Charlie Higson: 'Honey, I ate the kids ...'

In his new horror novel, Charlie Higson imagines cannibal-zombie adults killing their children. Well, haven't they always?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Like many parents, I've recently spent a miserable summer waiting for exam results. What makes the process tougher on parents is that after the drama of results day, that's it – school's over. Just like that. One day they're toddling off through the school gates for the first time, and the next they're toddling off down the pub to celebrate their A-level results. Exams are flashing neon signs on the road from childhood to adulthood, and speeding down that road together is painful for all concerned. Parents deal with it by becoming clingy, judgemental and anxious; adolescents deal with it by pushing us away and becoming rebellious and generally unpleasant.

This is a very important process, though. Kids have to start distancing themselves from their parents or they can never become independent people in their own right. And as a parent you have to accept that your role is becoming redundant. Your work here is done. All that remains is a slow decline into the grave.

We might be able to rationalise all this. Kids can't. They have no concept of what it must be like to be an ageing parent. And nor should they. But they are going through emotionally tumultuous times and one of the things that can help them is fiction. Particularly horror fiction. It's no surprise that horror films are mainly made for, and very often star, teenagers.

Horror is often dismissed as a lowly adolescent genre with little worth, but horror stories are a very good way for teenagers to deal with the big themes that scare them and that they are having to confront – change, sex, love, sickness, death. And at the heart of many horror stories is the intense relationship between parents and children, and the fact that adolescents can't take their place in the world until us old gits are out of the way. The young hero must slay the monster. Horror stories are fables that have their origins in classical mythology. As these ancient belief systems died out, the myths transmogrified into fairy tales, and the fairy tales have turned into horror stories.

Take, for instance, the oldest surviving Greek myths (which in themselves contain the story of an older belief system being usurped by a newer one). Most people today only know Uranus as a planet with a hilarious name, but he was once the Sky, the ruler of the universe, and something of a tyrant. Having mated with the Earth (his mother), Gaia, he produced some children, the Titans. However, like many a father, Uranus became fiercely jealous of his children, and so locked them away in Tartarus so that they would never threaten his reign.

It didn't work. His youngest son, Kronos, castrated him, lobbed the bits into the sea and took his place. Nice. And then the process was repeated (as it is destined to be repeated down through history). Kronos feared his own children would one day rise up and overthrow him as he had done to his own father and so he began to eat them one by one. All except Zeus, whose mother substituted a large stone wrapped in swaddling clothes for the newborn baby. And when Zeus was old enough he slit his father's belly open, freed his brothers and sisters and took over.

This twisted tale contains the origins of many subsequent stories – the first one that springs to mind being the equally horrific fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood. But literature is littered with stories about rulers who are told that their child is going to grow up to replace them, because it is the story which all fathers have to act out. The female equivalent is the wicked stepmother story, in which the mother, jealous of the pretty child, a potential rival, wants her out of the way. The stories of Perseus, Oedipus, Snow White, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer all contain the same underlying message: if you don't kill them, the kids will take over. What is the giant ogre in a fairy tale, if not simply an adult? And the diminutive heroes are simply children. Just as in the classical myths, the Gods are the adults and the Heroes the children.

My childhood nightmares were filled with witches. Just why witches are so scary to young people is graphically spelled out in Disney's Snow White, when the beautiful queen turns into a wrinkled old hag. It is the fear of ageing, of decrepitude ... of growing up. Life is cruel, and always ends badly. But without wrinkled, shrunken old age, without death, there can be no new life, no fresh-faced little kiddies in the world.

As I grew up and started to get into horror films, my fear of witches was replaced by a fear of zombies – for me, the most frightening of all screen monsters. The two films that launched the modern cannibal zombie holocaust genre (and my interest in it), George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of The Dead (1978), are in many ways satires disguised as gut-munching splatter-fests, and the themes of cannibalism are nothing new, as we have seen.

I wanted in my horror series to stir all these ideas together, and came up with the idea of a disease that only affects people over the age of 14. It doesn't kill them and bring them back from the dead, but it does cause them to behave like classic flesh-eating zombies, and their prey are children. As with Romero's films, there are levels of satire, and as with the classical myths and our well-loved fairy tales, there are levels of allegory. The message is the same as Hansel and Gretel: If we don't eat our kids they will push us into the fire. And vice versa. But of course, it's all disguised as a zombie horror-action adventure. So please, don't tell the children.



To read the first chapter of The Fear, watch the trailer, or win signed copies, go to independent.co.uk/zombies

The Fear, By Charlie Higson

Puffin £12.99



'All the kids had nightmares. It would have been crazy if they didn't. They'd seen so many strange and terrible things, after all. Disease and death, fire and darkness and chaos. Their world turned upside-down.... How could you not have nightmares if you'd watched your parents slowly lose their minds? If you'd watched their bodies being taken over by the disease, watched it blistering the skin, eating away at the flesh, watched it kill them?'

Comments