Friday 13th interview with Cliff McNish

Welcome to a special spooky Friday 13th author interview!  On this traditionally creepy day we are joined by Cliff McNish who first came to prominence with the ‘The Doomspell Trilogy’, subsequently published in 21 languages around the world.  In addition to writing fantasy cliff has also written two Ghost stories, ‘Breathe’ and ‘The Hunting Ground’, which was recently published in paperback (review here and your chance to win a copy in our giveway here). Here Cliff tells us what the ingredients are for a good ghost story, what’s the scariest book he has ever read and whether he believes in ghosts…

How would you describe ‘The Hunting Ground’?

A story about 2 teenage boys who have to face an absolutely terrifying adult male ghost who intends to hunt them to death.

You have said previously “…almost no one is writing what I would call genuinely frightening ghost stories of novel length for teenagers.”  Why do you think this is the case?


First, ghost stories of any length are tricky to write. Most people don’t have the skill to sustain the atmosphere. Mostly, I think it is the commercial market. Publishers are wary about making ghost stories too dark – they slip too easily into dark adult themes, are harder to sell to teens, whereas, say, gothic romance as a genre, has a much clearer and more obvious adolescent focus. There should still be more out there, but can you name me one that genuinely scared you and had teenage protagonists at its heart?

To give all those authors out there a hand, what are the ingredients for a good ghost story?

First and most important decide who your ghost is, and why have they decided to haunt the living. After all, there must be a good reason. We don’t see ghosts every day, do we? What vital unfinished business does your ghost have? Are they seeking revenge? Did someone treat them badly or hurt them while they were alive? Were they even murdered? If so, work out what happened, how and why they were hurt/killed, and slowly reveal that story to the reader.

Or is it the opposite – your ghost is returning to help someone? In Allan Ahlberg’s tender and gentle ‘My Brother’s Ghost‘ a dead boy returns simply to support his grieving brother. Not all ghost stories have to be terrifying.

And here’s a second big tip: if possible make your ghost as closely-related to the main living characters in your story as you can. Why? Because the closer the ghost is linked, the more likely readers are to believe a ghost would return from the dead to haunt/hurt/warn/help them. Plus a ghost story also feels so much more interesting and personal if the ghost is someone the living people knew well – especially if it was someone they felt passionately about, someone they loved or hated.

How do you draw the line between making your readers scared and making them genuinely frightened?

Actually, whatever an author might think or say, you can’t do that. Some readers are so sensitive that just saying a ghost is in the room is enough to make them genuinely frightened.  Another reader will grin through the same scene. My previous ghost novel ‘Breathe’ gathered every kind of reaction from ‘the scariest novel I have ever read’ to  ‘This was not scary at all, in fact I laughed all the way through.’ Readers are mysterious people. As a writer, you just have to trust your instinct about what makes you feel scared, but not to go so far that you utterly dismay or disgust or offend most readers.

Despite writing ghost stories, you don’t believe in ghosts? Not even a little bit?

I’m afraid not. Hold on …what’s that behind me…

What is the scariest book you have read?

Tough one. Factual books about real life crimes, especially on a vast scale like genocide, are always far more terrifying than any fiction. And is there anything more heart-rendingly frightening than Anne Frank’s diary when you know the outcome? But as for fiction titles … the most frightening and brilliant novel centred around teenagers I’ve ever read is ‘Bloodtide’ by Melvin Burgess.

As a youngster you read graphic novels before your English teacher gave you a copy of ‘The Magicians Nephew’ and you credit this with developing your interest in reading novels.  What was it that you liked so much about this book?

The witch in it enthralled me. The wood between the worlds linked to pools and other worlds enthralled me. Aslan, the great lion, enthralled me. It was my first real exposure to fantasy that was deeply imagined and well-written, and I could hardly breathe.

What are you currently reading and listening to?

While I write this I am listening to film scores by Bernard Hermann, who wrote the music for many of Hitchcock’s darkest movies, including ‘Psycho’ and I am reading ‘Love in the Time Of Cholera’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Other than your own books, do you have any recommendations of books that would appeal to teenage boys?

Yes, definitely. ‘The Witchfinder’ trilogy by William Hussey is great, fast-moving stuff. Also, I think Melvin Burgess’s books ‘Kill All Enemies’ and ‘Doing It’ are terrific at a grittier, more realistic level. But if you want one book that I absolutely loved and think all teenage boys would die for it’s got to be ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card. An adult SF novel, but any teenager can read and love it. Nearly all the characters are boys and they are all involved in a future battle school to kick-ass some aliens. It’s brilliant.

The Quick 5

Supernatural or Superhero?


Reading books or writing books?


Twitter or Facebook?


Print book or e-book?


TV or Radio?


Thanks to Cliff for a great interview. If you would like to find out more about him visit his website here

To enter our competition to win a copy of ‘The Hunting Ground’ click here