Foyles Kindly Invited me to write a blog in conjunction with the book’s publication. The full article can read below or via the hyperlink here.
With a hugely clever, post-apocalyptic set up at the core of this debut YA novel, Darren Chartlon has built a thrilling story; part adventure, part zombie-survival, part teen gay romance. Wranglestone really has it all and is sure to delight readers with its characters and story, whilst also promoting the normalcy of gay relationships, without the usual trials and anguish of so many LGBT stories. Here you can read an introduction written exclusively for Foyles by Darren Charlton
Like an old box of toys, my debut novel, Wranglestone, contains all the paraphernalia of my life, really. Creating a world where an Escape Program offers sanctuary from a zombie apocalypse inside the National Parks of America, I got to play out all my loves. The American culture of my childhood from films like The Life and Times ofGrizzly Adams (1974) and Star Wars (1977); hiking and camping; beloved genres like the Western, Wilderness Adventure, Horror and Science Fiction, most notably the Sci-Fi as social allegory works of Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) and Richard Matheson (I Am Legend). Oh, and did I mention that Wranglestone also happens to feature a love story between two boys? I say ‘happens to’ because I happen to be gay and ‘happens to’ because the plot doesn’t remotely centre on this any more than The Hunger Games spends time analysing why Katniss and Peta are heterosexual. They just are. But I say ‘happens to’ because nobody is going to see gay characters move past issue-based narratives, (where the plot hinges on our otherness, sexual identity, coming out or being bullied) to experience other types of stories, unless we do that for ourselves. And this is still such new territory.
When I was growing up in the 1980’s, the only way I stood a chance of seeing myself (or future self) reflected in books and film, was in the troubled adult worlds of Joe Orton and Edmund White. What visibility there was on television here in the UK, represented the face of homosexuality the mainstream media and general public were comfortable with; the likes of Larry Grayson and John Inman in Are you Being Served. Comfortable because they were funny and camp. We can laugh with them. At them, maybe. They were asexual and as a result of this, unthreatening, because when we watched them we weren’t confronted by the big issue, what men do in bed together. And I still think this caveat remains true. I suspect this is partially why the media loved to hound Elton John and George Michael so much. They were exceptional in having sexuality.
In the mid 1980’s, however, if you wanted to get past such representation, you had to turn to the troubled adult worlds of playwright, Joe Orton. Troubled because Orton was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, which panders to that one great myth, that gay people cannot and would not be happy. My drama teacher at school lent me a copy of Stephen Frears’ film of this relationship, Prick Up Your Ears (1987) on VHS video when I was 16. She was prohibited under Section 28 from talking to me about any issues I may be facing. This was her olive branch. Despite having crushes on boys at school, I was so unconscious of my sexuality back then, I didn’t connect with the film on a personal level or see then, what my teacher was trying to unlock for me. Looking back, this is just as well. I didn’t discover EM Forster’s Maurice (1913), until later. It wasn’t published until 1971, some fifty-eight years after it was written. But it was pioneering. Revolutionary. It gave two men a love story. Better still, a happy ending. Ah, Scudder. I didn’t discover what is probably my single biggest influence, Richard Amory’s poetic and pre- Stonewall ‘lusty gay frontier romance novel’, Song of the Loon (1966) until many, many years later still. But these are still adults in an adult world. What I needed as a teenager, well that simply didn’t exist back then.
So, for my debut I wanted to give LGBTQ+ teens not an issue based or coming out story, but their very own adventure and for other readers, a coming of age thriller and mystery that just happens to have a gay relationship at its heart. I can’t think of anything more political and transgressive than the act of just being here. But I had to be let in, allowed, and I have Little Tiger Group to thank for taking the risk on a genre novel for teens that follows a couple of gay boys who aren’t questioning their sexual identity or seeking approval about their love from the world in which they live. The creative industries still feel safer allowing diversity in if our characters are seeking permission to exist.
If Wranglestone should find a readership or strike a chord for any young person (or former young person) out there who feels different, then I’ve achieved my goal. All I want is for Peter and Cooper to play their part in this great change taking place in children’s literature right now on the journey towards casual inclusion. By doing so, I hope to show you that you have a place in this world, too.
Peter isn’t cut out for the world he was born into. This post-apocalyptic version of America is all he’s ever known, and with an overprotective father who doesn’t feel he’s ready to see beyond the small and isolated refugee camp that they call home, he’s quite happy to spend his days chopping wood at home and taking any opportunity he can to watch rancher Cooper, from afar. One naive offer of help to a stranger later however, and Peter is forced to confront the dangerous reality of the living dead who roam around him. That is the premise of Darren Charlton’s debut novel Wranglestone, and it’s one that immediately drew me in.
