While zombies are all over the place these days, their stories are often hijacked by those pesky humans who won’t stand still long enough to be eaten. But that’s not the case with Alice James’ Grave Secrets (paperback, Kindle), the first book of The Lavington Windsor Mysteries series. In the following email interview about it, James discusses what inspired and influenced this comedic horror-adjacent fantasy tale about necromancers, vampires, and yes, the living impaired.
To begin, what is Grave Secrets about, and what kind of world is it set in?
It’s a fast-paced adventure set in modern-day leafy England, in the rural county of Staffordshire, where nothing interesting or exciting has ever happened. My heroine Toni spends her days trying to sell houses — and her nights raising the restless dead to find out who killed them. She’s secretly a necromancer, but only her brother, who is a detective, knows the truth. She becomes tangled up with a group of secretive vampires, too, and inevitably falls for one of them.
There’s not much let up in the action. Toni is a modern-day girl but that doesn’t mean she has everything worked out. Unknown people are trying to kill her, she has a disastrous love life, and is constantly ruining her new clothes in graveyards, while the vampires are at all war with one another and most of them don’t care about collateral damage. She accidentally becomes best mates with one of her own zombies, which brings its own complications. There’s also the thread running through the book that someone very human has murdered a young girl, whose dismembered body is languishing in the local morgue…In terms of the feel of the world, it’s a dark place and serious things happen but there is no angst, which is the thing that turns me off a lot of modern urban fantasy. There’s enough angst in the real world without writing more.
Imagine a modern-day take on Barbara Hambly’s James Asher Mysteries, or an extremely English version of Charlaine Harris’ True Blood books, but more light-hearted than both.
Where did you get the idea for Grave Secrets and how did the story change as you wrote it?
That’s a great question to be asked. I love short stories and graphic novels, not just full-length books, and once upon a time not so long ago I found myself reading a volume of short stories about zombies. The book annoyed me because it wasn’t actually about the zombies. It was all about the people who surrounded them or were eaten and dismembered by them. No one seemed all that interested in the poor old zombies. I knew I could do better, so I decided to write a short story where the zombie was the star.
I wrote the first part — it was meant to be a snap shot of three moments in time where our friendly neighborhood zombie is raised — but I never got around to the rest. Instead, I found myself writing all the things that happened as a result of the first moment, and before I knew it I had written a whole novel, a whodunit about an estate agent with terrible taste in boyfriends battling the forces of darkness, and zombies who will certainly eat brains if they are going but are just as happy with a cucumber sandwich or a nice Victoria sponge. It only took four months, interestingly, because I was so obsessed. I used to have other hobbies before I started writing novels. There’s no time for that anymore!
Grave Secrets sounds like it’s a comedic horror story, albeit one that’s not trying to be scary. Is that how you see it, or do you think there are either other genres at work in it as well or would describe it better?
It is a massive genre mashup. It’s urban fantasy — or rural fantasy if you wish given it’s based in the countryside — and it’s certainly a comedic horror story, I wouldn’t argue with that. The horror isn’t played out with gut-churning gore packing every page, but there are a definitely a few dark scenes and I don’t let all the characters make it to the end of the book. (No spoilers!)
But it’s also a whodunit; there is a clear murder to decrypt and it’s solved by the heroine using her special talents. Deduction, a paucity of clues, the guilty party well-flagged but you only notice afterwards, a light-bulb moment when our detective sees her path…they are all in there.
And there’s definitely an element of romance hiding between the pages. Toni is going to have to work hard to find her happily ever after, but you can tell she is in pursuit. It’s also a classic Aga Saga, playing on the idea the rural bucolic bliss of England hides a dark soul. Mine just happens to be very dark indeed and include demons and two kinds of undead.
Definitely a bit of both. Though there’s only one Douglas Adams, let’s be honest, and if one day someone wants to compare me to him then I can just die happy. I have kept the writing light and frothy, but there are also amusing scenes and interactions. At the super-serious end of zombies and vampires you get The Walking Dead. At the very other end you get Love At First Bite. In between you will find Shawn Of The Dead or Buffy, where the topics are serious but the overall package delivers an uplifting whole with laugh-out-loud moments in between the poignancy. That’s what I was aiming for.
So who then do you see as the biggest influences on the humor in Grave Secrets?
In terms of the two heroines who inspired Toni, definitely the Robin Hudson mysteries by Sparkle Hayter, and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Sparkle, who is a lovely lady as well as ridiculously and insanely talented, actually read Grave Secrets for me, which was hugely inspiring. I would say that I also drew elements from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, one of my favorite books ever, where the protagonist messes up but doesn’t realize it, and yet the reader can see it. That’s great fun to read when an author pulls it off.
