“Twelve-year-old Yorik Mortwell lay on the hard, cold ground, dead. His day had started off rather better than that.”
So begins Stephen Messer’s ghoulishly funny and relentlessly exciting middle-grade novel The Death of Yorik Mortwell (Random House Children’s Books). When Yorik, a poor orphaned servant, is killed by the spoiled heir to Ravenby Manor, Yorik trades one master for another. Now a ghost, Yorik becomes the servant to the all-powerful and atrociously bossy Princess of the Aviary Glade. What begins as a simple haunting of Ravenby Manor amplifies as Yorik is drawn into a battle between cosmic forces of good and evil.
I’m happy to share an interview with Stephen Messer about his book and the inspiration for his unlikely ghost hero.
Bemis: The Death of Yorik Mortwell begins with the murder of your main character. That opening is equal parts hilarious, horrible, and heart-wrenching. Why write a book for young readers where the main character dies in the first chapter?
Messer: This book was partly inspired by Edward Gorey’s ABC picture book The Gashlycrumb Tinies (“"A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears”). I loved his unabashedly macabre illustrations and stories when I was young, and I wanted to capture a similar sensibility in Yorik’s story.
Bemis: The illustrator Gris Grimly also seems to share your fondness for Edward Gorey, especially in his dark picture book The Dangerous Alphabet, which was written by Neil Gaiman.
I've heard you speak about how your first book Windblowne was inspired by your love for Dianna Wynne Jones as well as the Japanese artist Hokusai. Tell about what elements inspired The Death of Yorik Mortwell.
Messer: Besides Gorey, I was also attempting to channel H. P. Lovecraft’s sense of cosmic dread. I referred to this book as “Lovecraft for kids!” early on. Yorik and his friends are battling extremely powerful, dark beings from another dimension, but his friends have their own rather impressive powers. And then there’s 17th century poetry, and maps, and astronomy, and forgotten languages, and giant tree-rabbits. We've got a little of everything.
Bemis: With Halloween coming up, what is one of your favorite creepy stories?
Messer: For kids who like chilling tales, I would recommend Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (the book, not the movie, please).
Stephen Messer's debut novel Windblowne (Random House, 2010) is a fantasy adventure about a boy who is blown away from his wind-world of treehouses and kites. The Death of Yorik Mortwell (Random House, 2011) is a dark and whimsical fantasy that features grotesquely delightful illustrations from Gris Grimly. His upcoming novel Colossus (Random House, 2013) is a sci-fi adventure set at the end of time.