The Saviour of Boys’ Literacy: Lovecraft, Bond, and the Order of the British Empire

Times article headline, april 20th 2014

Here in England there is a man they call the saviour of boys’ literacy. In February, he was awarded an OBE, and his name is Anthony Horowitz.

In 2007, Anthony was singled out by then Education Secretary Alan Johnson as the not-so-secret weapon to get boys reading. Horowitz’ author profile,


We need an educational strategy that builds a positive identity for working class boys, instilling in them pride and a love of learning. [. . .] Boys like books which depict them in powerful roles, often as sporting, spying, or fighting heroesnot just Jane Austen,* but a necessary dose of Anthony Horowitz as well. –Alan Johnson, 2007, according to the Daily Mail (so pinch of salt, lasses, a’right?)

*In order to remain on track, I shan’t dwell on how many Austen characters are sporting, spying, or fighting heroes (quite a number of them though).

Times excerpt, April 20th 2014. Jonathan Emmet, David Sanderson, Fiona WilsonA similar opinion was shared in a late-April 2014 Times articleexcerpt to the right—that saw a lot of play in the twitter circles I run in. David Sanderson and Fiona Wilson, apparently backed by the research of author-illustrator Jonathan Emmet, argue that women and our womanish ways are ruining boys’ chances in literacy. Emmet’s subsequent disambiguation is here. Ah, The Times. We’ll come back to them and their paywall a bit later.

Horowitz’ fairly successful children’s writing career started in 1979 with The Sinister Secret of Frederick K Bower, but he became the sort of writer that governments turn to in their hours of need with 2000’s Stormbreaker. Starring Alex Rider, reluctantly competent boy spy, the book became a seriesthen a franchise. The last and tenth book, Russian Roulette (2013), was a “deadly prequel”; essentially a spin-off pilot set within the backstory of a supporting character. Horowitz’ other bestselling serial sensation is the Power of Five: a Lovecraft primer for under-fourteens that is comprised of five books written over seven years.

My inspiration for Alex was James Bondit was one of those ideas that came at just the right time. —Horowitz

That said, the Old Ones were named after characters described by a famous horror writer called H. P. Lovecraft and he in turn took them from a strange, sixth-century text called the NECRONOMICON. —Horowitz


NowIan Fleming and Lovecraft. Two authors in English literature’s recent history, two men quite famous for the themes of exclusion woven into their work. The author Fleming? Total shagging sexist. The author Lovecraft? Absolute racist, full of terror of the perceived abnormal. If you came to me, as a writer, and said “I’m doing a Lovecraft, maybe,” I’d ask you how are you going to deal with the prejudice? Can you write a recognisable Bond without shortchanging women? If you want to write Not-Nyarlathotep, can you do it without creating social scapegoats for the disgust at human frailty the Old Ones bring with them?

The public persona “Anthony Horowitz” seems to be a man who cares about the welfare of children, and also adults. He takes part (“tirelessly”) in reading outreach programmes, he consults with people studying children’s literacy, he corresponds with young inmates. He writes books. He writes opinion pieces.

Alan Johnson kindly said children shouldn’t read Pride and Prejudice, they should read me. Michael Gove has taken the opposite view and is trying to force great literature down kids through his new curriculum. [. . .] When I was seven, was I reading Thackeray? No, I was reading Tintin. I have visited almost every country he goes to except Tibet and the Moon. It was Tintin who inspired me to write. —Horowitz, Saturday Times, October 2013

Tintin, of course, made his 3D debut in 2011Horowitz is set to write the sequeland continued much as Hergé intended, to the joy of one moviegoer known as “Renegade.”

Tintin (2011) film review, user Renegade, standyourground forum: Renegade notes, happily, the lack of female presence within the 2011 film TinTin I hold Anthony Horowitz to high standards because he has a reputation, an OBE, an adoring press, and scads of child and teen fans; all that adds up to influence. I do not hold him to very high standards. In fact I lied; I don’t think of my standards as high at all. I was just trying to reassure you that I’m some sort of unreasonable feminist so you don’t have to take me too seriously. This allows me to hope you’ll keep reading until the end even though I’m writing here, on this site. Yes, a vestigial social reflex. Quite unrelatedly, did you know that when I was twelve or fourteen an adult man who knew my parents said to me “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on,” just like James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun, and it robbed me of the confidence to speak for a minute or two, and I still hate him now? Haha, fooled you again. That wasn’t unrelated at all.

I believe Anthony Horowitz to be an unreflective reader, a disingenuous speaker, and a lazy moralist. I think he’s harming children’s chances at social harmony and I don’t think we should ignore the problems in his work out of conservatism or gratitude. Why do we want boys to read? Do we want the recreational literacy of children for its own sake so much that we feel safe to neglect more subtle educations? Horowitz himself asks the question, after a fashion. In fact, he asks a similar question to make almost the opposite argument to mine, somehow, which is we shouldn’t give or make children books that teach them how to be horrible, or, we should strive to give and make kids books that DON’T teach them how to be horrible.

