and injustice abound for young people, whether at school, in the home or among their contemporaries, and for many, it is only when an author is unafraid to raise the sticky questions that they can really get to grips with things. Higgins agrees that many children are naturally interested in wicked and gruesome stories:
I think my readers are at an age when they are beginning to realise that life is not a bowl of cherries. Portraying difficult events in fiction is one way for them to deal with life’s unpleasantness without experiencing it. All I know is, I loved horror stories when I was ten, and read every horror book I could get my hands on. My books aren’t half as grim as the ones I read back then!
Perhaps that is the core of Higgins’ writing success – her fearlessness in both identifying with the young reader’s sense of unfairness and simultaneously challenging the order that children can feel forced to accept like a hat that doesn’t fit. Like Roald Dahl before her, Higgins seems to slide effortlessly into the same mindset as her readers, where feelings of powerlessness, anti-authoritarianism and rebellion surge.
With her new book, The Phenomenals, Higgins has once again succeeded in delivering that elusive prize: an exciting, gruesome novel that readers will gobble up, but also one with real meat to it. Her many young fans across the globe will be delighted to have another wonderfully dark collection to look forward to, and will be itching to see what will come next from such a gifted wordsmith. I couldn’t agree more. The only thing to say with writing this devilishly good is: long may it continue.