story, science, technology and creativity


You’ve heard of the headless horseman? How about the headless horse?

You’ve heard of the headless horseman, right? He’s a famous legend that grew from a character in a story published in America nearly 100 years ago.

But…have you heard of the headless horse?

The headless horse is the favourite method of transport for a Japanese ogre called Mr Yagyo, or Yagyo-san.

yagyousanIntroducing Yagyo-san

Mr Yagyo isn’t just a strange one-eyed creature who likes shorter-than-normal horses…

He’s also a ruthless killer with legs so hairy you could use them to grate cheese. He despises human beings and this hatred keeps a fire burning in his heart all year round.

Beware the spiky soybeanYagyo-san

On Yagyo Day – the day before Setsubun, the beginning of spring – Yagyo-san jumps on his horse and heads out to hunt some tasty humans.

If he sees you, he’ll throw a spiked soybean at you, aiming right for your eyes. (This is interesting because in Japan the next day is Setsubun, when the power of soybeans is reversed; you can protect your entire house from evil spirits like Yagyo-san by throwing soybeans on Setsubun.)

So, how can you survive?

Easy! Legends say that if you spend Yagyo Day lying face down on the ground with a pair of sandals on your head, Yagyo-san will pass you by. So don’t worry…You’re safe with sandals!

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Japanese ghost stories: of a mirror and a bell

Born on Greek island in 1850, Lafcadio Hearn was quite the traveller, living in Ireland, the U.S., and the West Indies before settling in Japan.

Lafcadio Hearn, also known as Koizumi Yakumo, was a journalist best known for Kwaidan, his book of super-spooky Japanese ghost stories.

Hearn’s ghost story “Of a mirror and a bell” appears in Kwaidan and is a spooky tale of curses and regret.

“Of a mirror and a bell” is reproduced below…

OF A MIRROR AND A BELL, from Kwaidan
by Lafcadio Hearn

Eight centuries ago, the priests of Mugenyama, in the province of Totomi, wanted a big bell for their temple; and they asked the women of their parish to help them by contributing old bronze mirrors for bell-metal.

There was at that time a young woman, a farmer’s wife, living at Mugenyama, who presented her mirror to the temple, to be used for bell-metal. But afterwards she much regretted her mirror.

She remembered things that her mother had told her about it; and she remembered that it had belonged not only to her mother, but to her mother’s mother and grandmother; and she remembered some happy smiles which it had reflected.

Of course, if she could have offered the priests a certain sum of money in place of the mirror, she could have asked them to give back her heirloom. But she had not the money necessary.

Whenever she went to the temple, she saw her mirror lying in the courtyard, behind a railing, among hundreds of other mirrors heaped there together. She knew it by the Sho-Chiku-Bai in relief on the back of it: the three lucky emblems of Pine, Bamboo, and Plumflower, which delighted her baby-eyes when her mother first showed her the mirror.

She longed for some chance to steal the mirror, and hide it, that she might thereafter treasure it always. But the chance did not come; and she became very unhappy, feeling as if she had foolishly given away a part of her life.

She thought about the old saying that “a mirror is the soul of a woman”, and she feared that it was true in weirder ways than she had before imagined. But she did not dare to speak of her pain to anybody.

Now, when all the mirrors contributed for the Mugenyama bell had been sent to the foundry, the bell-founders discovered that there was one mirror among them which would not melt.

Again and again they tried to melt it; but it resisted all their efforts. Evidently the woman who had given that mirror to the temple must have regretted the giving. She had not presented her offering with all her heart; and therefore her selfish soul, remaining attached to the mirror, kept the mirror hard and cold in the midst of the furnace.

Of course, everybody heard of the matter, and everybody soon knew whose mirror it was that would not melt.

Because of this public exposure of her secret fault, the poor woman became very much ashamed and very angry. And as she could not bear the shame, she drowned herself, having written a farewell letter containing these words:

“When I am dead, it will not be difficult to melt the mirror and to cast the bell. But, to the person who breaks that bell by ringing it, great wealth will be given by the ghost of me.”

You must know that the last wish or promise of anybody who dies in anger, or performs suicide in anger, is generally supposed to possess a supernatural force.

After the dead woman’s mirror had been melted, and the bell had been successfully cast, people remembered the words of that letter. They felt sure that the spirit of the writer would give wealth to the breaker of the bell; and, as soon as the bell had been suspended in the court of the temple, they went in multitude to ring it.

With all their might and main they swung the ringing-beam; but the bell proved to be a good bell, and it bravely withstood their assaults. Nevertheless, the people were not easily discouraged.

