The Mermaid Wreck – Out Now!

A horrific homecoming.

One night last year, in the very early hours of the morning, I took a short break from writing my fourth book. I got up from my desk and walked into the bathroom, and was immediately startled by a very large huntsman spider clinging to the wall.

Despite their fearsome size, huntsman spiders are not venomous, and so I decided to carry the spider outside using my hands. After taking a deep breath, I grabbed the spider off the wall and trapped it between my palms, wincing as it scuttled around against my skin. Its legs were as thick as toothpicks.

But there’s another fact about huntsman spiders that I didn’t know at the time. While it’s true that they’re not venomous, their fangs never stop growing, and so the largest huntsman spiders have very big fangs indeed. And so, when this particular spider sunk its gigantic fangs into my flesh, it really, really hurt. I tried not to cry out as I ran to the back door, turning the handle with my elbows, throwing the spider into the darkness as far as I possibly could.

When I looked down at my hand, there was blood dripping down my finger.

I thought I’d open this post with my awful spider story to help communicate what a tricky novel book four was to write. There were some chapters that whizzed along in an adrenaline-fuelled blur, with all the confidence of a brave man scooping a huntsman off a wall; and then there were other chapters that felt like colossal mistakes, like a very foolish man realising he’s just picked up a massive, hairy, long-fanged spider. I hit so many dead ends that I sometimes wondered how Anna and Max could possibly escape the book in one piece; some nights would fly past without a single word being added to the story, the children forced to keep facing the same deadly peril.

But I finished. The bad times ended in an instant, and suddenly I had a new book: a story so dark, so spooky, that it was almost certainly Anna and Max’s most terrifying adventure yet. I had vanquished the spider. The Mermaid Wreck was ready to enter the world.

The Mermaid Wreck is the first of my books to take place in my home country, Australia, and now that it’s been published, I honestly could not be prouder of it. Throughout the writing process, I was determined to prove that an Australia beach could be scary enough to match the fairy-tale otherness featured in the series thus far: that it could be as creepy as a Transylvanian wood, or as desolate as an Iranian desert. At the same time, setting the novel by the seaside gave me the opportunity to probe some fears I hadn’t been able to use in the series before. Despite being Australian, I’ve never much liked the beach; I therefore took great pleasure in writing scenes featuring sharks and shipwrecks, churning waters and hidden rip-tides, revelling in all the things people fear when they step into the sea.

And there’s also a mermaid. I don’t want to say too much about her, for fear of spoiling the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, but I can confidently say that Sylvie is my favourite fairy so far. Writing her scenes was always a pleasure, and I truly hope we’ll see her toothy smile again before the series is through.

And that’s all I have to say on the matter. The Mermaid Wreck is the fourth book in The Witching Hours series, and it’s available in Australian bookshops right now. If you’re a young reader who thinks they might be brave enough to read it, then I wish you the very best of luck – and in the scariest of moments, when it feels like a spider might be caught between your fingers, I hope you’ll have the courage to see it through.

Happy witching!

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(PS: If you’ve already read book four, then please be advised that book five isn’t too far away – it’s already been written, and should be arriving in Australian bookshops in October. Come back then to hear more about Anna and Max’s next adventure, high in the mountains of China!)

Witch No. 14: Daisy O’Grady

“Does she wear a long black dress? Guess!”

As an Australian writer fascinated by all things witchy, I’m always on the lookout for witches with a distinctly Australian flair. Unfortunately, throughout my reading life so far, such witches have been virtually non-existent – with one notable exception. Daisy O’Grady is a terrifying Australian sorceress, her face gaunt, her hair wild, with a literal skeleton tucked away in her closet. She wears a macabre fox stole around her neck, and proudly mixes potions containing rats’ tails, toe-nails and dead lizards’ scales.

Oh – and she also happens to be the main character in a picture book for children.

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Guess What? is a 1988 picture book written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Vivienne Goodman. It’s a book that sets you up to feel uneasy from the very beginning, establishing a fleeting sense of distance (“Far away from here lives a crazy lady called Daisy O’Grady”) before slowly drawing the reader closer to its mysterious protagonist. Each of the simple, sinister questions asked by Fox (“Is she tall?” “Is she thin?”) gives a further clue to Daisy O’Grady’s identity, building and building until the conclusion of the story seems terrifyingly, unsettlingly inevitable. You hope that Daisy won’t be a witch. You hope there’s going to be a twist. You hope the book won’t give you nightmares.

And, well, there is a twist – but I’m certainly not going to ruin that here!

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Fox’s prose is a masterclass in creating a sense of looming dread, but it’s Vivienne Goodman’s illustrations that give the book its distinctly Australian flavour. Through a series of vivid, almost photorealistic pictures, Goodman provides a detailed insight into Daisy O’Grady’s world, documenting everything from her modest scrubland shack (complete with corrugated iron roof and brick outhouse) to the native animals that live both inside and outside her abode. Every illustration is cluttered with incredible, recognisable detail: The Weekend Australian lying crumpled on the floor; a reconciliation badge pinned to Daisy’s black hat; an ordinary tin of Keen’s Mustard sitting beside a jar of blowfly eyes. It’s a perfect snapshot of Australian farm life, filtered through a weird, witchy gauze. I’ve spoken earlier in this blog about my love for witch products in The Jolly Postman, and Goodman’s own creations – “Lifeless Lizards Scale Powder,” “Heinz Big Red Blood Sauce” – form a lovely complement to that text.

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I’ve always thought of Guess What? as being an edgy, enthralling picture book, and so I was recently fascinated (if not surprised) to learn that, in American libraries, the book was the 66th most challenged book of the 1990s. According to one library website I found, the book was most likely challenged because of its “age-appropriateness and offensive language” – and while age-appropriateness is too subjective to easily refute, I am truly baffled by the second accusation. Does the charge relate to Daisy O’Grady’s wicked collection of 1970s pin badges, which includes buttons that say Sex Pistols and ABBA is Dead? Possibly – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that certain parents were looking for any excuse to object to the book once they found out there was a witch lurking inside.

But don’t let those “offensive” badges put you off – Guess What? is a magnificent picture book, perfectly designed to spook a child even as it delights them. The world needs more witches like Daisy O’Grady: cursing, cackling and cranky while remaining entirely, wonderfully Australian.


Final Musings

— I first had Guess What? read to me when I was one year old. I know this because my copy of the book is signed to me by Mem Fox, with an inscription dated 1992. My witch lit credentials are super legit.

— Mem Fox is notable for having written many, many famous picture books, but my other favourite book of hers is Possum Magic, from 1983. There isn’t a lot of magic in Australian literature, but with these two picture books Fox sets out a vision of a mythic Australia that was hugely influential on me as a young reader. (I even had a pet brush-tailed possum called Hush, rescued from the forest beside our house.)

— From all reports, the best reading of Guess What? you’ll ever hear is by Mem Fox herself. I can’t find a video of her performance anywhere on the web, but my mum recalls that a great, urgent emphasis must be placed on the constant refrain of “Guess? Yes!” In lieu of a video, you can read about how Fox developed the book on her website.

That’s all for now – happy witching!

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