Jennifer Killick on mixing fear and fun in Dread Wood

Published on: 03 September 2023 Author: Jennifer Killick

Jennifer Killick reveals which classic movie inspired her book Dread Wood - and shares why she wanted to mix fear and fun in the story!

The front cover of Dread Wood and a photo of Jennifer Killick

There was a film I watched when I was a teenager that has remained a favourite throughout my life, because it presented me with something I hadn't experienced before: genuine fear and gore, but in an exhilarating and fun way.

I flinched. I jumped. I hid behind a cushion. And I laughed.

That film was called Tremors, and it told the story of a group of people living in a remote desert town in Nevada who discover that there are human-eating creatures living under the ground. There's a scene early in the film where the main characters find a man sitting half way up an electrical tower, clutching a gun.

When they climb up to help him they discover, not only that he's dead, but that he died of thirst. There was something so terrifying to this man about being on the ground that he chose to die of thirst up a tower instead. The suspense that built in my mind was incredibly powerful and has haunted my dreams since the first watch.

More recently the game The Floor is Lava really caught my attention. I love the idea of having to get yourself off the ground, like, RIGHT NOW, or the worst will happen. The sense of panic. The gleeful flinging of yourself onto sofas or tables that are like life-rafts in the hellfire. Again, I loved the tension, the fear, and the adrenaline rush, followed by the eruption of relieved laughter when you manage to save yourself.

I wanted to write a story that captured the same mix of fear and fun, and after a lot of thinking, planning, re-planning, and hours and hours of daydreaming, that story became Dread Wood.

Creating characters you care about

An illustration from the front cover of Dread Wood - four children silhouetted as the sun sets, looking over at a figure lit up in the window of a building

Pic: Tom Clohosy Cole

A huge part of the appeal of Tremors, and many other films like it, lies in the characters. We love these people, with their quirks and flaws, their ability to joke around even in the gravest of situations, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their friends. And because of that we are desperate for them to survive.

So I created the characters in Dread Wood carefully, putting a huge amount of thought and time into each individual. I wanted them all to be very different, with their own anxieties, issues, dreams and ambitions. I wanted those differences to shape their relationships – the arguing, the misunderstandings, and ultimately, the way they come together as the strongest team.

Combining a plot filled with suspense, mystery, jump scares, snort laughs, and horror with this group of characters – Angelo, Hallie, Gustav, and Naira, who go on to call themselves Club Loser - turned out to be the most brilliant experience of my writing career. I LOVE writing these books.

In each book of the series there is a different genetically-mutated creature to fight, in a range of settings that I hope most people will find uncomfortably familiar: school, the shopping centre, a fairground. And the villains of Dread Wood terrify me more than any other character I've ever written. I genuinely have nightmares about them on a regular basis.

Each book allows me to develop the characters and the friendship that grows between them. Gustav, in particular, has been a riot to write. He grows in weirdness and hilarity with every instalment and always manages to do and say things that surprise me and make me howl with laughter. I love him so much that I'm tempted to include him in everything I write from now on, even if I go on to write tragic love stories (I won't). In fact, I might only write Dread Wood stories for the rest of my life.

A thousand moments of inspiration - of overheard conversations, of strange facts learned in wildlife documentaries, of books read and movies watched, of song lyrics mulled over, of strangers I walked past in the street once – connect together to form my ideas for stories. And Dread Wood is no different.

But I wonder, if I had never seen that old man stuck up a tower in the desert, in a movie from 1990, would Dread Wood have ever come to exist? I don't think so, or at least not in its current form.

So I am grateful to Tremors, and its increasingly crazy sequels, and also to Kevin Bacon for playing the lead character in such a likeable way, for planting that seed. And I hope you all love reading Dread Wood as much as I loved writing it.

Please note that the movie Tremors referenced above is rated 12A by the British Board of Film Classification.

Topics: Horror, Funny, Bookbuzz