Day after day, at all hours, they continued to ring the bell furiously, caring nothing whatever for the protests of the priests. So the ringing became an affliction; and the priests could not endure it; and they got rid of the bell by rolling it down the hill into a swamp. The swamp was deep, and swallowed it up, and that was the end of the bell.

Only its legend remains; and in that legend it is called the Mugen-Kane, or Bell of Mugen.

Oooooooo! Spooky!

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Super spooky Monster Brains

I recently came across this awesome blog, Monster Brains, featuring regular updates of the horrific, disgusting, hungry and inspiring. If you’re a writer and you’re looking for inspiration: look no further.

And if you don’t like horror movies (like me!), or if you’re prone to scary dreams…don’t look too long 🙂

The site has featured some great posts on Japanese monsters, or yokai.

And Takeshita Demons news…

Takeshita Demons came out in Australia and New Zealand yesterday!! YAY!! And there’s an interview with me in the local paper, starring an enormous photo of me with a self-cut fringe. Moral: never try to cut your own hair in the lead-up to the launch of your book.

And in other artly news…

Gasp, a piece of theatre by librarian and writer Suzanne Rofe, was also featured in today’s paper. It’s on tonight and until 21 August at the Blue Room Theatre in Northbridge, Perth. Not a kids thing, but certainly an interesting (and probably funny?) look at the mental health system now as compared to the 19th Century, asking the question: Have we really come that far? Good luck tonight Suzanne!

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Ride on the yokai train? I’d be too scared!

Ride the “Transforming Train”

To Yokai Street!

The awesome artwork on the left is part of a promo for the Bake-den, a train service in Kyoto that occasionally features some spooky Japanese monsters, or yokai.

Bakeru is a verb meaning  “to transform” (pronounced BA as in BARber;  KE as in KEttle, and RU as in RUde), and while the bake-den might look like an ordinary train, it’s not!

Sometimes the train transforms into the Yokai Train,  and in this case the yokai aren’t content to stay as pictures on the outside of the train: they manifest and ride the train (and no surprises there, because while adults have to pay 200 yen for their ticket, and kids ride half price, yokai only have to pay 50 yen, so why would they walk?).

The whole train is lit in eerie blue, hands hang from the roof, actors dressed as monsters board the train and sit next to human passengers. It sounds great, except YOU CAN’T GET OFF THE TRAIN the instant you get scared. That, for me, makes it way too scary.

I’m not sure how I feel about the yokai train: it’s a cool idea, but in some of the YouTube footage the kids are REALLY REALLY scared and very unhappy (“iya” = disgusting; “kowai” = scary; “da-me” = bad)(this short video gives you an idea without being too harrowing), and I think that’s overstepping the mark. Ghost stories should be fun, not leave you with psycological damage.

The best thing about reading a scary story is that you can always close the book, and the scariness stops. I hate the idea of being scared and not being able to make the scariness go away. (I don’t watch scary movies and I *hate* Horror Houses and that kind of thing)(ergh).

Anyway, the train gives you an idea of how popular yokai are in Japan. The yokai on the train are inspired by the Ge-Ge-Ge no Kitaro manga series, created by the amazing and prolific Shigeru Mizuki.

And I guess my response gives you an insight into me: I’m a scaredy cat! I don’t like being scared and I think stories should be exciting and thrilling and leave you hanging on the edge of your seat, not leave you with nightmares.

Especially for childrens books. I prefer scary stories that EMPOWER the kids who read them, not leave them quaking.


Filming for the Booked Up DVD

A still from one of the 50 billion takes we filmed for Booked Up on Thursday

Exciting times!
As part of the Booked Up program, WalkTall Media are producing a DVD introducing the 19 books on the Booked Up list. Each book is introduced by its author, then reviewed by a Year 7 student. And to keep things short and sweet, each segment is only 30-40 seconds long.  So…I was asked to film myself talking about Takeshita Demons for the DVD. COOL!


Have you ever tried to talk about something you love in just 30 seconds?


