John Connolly's Gates of Hell are about to open - mind the gap
'How many magical children do you know?' John Connolly asked a spellbound audience at the launch of The Gates in No Alibis this year. 'I don't know any.'
The Gates is award-winning author Connolly's second foray into children's literature and he spares none of the craft and imagination that has won his Charlie Parker novels international acclaim.
He doesn't spare the reader's nerves any either. The gore level is less than those familiar with his Parker series might expect, but there are still plenty of chills and a genuine sense of threat towards the main characters. Oh, and a distinctly non-magical hero in 11-year old Samuel Johnson and his loyal dachshund, Boswell.
Not that Samuel Johnson is your average 11-year old. Connolly describes him as the sort of self-sufficient, clever and decent kid that he would have liked to be, and that's as good a description as any. Samuel is a little too clever for his teacher's peace of mind and sometimes wonders if it was his fault that his father left.
No-one familiar with our hero would have been surprised to find him on their doorstep four days before Halloween. Except for Mr Abernathy, self-help guru and occasional Satanist, who is new to the neighbourhood. Abernathy also does not appreciate Samuel's show of initiative, and sends him away without even an apple for his trouble.
Reluctant to return home to his sullen, teenage babysitter - who he suspects might want to bury him in the backyard - Samuel lingers outside the Abernathy house. He is the only witness to the Gates of Hell swinging open, just a crack, in the Abernathy's basement. The Great Malevolence plans for Biddlecombe to be the first stop in the invasion of earth. Now the fate of the world rests on Samuel's shoulders and he doesn't even have a magic wand to his name.
What he does have is a loyal dachshund, good friends and science. And his father's Aston Martin. Remember that, it's important.
Connolly likes science. Now. As a child he went to a Christian Brother's school where they didn't have biology (oddly enough I have a friend who went to a convent school where biology was the only science allowed) and he hated it. The Gates is his response to that frustration. Not only does science save the day, after admittedly causing the problem in the first place, but the book is full of enthusiastic asides from the narrator:
'The universe tastes like raspberries!' 'The entire human race could be squashed down to fit into a matchbox! Although that's inadvisable because the matchbox would then be left unattended.'
Connolly's message is clearly that 'science is cool'. A lot of Americans apparently didn't take too well to that. They also objected to the fact that the word 'Hell' is on the cover. Which is strange, because Connolly doesn't actually disparage faith. The Biddlecombe vicar is a decent chap who manages to deal quite handily with the reanimated, unconsecrated dead besieging him in his church.
Most of the characters in the book are decent. Even some of the demons seem like they would be affable enough if they weren't so scared of the Great Malevolence. As the narrator of the book points out, most beings don't go out of their way to be evil, they're just bored or scared or lazy.
Some do go out of their way though. Mrs Abernathy - beautiful, spoilt Mrs Abernathy - is one of them. The Great Malevolence's left-hand on earth, she's a ruthless, competent villain with a clear handle on what she wants and how to get it. She doesn't balk at threatening Samuel's mother or hurting his dog and she's undone by the hero's cleverness, not her own stupidity. It's satisfying.
The Gates is a masterfully told story with an endearing young hero and an engaging cast. With plenty of scope left in the ending for future books in this world, I hope Connolly and Johnson meet again. It's well worth reading. You might learn something - and not even mind!