The zombie genre is something that has been done to death, no pun intended. We’ve all delved into a zombie-related comic book, TV series or film at one point or another, and they’ve been entertaining enough. As we reached peak vampire around the time that Twilight took over the world however, many think it’s high time we left zombies in the past, at least for a few years, before giving new properties a chance. Those taking that position will be left disappointed when, in a few years’ time, Charlton’s novel is heralded as one that pushed the genre across unforeseen barriers, giving new life to a format that many thought had already had its day. Yes, Wranglestone is that good.
Not only is this a book about survival however; it’s one about young love between two teenagers moving into adulthood. In shape, size and personality, Peter and Cooper are polar opposites, but when it comes to their admiration for one another, they’re two peas in a pod. They are characters that young members of the LGBTQ+ community will be thankful to see ingrained within a story of this type. Their sexuality isn’t something that’s sensationalised: there’s no big coming out party for either character; they’re simply two guys who fall in love.
Unfortunately for the pair, winter has arrived, which means the lake around their sanctuary is about to freeze over, giving the dead a path to attack them from all angles. It’s the most treacherous time of the year, and with Peter now forced to help Cooper in his zombie-herding feats of bravery, terror and peril lurks around each corner.
Charlton writes beautifully whenever Peter and Cooper are together. The realistic approach to their blossoming relationship is one that I, as a reader, was instantly able to relate to. These were two guys you were instantly rooting for to succeed: when they did you would celebrate alongside them; when they didn’t, you’d feel their pain. This is a book and a man who will do so much to help so many coming to terms with their own identity, whether that be sexuality or otherwise.
Wranglestone is the first entry in a series which I am sure will strike all the right chords for the community it’s aimed at, and surprise those who pick it up and go in blind. Charlton should be immensely proud of the world he’s built here, and the brilliant characters embedded within it.
WRANGLESTONE / AUTHOR: DARREN CHARLTON / PUBLISHER: STRIPES PUBLISHING (LITTLE TIGER) / RELEASE DATE: 6TH FEBRUARY
It can sometimes seem that the already huge corpus of zombie literature will continue to bloat indefinitely. The shelves already groan with the dead-weight of ever more stories of animated cadavers munching their way through a fast depleting stock of plucky human survivors. It’s become increasingly difficult for any author to find an original take on the idea of a conflict between the living and the undead unfolding in the wake of a global apocalypse.
Darren Charlton’s sublime and affecting YA debut Wranglestone manages to achieve just that: this is a story of the aftermath of a zombie armageddon shaped by a highly unusual premise and explored from a distinctive perspective. The publisher’s catchline for Wranglestone describes it as “Brokeback Mountain meets The Walking Dead.” That’s not entirely inaccurate, but it’s the kind of characterisation that risks obscuring what’s so clever, nuanced and emotionally intelligent about the way Charlton brings his story alive on the page.
The community of Wranglestone is a clutch of wooden shacks strung across a series of islands in the middle of a lake in the shadow of the Shark Tooth Mountains. Created as a sanctuary by the authorities, life for the residents of Wranglestone is rough-hewn, simple and rustic. From Spring through to Autumn, the settlers cull the clutches of zombies marauding through the surrounding woodlands, and thrive as canoe-borne fisherfolk, hunters and traders. In Winter, the settlement hunkers down, keeping a watchful eye for zombie hordes now able to shuffle across the frozen lake.
Thoughtful and reserved teenager Peter stands out amongst his peers. He seems to lack the killer instinct and ruthless streak that his kinfolk think all true survivors need. Yet Peter’s gentleness is one of the things that his rugged neighbour Cooper finds so attractive; a goodness and decency in his nature now absent from the world around them. Neither young man can quite believe that the other is genuinely interested in them, and their formative romance has to find purchase in a place where existence has become unforgiving and devoid of mercy.
Charlton’s prose is economic and direct, but hugely evocative nonetheless. He’s able to paint an immersive sense of a place that’s both a rural idyll and an inescapable prison. Like all the best zombie fiction, the focus here is on the human protagonists, with Charlton providing just enough description of the relentless decomposing undead to make the threat that they pose feel real.
His characterisation of this assemblage of frontier men and women provides real substance and texture. It’s impossible not to empathise with the stark choices that confront them. Survival for any of them is, of course, anything but guaranteed, and many of the losses inflicted on the group come with an emotional impact that feels palpable.
Both the love affair and the settlers’ dilemma unfold in ways that are far from predictable. Revelations come crashing in in waves, and consequences sweep through the community overwhelming long-held certainties in their wake. It’s all exciting stuff, that moves the story towards a fraught and gripping conclusion. But it’s the sense of identification that Charlton builds so skilfully with his leading men that ultimately makes this such a standout work.
Only the most stone-hearted of readers will fail to be moved by the fate of these young lovers, or be able to resist being caught up in the story of Peter’s cathartic transformation in what is the most harrowing of situations.