“I’ve never thought of reading as being something children have to do,” he said. “It shouldn’t be used like a vitamin to make somebody a healthy child . . . I always remind parents that Dennis Nilsen, the serial killer, was a voracious reader, and it didn’t do him much good, did it?” —Horowitz

No, I don’t take Horowitz for much of a critical reader, and perhaps this is why his first drafts recreate the problems of his predecessors. Even journalists who are apparent fans of his will call him “a walking dictionary of spy novels,” and though it’s anecdotal, my experience with other walking dictionaries has lead me to associate the type with a reluctance to engage in critical thought about their subject. Who knows about the “real man,” the husband, the father? But the professional communicator produces work like this:

Why does Goldfinger let Bond live when he’s so obviously dangerous? Hiring him as a sort of personal assistant-cum-secretary is patently absurd. But you can forgive almost anything when there are so many pleasures to be found between the covers. [. . .] It has Pussy Galore and with a name like that what more do you need to know about her? [. . .] The sequence at Miami airport as he watches the sun set and considers the vicissitudes of fate is writing of the highest order. [. . .] We may be shocked by their old-fashioned attitudes—the casual anti-Semitism, the misogyny, the unhealthy lifestyle. But the power of the story-telling has never diminished. I read the books and re-read them. And I enjoy them every time.

Reader, do you believe yourself impervious to subconscious influence?

Fiona Friend, Alex, Anthony Horowitz, Walker Books, 2001
Alex Rider series supporting cast member Fiona, as described on
Fiona Friend, Alex Rider Wikia, Point Blanc, Anthony Horowitz, Walker Books, 2001
From the Alex Rider wikia. PERVY. Also, a bit shit.

Journalist Amanda Craig describes Alex Rider novels as “[s]tripped of the squalid sex, snobbery, and silliness of the [Fleming] originals,” but I’d like to see her working. Alex’s fifteen year old love interest turned adopted sister (“loves rude jokes”) is named Sabina Pleasure. And with a name like that. . . The other teenaged girl character present in the series, Fiona Friend (and I can’t even at that one-level pun) is a cheap portrait in Rich Bitch. If that ain’t self-indulgent snobbery, what is? Oh, you can enjoy the main character staying in huge manors, in luxury, in material delight, but look at this silly fffffemale who uses sexuality as currency and isn’t worth your timethough you’ll save her life, of course. You big hero. You, the teenage reader, are thinking, I love riches, but I want to be able to deride them too, because I’ve got principles. Cure? Casual sacrifice of teen girl authenticity. It’s no loss. She wasn’t going to really matter anyway. Everyone knows what girls are like.

Screenshots from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 1997, New Line Cinema.
This image, two screeshots from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (New Line Cinema, 1997) plus anonymous commentary, is popularly reblogged on tumblr

Alex Rider books are plainly Bond pastiches. Not parodies, but pastiches: parody purposefully pushes the boundaries of its source subject, creating a “wrong” version that, in comparison, commentates the originals. Pastiche celebrates the work it imitates. The Myers/McCullers film Austin Powers (1997) feeds from the same Fleming/Eon Productions mid-century media as the Rider books (Horowitz may take any opportunity to praise Fleming’s originals, but himself points out that Bond never uses a gadget in the books. Alex Rider? Gadgets ahoy). But while the Horowitz stories pastichecelebrate Bond, flaws and all, essentially reproducing them for children and young teens of the twenty-first century, Mike Myers and team produce a satire for older teens and adults, mixing groovy fun with a more progressive palate of principles.

In the words of this criticism, Cultural Impact of James Bond: “[. . . I]t is clear that Meyers and his team intended to satirically portray James Bond for all of his flaws and his irreconcilable treatment of women, racially diverse minorities, and political diplomats and international leaders.” Austin Powers is a comedy, yet ethical depictions remain a priority. Out of social duty? Or does this interrogation of the subject come from commitment to humour, the truth of the film’s observations heightening the audience’s tension, improving their reactions to jokes? Whichever you suspect, Horowitz is not big enough for either of these boots. Is he even trying?

In fact, Horowitz hates the Powers methodology.

Try this casual apologia, for more Horowitz on Fleming;

Back in the 1960s, in a tedious suburb in London, James Bond was my lifeline to a world that was exotic, thrilling, and filled with danger. Years later, he inspired my own creation, teenaged spy Alex Rider. And the truth is, when I confront a feminist author on Newsnight [referring to an actual event], I know there’s no real defence against Fleming’s rampant sexism . .. nor, for that matter, his snobbery, his homophobia or anti-Semitism. But you know what? I love the books so much, I don’t really care.

Speaking about public reaction after the producer of long-running gothic detective procedural Midsomer Murders made comments to the effect of “people who live in English villages are always white,” explaining why his programme refused to employ many (any?) actors of ethnic minority, Horowitz does that thing where people who don’t understand the hurt scold the hurt parties who are beginning to talk about a problem that everybody else misses (bolding mine).

Brian True-May’s comments were inappropriate and should not have been made, but in our over-sensitive society there is this silly reaction* to anything we say that involves ethnicity or religion. [. . .] There is no racist attitude at work here.

*”Silly” is a word he also uses to describe the girl children who bullied him, or in his words, tor-mented him, when he was eight. “Spiteful, silly, and mean.”

We have a man who acknowledges that bigotry is encoded into stories, traditions, and institutions, and is happy to say he does not care. He does not care because it lets him have fun. He resents the energy expended on hearing roused citizens standing up for their dignity, because he values his perception of the upset (“silly”) over theirs (“necessary”). Who knows what precise reactions he was talking about? Maybe he was seeing white acquaintances speaking disingenuously about the matter. But speaking imprecisely, especially when one is a public figure, breeds stereotypes. Best case scenario: he doesn’t realise that his words are supporting a social template where people who face dangerous isolation and social silencing are regarded as “silly” for requesting that their presence not be ignored.

