I grew up in a house crammed with books, but when I was still at primary school many of the ones on my parents’ bookshelves were off limits, in case I “spoiled” some of the classics for myself by attempting to read them when I was too young to get the best out of them. On the whole this didn’t bother me very much, but there were a few books I really itched to get my hands on.
Top of the list was The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. My father had a John Murray paperback of it, printed in 1960. It had a lurid cover depicting a group of explorers in solar topees being menaced by an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex with blood dripping from a mouth ringed with fearsome-looking fangs. I simply longed to be allowed to read that book, but it remained tantalisingly out of reach – quite literally, since it was on one of the high shelves to the left of the fireplace. I can remember the exact spot.
Then, when I was 10 years old, my parents returned from school parents’ evening with momentous news. They had discussed my voracious reading habits with my form teacher, who had pronounced that I should at last be given the run of the bookshelves and allowed to read whatever I liked. The very first book I laid hands on was – of course – The Lost World.
I can still remember the outrage with which I read that book. It wasn’t too difficult at all; I could have read it ages ago. (This opinion was subsequently confirmed by the publication of an unabridged Puffin Classics edition for children.)
That experience has stayed with me as I have worked on my own books for young adults. I hated having my own reading ability underestimated so I don’t “dumb down” for a young audience. If I want to put in an unusual or esoteric word (palimpsest, anyone?) I do it, especially if that is the specific word that fits the thing I am trying to describe. If the reader hasn’t come across it before, well, there’s always Google.
I think the other way in which The Lost World has influenced my writing is that it is such an intensely exciting adventure story. Reading it again now, I am struck by how male-oriented the book is. Lord John Roxton’s rooms actually have “an atmosphere of masculine virility”; you can’t get much more testosterone-charged than that. The female characters are confined to brief appearances by the bird-like Mrs. Challenger and the beautiful but repellent Gladys. Somehow the book carried me along so well that it never ocurred to me that I “ought” to identify with those women. No; I wanted to be Ed Malone or Lord John Roxton himself.
I still recall with a certain frisson of excitement the moment when the party have to cross a gaping chasm by creeping along the trunk of a tree they have felled. “As to Lord John,” says the narrator, “he walked across – actually walked, without support! He must have nerves of iron.” It was the summit of my ambition to be as brave and suave as that.
I think that’s reflected in the heroines that I write myself. They like adventure and they’re not afraid to take risks. There’s a scene in Silent Saturday (the first book in Forbidden Spaces, my current trilogy of urbex thrillers) in which the heroine Veerle De Keyser, having escaped, actually goes back into an extremely dangerous situation to save someone else. She’s very physically brave.
More tellingly, the following book, Demons of Ghent, sees Veerle walking unprotected along the parapet of a high building, in spite of the dizzying drop.
Until I began to write this article on my inspiration – it had never occurred to me to connect that scene with the one in The Lost World that so impressed me. It simply seemed to me that to walk unprotected over such a fearsome chasm was the ultimate expression of composure and courage. She walked across – actually walked, without support! She must have nerves of iron…
Helen Grant’s latest book is Urban Legends, the third and final part of the Forbidden Spaces trilogy is out now, published by Corgi.