Today I’m one of three stops on the mega celebration blog tour for Jennifer Killick’s DreadWood!
I’ve been a huge fan of Jennifer’s writing for some years, she is a literal diamond of contemporary storycraft with a twisted element whether turning her hand to unfortunate superpowers, mysterious disappearances or tween horror , Jen is a master of gripping plots and unexpectedly endearing characters. DreadWood sees her take on a new setting that draws on her skills but takes us to an even darker sci-fi horror place than ever before.
With its Breakfast Club meets B Movie Creature Feature Horror this is terrifyingly funny, beautifully dark and rips your heart out as we get to know each of the children in detention as they struggle to survive.
With themes of resilience, companionship and honesty over struggling alone, admitting mistakes and reframing assumptions and a primal danger to shiver your soul.
CW: some what may be considered ‘potty mouth’ but not actual swearing, peril and horror scenes, this book is not for early readers nor the faint of heart or prone to nightmares.
Saturday detention is the worst. But there’s a punishment far darker waiting for Angelo, Hallie, Gustav and Naira as the day progresses and it becomes clearer that there is something deadly lurking around the school, waiting for the children to get caught in their web.
‘There’s something weird going on,’ I whisper.
I could write about the horror, no doubt other reviewers will, I could write about intricately woven reasoning worthy of an Agatha Christie novel behind this deadly Saturday, but that would be giving the game away and I won’t do that.
What I want to celebrate is how Jen takes the genre of MG horror and elevates it into something rich, sensory, inclusive and deep without losing the impact of a darkly horrifying menace.
‘ Dead Wood High is a weird place – a mix of old and new, historical and modern, in the way it looks and the way it feels. The main reception and offices are in the old mansion, a grand building that would be nice to look at if it wasn’t a school… It has a conservatory and ornamental garden at the back, but only six formers and teachers are allowed in there… There are bushes cut into ball shapes, a pond with a fountain and a load of smug Year 12s.’I grew up and went on to teach near where Jen lives and I nearly screeched with recognition at this quote – I recall being ‘told on’ for being in that space on my lunch break by the maths department when gaining experience as a LSA before taking my PGCE. If you know, you know.
One of the strengths of Dread Wood is the immersion in an almost universally recognised space. For young readers whether they go to a hi tech new-build, or claustrophobic old buildings; an urban space lacking green or a suburban sprawl of different architecture marking the decades of expansion; or a leafy private school where the wooden floors ring with history and heritage; they will all recognise largely the same elements of school space- the classrooms, corridors, sanctuaries and hellscapes, open spaces, caretaker spaces and the emotional context and weight these bring.
This universal experience is drawn upon, focused and honed across our cast of characters and yet equally likely pushed to exciting new spaces with a school farm and ‘creature lab’ both of which are not unrealistic in a world where trends for enrichment, sustainability, environmentalism and opportunity for outside investment can make a real difference to a school’s provision and here provides much of the opportunity for action and adventure across the plot.
This has a real impact on any aged reader too. We are not immune to the depth of impact that our school days have on us, and how primal that is in how memories and emotions can be triggered by words, scents and sights even decades after the experience. I remember as a student daydreaming and imagining how we would cope or escape if there was a school siege or monster attack on my secondary school- where would be the best place to hide out? Where would be safe from other students not just the threat? The whole concept of an everyday place you know inside out and endure as being the setting of an adventure is a thought provoking and exciting one.
‘You don’t hear anything, Angelo, because you walk around all silent and depressed the entire time.’ Naira rolls her eyes.
‘I do not,’ I say, surprised anyone else noticed anything about me as I try so hard to stay under the radar.
‘Yeah, you do,’ Hallie said. ‘You have the whole lone-wolf thing going on.’ She puts on a voice and flips imaginary hair out of her eyes ‘Oh, hi, I’m Angelo, and I’m so deep and moody. Don’t even look at me.’
Every time I read and review Jen’s books I come back to deservedly celebrate the same talent that Jen has for writing real, resonant boys you want to root for. Not simply in their language, swagger and behaviours but in the way they are perceived by the wider world.
It’s all too easy to write tropes when it comes to boys- make them rude bullies or frightened nerds but whom occasionally ‘make good’ can often be one dimensional even as protagonists, however Jen has an incredible gift that goes far beyond this simple duality.
Angelo, like all Jen’s boys is flawed, not ‘the good boy’ but not the bully either, she creates boys that inhabit the spaces between and at the edges, the often invisible boys who only get attention when they cause trouble, but never because they are bored or destructive by nature. The real boys who aren’t the star athlete or maths champion, unlikely to go to Oxbridge, but have strengths and talents in other, often underestimated skills and areas.
Angelo is a neglected child, who truants and gets into trouble because he is worried about the well-being of his younger brother, but his fear and reluctance to seek help blur and limits the wider perception of him to a disengaged naughty boy going nowhere.
But this rich development is not at the detriment of her girls. Jen actually confronts if not proclaims FOR the usual stereotypes of the perfect goodie-two-shoes and the ‘rebel grrrl’ and gives them depth and realism as she peels back the expectations and projections of others to reveal the vulnerable tween girl at the core; a girl desperate to succeed to please her mother and offer a chance of social mobility, and another who is so desperate to prove herself strong, capable and tough but falls apart when confronted with a smarter, more capable opponent.
‘Everyone has stuff they’re embarrassed of’
Jen’s own experience with chronic health issues is embroidered into her writing which as a parent of children with an autoimmune condition that requires daily medicating I really appreciate.
Hidden and quiet disabilities, health issues and needs along with neurodiversity are often experienced as shameful by children inhabiting a space and time where homogenous conformity and ‘normalness’ reigns- and then you spend the rest of your life trying to be special again.
Jen offers a relief by not only featuring children with health issues or disabilities in her books but she rebates this inclusion by not making these children Tiny Tims or the ‘worthy patient’, instead she celebrates these children by making them real, resonant, flawed AND making them the heroes.
Children don’t need to feel that disabled children have to be angels, geniuses or worse fridged for someone else’s development to be acceptable to featured in fiction, and Jen shows you can be a bit of a mess both health wise and as a tween and still be worthy of heroic adventures and I could ugly cry for that. I won’t tell you which of the children fit this criteria.
So this is worse than we thought… and we thought it was pretty freaking bad.
This all alongside an ingenious horror plot shows Jen’s progress and potential as a writer of young fiction and the hunger for her books shows that many children like and WANT to be scared, thrilled and have adventures.
Jen’s ability to create deeply immersive and heartfelt horror shows she is a master of the genre and I can only hope for more from her wonderful imagination.
Be sure to check out all the other stops on this mega tour for DreadWood hosted by The Write Reads.
DreadWood by Jennifer Killick is published by Farshore
Thank you for my advanced copies. 💜