Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
As a boy I loved fantasy. Why would I read a book about mundane reality, about other boys doing the sort of boring things that I did? I wanted books that took me out of my world and off on an adventure. I still do. I loved myths and legends and historical fiction – anything in which the hero had a sword. The 1960s was a great era for children’s historical fiction with writers like Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece, and then there was an explosion of fantasy in the 70s. I devoured Tolkien and Michael Moorcock, but it was Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy that truly obsessed me.
Gormenghast is an enormously well imagined place, with extraordinary characters, and, unusually for British fiction, they are very ‘visual’ and packed with images that really stick with you. The books tell the story of Steerpike, a disaffected teenager who slowly destroys the titular castle, its centuries old (and ridiculous) traditions and its bizarre inhabitants.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
As well as fantasy I heavily got into science fiction as a teenager. I could have packed some J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick or William Gibson for my trip, but I will give a shout out to John Wyndham, who is not as well read these days as he once was (and should be).
We British love our dystopias and our cosy apocalypses, from Wells, through Huxley, Orwell and up to… well, my own books. Wyndham dreamt up several excellent apocalyptic scenarios. We all know the Triffids, for instance even if we don’t know who created them. I first read The Chrysalids as a teenager, and, like The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village Of The Damned), it’s a great book for kids as it’s about children. In a puritanical post-nuclear future any human aberration or mutation is deemed a sin and stamped out, so when a group of kids discover telepathic abilities they fear for their survival. The ending is brutal and startling.
Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson
In my 20s, having flirted with magic realism and arty student post modernist/nouveau gothic mash-ups from the likes of William Burroughs, I discovered the joys of crime fiction and have never looked back. I don’t have time for literary fiction any more. I’ve come to believe that the writer should put the work in, not the reader. Great crime writing does everything you get in literary fiction, and adds story, character and dynamism. Jim Thompson was the king of the American pulp writers. He was an alcoholic who wrote fast for money and his books are wildly uneven, but all contain at least one eye-poppingly memorable passage that stays with you. Many crime (and horror) writers have tried to imitate him, from Stephen King to James Ellroy (and me), but none have come close to his weird mix of dark humour, damaged characters and unsettling violence. POP 1280 tells the story of a very small town sheriff in the 1920s who decides to clean up his town once and for all, with appalling consequences.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson
I've put this in not only because Matheson has just died, but also because I probably wouldn’t be writing this piece if it wasn’t for this book. It is such a seminal work of horror that anyone interested in the genre should read it. Matheson perhaps invented modern horror, taking it out of Victorian haunted houses and moving it firmly to the present. He specialized in taking ‘supernatural’ scenarios and setting them in as real a world as he could. Although I Am Legend (and what a great title) is about vampires it is the inspiration for George Romero’s original Night of The Living Dead and every zombie film since. The last normal man in California is holed up in a house surrounded by gibbering, monstrous vampires. Every day he ventures out to ‘stake’ as many of them as he can. If you’ve seen the rubbish Will Self film (or the other 2 only slightly less rubbish versions) you might think you know the story, but the book is something else, beautifully written, horrific, moving and ultimately shocking in its ‘question everything’ dénouement.
Under The Skin by Michael Faber
This was recommended to me recently by a friend and it instantly became the book I recommend to everyone I meet. Try and read it before the film comes out, as they will surely change nearly everything in it. A beautiful young woman drives around northern Scotland picking up hitchhikers and…sorry, but it’s one of those books where to tell you any of the plot would spoil the joys of reading it. Suffice to say, though, nothing is as it seems and the unfolding story is totally unexpected, veering between horror, sci-fi and, though I dread to mention it, literary fiction as it digs deeper into the lonely lives of the hitchhikers and the young woman.
From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming
I definitely wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Ian Fleming, so I would have to take at least one of his books with me. When I was offered the job of writing the Young James Bond series for kids I jumped at the chance of taking up a new career at my late stage of life, and the next best thing to actually being James Bond was to write about him. I cant tell you what fun it was tryping the words “The name’s Bond, James Bond…” We’ve all seen a Bond film, but we haven’t all read one of the books. This was the first I read and is probably the best. Fleming’s books are still insanely readable. He wrote incredibly well about things and places and action – which is actually very hard to do well – and created some very vivid characters, but he was probably less capable when it came to relationships. His views on women occasionally slap you in the face. In the end, though, he never meant Bond to be someone we looked up to. He was a cold-hearted assassin, after all. So this book is a great story but also a fascinating glimpse of male attitudes in the 1950s.
The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
If I really was heading off to a desert island I might very well just fill my trunk with all of Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction. I love his books and take at least three of them away with me whenever I go on holiday (luckily he’s written dozens). This – minus the sex and the more extreme violence – is what I grew up on. Like Fleming, Cornwell writes extremely well about places and action, and what it takes to be a hero. His attitude towards women is a lot more modern, as well. Hard to pick one book, Cornwell really knows how to rock a series, but I’ve chosen the first of his Viking ones, to remind myself where this particular saga began.
Charlie Higson is a champion of The Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge 2013 which every year inspires 750,000 children aged 4-11 to read six library books over the summer holidays. This year’s theme is ‘Creepy House’ and all children have to do is head down to their local library from 13th July to join in for some spine-tingling fun.
Visit the Summer Reading website for more information.
Charlie Higson’s latest book, The Sacrifice, is published by Puffin.