Bestselling author Tim Lebbon claims that the conception of The Secret Journeys of Jack London, a series written in collaboration with the equally acclaimed Christopher Golden, is a story that any writer might recognize, coming as it did, essentially, from a throwaway remark. “Chris and I were out for Thai food with a bunch of friends at the Toronto World Horror Convention, 2007. Someone was asking me about the novelisation I’d done for the 30 Days of Night movie, and whether I’d added any scenes. The one main scene I added to the book involved a polar bear wandering into [the town of] Barrow and being toyed with, and eventually killed, by the vampires. Someone quipped about the bear being infected, and I said, ‘How cool, vampire polar bears.’ Chris’s response across the table: ‘You know what, we can totally do that. Vampire polar bears and Jack London.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll call it White Fangs.’ A publisher who was sitting at the table at the time made us an instant offer. It might well have been the fastest process ever, from series conception to publishing offer in about fifteen seconds.”
Unfortunately, that offer fell through, but as Lebbon points out, this gave the writers the opportunity to take the first book in the series, The Wild, to HarperCollins, where Lebbon says, the house produced “one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever had published. ” With its dust jacket and stunning cover art reminiscent of classic adventure novels of the twentieth century, it’s a reminder of what print can still provide that digital media cannot: the novel as a beautiful object. Which, in this case, is also a rollicking adventure yarn with more than a touch of gore-soaked horror.
Lebbon and Golden have now collaborated on six books, and expect to start working on the seventh soon. “Chris and I have always been fascinated with Jack London as a character—his good side, and his not so admirable traits—and his wonderful writing as well,” says Lebbon. “The idea of him featuring as a character in such an adventure tale seems so natural. It was definitely one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments… The process is usually pretty smooth, and we really enjoy working with each other. Writing isn’t a lonely business when you’re collaborating.”
Although it’s a collaboration, the terrain in The Wild is pretty much a character in its own right—something of a Lebbon trademark. It exudes a brooding, malevolent presence that creates a sense of dread in the reader from the moment that Jack makes his first foray into the Yukon wilderness. “The landscape is vital to this book, as it is in the second book, The Sea Wolves,” says Lebbon. “ Jack’s drive is to challenge and master the wild, and the wilderness of the Yukon, as one of the most inhospitable places in the world, was a perfect setting… We did a load of research about this area of the world, and made it as real as we could. In truth, much of what we researched didn’t need elaborating or exaggerating; it was an incredible place as it was.”
The hostility of the Canadian north in The Wild calls to mind Margaret Atwood’s contention that the central symbol for Canada is survival—and Canadian critic Northrop Frye also noted the “tone of deep terror” in the nation’s nature poetry, adding “It is not a terror of the dangers or discomforts or even the mysteries of nature but a terror of the soul at something that these things manifest.” There’s certainly a lot of tension in the fictional Jack London between his desire to get out in the wild and experience it as something separate from himself, and his internal inclination to “wildness” himself—tested what nature manifests and pits him against, and what he has to do in order to survive. “I suspect the real Jack London had the same tensions within him, though perhaps there were complications in him that we didn’t touch on in this book,” says Lebbon. “ He was a man born to live, not just to exist, and the Jack in our book is very much aware of his place in the world, and his need to confront and tackle whatever the world can throw at him as a way of also coming to terms with the man inside.”
One of the challenges that tests Jack’s resourcefulness—and, indeed, humanity—to the limit is his encounter with the Wendigo of Algonquin legends, a ferocious cannibal spirit with a terrifying, voracious appetite. “There was no way Chris and I could have written about that part of the world without including the Wendigo,” Lebbon explains. “ It’s such a great monster—sad, pathetic, and ultimately horrific. And it’s huge and eats people. Cool.” Can’t argue there.
There’s a fair amount of graphic gore in The Wild—but does Lebbon find himself generally writing differently when writing for young adults? “I’d written one solo YA novel before this—unpublished as yet—and of course Chris has done plenty,” he says. “But honestly, the only distinction I remember being conscious of when writing was to cut down on excessive swearing and graphic sex. Otherwise, we let our imaginations run with whatever we wanted to do, and we certainly didn’t try to ‘cater’ for a particular readership. I think there’s a danger in adjusting your writing for age groups—kids are smart, and they’ll know if you’re writing down to them.” He points out that his own experiences with horror lit started at a relatively young age as well: “I was reading adult books at the age of ten—James Herbert, Stephen King—so maybe that helps my outlook when I’m writing YA.”
One of the many striking aspects of the book is that the authors distinguish between monsters that act according to their nature (such as the Wendigo) and the ones that act out of malevolence (such as a team of slavers that operate out of Dawson City, kidnapping prospectors and forcing them to work digging for gold). “I think the more human the monster, the more terrifying it is,” says Lebbon. “The Wendigo is a supernatural beast, strong and horrible and deadly and, yes, monstrous. But its intent is not truly evil. Whereas the slavers and their leaders are true monsters—humans who value life less than the forest and snowscape creatures do, and who place themselves at the centre of the universe. This is truly monstrous, in the book and in real life.”
With the second book, The Sea Wolves, already safely delivered to the publisher, the third—happily enough, titled White Fangs—in progress, and the movie rights to the first picked up by Fox 2000, the series looks set to become a well-established classic. “It’s an epic story we’re telling in this trilogy, and Chris and I are thrilled with how it’s going,” says Lebbon. “ We’re very proud of the series, and can’t wait to see the movie… It’s a classic tale, and endlessly fascinating. I think everyone has a unique outlook on their place in the world, and coming to terms with that is a long learning process that lasts a lifetime.”