Monthly Archives: December 2014

“Guaranteed to give you the shivers”

This here review of Shiver the Whole Night Through is from  Ian O’Doherty in the Irish Independent, the country’s biggest-sailing daily paper. And it’s a good ‘un: the famously hard-to-please Ian was, well, pleased.

(Declaration of interest: as a freelancer, the Indo is one of my various employers. No favours were asked or given, I assure you!)

 

There was a time when the trials and tribulations of adolescent life were merely seen as part of the occasionally painful process of growing up. The most exciting time of your life is also the most stressful and as the teenage suicide figures starkly demonstrate, killing yourself has somehow become an almost acceptable option for some members of a generation which seems depressingly incapable of processing disappointment.

So when we first meet 17-year-old Aidan Flood, standing atop a local bridge and preparing to hurl himself into the raging river below, we could easily have been meeting yet another teenage cliché.

Too bright for the suffocating constraints of small-town life, Flood is about to take his terminal step away from the bridge when a man walking his dog breaks his train of thought and, embarrassed, he steps down from the bridge and decides to postpone his own demise until another day. Flood’s close brush with being another statistic is placed in proper perspective the following morning when he learns of the mysterious death of a girl from his own town and, from that point, the reader is dragged into a compelling and sharply written Gothic love affair that manages to throw an intriguing light onto small-town Irish life and the nature of love, friendship and, crucially, trusting the people around you.

When the news emerges that 17-year-old Slaine McAuley has been found dead, having apparently killed herself in baffling circumstances, Flood finds himself drawn to the forbidding Shook Woods, a place of local lore and myth where her body was found. Filled with curiosity about the death of a girl he hardly knew, he is shocked one frosty night when, through the ice on his bedroom window, a mysterious force writes, ‘I didn’t kill myself’.

As our young hero recovers from the understandable shock of witnessing an apparently spectral force communicating with him through a window, McManus paints an increasingly intriguing picture of a young fella who is sufficiently self-aware to realise that either the dead girl really is reaching out to him, or he is simply losing his mind. Could these mysterious nocturnal missives simply be a sign of a teenage breakdown? After all, we soon learn of the traumatic and humiliating bullying he endured at the hands of the town moron and his anguish at how others simply joined in, leaving only his best friend standing by his side.

But when an extreme cold spell descends on the area – while the rest of the country remains untouched – and locals start to die in increasing numbers, it becomes clear that he is not going mad but has somehow become embroiled in a battle that stretches back to the famine times. As the newly dead Slaine becomes more accustomed to her state, she and the wary Flood begin a tentative teenage romance, full of anticipation and angst that is only made unusual by the fact that one of them is dead.

Did one of Slaine’s ancestors manage to summon an ancient Irish demon to help him during the worst of the famine? What are her motivations and why did she choose Flood, a boy she barely knew?

In the interests of transparency, it should be noted that McManus is a critic with the Irish Independent, but it’s not granting any workplace favours to state that this is one of the best Irish books of the year, regardless of the ‘young adult’ genre attached to it. It’s no surprise that it won a contract from a leading UK publisher in the genre.

The author wears his influences lightly, but even though they range from Stephen King to John Connolly, the voice of Aidan Flood, who emerges as a bright and decent kid whose self-esteem has been shredded by stupidity and malice, remains strong throughout.

As the dark and supernatural cold of the town worsens and Aidan and Slaine race against time to find a way to stop the malign influence from completely controlling the town, McManus touches on the nature of friendship and the social isolation that comes with being a victim of bullying, without ever turning Flood into a self-pitying stereotype.

McManus has written three previous novels, which were well-received. But Shiver The Whole Night Through announces an interesting new voice on the Irish literary landscape who has produced a novel which deserves to be read by every teenager this Christmas – and everyone who ever was one.

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“Shiver” review: “thrilling and chilly”

This comes from a precocious kid called Georgia, who’s a seriously impressive book reviewer for one so young. At that age, I was barely able to read! (Kidding. Sort of.)

Anyway, her very kind review begins like so:

“From the first page, I was completely absorbed in the story…”

Read the rest of it here.


Real-life locations: a source of nightmare … and solace

This article appeared in the Evening Herald last Saturday – I trust they won’t mind me putting it up here. It’s about the real-world locations that inspired Shiver the Whole Night Through…and where some of it was even written.