When he is being used by thousands of librarians, parents, and teachers as a key tool in building children’s literacy, it is time to listen to the people who see problems in his work. It is time to talk about them widely.

Yet the book’s moral and political ambitions are undercut by Horowitz’s tendency to depict his human villains as grotesques, often characterising them by physical imperfections, heavily accented English, or effeminacy. In the Alex Ryder stories, this strategy followed the classic Bond villain formula, but in Oblivion, it feels tonally wrong. Descriptions such as “weedy,” “girlish,” and “piggy eyes” are jarringly out of place in a book of such gravity. It is also unfortunate that while Horowitz is careful to show a mix of good and bad characters in most parts of the world, the Arab characters seem to be either self-serving or treacherous at best. —SF Said, The Guardian, November 2012

My books don’t really have messages,” he says.

Anthony, please.

Three quotations (clockwise from top: on Alex Rider, on boys’ literacy, on Midsomer Murders’ whiteness) that add up to weak reasoning, and the unconscious agreement that critiques such as mine should be allowed some consideration:

Three quotations from Anthony Horowitz on inclusivity, critical reading and target audience

Three quotations from Anthony Horowitz on inclusivity, critical reading and target audience
My apologies–“what is being published for them?” would be a more accurate question

Three quotations from Anthony Horowitz on inclusivity, critical reading and target audience

TRC: You’ve stated that the next book in this series, due out in 2007, will feature your first heroine. What took you so long to bring in a female lead, and how is the writing made different?

AH: I have loved writing this heroine. I was always scared that I would get her wrongthat she would be too obviously a tomboy or too prissy or too politically correct. —Horowtiz, 2006, Q&A

[. . . T]he reason why most of my characters are boys is because when I write a character, I do think about the boy I was and I am writing to a certain extent from my own experience of being thirteen. [. . .] Although she doesn’t arrive in the sequence until quite later on, she has a very large role to play when she does appear. –Howoritz, 2005, Q&A

Scarlett Addams, of Power of Five’s fourth book Necropolis, was indeed Horowitz’ first girl or woman protagonist. In, at its publishing date, twenty-nine years of professional children’s authorship. Let’s look at Scarlett and how Horowitz writes her. (It proved a daunting task for Horowitz, 53, whose adolescence was marred by spiteful girls.” –from The Times, again.)

Her first appearance in “her” book: an object of blame from an anonymous driver. An object of shrugs and eye-rolls. A beautiful little fool, who rushes in. Necropolis, chapter one:

The girl didn’t look before crossing the road.

That was what the driver said later. She didn’t look left or right. She’d seen a friend on the opposite pavement and she simply walked across to join him, not noticing that the lights had turned green, forgetting that this was always a busy junction and that this was four o’clock in the afternoon when people were trying to get their work finished, hurrying on their way home. The girl just set off without thinking. She didn’t so much as glimpse the white van heading towards her at fifty miles an hour.

How she finishes “her” novel: Shot in the head!

An unconscious, lone girl amongst boys and men. Luggage for a four-book established, adult man. Necropolis, final chapter:

A second later there was a gun shot. [. . .] The shot had missed [redacted], but Scarlett had been standing right behind him. She had been hit in the head and the wound was a bad one. Blood was pouring down the side of her neck. She toppled sideways. Richard caught her before she hit the floor. [. . .] Richard was hurrying forward, carrying Scarlett who was in his arms, limp, her eyes closed.

And how she is described in the foreword; the presumably sanctioned author blurb (bolding mine):

Anthony is particularly excited by Necropolis, which he sees as a major step in a new direction. For a start, it’s his first book with a full-blooded female at the heart of the action.

If you care to google the term “full-blooded female,” you will likely discover the same as me: this is a term for dogs. A poor start.

I spent a cold weekend surveying the book as a whole; the fear of the foreign other that Lovecraft laboured under is, as with Bond and Rider, reintroduced. Unlike his predecessors, Horowitz is savvy enough to lampshade.

They arrived at immigration, joining a queue that snaked back and forth up to a line of low, glass booths with officials in black and silver uniforms, seated on low stools. They all looked very much the same to Scarlettsmall, with brown eyes and black, spiky hair. She put the thought out of her head. She was probably being racist.

If the Chinese-English girl written by a white English man can shrug off her accidental maybe-racismso can anybody, right? Nothing to see here.

It looked as if Karl was going to punch him. But instead he simply reached out and laid a hand on Justin’s shoulder, his long, black fingers curving around the escort’s neck. There was no violence at all.

The threat of “blackness” used cheaply for menace, with this throwaway character. Karl appears in this one scene, and is present only to be threatening. He exists only in his largeness, and his blackness.

It was obvious from her appearance that Scarlett hadn’t been born in England.

This line above is literally just racism! It is impossible to tell, from somebody’s face, where they have been born. But so many people truly believe that you can, and this line reinforces that. It teaches that.

Mrs Murdoch decided that he must be an illegal immigrant, that he had taken off at the sight of the approaching policeman. For her part, Scarlett was just sorry that she hadn’t been able to thank him.

Is it necessary to criminalise people’s existences in a children’s book?

He was one of the ugliest men she had ever seen. He was completely bald, the skin stretched over a skull that was utterly white and dead. His head was the wrong shapenarrow, with part of it caved in on one side, like an egg that has been hit with a spoon. His eyes were black and sunken and he had horrible teeth which revealed themselves as he smiled at her, his thin lips sliding back like a knife wound. [. . .]

