If you were growing up in UK in the '70s or '80s, and like me, loved all manner of imaginative fiction, chances are that you'll have fond memories of many books by Nicolas Fisk. Actually the nom de plume of Mr David Higginbottom, from the mid '60s onward Fisk produced a legion of books for children of all ages, the majority of which were science fiction. Kids loved his imaginative tales, and grown ups admired the quality of his writing - so much so that several titles ended up being studied in schools. And indeed, this was how I was introduced to his works, with our English class tackling his dark and offbeat novel Grinny.
I adored Grinny, and after getting over the surprise at having done a book in school that was about a rather sinister and stealthy alien invasion, I was soon hunting his other titles such as Trillions (mysterious crystals from space), Space Hostages (kidnapped kids in an intergalactic cold war) and A Rag, A Bone and A Hank of Hair (future folks cloning people from the past). However my all-time favourite was Monster Maker, first published in hardback in March 1979 by Pelham Books, and reprinted many times over the next few decades in paperback. But interestingly, while Monster Maker is technically one of the least fantastical of Mr Fisk's books, it was the one which I would take to my heart, the one which spoke to me most clearly, and the one that I have reread many, many times down the years.
So why did this particular novel make such an impression upon me? Well, it was simply because I could clearly see myself in the central character and relate very closely to his story. The novel tells the tale of a twelve year old lad named Matt, who is obsessed with monsters and the movies they appear in. As it happens, just outside his little English town is the studio and workshop of a great special effects artist, Chancey Balogh, who is effectively the Ray Harryhausen of the world of Monster Maker. And thanks to a bit of luck and a bit of quick thinking on Matt's part, he manages to meet the great man and gets a job for the summer helping out his hero making monsters for a new SF epic. However what would be Matt's dream summer is constantly being threatened by a gang of local bullies, who make Matt their target and decide to break into Chancey's studios...
And I'm sure that now many of you will understand perfectly why I related to this book so strongly, for Matt was essentially the kid I was - hunting down any horror, SF or monster movies I could, fascinated by the cinematic magic that brought monsters, spaceships and alien worlds to the screen, and even trying my own hand at various special effects techniques... Although admittedly not with the technical expertise that young Matt has in the book. But just like Matt, I grew up in a small town and had a band of local bullies to dodge too. In short, Matt could have very well have been me, and I suspect many of you too.
And while there is a strong element of living out the fantasy of many a monster obsessed kid - after all, didn't we all dream at some point or another of becoming an apprentice to a movie wizards like Harryhauen, or Tom Savini or Rick Baker - at the same time Monster Maker is far from an exercise in wish fulfillment. Now at the time I first I read this wonderful little novel, back in 1980, I was already at an age when I had developed an on-going niggle with a lot of children's fiction, whether on the page or on the screen. And that was that all too often stories set in the alleged 'real world' featured kids who were not only nothing like me and my peers, but also these fictional brats got to do stuff that we would never in a zillion years be able or allowed to do.
However Monster Maker was very different, with Fisk not only perfectly capturing the mindset of a young monster movie buff, but detailing his world with a gritty honesty. Matt has a proper home life; parents watching over him, a sister who he loves but squabbles with, and the villains of the book, the bully gang aren't just cardboard stooges but recognizably real young hooligans, the kind of lads aren't just calling you names or giving out wedgies, but will put you in hospital if you cross them. And unlike the aforementioned fiction brats who lived in worlds where parents never existed and never came to any real harm, Matt is growing up with the same rules and dangers as we did.
In 1989, it was adapted for television for The Jim Henson Hour, which aired in the UK as a forty five minute stand-alone special, and starred cult legend Harry Dean Stanton as Chancey Barlogh. However while I am aware that this is a fondly remembered production, and I was tremendously excited to see it back in the day, I have to say that the TV version just didn't cut it for me. For me, the Henson version just didn't hit the right notes of the story, watering down the somewhat honest and gritty portrayal of life for an ordinary English kid in the '70s with whimsical fantasy elements and fuzzy sentimentality, in short losing what made reading the book so special.
And while this book is now over forty years old, and to a new generation of readers it may seem strange that Matt's world is lacking in computers and smart phones and Chancey would probably be working with CGI nowadays, in the main the book hasn't really aged. For Matt's experiences still ring true, with Fisk deftly detailing the struggles we all have while growing up in making sense of the adult world, and on the flipside the way grown ups often don't understand a kid's worries, fears and interests. Hence I'm sure that monster obsessed kids will still relate to his tale today, and certainly that was the case for me when I first read this novel back in the day. However now when I reread Monster Maker, it's like looking at the world through the eyes of the kid I once was. While it may have been written for kids, Monster Maker is very much a timeless book for anyone who loves movie monsters.