Fox news: writer brings horror to West Hampstead
In AJ Leehart’s grisly story of animals with a thirst for flesh, the real villain is rabies, says Dan Carrier
07 February, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
James Hartley’s – aka AJ Leehart – Dog Days is a well-crafted, fast-moving and easy read
THERE is something nasty lurking in the tunnels by West Hampstead Overground station. They have sharp teeth, low cunning and an insatiable thirst for flesh. It is a group of rabid foxes, and they are hungry.
This is the premise for a new horror story, Dog Days, by the writer James Hartley. Set throughout Camden, the reader learns of how a little country jaunt by the Montgomery family ends with their dog being bitten by a rabies-infected bat – and on their return to NW6, the poor creature passes it on…
It is a well-crafted, fast-moving and easy read by an author who has chosen to write a news series of horror under the pen name AJ Leehart, as he uses his own name for young adult fiction based on the works of Shakespeare.
His previous novels have used Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar as starting points in his Shakespeare’s Moon series: the concept is to tell a story of young people who somehow get mixed up in the plots of the Bard’s plays.
He turned his hand to writing horror partly just for fun – but also is very aware of the similar themes in Elizabethan plays. Macbeth, of course, has murder and the supernatural, and he draws on a range of influences, from Shakespeare through to Stephen King, MR James and WW Jacobs.
“It doesn’t have to be gory to be horror,” he says, though Dog Days does have some eye-wincing moments that would not be out of place in a George Romero zombie flick.
“I wanted to write stories that were fun, that were fast and that were interesting. I do like scary stories and creepy things and it is a release from the other forms of writing I do. I like exploring genres.”
The trick is to try and make it as believable as possible, he says.
Dog Days is a product of James’s time living in Belsize Park, working in Covent Garden and being a student at City University – he is now based in Madrid.
“I like the idea of things being scary but stories being simple to start with,” he says. “Jaws – a man-eating shark. Jurassic Park – dinosaurs’ DNA. These are clear ideas.”
For Dog Days and the idea of a fox population being infected by rabies there is an almost zombie-like feel to it – except the infected are those delightful red-coated creatures we share our streets and gardens with.
It came to him after a chance meeting with a beautiful fox.
“Last Christmas I had gone to visit my brother in Bristol,” he recalls. “I was with my children at the airport and we were walking between the terminal and the car park when we saw this lovely animal.
“My children were desperate to go up to it and say hello and pet it. But I found myself feeling a little bit scared, a little bit wary of this, and the fox looked the same.”
He also remembers their wild nature, when foxes ate the pet rabbits of a friend.
“This just struck with me,” he said. “There are 10,000 foxes at least in London and I saw how I could link this into writing horror. I thought: let’s give them rabies and see what happens.”
He writes at the end of the book a letter to the reader – and it’s an apology of sorts to the poor creatures he makes ill: “I hope it is clear from reading the book that the enemy in all this is the virus, but the issue of a rising urban red fox population in many British cities should not be ignored either.
“There are now many scientific studies showing that many animal species which live in close contact with human beings in urban centres are mutating – evolving, if you want – in new and interesting ways. It is an aspect of modern urban management and planning which should not be ignored.”
He adds he loves seeing foxes and wishes them no ill will.
“I have encountered foxes many times,” he says.
“They have caught and eaten rabbits and other pets of people I know. But I think they are also a beautiful sight when spotted on pavements at night time, under the city lights. I admire their ingenuity and ability to evolve and adapt. I mean no harm to foxes in this book. Rabid foxes suggested themselves to me simply as a perfect hook to hang a good story on. Being unknowable, clever and amongst us – wild too – foxes will always scare us a little.”
Foxes are every much not the baddies – he creates a wide range of Londoners, some nicer than others, drawing on the cosmopolitan nature of city living.
We have au pair Paola and the vile people she works for who treat her like a wage slave. She dates Keon, a police dog handler. We also have Tom the teacher, who is falling for one of his sixth-form students, Juliet. Then there is Tami the university undergraduate struggling to make ends meet, couple Steve and Lance whose nextdoor neighbour, an elderly woman, feeds the foxes in her garden to their annoyance. Khali the masseur with a ministerial appointment, and many others.
James has an eye for dialogue and creates a recognisable set of characters – and a believable nightmare for them to negotiate.
• Dog Days. By AJ Leehart, Kitchen Table Publishing, £4.99