The man spoke. The words cracked in his throat and Scarlett didn’t understand any of them. He could have been speaking Russian or Polish . . . whatever it was, it wasn’t English.

“Whatever freak-language it was, it was disgusting and so was he” (paraphrased).

Breakfast was a bowl of cold porridge and a tin mug of water, carried in by a monk she hadn’t yet metfor his face certainly wasn’t one that she would have forgotten. It was horribly burned. One whole side of it was dead and disfigured as if he had fallen asleep with his head resting on an oven. Scarlett turned her eyes away from him. Was there anyone at Cry for Mercy who hadn’t rotted over the past twenty years? [. . .]

“You . . . eat . . . little . . . girl.” Burnt Face was proud of his English but his accent was so thick she could barely make out the words.

Stupid Burnt Face, what a foreign ugly idiot. Am I right? The book tells me it’s so.

Pedro is pure Inca: a descendant of the people who first lived in Peru. More than that, he’s somehow connected with Manco Capac, one of the sun gods. The Incas showed me a picture of Mancoit was actually on a disc made of solid goldand the two of them looked exactly the same. I’m not sure I completely understand what’s going on here. Is Pedro some sort of ancient god? If so, what does that make me?

Every chosen teen is associated with a figure from their ethnically-associated mythology, bar Mattthe white one.

Scott and Jamie are more or less identical. They’re thin to the point of being skinny and you can tell straight away that they have Native American bloodthey were descended from the Washoe tribe. They have long, dark hair, dark eyes and a sort of watchful quality.

Equating behevioural traits with ethnicity is, again, actually just racist.

Richard had been scouring the Internet, waiting to hear of a news event, some horror happening somewhere in the world that might suggest that the Old Ones were involved. There were plenty of stories. The war in Afghanistan. Ethnic cleansing in Darfur. Misery and starvation in Zimbabwe. But that was just everyday news. That would happen even without the Old Ones. He had been looking for something worse.

“Something worse.”

This is an unprecedented level of hipster-cynicism to throw into a book for children.

Pedro followed thembarefoot like Matt, but then he often preferred to walk without shoes. When the two boys had first met, he had been wearing sandals made out of old car tyres and he still mistrusted proper trainers.

Oh, that Pedro! He and his crazy poor-person superstitions. Can’t he accept the real world, now that he’s met Matt Freeman?

“The Happy Garden,” she muttered. “What sort of name is that?”

“It’s a Chinese restaurant,” Aidan said.

“Oh yes,” she nodded. “I suppose it would be.”

China: weird.

Matt [. . .] knew nothing about the city except that some of the toys he’d played with when he was younger had been manufactured there. MADE IN HONG KONG: it had always been a sign that they would probably break five minutes after they came out of the packaging. Certainly, he had no desire to go there.

What is Hong Kong? A miserable little pile of broken plastic. The narrative is so dismissive about its international settingsI don’t find this convincingly disguised as something Matt Freeman would say. It’s not even true!

Somehow, [Karl] didn’t seem to belong in Hong Kong. It wasn’t just his colour. It was his size. He towered over everyone else, staring over the crowd with empty eyes as if he didn’t want to be there.

Anthony “I watched a Hong Kong blaxploitation once” Horowitz.

All of this is is interchangeable with the gendered belittling that continues throughout.

That just left the window. There were three bars and no glass. The cell had been built to house a man, not a childand certainly not a girl. Might it be possible to squeeze through after all?

Girls: are they smaller than . . . all children?

Was she even a woman? She was certainly dressed in women’s clothes, with a grey dress, anorak and fur-lined boots that came up to her knees. But she had the face and the physique of a man.

Transphobia is a very dangerous thing to teach to generations not yet sure of whom to hate.

She must have a powerwe all do. But he never found out what it was. When he met her, he said she was brave and resourceful. She could ride a horse, fight with a sword, lead an army of men who were at least twice her age.

Scarlett is so amazing and strong, what an egalitarian book. So impressive. No, obviously the army the teenaged girl led was full of men over thirtywhat is this, some sort of fantasy? And besides, how else would we know she was impressive?

Returning to his admittance of writing with his younger self explicitly in mind, here’s another moment from promotional Necropolis press, bolding mine:

Normally I’m writing about being a thirteen-year-old boy, which I know and understand, not least because I have two teenage sons. With Scarlett, I have to ask all of these questions: should she cook, should she cry? Are these normal or are they completely wrong?” –Horowitz to John Naish, the Times, November 2008

Jesus, Anthony, what are you like (bolding mine)?

Horowitz ruled one thing out of this tale of initiation: any mention of emerging womanhood. “Puberty is the last thing I would discuss with my sons,” he declares. “It’s so ‘cringe,’ as the boys would say. If I talk about periods and breasts developing, I would lose my readership.

Coming from a place of such tremendous ignorance after twenty nine years of professional experience writinghow uncreative. How small! John Green is a conversation for another day, but he is a youth-oriented author who never stops advocating for “imagining characters complexly.” Imagining people complexly. Imagining women, and girls, real or imagined, complexly. As an author, this menstrual-based understanding of women is unprofessional. But even a-professionally, as a man, Horowitz was in his fifties by this point. He had had time to conceptualise the basic humanity of “teen girls”.

