Tag Archive: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray

A few years ago, when I decided I needed a crash course in professional writing, I started reading as many writing theory books as I could get my hands on.  There was one piece of advice that tended to get on my nerves: when you’re writing, every word is a choice.  To me, it sounded just a tad melodramatic.  I mean, really.  How many different ways can you say “It was foggy.”?

But then, I started reading more critically and realized how wrong I was.  The difference between a mundane sentence, a chilling sentence, or even a funny sentence can be the matter of a word or two.  Fog covered the city sounds pretty bland whereas Fog smothered the city is more ominous and Fog choked the city could, in the proper context, be chilling.

In THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding, precise word choices set the tone and build the suspense in the story.  The author continually reminds the reader of how risky it is to live in London.  Even when nothing particularly violent is happening, Mr. Wooding doesn’t let up on the tension.  Consider this sentence from chapter 11:

There was no fog tonight; the torrential downpour had torn it to tatters and it had retreated to the hollows, lurking in the thin shreds around the cold graveyards and derelict wasteground.

I had to re-read that sentence to figure out if it was describing the weather or a vicious animal attack.  By giving us a description of the weather that echoes the horror and violence of London, we are primed and ready for the attack that is going to happen in just a few pages.

Mr. Wooding also uses words in his descriptions that are reminiscent of blood and bleeding.  It really adds to the icky, ominous tone of the book.  When the author describes a character imagining a sunset, it is written:

…she’d stood and watched the last of the day bleed out of the sky….

When he describes the poorest district in London, he writes:

The city of London has a secret heart.  It is a clotted thing of crumbling stone….

When he describes one of the many disgusting monsters he writes:

…a clot of darkness that bled along the walls and path of the sewer….

I could keep going.  The bloody reminders are everywhere.  At every opportunity, Mr. Wooding makes a descriptive choice to have everything–the weather, the buildings, even the darkness–shadow the violence and gore in the city.  And it works.  The tone of this book is dark, dark, dark.

I’d also like to touch on a point that I’ve mentioned more than once: Mr. wooding dedicates a huge amount of his writing space to description.  And, while I stand by my assessment in earlier posts that it really slows the pace, it’s also another choice that I believe contributes to the tone of the story.  The story is set in alternate-history, Victorian-era London.  Writers of this time include Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and the Bronte sisters.  These are not sparse writers.  Charles Dickens spends more than a page at the beginning of A TALE OF TWO CITIES telling the reader that the story takes place in a time like any other time.  So, in terms of the style of the day, Mr. Wooding’s book is actually pretty reserved.

So, that’s THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY by Chris Wooding.  This was my first steampunk and I hope I find more in the same genre that are just as enjoyable.  I’ll see you on Friday.

The scaaaary artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.


I know it sounds strange, but I usually don’t try to analyze the title of a book until I’m finished reading it.  Then, knowing how the book begins, proceeds, and ends, I try to determine if I like the choice in title.  For example, THE HUNGER GAMES worked for me.  The whole book is about these gladiatorial survivor games, so the title isn’t misleading.  Plus, it’s catchy enough to snag my interest if I don’t have any prior knowledge of the book.  THE GRAVEYARD BOOK worked for me too.  Like I said in my posts when I analyzed this book, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK feels like a string of individual stories about a boy who lives in a graveyard.  The title is very general and in this context, it works.

I’m bringing this up because I think that the title of THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding does the book a disservice.  First of all, Alaizabel isn’t really haunted; she’s possessed.  In fact, because Alaizabel is stronger than the spirit within her, it’s an unsuccessful possession.  Wouldn’t that have been a cool title?  THE FAILED POSSESSION OF ALAIZABEL CRAY.

However, my objection to the title isn’t because it could have been cooler or because it isn’t completely accurate.  I object to this title because it set up false expectations for the plotting of this book.  After reading the title, I believed that the thrust of the story was going to be about the supernatural threat to the heroine and how she ended up haunted.  It turned out that Alaizabel’s troubles only spanned about half of the book.  The real plot was about a secret Fraternity in London and their goal to bring about the apocalypse.

I will make this confession:  this book didn’t draw me along and make me need to know the ending.  I kept reading because of the great individual scenes (I think I mentioned a fantastic scene between Alaizabel and the serial killer, Stitch-face.  There’s also a pretty exciting knife fight.) and the super/icky/cool monsters.  The imagery for the grand finale of the book was spectacular.  In addition, when wych-kin overrun London, there are a series of short scenes that gave me chills.  But these events are secondary to the main plot line, which was not particularly surprising or revealing.  Like the characters, where the lead players were a bit of a snore, the primary plot of THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY was borderline predictable.  On the other hand, the side stories, like the serial killer Stitch-face and the London citizens who are victims of the wych-kin, are chocolate-covered deliciousness.

That’s my take on the plotting for THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY.  Even though I feel like this book is a little slow and the plot isn’t driving, I still made it to the end without any trouble.  A big reason for that was the writing style…which I will tackle on Monday.  Have a wonderful weekend!

The super-creepy artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.

You might have already noticed my fondness for opening lines.  According to Mary Kole, this is a writer’s prime real estate.  In THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding, the opening line establishes the setting.  The first sentence of HAC is:

The airship lumbered low overhead, its long, lined belly a dull smear of silvery light in the fog as it reflected the gas lamps of the city beneath.

