The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray
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|23 January 2006|
The Haunting Of Alaizabel Cray (2001) is a Gothic steampunk horror/alternate history novel by Chris Wooding about a Victorian London overrun by the wych-kin, demonic creatures that have rendered the city uninhabitable south of the river, and which stalk the streets after dark. When Thaniel Fox, a young wych-hunter, finds a mad girl wandering the streets in the middle of the night, he is moved by pity to take her home; and in doing so, he becomes embroiled in a plot that reaches into the highest levels of government, and into the darkest depths of the wych-kin's world.
The story takes place in a setting reminiscent of Victorian London. However, it is not the London of our history, but a London that might have been.
The Wych-kin (see the book cover) are monsters that attack and kill humans. They live in every major city. They come in a large variety of types, each with its own power and weaknesses although all are vulnerable to sunlight.
The Wych-kin first appeared in the aftermath of the British/Prussian war. At first no one believed they existed, convinced that they were delusions brought about by shell-shock. By the time the British Government finally took action they had spread to other cities and had become too diverse and numerous to exterminate.
The name "wych-kin" came about because similar things had been thought to be summoned by the wyches a long time ago. Wyches were people who dealt with the supernatural. They were believed to be evil and some people hunted them - back then, these hunters were called Wych-hunters.
Eventually a new breed of human developed who could detect the presence of the Wych-kin. These were a new kind of Wych-hunters, who unlike their predecessors, did not hunt wyches, but the wych-kin, and developed means of fighting them back. Soon these people were in high demand. Corporeal, Non-corporeal and Greater. Non-Corporeal Wych-kin are the most common and deadliest type of Wych-kin. They are made of energy or ectoplasm and can defy the laws of physics.
Many corporeal Wych-kin are contained within the body or bodies of living people or animals. Some, like Cradlejacks, reproduce via bites and scratches; anyone cut or scraped by one of these Wych-kin will turn into one himself. What they really look like before they possess the body is unknown as they have never been seen without their shell. These are also the rarest type of Wych-kin and the easiest to defeat as they can be killed in conventional battle. Other corporeal Wych-kin are not parasitic, but often exhibit strange powers, such as Rawhead.
Greater Wych-kin are the more powerful Wych-kin and are worshipped by primitive cultures. Only one known type of Wych-kin falls into this category, the Glau Meska, also known as the Deep Ones. Very little is said about them, except that they are massive; one description states that their full form cannot be seen because of their height.
Thaniel Fox is the protagonist and a skilled swordsman and gunfighter, performing extremely well against both regular and supernatural foes. He also shows excellent skills of observation, intuition, and is a good judge of character, though it comes a bit late to be of any good.
Thaniel Fox has the power of Wych-sense, an ability to detect the presence and location of the supernatural Wych-kin creatures. This power is genetic, inherited from his father ,who died when Thaniel was only 12 years old. On one occasion, while Wych-hunting, he was bitten by a Cradle Jack but fought back against its "venom", leaving him immune to becoming a Cradle Jack. As a side effect of his Wych-sense, Thaniel has immunity to Wych-kin magic. Like his Wych-sense, this ability is uncontrollable but only manifests at certain times. He's also trained in the art of "Wychcraft". His teacher, Cathline—a tomboyish woman in her late thirties—took care of Thaniel following the death of his father, to whom she was a close friend.
Alaizabel Cray is the damsel of the story. She is first discovered by Thaniel at the beginning of the story. With no memory of her past or who she is, she goes with Thaniel, who helps her discover her past. Her body is possessed by an evil spirit named Thatch, who is the villain of the story and has deadly plans for the world and its future. Throughout the story, Alaizabel's character changes for the better as her past becomes complete, her strength grows, and her relationships with Thaniel and his friends strengthen. Her parents worked with the Fraternity, which is how she got possessed in the first place. Her parents died, leaving her alone in the world, before the book begins.
Stitch-face is the anti-hero in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray. He is a serial killer who only targets women. His murders are copied by the Fraternity, an evil cult bent on world destruction. He later helps rescue Alaizabel Cray, hoping to kill Thatch, the wych who had possessed her. Despite playing no further part in the fight against the evil cult and the apparent defeat of the Fraternity at the hands of Thaniel Fox, Stitch-face still has a score to settle with Dr. Mammon Pyke, the leader of the Fraternity.
Despite his skill as a slash and dash murderer there have been sightings over the years and only five women have escaped his attentions. He is given his name by the mask he wears, which is grey sackcloth sewn together. His mask is further complemented by a beautiful wig of brown hair. His face is seen only briefly in the beginning, when he speaks to Marey Woolbury. He is described as handsome with brown hair and a moustache, and gentle eyes. However, when he is not wearing his mask, his face is usually hidden by his coat and top hat.