Creating a sense of place is hugely important in books; it grounds the narrative, establishes the fictional universe, enriches the whole thing. For my latest novel, Shiver the Whole Night Through, I took that to the next level in two ways: by making “place” essentially a character in its own right, and by using real locations as inspiration for the setting.

Second one first: my Young Adult novel is a noir-style mystery with a paranormal edge and elements of horror, fantasy and romance. It starts with 17-year-old bullying victim Aidan thinking of ending it all. He stays his hand, then hears that local beauty Sláine really has killed herself. One night a message forms in ice on his window: ‘I didn’t kill myself.’ Determined to discover the truth, Aidan is drawn into a dream-world of magic, terror, revenge and redemption, as the world turns ever-colder and an ancient evil threatens everyone.

The forest outside his small Atlantic Coast town is called Shook Woods – from the Irish “siochta”, for “frozen” (dramatic irony, as the area is soon engulfed in a weirdly extreme winter). The story for Shiver had been percolating in my mind for years, and was strongly inspired by real places I regularly visit.

First, a large Coillte plantation in Killanena, Co Clare, about seven miles from my home. Row after row of huge fir trees, almost military-formation in their straight lines. Something very spooky about it, almost intimidating, even during the day: hardly any light penetrates the massed ranks of trees. It was easy to imagine dark deeds and darker hearts dwelling within this endless twilight.

More forests nearby, of different size and aspect. Dromore Nature Reserve near Ennis, which reminded me how much other life is found in these places, besides the arboreal. Coole Park in Galway, famously the home of Lady Gregory and inspiration to Yeats, Synge and many others (yeah, I like to aim high artistically). Various forests I’ve known down the years in the Burren of North Clare.

And the Burren itself is so strange, otherworldly and beautiful that it couldn’t help filtering through. One scene in Shiver – when Aidan and Sláine first meet – takes place in a clearing within the woods, surrounded by straight-edged rock.

Take it away, Aidan: “The rock-face was cut sharply at both ends and stepped in shape, making the whole place resemble an ancient amphitheatre that’s been let return to nature. Like something they might visit in a TV show about the Greek islands.”

Indeed, so deeply did my actual location influence the book’s fictional locations that I ended up writing some of it in the forest. It sounds an awful cliché, I know – the author sitting in “deep” contemplation of sublime nature, or something.

I never used to believe those stories writers would tell. Nevertheless, in this case it’s all true. I’d park my car at Killanena, light a smoke, pour some coffee, stare out at the dark pines and then, after a while, start typing…

The other way in which a sense of place matters profoundly in Shiver is this: Shook Woods is a fundamental part of the story. As said already, it’s basically a character. It has a personality (which is spooky enough), it has agency (spookier still), it affects things and changes people (spookiest of all).

In some ways Shiver was my attempt at an Irish version of Twin Peaks, one of my all-time favourite works of art. And just as in David Lynch’s seminal drama, much of the pivotal action in Shiver takes place in the forest.

Without being too spoiler-ish: it’s where Sláine dies, her and Aidan meet, their relationship deepens, his whole view on life evolves. It’s also the source of all this murderous evil, and the stage for Shiver’s final reckoning.

More than that, I wanted (again like Twin Peaks) to capture the mood and atmosphere of the forest – any forest, all forests – and make them feel real, almost tangible to the reader. That unnerving sensation of dread and reverie and melancholy, which you can’t shake and don’t really want to.

I’ll let two of my characters explain it. One says: “I’d been searching for something my whole life, and somehow knew I would find it in this place… It’s the forest, I think. These black woods around us. The town itself is strange, there’s no doubting that. But the uncanny black heart of it lies in Shook Woods. It beats, that heart, it’s alive. This forest is alive, boy, in ways you could scarcely imagine. …They often are. Why do you think cautionary fairy-tales are usually set in the woods? That the highest concentration of serial killers in the United States is in the heavily forested North-West? It’s the place where our darkest selves are realised and revealed. Where the deepest melodrama of the human spirit is played out.”

And the second character thinks, “He was right, I reflected with dismayed horror. The woods were more than a collection of trees and wildlife: they were some kind of eerie dreamscape, a hellish netherworld into which I’d been drawn. Mysterious, ambivalent, unreal, yet strangely comforting too. The forest, I remember someone writing once, was everything those fairy-tales made you feel.”

Shiver the Whole Night Through, I hope, does that too. Makes you feel how the creepy, dreamy old fairy-tales did. But any success wouldn’t have been possible without the real-life woods around me. Source of nightmare and solace, an inspiration as deep as the black of a mid-forest night.