Do you believe in monsters? Rupert Wallis & The Dark Inside

Apparently when browsing a book shop you give a book roughly 30 seconds to win you over (includes cover snoop, back blurb glance and possibly a peek onto the first page). Well, Moontrug read a book recently that took just 5 seconds to win her over: The Dark Inside by Rupert Wallis. Cover: navy, silver and white with a ‘Do you believe in monsters?’ caption – intriguing… Back blurb: ‘Run. And James did. Out the back door. Through the gap in the fence. Not stopping even after the bellowing of his stepfather had wasted in the wind and there was nothing but the whip of grass across his shins…’

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And that was that – book bought. And then read within hours. Yes, it’s THAT good. The Dark Inside follows the story of thirteen-year-old James who discovers a homeless man in an abandoned house on top of a hill. But this is no ordinary homeless man. This man has a secret, and a dark one at that. Hoping to find a ‘cure’ for the dark curse inflicted on the man, the pair embark on a journey. But what starts out as a search for a cure, quickly becomes something altogether more sinister. And when the merciless travellers get involved, James has to face up to the fact that what he thought might have been the stuff of nightmares, might actually be lurking in the shadows of his everyday life…

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Perhaps the first thing Moontrug noticed with The Dark Inside was the power of the writing. The sentences are literally like wisps of magic; they carry something other-worldly inside them: ‘Moonlight silvered the hallway and the stairs as clouds moved and shadows hardened,’ ‘Somewhere in the dark a dog was barking and the sound of it chimed in the marrow of his bones,’ and ‘Cloud curdled the moon, culling the light around him’. Wallis’ writing is fine-tuned – each sentence, each word has been thought about – a lot. And it’s really paid off. The sadness and despair James feels after losing his mother is so evocatively presented – and Wallis perfectly captures James’ growing understanding of the world around him, of the hugeness of it all, of the unanswerable questions staring him in the face.

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There were undertones of David Almond’s Skellig in the book. Just as Michael helps Skellig and day by day the pain inside him eases, so James helps Webster and he learns to trust again. James’ pain and confusion is obvious but Wallis never patronises the reader with quick-fix solutions. And at the end of Chapter 2, when James is crushing nettles, we see James’ pain very realistically evoked: ‘The bruise on James’ arm began to creak and groan and ache, and he stopped wondering about the man, and who he might be, and drove the stick harder. Nettle heads flew. Necks opened. He mashed the stalks until the ground around him reeked of green.’

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One of the most likeable things about James is his capacity for hope, in what appears to be a very ‘unhopeful’ world. Time and again things don’t go James’ way and yet somehow he keeps going: ‘When a ray of sun drifted over him, he held out his hand, imagining it was gold warming his outstretched palm. He wondered how much he would need to buy every one of his dreams.’ Throughout the book, James struggles to make sense of the world: of why bad things happen to the people he loves; of why his step-father beats him; of who is ‘up there’ controlling it all, if anyone… Wallis uses these huge questions to bring James and Webster together – and he does it in the most natural, believable way.

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Wallis’ writing after this conversation so brilliantly sums up this sense of questioning and understanding: ‘Sunlight began chasing itself over the floor and the walls. And the man watched it. And James watched the man. And it seemed to be enough for the moment that he was standing there.’ Often Wallis slips away from naming James and Webster, instead saying ‘the man’ or ‘the boy’ – as if James and Webster are touching on questions every one of us burns to ask.

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But The Dark Inside is more than just beautiful writing and probing questions; the plot packs a punch, too. With relentless energy, the travellers pursue James and Webster, while all the while the dreaded full moon looms nearer. The action scenes are fast-paced and gripping and the old woman and her wooden-faced companion, ‘no taller than the boy’s knees…with painted lips and eyes’ are truly terrifying. On Page 1 James is running; and he’s still running by the end – now that’s momentum for you. Right up until Page 357 – and then you’ll be fighting back the tears… The Dark Inside is a brilliant debut for 10+ years and Mootrug can’t wait to see what Rupert Wallis has got in store for us next…