Gas lamps AND airships.  This tells me that we must be set somewhere at the turn of the century.  As we progress through the first two paragraphs, Mr. Wooding establishes that this is London, the streets are cobbled rather than paved, and that horse-drawn carriages are the primary mode of travel.  But the history isn’t correct.  In this version of world events, the “Prussians” strategically place their silent, and secret, airships over London one night and bomb the city.  The destruction is immense and the British spirit is broken.  Parts of the city have gone almost feral; wild wolves roam the streets and hoards of demonic monsters terrorize the people.  This is one bleak city.

I don’t mind admitting that I loved the setting of HAC.  It is a familiar place–London–with very unfamiliar qualities.  Like the packs of wolves.  The juxtaposition was delicious and created a strong mental picture of this world.  The drawback?  HAC has a pretty slow pace.  If you’re familiar with H.P. Lovecraft you’ve already had a taste of this style.  When it doesn’t work, the story becomes a plodding tar pit.  Fortunately Mr. Wooding’s writing is engaging enough to make it work.

The main characters of HAC are Thaniel and Alaizabel.  They’re very familiar archetypes.  He is a gifted wych-hunter–young, handsome, and stubbornly single.  She is the damsel in distress–beautiful, hunted, and alone in the world.  In my opinion, that’s all you need to know about Thaniel and Alaizibel.  Neither one did much of anything that shocked me.

But that’s OK because Mr. Wooding has an absolute talent for creating secondary characters.  At the same time that wych-kin terrorizes the people of London, there’s also a serial killer on the loose.  His name is Stitch-face because of the stitched-together mask he wears when he kills.  Yes…this feels like it draws strongly from the Jack the Ripper killings.  Alaizabel has a hair-raising scene with Stitch-face and, crazy as this sounds, I found myself enjoying his personality.

There’s also the strange, supernatural Devil-boy Jack.  His eyes are sewn shut, but he can see the future and ward off wych-kin like a professional.  Devil-boy Jack has all the answers because he knows what’s going to happen.  Of course, he can’t tell you anything useful because it might throw things off course.  You gotta love characters like that.

And finally, there’s the scrappy, Captain Jack-like Lord Crott.  He’s a Fagan-style character with a band of merry beggars. They go out and get the money and Lord Crott makes sure that they are fed and protected.  People in need of information, visit Lord Crott.  And our sweet amnesiac Alaizabel is in desperate need of information.

That doesn’t even touch upon the gooey, creepy population of wych-kin.  Not only are the monsters the stuff of twisted fairy-tales, Mr. Wooding gives them the full force of his descriptive abilities.  He also gives them really awesome names like Cradlejack (Kidnaps babies), Rawhead (Appears when you look over your shoulder three times), and ghasts (Hides in children’s tombs).  If you like horror because of the monsters, this book is for you.

So that’s a few of the characters and the setting of THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY by Chris Wooding.  Honestly, there’s a whole cast that I haven’t mentioned.  This book is populated.  However, because Mr. Wooding paints such a vivid picture of each character, I didn’t get confused as the story progressed.  That is no easy feat!

The super-creepy artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.

I was doing a little research on my next book analysis subject, THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (which I am going to abbreviate HAC) by Chris Wooding.  Imagine my surprise when I found out it was categorized as “steampunk”.  I’ve heard the term but I didn’t know what it meant and I haven’t ever read anything in this genre until now.

What is Steampunk? Steampunk is a broad description for books set during the 1800’s where technology is more advanced than it would have been at that time.  It’s an alternate past scenario. It gives Victorian culture zeppelins or time machines.  Steampunk is a genre that still in the process of defining itself.  Here’s a couple of links if you would like to read more about steampunk:

  • A blog that has a nice definition and some interesting pictures.
  • The wiki definition (And do have a look at the discussion section.  I love a good genre debate!)
  • Steampunk has a convention and I understand there are tea parties!

In addition to falling under the steampunk umbrella, HAC by Chris Wooding actually has a bit of the fantasy/horror element as well along with a touch of romance.  When writers query their books to agents, one of the most common complaints I’ve heard is that the author doesn’t know how to label the genre of the book.  Here’s a prime example that cross-genre books do get published.

HAC was published in 2001 to great reviews and won a Nestle Smarties Book Prize among other awards.  There’s some wonderful information about the book on Mr. Wooding’s site.  In his description about writing this book, he says that he was living in London, hating it, and reading a bunch of H.P. Lovecraft. It really, really shows.

HAC is set in Victorian Era London.  The Prussians bombed the city thirty years earlier and out of the wreckage came the wych-kin.  They are these gross, supernatural nightmare creatures that haunt the city after dark.  Wych-kin have sprung up in all the heavily populated areas all over the world.  Only wych-hunters can find and battle the dangerous wych-kin.  Thaniel, a seventeen year old wych-hunter, and his mentor Cathaline discover a young woman during one of their patrols around the city.  The young woman is Alaizabel Cray.  She can remember nothing about her life and is possessed by the spirit of an evil being named Thatch.  As Thaniel and Cathaline unravel the secrets of Alaizabel’s past, they discover that she is hunted by a secret organization, called the Fraternity.  If the Fraternity finds Alaizabel, they will use Thatch to bring about the end of the world.

HAC reminded me a lot of H.P. Lovecraft.  It had kind of a plodding pace and was heavy on the description.  But the monsters were terrifying, the plot was intriguing, the characters were memorable, and the ending was larger than life.

So, next time I’m going to tackle the characters and setting.  This is another story where the setting is so essential to the plot that it’s almost a character, too.  In addition, the characters straddle the line between the modern and the Victorian.  When it works well, the juxtaposition can be almost dizzying.  I’m looking forward to trying to figure out how steampunk ticks!

The super-creepy artwork is by Shain Erin (Seriously, this artist constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  If this sounds like something you would like, you should check it out!) and I found it on flickr.