Periods, crying, and the kitchen. Even Bond didn’t start from that. But the blame, as usual, doesn’t lie with Horowitz alone. A reporter (here, John Naish for the pesky Times) who writes the mean contradictions of the young female psyche or heads a section “his greatest ire is reserved for girls” is not a blameless, objective observer. The Times has a lot to answer for, hiding anti-female publishing sentiment behind paywalls to thwart posterity. Horowitz’ publishers, Walker, let all of these snags go to print. Nobody who lets these things lie is blameless, and I’ve been racking up silent sin for five or six years now.

Might I add, Scarlett’s figure and breasts are indeed both mentioned by the narrative, and she is required to undress in front of men?*

~”So cringe”~ indeed.

*Trigger warning for following excerpts: extreme grottiness in the observance of a teenage girl

He stopped and ran his eyes over the girl as if she were the most precious thing he had ever seen. Scarlett was revolted and didn’t try to hide it. The eyes underneath the white eyebrows were devouring her. She could see saliva on the old man’s lips. [. . .] Scarlett stood up and walked past him. There was nothing else she could do. For a brief moment, the two of them stood shoulder to shoulder in the doorway. Father Gregory reached out and stroked her hair. Scarlett shuddered. She didn’t even try to hide her revulsion.

“Precious thing”, “devouring,” “saliva,” “stroked,” “revulsion”: this is a scene of violation, created in the name of atmosphere.

She didn’t undress. It was far too cold to even think of taking off her coat.

Other teenage characters are mentioned dressing and/or undressing, series hero Matt included. Parity? No: Scarlett is one girl amongst five chosen teenagers, in an overwhelmingly male book, and at this point (as seen above) captured by evil, perverted monks.

The doctor took Scarlett’s pulse and heart rate and then asked her to strip down to her underwear. “Where did you get these?” He had noted a series of scratches running down her back.

Undressing, again.

They didn’t allow her any privacy. The four men stood watching as she stripped down to her underwear and then the man in the cardigan dug a white, padded thing out of his case. Scarlett understood what it was. [. . .] She slipped the pads over her shoulders and saw at once that she had a completely new body shape and that the slight curve of her breasts had gone. The man handed her a shirt, [. . .] Finally he gave her a pair of glasses. The disguise was complete.

“Look in the mirror,” Lohan said.

“The slight curve of her breasts [. . .]” #authenticteenvoice

Of course, there is just no reason at all for this group of heroic-designated adult male law-breakers to make a foreign teenage girl strip to her underwear in front of them. There is no reason. This is a choice that the grown man Anthony Horowitz made, for his book for children and teenagers.

It was obvious from her appearance that Scarlett hadn’t been born in England. Her parents might be Mr and Mrs Typical-Dulwichher mother tall, blonde and elegant, her father looking like the lawyer he always had been, with greying hair, a round face and glassesbut she looked nothing like them. Scarlett had long black hair, strange hazel-green eyes and the soft brown skin of a girl born in China, Hong Kong or some other part of Central Asia. She was slim and small with a dazzling smile that had got her out of trouble on many occasions. She wasn’t their real daughter. Everyone knew that. She had known it herself from the earliest age.

She had been adopted.

Scarlett is further endangered by her narrative when her ethnicity and nationality are discussed so insensitively and so misleadingly as this.

She looked down and saw great locks of her hair hitting the ground. Although she knew that it was necessary and that anyway it would all grow back soon enough, she still felt like a victim, as if she were being assaulted. But the man didn’t notice her distressor if he did, he didn’t care. He kept cutting and soon she felt something she had never felt before: the cold touch of the breeze against her scalp.

Bolding mineI don’t believe the author is aware of the weight that these words carry for girl readers, or indeed other readers who have experienced traumatic input.

Lohan, in charge of the men who give Scarlett no privacy, is named by Horowitz as the Power of Five character he would most like to be.

But why are these books by this author recommended so widely? Why are they read so widely? Why do so many kids and adults enjoy and seek out this literature?

I was a teenaged Rider-reader, so I’ll tell you: adventure. Horowitz thinks up cool, exciting, scary adventures to send teenage boys on, and we’ve all been taught how to fool ourselves that teenage boys stand in for everybody. No adult he writes can really help the young reader hero, and their decision-making abilities are outstripped by Matt or Alex. No stupid adult will ever be as truly right as the handsome, muscular fourteen year old who may or may not be book-smart, but sure is streetwise and athletic. These books create an atmosphere that drives their fans to write wikipedia summaries including lines like Lohan [an accomplished adult gangster] tries to leave Matt behind, but Matt [a fifteen year old] stops him. Unquestioned teenage accomplishment. That’s powerful, for teens against authority. I was one, I know.

Horowitz writes young guns having some fun, and even better, they aren’t enjoying it at all. They’re soldiering on, through the grinding task of being an international agent of espionage or an international agent of timeless Good. They’re like, sooooo mature. It’s the same impulse behind the creation of Fiona Friend: I wanna be rad (exciting), but I also wanna be the opposite kind of rad (cool, in the traditional sense). I want to have my cake and eat it too.

This scene in Grease is entertaining, because it’s performed purposefully. The characters’ folly is there for our entertainment. With Horowitz’ adventure novels, Danny and Kenickie’s childish take-back is performed by the narrativea young reader’s inability to parse the prejudice of the text is comparable to how one can’t see the forest (the narrative whole, complete with social subtext) for the trees (the events of the story and stated positive objectives of the characters).

