“…What happens if your sixth-grade science teacher is also your immortal enemy..?”
I must admit, I’m a little bit chicken. Part lioness, part monkey, part chicken. I’ve watched legions of fans devour the Twilight series (some young enough to be my own kids) whilst standing from afar with a wreath of garlic around my neck and my knees clacking. But most of these readers seem to have survived this sordid tale of vampire romance.
For me, vampires are just downright creepy, but with such a deep global fascination for these creatures, it got me to thinking: what am I missing out on?
Enter: A Taste For Red by US author Lewis Harris (pictured). I e-met the worldly, intelligent and very funny Harris by chance recently, and was intrigued to learn about his new book aimed at very young vampire fans — those aged 8-12.
If 8-12 year olds could read this, surely this lioness-monkey-chicken woman could give it a go? Still, it was with a little trepidation that I began reading this gorgeously bound, bright red hardback novel.
Sixth grader, Stephanie Grimm, is a vampire. Well, at least she thinks she is. She likes to wear black, sleep under her bed, eats only red food and has unofficially changed her name to Svetlana. What further evidence could you need?
When her family moves to a new town, Svetlana is forced to shift from home schooling to life at Sunny Hill Middle School — a move that irks her to the bone. Thrown into a world of irritating mediocrity, where no one understands her, Svetlana’s misery is soon overshadowed by the shadowy presence of her science teacher — Ms Larch.
The tall, exotically beautiful Ms Larch stinks, quite literally — to high heaven. But the aroma of rotting food emanating from this mysterious woman is something only Svetlana can smell. But why? What connects these two women? And how is it possible to hear the very thoughts Ms Larch is thinking? What is going on here, other than a great big vat of smelly creepiness?
Svetlana’s journey to uncover this inexplicable connection is further complicated when three girls go missing from school. With the help of the inimitable Mrs Bones next door, and two unlikely and very dorky school friends, this curious young Goth finds herself embroiled in a journey of self-discovery and a very creepy outcome.
Author Lewis Harris has penned a seriously creepy and seriously entertaining tome in A Taste for Red. But don’t worry — the novel is totally PG. There’s nothing that’s going to psychologically damaged your nine-year-old in this book — it’s all beautifully scripted, spine-chilling fun — somewhat like the neighbour who goes ‘all out’ during trick or treat, eliciting those childish screams that are torn between terror and delight.
But Harris actually didn’t plan on writing a book about vampires.
“At the start of the story, Svetlana only ‘thinks’ she’s a vampire,” he tells Australian Women Online. “I didn’t know if was true or not. It was fun writing and finding out the truth.”
Writing a creepy book for kids is dangerous in that the writing must tread a fine line between ghoulish fun and outright inappropriateness. Harris does the former beautifully. Even kids as young as eight will creep along with spine tingling delight at this frighteningly fun tale — but there is more to the story than just a good old fashioned fright — the book is surprisingly funny.
“Everyone likes a funny story,” says Harris, “But I think younger readers in particular are drawn to a book with laughs. I really wanted A Taste for Red to be scary, and I think it is. The laughs evolved from the personalities of the characters. Svetlana is incredibly sarcastic, which is where I find a lot of my humour. The youngsters in the story are thrown into some extremely unfunny, uncomfortable, and frightening situations, but the comedic bits couldn’t be kept down (I’m happy to say). “
Not only is the plot of A Taste for Red skilfully designed and executed, the writing style is refreshingly intelligent and luscious to read, reminding us that beautiful prose does not need to be reserved for adult fiction. Harris doesn’t patronise nor pander to his young readers. It’s obvious that he esteems them as intelligent and more than capable of absorbing his well-thought and well-placed vernacular, insinuations and themes — all something I personally loved.
But the thing I love most about A Taste for Red, is its humour. Fast, witty and very funny, Harris has an awesome knack for hilarity and droll dialogue, especially that which is dripping red with sarcasm. It’s so wonderful to read dialogue that harnesses the way modern kids speak and make you giggle at the same time.
Due to its tightly woven details, I was convinced Harris had spent a great deal of time researching the history of vampires for this story — such as the brilliant introduction of ‘olfactives’. But I was mistaken.
“I’m not a fan of research,” he admits. “Occasionally I’ll Google something or other, but if the answer doesn’t immediately present itself, I’ll make something up. I believe it is true, however, that the longest earthworm on record is twenty-two feet. And I did create olfactives, although I’d be surprised if I was the only one who had. I just tapped out the story chapter by chapter, curious to see where it would go.”
Other highlights of this brilliantly creative book are the jibes and quips Harris uses between the school friends; they are superb and really relevant to today’s kids. A delightful use of onomatopoeia lends richness and almost audible sound to the text. And small references are made in the book that perhaps only adults will cotton onto — giving the story the depth older readers will enormously enjoy — somewhat like the blockbuster children’s movies of modern times. They lure everyone in, not just the kids.
Creepiness also lures in many a reader — a phenomenon Harris is familiar with.
“I grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King,” he admits. “When I was around nine or ten, I had this thick, hardback book titled ‘Fifty Greatest Ghost Stories’. It was my favourite book. And I loved Edgar Allan Poe, especially his poems. And horror movies. On Friday night, the television would show ‘Friday Night Frights’ and on Saturday afternoon it was ‘Creature Feature’. I couldn’t get enough.”
Brave man, this Mr Harris. And to think, around the same time, I was faffing around with the Magic Faraway Tree and Nancy Drew. So lame!
“For me, I loved creepy stories and monster stories and ghost stories because I thought they were real,” Harris continues. “I mean, they had to be, right? All this creepy stuff had to be based on something, and the world is such a big place—somewhere there had to be monsters.”
When he was young, Lewis admits to reading everything there was about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, UFO books and Yeti books and ghost stories.
“As kids, there’s a thrill to the creepy—it’s real, but we’re safe at home, so it’s all right. When we get older and out on our own, we tell ourselves it’s not real; there’s no such thing as monsters. But who are we kidding?”
The monsters Harris creates are certainly believable in A Taste for Red—a story that combines unreal elements with the very real, creating delicious elements of suspense.
“I hope the reader is poised on the edge of their seat, even scared, but ultimately happy at the close of the tale. I hope the reader feels good when the book is finished. Maybe I’m a softy.”
Indeed he may be, but when asked if Harris has a vampire history in his family, he grins maniacally and says: “I’m actually not allowed to say… it’s sort of a rule.”
Hmm. I wonder if he also has a taste for red.
You can learn more about Lewis Harris and his work at www.lewisharrisbooks.com. A Taste for Red will soon be published in Germany by Random House, and Harris is working on a sequel whilst simultaneously visiting schools to creep out the kids, and keeping his lawn mowed.