Stitch-face's heritage is not known. Some think he is half wych-kin, and others think he is just a crazed man. He sometimes appears as a carriage driver to his victims, and his carriage is led by a black stallion and a white mare. The Bowie knife is his weapon of choice. He is very protective of his 'art', and dislikes imitators of his style.
At the beginning of The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, he has been killing women for 15 years, with 70-some victims. He may be a parody of Jack the Ripper, the pseudonym of a prolific but unidentified serial killer who committed a string of murders, mostly prostitutes, in London in the late 19th century.
The Fraternity seems to be the antagonist force of the novel. It was founded by Dr. Mammon Pyke on an unknown date. The main body of The Fraternity was simply a group of rich people joined together to look after their own interests with little faith in magic or the Wych-kin. However, at the heart of The Fraternity is a cult led by Pyke and a few trusted individuals. They worship the gods of Wych-kin and plan to release them from their prison. As well as this, they spawn more and more Wych-kin in hopes to destroy the world.
The Fraternity is structured into a three-level system. Pyke and his followers are on top and are the Fraternity's ruling class. Beneath them are the less influential but still wealthy individuals who are needed for their positions of power within Victorian society; lawyers, politicians, aristocrats etc. On the third level are nurses, secretaries, mailmen and others who are not from the high strata of society but are still needed to change records and intercept letters. Many of these may not even be aware they are being used.
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Book One - The Lost Girl
The story begins with Thaniel Fox hunting Wych-kin in the abandoned regions of London. He starts thinking about his childhood and how his mother was brutally murdered in an abandoned graveyard in Whitechapel when he was six years old and how his father, Jedriah Fox, had trained him in the art of Wych-hunting before he too died, leaving Thaniel alone.
Hunting the Wych-kin down he eventually finds its lair and during the chase he is attacked by a girl, same age as him, in a confused state. This girl, the titular Alaizabel Cray, was brought back to his house while he tried to figure out what to do with her.
Leaving her under the guard of Cathaline Bennett (a friend of his father's who became his teacher then friend), Thaniel began making enquiries at the mental wards run by Dr. Mammon Pyke, an associate who had often helped Thaniel treat the victims of the certain types of Wych-kin that caused madness. On this instance however, Thaniel got the impression that Pyke had an ulterior motive and gave the doctor false information concerning the girl.
That night the killer Stitch-Face strikes again, Ms. Marey Woolbury who is a prostitute.
During Alaizabel's slow recovery it becomes apparent that she has no memory of her past life apart from her name. Unbeknownst to any of them The Wych-kin Fraternity is watching them and waiting for their chance to recapture what is theirs.
Eventually Thaniel is given another chance to kill the Wych-kin that eluded him the night he found Miss Cray. With the help of Inspector Maycraft he finally kills it, only to find that something has gone wrong in his absence.
Thatch, a spirit that has remain dormant in Alaizabel, has awoken and takes control of her. During their attempt to understand what's happening; Thaniel and Cathaline discover that she was tattooed with the chackh'morg. This symbol allows ghosts, in this case the spirit Thatch, to enter Alaizabel's body, thus explaining the supernatural events surrounding Alaizabel.
Despite his best attempts at keeping Thatch down and Alaizabel safe, Thatch almost escapes and a Wych-kin called Congealed Darkness, sent by the Fraternity, almost kidnaps her. Realizing the futility of hiding, Thaniel takes his friends to the safety of the Crooked Lanes.
Book Two - Stitch-Face
Thaniel and Cathaline decide to flee to an area called the crooked lanes where Thaniel has a friend called Crott, a beggar Lord, who owes him a favour due to his father's attempt to save Crott's wife. In return for ridding the lanes of a recent Wych-kin invasion he will be granted safe passage. The Wych-kin is defeated; but not without loss of life.
Stitch-Face strikes again, this time targeting a deaf "God-fearing woman", a Ms. Priscena Weston. In her panic, Ms. Weston runs into a pack of wolves who attack her and chase away Stitch-face. Ms. Westen is miraculously saved when a man whose job it is to hunt large animals in Alaska and who is visiting family, kills the wolves and saves Ms. Westen's life. Meanwhile, Inspector Maycraft and his partner inspector Carver are on the trail of a murderer known as the green tack killer who is believed to be Stitch-Face. Carver does not believe that but Maycraft refuses to listen.
Eventually, as part of their deal, Crott uncovers someone who knows about Alaizabel's past, Perris The Boar. Perris tells them that Alaizabel was used by the Fraternity, an evil cult, led by none other than Dr. Pyke himself, which is bent on world destruction. They killed her parents and placed the spirit of Thatch inside her. During this time Thaniel and Alaizabel get closer.
That night, Stitch-Face attacks Dr. Pyke's secretary, Lucinda Watt, and gathers information on the Fraternity's plans, leaving her body as a warning to the other members.
By this point Carver realizes that Maycraft cannot be trusted and seeks out the beggar lord. He and Crott share information and thus Thaniel gains a new ally. Crott's Devil Boy Jack, a fortune teller of the highest order, whose eyes are sewn shut, predicts that the darkness is coming as soon as the last green tack murder takes place. The last victim's name is Leanna Butcher.