That is the driving compulsion of the problems with the bestselling Horowitz canon. He writes heroesaspirational, unreal teens. But they’re snitty little assholes. His audience is told that if you act well against the powerful, you are entitled to some poor behaviour toward the weak. Don’t disregard the dangers of this lesson.

Raven’s Gate is the first book in the Power of Five series, and it starts so well. The premise is familiarly atmospheric; straight out of the 60s pastoral horror that drew from Lovecraft’s well; a city person arrives in a small town or village, only to find that there are sinister movements afoot and the country is no safer than the mean streets of (wherever they came from). Hammer’s The Witches, The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies (etc), Orion Pictures’ Die Monster Die, Tigon’s Curse of the Crimson Altar, Amicus’ The Deadly Bees; one million more. Raven’s Gate, to be specific, goes a little something like this:

Excerpt from Necropolis, Anthony Horowitz, Walker Books, 2008
Matt’s memories of his dead father

Matt Freeman (get it) is a middle class orphan forced by fate to live with awful working class relatives. Matt is understandably mad at the world and everyone in it, and is led astray by an older boy. During the course of a crime, Matt proves his innate sense of right by refusing to stab a man, and is subsequently caught by the law when the man is stabbed anyway. Given the option to take a place on a new government program for lawbreaking minors from vulnerable backgrounds, Matt does, and is off to the countryside to live with Mrs Deverill: an old lady who lives alone with a cat. HINT. After a number of alarming mishaps and authority-standoffs, Matt discovers that the village is full of witches! They’re polishing up the old abandoned nuclear power station in order to complete a summoning ritual that will bring the Old Ones back into this world. Can Matt’s latent psychokinesis save the day?

Sounds pretty great, right? Exciting, cinematic, “a real pulse-pounder.” And it is. That’s why it’s such a shame there’s crass bigotry bubbling in there like so much pink slime under New York City.

A woman walked toward him and he thought he recognized her. She had long white hair, a tiny head, and black eyes that could have belonged to a doll. As she turned toward him, he saw that she had been disfigured by a birthmark. One side of her face was an ugly mauve blotch. He thought back to when he was ill.

She had a squeaky, rasping voice. She seemed to strangle the words at the back of her throat. [. . .] Matt glanced down at the pram. There was no baby. Miss Creevy was nursing a large china doll. It looked up at Matt with a frozen smile and wide, empty eyes.

Two more women had appeared on the far side of the village, in front of the church. They looked like ragged scarecrows, their black coats flapping in the breeze. They were identical twins. At the same time, a short, fat man with blue and green tattoos on his arms, face, and head stepped out of the pub. He was smoking a clay pipe. He saw Matt and began to laugh.

It was no surprise really that everyone in Lesser Mailing seemed to be a little mad.

There was a ten-year-old boy with strange greenish hair and fat legs bulging out of short trousers. A couple of girls, apparently sisters, stood together in identical old-fashioned dresses and pigtails. The last boy was about seven and crippled, [. . .] Matt would have felt sorry for him, but [. . .]

It was the chemist—a short ginger-haired man in a shabby white coat. The hair continued down his neck. There was more of it on the backs of his hands. He was wearing heavy black spectacles that had sunk into his nose in such a way that Matt wondered if he ever took them off. [. . .] She was wearing a pale blue cardigan, a shapeless gray dress, and Wellington boots. All the clothes that she wore at Hive Hall looked as if they had come out of a charity shop.

I love you, Amicus (Monster Club, The Beast Must Die)

I mentioned 1960s British pastoral horror films. There were several studios working in much the same oeuvre during and around that decade, and while they all shared cast members and probably behind-the-scenes creatives too, there are observable lines to be drawn between their outputs. Take a handful of three: Hammer, Amicus, Tigon.

Hammer is the benchmark: solid storytelling (if the stories themselves were sometimes wanting, the telling of them was at least robust), glamorous babes, freaky shit in the shadows that comes out into the light before the end to blow its audience away as the heroes send that thing back where it came from. Hammer films are an inviting watch. They’re rarely boring, deride the evil and corrupt whilst exploiting the shock of their badness, and give the audience a designated-good character or two to root for; often lovers. Amicus films are adorable, like this gif of a kitty satisfying it’s killing instinct. Both of these studios favoured the tragic monsterwe feel for the beast as they’re destroyed to protect the world they could only wreak harm upon. Pathos, pathos.

Tigon films tend much more to the mean, nasty, and bad. Hammer aimed to make audiences randy in the cinema, but I’d bet you a box of buttons more nasty bastards came out of Tigon pictures with crusty trousers.

The first Tigon production I experienced was Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). As wikipedia reminds us, “[t]he film opens in 17th century England with Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) uncovering a deformed skull with one eye and strange fur upon it while ploughing a field.” Fine. The film was an uncomfortable watching experience, an atmosphere of hopeless spite with no heroism or kindness in evidence. You’ll often find this social pessimism in a 70s horror film. This time, though, I reached a scene at which I had to stop.

Teenagers cavort in what is heavily coded as children’s play, and I watch it and I know that before the film is up, I am going to have seen the girl exposed to the camera. And lo, it was so. I’ve learnt to trust the danger-signals my mind and body feed me when I experience media, because I have seen that they are warranted. Did I get those signals from the grotty narration of Scarlett’s patriarchal experiences in the excerpts above? I did. From Fiona Friend being “tall and well shaped”? Yes. These descriptions and inventions place girls in a sexualised, objectified state of innate observation. That is bad, truly harmful, for all of our children. I get the same sick vibes from the physicality-based attempts to other the people of Lesser Malling (Raven’s Gate, above).