Everyone in the world who is working on comedic writing wants to be as amusing as Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams (of course), but I would say that a big influence for the humor in this book has been the wonderful American columnist and author Dave Barry. His diatribes always somehow managed to find hilarity in everyday occurrences, and I tried to channel some of that in Grave Secrets.
Speaking of influences, are there any other writers who you see as having a particularly big influence on Grave Secrets?
I have read a concerning amount of whodunits, vampire books, necromancy books, books with demons…my favorite would be books with all four, to be honest. (And ideally dragons and spaceships too, though I haven’t worked out how to pull that off yet.)
The ones that probably had the biggest influence when I was writing Grave Secrets would be a mix of the obvious and the obscure.
Obvious influences are the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton. I loved the fact that most of her books have a solid whodunit hiding somewhere in between the raising of the dead and the shagging of all the hot vampires and werewolves. And I definitely had the Tanya Huff’s Blood Books in mind too. I can’t believe they aren’t better known because they are fabulous. Grave Secrets would also sit well on a shelf next to urban fantasy from Jim Butcher or Patricia Briggs.
I want to mention my more obscure influences, though, because in many ways they were the most important. Number one is a book of short stories called Gaslight Grimoire, the first in a series of four volumes that pits Sherlock Holmes against the elements of classic science fiction and the supernatural. The idea of blending whodunits with fantasy is really exquisitely executed in some of them, and it was an eye-opener to me.
The second obscure one is a novelization of the English 1612 witch hunts by Robert Neill called Mist Over Pendle. It never quite strays into horror, but it is beautifully suspenseful, and the characters feel amazingly real. I must have read it a dozen times and I am not alone; it’s been in print ever since it was published in 1951. I wanted to catch that spiky feeling of suspense that he somehow encapsulates with every line. If you haven’t read it, you should.
What about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on either what you wrote in Grave Secrets or how you wrote it?
In terms of TV shows, besides the obvious influence of Buffy and True Blood, I would say maybe Scooby Doo for the light-hearted comedic murder mystery atmosphere and Xena Warrior Princess for reminding me to emphasize the value of female friendship in adversity.
For films, I am in deeply in love with the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation of Dracula, and I totally buy in to his interpretation of The Vampire as sexy, terrifying, alluring, complex… I wanted to capture that. I also wanted to bottle that feeling you get in The Lost Boys of darkness and panic tangled up with humor. (I would add that The Lost Boys has the best soundtrack of the entire eighties with “Cry Little Sister” by Gerard McMahon and Michael Mainieri.)
It’s interesting that you ask about video games, also a weakness of mine, because I was highly addicted to Blizzard’s Diablo dungeon crawls. The first one was visually stunning for its time — it still is TBO — and there is a scene in some desecrated church with stained glass windows that you can smash if you are minded to… Of course I did! I was definitely thinking of that place when I created the galleried cave that the vampires hold court in.
As you said, there are vampires and zombies in Grave Secrets, both of which have been portrayed in different ways. Vampires can be scary or sparkly, while zombies can be slow or fast. Which versions of each are in Grave Secrets, and why did you decide to go with those kind?
My vampires are scary but they are also alluring; dangerous but desirable… They are definitely Not Nice. Later in the series there is a wider range of undead characters, but certainly in Grave Secrets they go from Bad to Very Bad and from Hot to Very Hot.
I wanted a power balance too, though. In the masterful Tom Holland books, the vampires seem unstoppable, the world is utterly changed forever. The same with the undead in the iZombie TV series, the first series of which is jaw droppingly original. (Rob Tomas is an actual bona fide creative genius.) But I didn’t want the vampires to be so powerful that they can’t be taken down. I like the idea that they keep springing up and darkness can never be vanquished forever, but that they don’t take over the world and turn us all into food slaves…
As for the zombies, are they fast or slow? So, not either, really. They are incredibly strong, though, and pretty indestructible. (I feel it’s their duty to be able to rip us limb from limb when the narrative demands it.) They are proof against almost anything except sunlight. Put it this way: you would not want to come up against a hungry zombie with the light of dawn far away, if you get my drift. I had a lot of fun creating them.
Now, Grave Secrets is the first book in a series you’re calling The Lavington Windsor Mysteries. Is this going to be an ongoing series, a set number of books like a trilogy…?