I’ve done a bit of media training but haven’t had a whole heap of experience in front of a camera. In fact, I’ve tried to be seriously coherent for the camera just 4 times before:

Attempt 1) Australia’s Catalyst team tried to interview me about the LHC Computing Grid while I was working at CERN, in Geneva. I was incredibly nervous and stuffed up so often and so badly they didn’t end up using my bit at all.
Gaining-experience Rating:
5 stars
Waking-up-with-nightmares Rating: 11 sleepless nights (about 7 before, 4 after)

Attempt 2) An independant documentary-maker came to CERN to do a docco on the LHC and interviewed me about the LHC Computing Grid. As a young(ish) female scientist(ish) I was supposed to be the perfect choice for his documentary, except for one thing: I couldn’t put three words together. Luckily, when it finally came out, they only used about two seconds of my footage.
Gaining-experience Rating: 5 stars
Waking-up-with-nightmares Rating: 4 sleepless nights (3 before, 1 after)

A still from the Teacher’s TV interview

Attempt 3) My editor Janetta and I did a short interview about the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award for Teacher’s TV. Luckily, I got to see Janetta being interviewed first, so I had a chance to see how it’s done 🙂 Plus, most of my camera nerves (the “mind goes blank just looking at the camera” bit) were gone: My previous efforts might have been awful, but they were brilliant practise. So, I was able to talk without stumbling too badly and I managed to say what I wanted to say (which apparently is the other Very Important Thing ;-))
Gaining-experience Rating: 5 stars
Waking-up-with-nightmares Rating: 3 sleepless nights (but I slept well as soon as it was over 🙂 YAY!)

A still from the video for the 2010 Diverse Voices presentation

Attempt 4) About three weeks ago we made a short video to congratulate the winner of the 2010 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award (Tom Avery, although I didn’t know it at the time!).

Me losing it because some mad fellow is chasing wild pigs in the background

Luckily, my fabulous husband was behind the camera, and I knew my ridiculous friends (we **love** your work!!) were somewhere in the background being ridiculous (thank you!).

So, we managed to make a colourful video that said what I wanted to say (which was THANK YOU and CONGRATULATIONS! and HAVE FUN!!).
Gaining-experience Rating: 5 stars
Waking-up-with-nightmares Rating: 0 sleepless nights (this was more like a home movie: no microphones or special lighting)

Which leads me to experience #5: Film a 40-second blurb of yourself talking about your book.

Easier said than done! Luckily, I managed to locate a fabulous Perth-based cameraman with the patience of a saint (Seb Craig of KBC Films, and I thoroughly recommend him and KBC for being professional, reliable and good at what they do…they were great!) and an awesome location (the Hyogo Prefectural Government Cultural Centre…I am SO grateful to everyone there for their help!). After a grueling session of 50 gazillion takes (and me forgetting my own name for half of them), I sent the finished products to WalkTall Media: fingers crossed they like them.

Step over, Tom Cruise

So…It was HARD WORK! I have a new appreciation for actors, because its not easy saying the same thing over and over. Luckily (and did I mention this before?), Sebastien was incredibly patient and also superb at giving the right feedback at the right time. (Including the brutal-but-useful “I wasn’t convinced…Start again”)

Still, it wasn’t easy: it was a freezing morning, but we had to turn off the heater cause it was affecting the sound (poor Yumiko had to wear a thick jacket and drink hot tea just to stay warm: it was super-chilly!). Plus, the Perth Japanese school has classrooms upstairs, and at once stage the kids were practising their taiko drumming (actually: this was perfect timing for a coffee break :-)).

We also filmed some readings, and a couple of short blurbs: one about The Filth Licker, and one about the 2011 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Childrens Book Award.  They should show up here in the next little while 🙂

All in all, it was exciting and harrowing and afterwards I couldn’t really talk much at all. I just sat and drank tea and soaked in the sunshine. It was all I was capable of, I think. And on Sat night I went to the movies with girlfriends and drank champagne and laughed a lot, and it was GREAT!! A recipe for unwinding stress 🙂

So…fingers crossed the filming we did worked: I can’t wait to see the DVD and meet the other Booked Up authors!

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Enma Daio, Datsue-ba, and one great reason to die with your clothes on

Want to catch a glimpse of what your afterlife might be like if you don’t behave properly? Check out this great You Tube introduction to some scary supernatural types who make their home right in the centre of Tokyo, Shinjuku, in a temple called Taiso-ji (built in 1596).

The big scary guy at the back is Enma Daio, also known as King Yama, the ruler of hell. On his left-hand-side you can spot the big pincers he keeps on hand for pulling out your tongue if you dare to tell a lie.

On his right-hand-side sits his sidekick Datsue-ba, an old woman in charge of measuring people’s sins as they try to cross the river into the afterlife. When you meet her, she’ll strip you of your clothes and weigh them: the weight of your clothes is  proportional to the weight of your sins and you are sentenced accordingly, so watch out.