My gut is telling me that a narrative voice like this one from Necropolis is bad for the people who read it, the people it’s about, the overlap between those two parties and the future we’re building on them all:

St Genevieve’s was a private school, one of many that were clustered together in the centre of Dulwich, in South London. It was a strange part of the world and everyone who lived there knew it. To the west there was Streatham and to the east Sydenham, both areas with high-rise flats, drugs and knife crime. But in Dulwich, everything was green. There were old-fashioned tea shops, the sort that spelled themselves “shoppes,” and flower baskets hanging off the lampposts. Most of the cars seemed to be four-by-fours and the mothers who drove them were all on first-name terms. Dulwich College, Dulwich Preparatory School, Alleyn’s, St Genevieve’s . . . they were only a stone’s throw away from each other, but of course nobody threw stones at each other. Not in this part of town.

Google map screenshot: Streatham, Sydenham, DulwichTo define an area, an identifiable area, by a style of home architecture, crime, and crime is to define that style of living by crime (and more crime). High-rise flats? Go straight to jail, kid, please don’t hurt me on the way. To define flats in opposition to greenery, as if flats and their inhabitants are anti-growth, anti-natureit’s bad, Anthony! Things come clearer if we use crueller synonyms: as if their inhabitants are unnatural and stunted. In a book about Old Ones…

It’s not very nurturing, is it? Why do “less wealthy and less privileged” kids turn away from books, such as yours?

Yes: Horowitz books are, in the literal sense, very easy to read. Let’s return to the first paragraphs from Necropolis:

The girl didn’t look before crossing the road.

That was what the driver said later. She didn’t look left or right. She’d seen a friend on the opposite pavement and she simply walked across to join him, not noticing that the lights had turned green, forgetting that this was always a busy junction and that this was four o’clock in the afternoon when people were trying to get their work finished, hurrying on their way home. The girl just set off without thinking. She didn’t so much as glimpse the white van heading towards her at fifty miles an hour.

Short sentence. Short sentence. Long sentence in simple portions. Short sentence. It’s very digestible, small strings of facts that can be linked together to create a very definite situation. The reader isn’t required to guess, infer, decode or perceive. They must only allow the scene to exist as it’s told to them. That suits reluctant youthful readers particularly well, but it’s also a technique used in many adults’ adventure books. Fleming’s, for example!

The walls of the underground room took the crash of sound and batted it to and fro between them until there was silence. James Bond watched the smoke being sucked from each end of the room towards the central Ventaxia fan. The memory in his right hand of how he had drawn and fired with one sweep from the left made him confident. He broke the chamber sideways out of the Colt Detective Special and waited, his gun pointing at the floor, while the Instructor walked the twenty yards towards him through the half-light of the gallery. –Moonraker excerpt

The staccato style supports the immediacy of the action, and the state of mind the hero is presumably in. The text, and the influenced body of the reader, simulate a level of alert that prevents philosophical reflection. After all, if the hero falters, he may die. As his audience you owe him your companionship, and shared attitude. The problem is not with the literary technique. The problem is with how said technique affects the audienceHorowitz’ audience.

Excerpt from Lulu's Bookshelf review of StormbreakerThe examples given in this piece, SF Said’s linked criticisms, the points covered in this review (excerpt to the right) from Lulu’s Bookshelf, along with this later onethese are examples. They are not the full measure of the bigoted language, coded descriptions of people and places, and regressive social structuring that are written through Horowitz’ valued works like BRIGHTON through a stick of rock. The vitriol is there, it’s damaging and it goes unnoticed by the majority of the adults, children, and teenagers reading and recommending the books. They see the grand gestures, the saving of the world, the occasional stated dislike of bullies, the way that the world appears to be stacked against the individual protagonists. Why?

Our hero, one good-hearted if troubled boy amongst all the forces of Ancient Darkness. He deserves a little fun, doesn’t he? And we the reader, with our own schoolyard troubles. Don’t we deserve the chance to punch down sometimes too?

A man was waiting for them, [. . .] The man was short and very fat, with yellow greasy hair, watery eyes, and a face that seemed to be slowly slipping off his head. He was wearing dirty jeans and a shirt that was too small for him. Matt could see the buttons straining. The man was about forty. He had flabby lips that parted in a wet, unpleasant smile. [. . .] Noah was examining him in a way that made him feel uneasy. [. . .] He held out a hand. The fingers were fat and stubby, the nails encrusted with mud. [. . .] The farmhand was still staring. His mouth was open and there was saliva on his chin. Matt turned away.


Maybe she planned to keep him there all his life and he would end up hollowed out and empty, like Noah, a dribbling slave.


Noah shrugged.

“Where did Mrs. Deveril find you? Were you born here or did you escape from the local lunatic asylum?”

Noah glared at him. Matt knew he had difficulty understanding sentences with more than four or five words. “You shouldn’t make fun of me.” Noah scowled at last.

“Why not? It’s the only fun I have.”