So, each book is a stand-alone, and each has a complete whodunit inside, but Toni is the star of all of them, and her personal story evolves throughout the series. In that respect they are quite like the Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy L. Sayers, but I do have the long plot well mapped out and I do know where we are heading. I think it stems from the design of the original being something that takes place over time.
I definitely wanted the individual books to be very self-contained though. I find that more satisfying as a reader. Often I will save up a new novel by a favorite author for a holiday, and it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun if the book was only an installment without a complete narrative all on its own.
Do you know yet how many books will there be, when they’ll be out, and what they’re going to be called?
There will be ten books in all. We have chosen the names of the next few, as it happens, but my editor has banned me from revealing them on pain of rolling her eyes very hard.
I had in mind an optional short story to link each book with the next one; we will have to see how that pans out.
I’ve been incredibly lucky in my publisher. Being signed by a house that is also focussed on video games and comics means that off-the-wall suggestions often fall on very fertile ground, and the calibre of the artists I’ve been working with for the cover and other visuals is astounding.
As you know, some people, upon hearing that Grave Secrets is the first book in a series will wait until all of the books are out before reading any of them, and some will then read them back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait to read Grave Secrets?
I binge read books if they are out, and I certainly don’t have the self-control to store up more than one to read if I am keen on a series. I will find a new author and munch my way through their back catalogue like it’s a big box of chocolate truffles. I’m hopeless. To be sure I am like that with actual truffles, though, so maybe that’s more about me than books.
The only thing that gives me pause is when you have a fabulous series and you are super invested in it…and the author never finishes it. George R.R. Martin is a wonderful writer who I revere. His book Fevre Dream is an exquisite vampire suspense thriller. and I love it the most of everything he has written. But the Game Of Thrones series is never going to be finished. He has been writing it since 1994 and the saga feels barely started. We’ve only begun to explore the world — the wonderful world — that he has created. I appreciate that the TV series moves things forward but it breaks my heart that I will never read his ending.
And then there’s the Kingkiller Trilogy by Pat Rothfuss, a majestically good fantasy. But I have been invested in that since 2007. The wait’s killing me, let alone the damn king.
And one of my favorite writers of all time, Barbara Hambly, never finished the Sun Cross series. She stole my heart away with The Rainbow Abyss and its sequel The Magicians Of Night. Barbara, I love you, but where’s the rest?
And the peerless Barry Hughart left us in the lurch. We will never find out what happened to Master Li and Number Ten Ox.
So I can understand people who won’t start a series until they know the end is guaranteed. All I can say it that I have already finished the first eight books in this series, so no one will have to wonder if the other volumes will ever make it to print.
Earlier I asked if Grave Secrets had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting Grave Secrets into a movie, show, or game?
I’d love to see it as a TV series. I wrote the sequels with that in mind, I will admit, and it would be beyond fun to have it taken up. And I’d probably pawn everything short of my cats to have a spinoff graphic novel series; that would be a dream come true.
In terms of video games, for me the best games have both a narrative element and really solid gameplay, so my favorite of all time are probably Valve’s Portal games, Tiger Style’s Spider games, and Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. With that in mind, I would want to identify a game type — is it a point and click adventure, is it a puzzle solver, is it a real time chase through the farmyards of Staffordshire escaping the undead and raising zombies to fight at your side? — and a solid narrative path that’s fun and reflects the book’s atmosphere.
If Grave Secrets was going to be adapted into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Toni and the other main characters and why them?
We are straying into my other fantasies here, which is always dangerous. But yes, it would definitely work well as a TV series. Obviously Karen Gillan [Jumanji: The Next Level] would play Toni — there is no better kickass redhead with attitude out there. Her best friend would naturally be [The Good Place‘s] Kristen Bell. If you had to pick a blond bestie sidekick, she would without doubt be your first choice. The sensitive clever doctor Peter…maybe Eddie Redmayne [Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald]? And of course, Oscar is a butch, good-looking male lead, so I would make Chris Hemsworth [Thor: Ragnarok], Henry Cavill [The Witcher], and Robert Pattinson [The Twilight Saga] battle it out for that crown. They would wrestle, Greek style, covered in olive oil. Just saying.
Finally, if someone enjoys Grave Secrets, what similarly comedic horror novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that one?
That’s a lovely question to be asked. So:
Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir would be high up there — think zombies, spaceships, sneaky murderers, lethal ancient archaeological ancient ruins and hot lesbians all in one volume, and done with a witty dry tone that never lets up. Another genre mashup that’s missing only dragons to make a full house.
I would also say that maybe The City Of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. Sharp, dark and unexpected…a futuristic world where the Gods are still causing special chaos no matter what planet you are on.