Book Three - The Fraternity Ascendant
The Green Tack murders are a series of sacrifices that, when all placed on a map, form the shape of the Chackh'morg. While trying to save the final victim, Thaniel realises that the culprit it really a Wych-kin called Rawhead, summoned by the Fraternity to carry out the killings, and although Thaniel defeated the monster, it succeeded in mortally wounding the unfortunate victim. The Fraternity also manage to kidnap Alaizabel from under his nose at the same time.
Alaizabel has the spirit of Thatch removed and put inside a more obedient host body and she is left for dead in a cell. She escapes but is captured by Stitch-face.
Thaniel, defeated and heartbroken over the loss of Alaizabel and knowing that he failed to stop the Green Tack killings and as a result all of the Fraternity's plans have now come to fruition, retreats and is about to give up. The others prepare for the inevitable as the victim dies and the darkness arrives upon London.
Book Four - The Darkening
The next day London is covered by red clouds blotting out the sun and the Wych-kin run rampant through the streets. This is only stage one of the Fraternity's plans. During this Stitch-Face, for reasons best known to himself, has mercy and returns Alaizabel to Thaniel who, reinvigorated by his love's return, leads the street gangs of London in their fight against the Fraternity.
During this time Carver comes up with a plan to stop the Fraternity from completing the second and final stage of their evil scheme by invading their base and killing Lady Thatch. Thatch, it turns out, is essential to their plans as she is the only one who knows how to summon the Glau Meska, the Fraternity's hell gods.
In order to get there they must acquire an airship, but have to travel overland in order to get one. Along the way the Devil Boy reveals that he knows who is going to die and survive but will not tell for fear of changing the outcome.
Along the way, as the Devil Boy predicted, they lose Crott and his companion, Armand, to a group of Wych-kin called the Draug.
Eventually they make it to the airship and now have safe passage to the Fraternity's HQ, an until now hidden Cathedral in the southern area of London, as no Wych-kin can fly. When they reach the castle Alaizabel reveals that she has retained some of Lady Thatch's memories and is able to gain access to their base. The pilot is told to stay put while they try to hunt down Thatch. On the way to the Cathedral, Thaniel reveals to Alaizabel how her arrival affected him emotionally for the better. After hearing this, Alaizabel kisses him.
Dr. Pyke, enraged by the intrusion during the final stages of his plan and the most delicate part of the whole operation, releases the Wych-dogs. Only the memory of the aforementioned kiss he had shared with Alaizabel keeps Thaniel going.
During the battle with the Wych-dogs, Carver is wounded and the Devil Boy reveals that he also foresaw his own death and is in the process of telling Thaniel that they will win in the end when he is shot by Curien Blake, Pyke's American assassin.
Outside, the Airship pilot loses his nerve and decides to flee. Unable to cut the rope anchoring him to the castle, he drops the ship's payload and destroys the anchor rope and most of the castle wall. Inspector Maycraft, who has been one of Pyke's minions all along, is killed in the blast.
Blake states that he was always a fan of Thaniel's father and challenges Thaniel to a duel. During this one-on-one knife fight, Cathaline is shot in the hand and Blake is defeated.
Stalking deeper into the Castle, they find Thatch but Pyke shoots Thaniel in the stomach, but not fatally, before they can stop her. He also tells them of the true nature of the Wych-kin and how they came to exist. He says that when people came to rely completely on science and started to completely believe that God didn't exist is when the Wych-kin came about. Because when people still believed in God they had someone to blame for the evil, hate, and everything else that is bad in the world. But when the belief in God began to wane, people didn't know what to do with the blame and so subconsciously created the Wych-kin. However the damaged wall had allowed the Wych-kin to gain access to the castle and they begin killing the cultists.
In the confusion Pyke escapes but Thaniel is able to kill Thatch just as Thatch is about to finish the spell that would have awoken the Deep Ones. The Wych-kin are all destroyed as the red clouds dissipate and they are caught out in the sunlight.
With the defeat of the Fraternity, Thaniel and Alaizabel have now fully fallen in love and have gone to live together to some unknown place. Carver reflects on the better world emerging now that the Wych-kin are fully acknowledged and Stitch-Face begins hunting down any survivors of the Fraternity, beginning with an unsuspecting Dr. Mammon Pyke.
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray went on to win the Silver Award and the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize in 2001. It also received rave reviews from The Times, Daily Telegraph, Teen Terrain.com, and Bookseller.
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The author stated that he had been asked to write a Haunting of Alaizabel Cray movie.
In the process of drafting and redrafting I changed the story around, mostly to make it work better as a movie, partly because I was tired of telling the same story the same way. The heart of it is still there, but the movie, when it gets made, will be quite a bit different from the book. That'll annoy any purists there might be out there.