To answer that question, see our key stage two and three requirements for English literature, 2013:

Key stage two english literature curriculum requirements, Britain, 2013
Key stage two english literature curriculum requirements, Britain, 2013

Key stage three english literature curriculum requirements, Britain, 2013

Key stage three english literature curriculum requirements, Britain, 2013
Key stage three english literature curriculum requirements, Britain, 2013, as above. Fully technical, with no connections drawn between the potential of english lessons and everyday life: can the child tell what is physically happening in the story, not can the child consider the narrative as a linguistic structure with repercussions of its own

This is not helped by “political correctness” as a phrase having served the purpose for which it was revived in 1980s America: making compassionate learning and active engagement with conventions of language and thought seem “too hard” and “not fun.” The one now invokes the other, and vice versa; “political correctness gone mad” has run together into one soundbite, and politicalcorrectnessgonemad is used by individuals too busy or distracted to be bothered with questioning their habits or their impact. Halls full of Edina Monsoons, flailing their arms and hollering that anyone asking if we could, maybe, do better has overdosed on John bloody Craven’s bloody Newsround.

Excerpt from Horowitz/Jones article, Observer 2013
Excerpt from Horowitz/Jones article, Observer, September 2013

Another highly valued british children’s author, J.K. Rowling, writes the importance of self-reflection and the ability to be humbled into the climax of her series. Harry Potter tells Voldemort, during their last stand-off, what he must do to avoid his otherwise inevitable fate worse than death:

It’s your one last chance,” said Harry, “it’s all you’ve got left . . . I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise . . .  Be a man . . .  try . . . try for some remorse . . .

The Harry Potter series is not blemish-free. One of its faults is explicated in this performed poem. The impact of that fault on real people is unmissable.

People of all ages may have a hard time admitting the faults of their favoured stories, media and people. I can tell you that it took many long, teenaged arguments for me to conceptualise “the Harry Potter universe” as a created structure instead of an organic happening which must not be endangered. I could not admit, I could not imagine, that Rowling had done anything wrong in writing a character called Cho Chang. Or describing “the tall black boy” when she never mentioned tall, short, or medium white boys, or that any event taking place within the Harry Potter series shouldn’t have happened, because I was invested in the thing as a perfect whole. I had not been taught, or I had not learnt, that creating fiction was a craft. That decisions about a novel’s events and narrative are for the author to decide upon, reflect upon, research, learn better than, and improve upon, before the book is published.

I am not the only human to experience this phenomenon of shallow understanding. In fact it’s common, it’s why we connect with stories at all, and it is not something to completely divest oneself of. Let’s use the example of John Green againHazel and Augustus spend much of The Fault in Our Stars wondering what happened to the supporting cast of book-within-a-book An Imperial Affliction, “after it ended.”  See how I said “Hazel and Augustus [do something],” instead of John Green crafts a novel that questions fandom and attachment, alerting readers to these themes by creating characters who are written as spending the narrative experiencing the advanced states of thought experiment known as fandom and literary attachment?

Horowitz expresses his own inability to distinguish the problematic elements of a work from his reader’s experience in the earlier referenced quotation “I know there’s no real defence against Fleming’s rampant sexism . . . nor, for that matter, his snobbery, his homophobia or anti-Semitism. But you know what? I love the books so much, I don’t really care.”

My mum was a lot smaller than him. She was always on a diet, although I don’t think she really needed to lose weight. I suppose it didn’t help that she was a great cook.*

*Matt Freeman describes his dead mother from memory. Do all stereotypes go to Heaven?

If the author cannot differentiate story from bigotry, how is his teen and pre-teen audience supposed to? If they are reluctant or unable to read widely, where will they find the context that enables disengagement from the sexism, the classism, the racism, that they’re being taught to ignore and internalise? How are they to notice it, if it’s hidden from them by the frame of mind the narrative requires them to empathise with? Or by the flag-waving for fantasy justice and triumph over capital-E Evil? The dulled senses of their elders who have grown used to the conventions of Bond and Lovecraft and see no great use in questioning them are only going to make that awakening harder.

It’s absolutely possible to live a long life avoiding empathy, suffering thorugh dehumanising stereotypes, performing microaggressions and gaslighting, allowing institutions to stand thicker and longer with elitism, and thinking yourself a pretty alright, decent person. I say it is not better to, and I say it is avoidable. I say Horowitz’ bestsellers point children towards alternately blissful and patronising ignorance of the everyday prejudices that harm themselves and others. They don’t make compassionate living impossiblebut they throw up roadblocks that take energy and time, which are not allotted to everybody, to overcome. I see no reason why this is a necessary state for stories of this type. Horowitz clearly hopes that his books can be something better. Over the next few weeks and months I’m going to be looking closely at the graphic novelisations of both Alex Rider and Power of Five entries, to observe the changes effected by moving from a prose narrative to a visual one and evaluate whether they may save any grace.

From the paper discussing Blood on Satans Clawlinked in an earlier paragraph:

In a sequence much fetishised by horror fans, Angel disrobes in an attempt to seduce him, and when that fails, she accuses him of attempted molestation.

The specifics of this scene are not recreated in the Power of Five or the Alex Rider books, but the decrepit morality and conservative horror at the powerless turning power on the powerful are. Horowitz’ books are ethically flimsy, offer sly bigotry as cathartic reward for lofty ideals, and feign a jaded attitude towards large-scale social change in order to cloak the selfish politics of personal entitlement.

Thus spake the Gatekeeper.

There is not a crueller species on the planet than nine-year-old girls. —Howoritz , The times, November 2008


Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at and give me lots of money