Welcome to August’s Point Horror Book Club. Guys, I am so excited to announce that this month we are joined by Point Horror ROYALTY Caroline B Cooney! I KNOW! Caroline very kindly agreed to answer questions about THE PERFUME, this month’s title, and what it was like working on our beloved range in the nineties.
First, let’s examine THE PERFUME before we hand over to Caroline.
What’s It All About?
OK, bear with. Dove Daniels was supposed to be a twin, except her mother’s body rejected supposed twin, Wing. That’s right – Dove and Wing (more on that later). Anyways, a sinister new perfume, Venom, awakens Dove’s latent twin (who may also be an ancient evil from Egypt) and Wing proceeds to run riot with Dove’s body.
Oh yes. She be cray. She tries to push Dove’s love interest out of a hot air balloon and everything. Guys, she GETS IN A FOUNTAIN.
My favourite thing about The Perfume is Dove and the fact she is potentially just nuts. Even at the end, when only ‘very, very, very’ creepy teacher Mr Phinney believes her. Dove, according to her ‘maternal body’ (a phrase I’m adopting 100%) was supposed to be ‘soft, gentle and mewling’ while twin sister Wing was also meant to be strong and flying free.
In reality, Wing is pure teenage strop distilled into perfume. She kicks walls, slams doors and is openly horrid to Dove’s friends.
In the end, it’s no big surprise, Dove (and indeed Wing) are locked away in the mental hospital. For a week.
The Love Interest
Timmy only appears briefly but is pleasingly fleshed out. We learn Timmy isn’t a natural beauty – ‘he had overcome the handicap of being ugly’ – with his winning personality. After Wing almost pushes him out of a hot air balloon, he sensibly does a runner for good. Wise.
An eclectic bunch. Connie is hugely irritating (and is supposed to be) like a sugared-up, self-made leader of the group. She actually rang true. Luce is gentler and kinder, but my personal favourite is glutton for punishment Hesta, who can’t get enough of Wing trying to kill her. Kinky.
Some Mild Peril?
The Perfume is scary in a way we haven’t really experienced before. Dove losing control, and Wing’s punishing behaviours feel very insidious. We may be in Point Horror territory but here we deal with self-harm, mental health (personality and, I’d argue, eating disorders) and identity.
Is It Any Good?
OK. The Perfume is the Marmite of the Point Horror world. Whichever way you frame it, it’s nuts. I think wilfully so. The whole thing reads like a Benylin and fever dream and I think that was Cooney’s intent. It’s a novel about possession and it feels possessed. As we learned from The Cheerleader, Cooney’s style is lyrical and metaphor rich which might not suit every reader (and didn’t suit me aged 12). As an adult I am so pleased Cooney contributed to the Point Horror range, they’re different. They’re wonderful.
Dove defeats Wing with a smelly handkerchief. I rest my case.
Let’s start with The Perfume. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde story about duality unlocked by an evil perfume called Venom. What inspired this title? Did you come up with it yourself or were Point Horror authors steered?
One day the editor phoned and said she had a title and from that one word, she wanted me to write a horror story. “Perfume,” she said. Since I do not use violence in the books, whatever this perfume was, it would have to affect the soul. First I needed a name for the perfume, and it turned out that all real perfume names are copyrighted, so when I liked the word “obsession” it of course was a real perfume and I could not use that word. I finally settled on Venom, and at least back then, there was no such perfume. The moment I’ve named it venom, I think of snakes, so that was the starting point.
Your Point Horror titles always feel layered and metaphorical. What do you feel the themes of The Perfume are? I read messages about teenage rebellion, neglect and mental illness.
I’m a little iffy at discussing themes. My main theme is: provide great entertainment for young readers. As a Christian, I want also to write parables. Very often the parable (completely hidden) in one of my stories is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which we have to decide – Who is the good neighbor? The only who looks good or the one who acts?
The reason for “neglect” (your term) is simply that I have to keep adults off stage. The minute there are parents in a story, that child won’t be allowed to act that way, or go that place, or do whatever. So it’s crucial to have parents who somehow just aren’t there. It isn’t a demonstration of neglect, it’s omission of grownups because they just clutter it all up.
The main characters are called Dove and Wing. This is both amazing and bold. Your Point Horror character names were always unusual – how did you come up with them?
Names are such fun. In fantastical stories, you can use names that otherwise you wouldn’t even saddle a cat with. I collect names from newspaper lists of honor roll students, or sports teams, or whatever. Once you have chosen a name for your character, that girl or boy begins to live.
What was your favourite Point Horror title to write?
I think I liked Freeze Tag best. I grew in the 1950s, when your mother insisted on something called “fresh air” which today’s parents don’t do. We had to play outside, and we played yard games, every kid and age on the street. Most were chase variations, like Red Rover, or Freeze Tag, and I was always slightly frightened by pursuit. (I’ve written a lot of pursuit adventures, too, like Fatality and Wanted.)
Your titles are fairly unique within the range. How did the Point Horror process work? How much authorial control did you have? Was there a rule book and did you stick to it?
All the Point Horror books that I wrote were written by assignment. That is to say, the editor came up with an idea (usually one sentence) from which I had to construct 175 manuscript pages. The first assignment was to write a trilogy that would be entry level horror – beginning horror, for readers who just wanted to be a little bit scared. The rules were: no blood, no gore, no violence, no drugs, no bad parents. The original titles were The Fog, The Snow and the Fire. Later they were reissued as the Christina series. I liked the rules, and for the most part, continued to follow them.
I rarely got to choose the titles. At Scholastic, the editors met and decided what would be most commercial. Since I was supporting 3 small children at the time, I did not oppose this. Nor did I have anything to do with cover art. On one Perfume cover, there is blood spilling out of the vial, even though there is none in the book. It sells better, they said.
The Vampire Trilogy are fan favourites – how much fun was it to write such a glorious villain? And what’s with the shutters on the windows?
The vampire trilogy was great fun. Again, I wanted no violence, so what dreadful dark thing can occur if the vampire doesn’t take blood? (He’s my vampire, he’ll do what I decide.) There was a house we drove by occasionally in Connecticut where I grew up which had such a tower, and I yearned to live there. I can’t say why the shutters are involved. You need detail, I guess, and there it is.
The Point Horror range petered out at the end of the nineties. What have you been up to since?
Three years ago I read a scholarly history by a British author, Nick Bunker, about the English background of the American Pilgrims. It was a very intense read for me, as I am a Mayflower descendent. Since I write for children, I tried to imagine as I read his extremely detailed excursion into whose these people were as Englishmen, how the children lived. After 2 years of research, including a l trip to Lincoln and the nearby scattered little villages where the Pilgrims came from and also to Leiden, where they lived for 12 years prior to sailing to Plymouth, I have been writing a historical novel about the children on the Mayflower. However, it is for adults. I can’t remember enjoying the writing of a book so much.
Again, thank you Caroline for answering the questions of a proper fanboy. In all seriousness, Point Horror books are the reason I’m now making a living from writing and I can only hope that in fifteen years’ time someone is still talking about my books.
Next month, we have our first DEATHMATCH – THE BOYFRIEND VS THE GIRLFRIEND, both by RL Stine.