And don’t think you can turn up naked and skip the whole weighing thing: she’ll strip you of your skin if that’s all you’re wearing.

Strictly speaking these two aren’t really supernatural yokai, but more religious figures from Buddhism. However, in his prime position at the gateway to the old city of Edo, the super-scary Enma Daio plays another role: he scares away dangerous demons, thus protecting the city from the hordes of yokai out to make mischief. It’s a tough job, but he’s obviously qualified.

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80,000 words in a week: Alexander Gordon Smith

AlexanderGordonSmithWhat a champion! The endlessly energetic Alexander Gordon Smith took some time out from working on his new series to talk to us about getting his big break, marketing kids books,  running a publishing company and film company, and writing 80,000 words in a week. It’s exhausting just reading this interview: inspiring stuff!

Take it away Gordon!

Hi Cristy, thanks for the invitation to answer some questions on your blog!

  • What kind of stuff do you write?

My first series was called The Inventors, and I wrote it with my little brother Jamie. He was nine when we started, which was brilliant as we set out to write exactly the sort of book that somebody his age would enjoy. The Inventors is about two young inventors (there’s a surprise!) who win a scholarship to work with the billionaire genius Ebenezer Saint, and who ultimately have to out-run, out-wit and out-invent the world’s greatest inventor! Jamie and I both love adventure stories, they’re so much fun to read, and even more fun to write. It’s that spirit of adventure, of excitement, that I find so compelling when I write, I just love it!


Gordon and his brother and co-writer of The Inventors, Jamie Webb

I also love horror, I always have done, and my new series Furnace definitely falls into this category. It’s a very dark story about a fourteen-year-old criminal called Alex who is framed for murder, and who is sentenced to life without parole in Furnace Penitentiary, the world’s most secure prison for young offenders. Very soon Alex realises that the sadistic guards and bloodthirsty gangs are the least of his worries. Something very bad is happening in the prison, something that is turning the inmates into monsters. And he knows that if he doesn’t find a way out, he’ll be next… Furnace is a dark, relentless and violent book, but at its heart I guess it’s all about the adventure, the thrill of a prison break. It certainly isn’t for squeamish readers…

I have a couple more books planned once Furnace is finished (it’s a five-book series), and they’re all very different. That’s one of the brilliant things about writing: you have the spark of an idea and it just grows and evolves inside your head, and you really have no idea where it will take you until you sit down and start to write. As cheesy as it sounds, every blank page is a passport to a new adventure, and the feeling is addictive!

  • Why did you start writing?

To use a much-loved cliché, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In fact it’s the only thing I can remember ever really wanting to be (apart from the usual childhood fantasy list of helicopter pilot, policeman, ninja assassin, truck driver and emperor of all the world). I used to love reading, but I guess like most very young kids I thought that books were these magical things that appeared in shops and libraries by themselves. It was only my mum and dad telling me their own stories that made me realise normal mortals could write books. My Uncle Frank went one step further and actually printed out his dragon stories on paper, which was just like a book! From that moment on I wanted to see my own stories in print, so I just used to write all the time and make little books by myself.

My first efforts – masterpieces like ‘Super Carrot’ and ‘The Valleys of Olaf Karnoff’ – weren’t up to much, but I kept at it and wrote my first novel when I was eighteen. It was a horror novel, funnily enough called ‘Furnace Asylum’ (very different plot to the new series), and every agent and publisher I sent it to bounced it right back saying it was too gory! I guess that put me off for a while, but I kept playing with ideas and harbouring that dream of being a writer, and came back to it in my mid-twenties. It was the chance to work with Jamie on The Inventors that really made me fall in love with writing children’s books.

  • Your first book, The Inventors, grabbed the attention of publishers when it was shortlisted in the 2005 Wow Factor Competition. How important was this for your career as a writer? Had you already tried other ways of drawing attention to your writing?

We were so lucky with the Wow Factor Competition, and it almost didn’t happen. Jamie and I wrote the first three chapters of The Inventors in the summer holidays of 2005, and Jamie spotted a competition in Waterstones to find ‘the new J. K. Rowling’. We entered our chapters on the last day, with about ten minutes to go, and although we carried on plotting the book, and developing the characters, and even building loads of the inventions ourselves, we didn’t get around to writing any more of it. A few months later we got a call from Waterstones to say The Inventors had been shortlisted, which was amazing! But we had to get the rest of the book to them exactly one week later or it wouldn’t be shortlisted. At first I thought it was impossible, but then I realised that this was our best shot at getting published. So we sat down and wrote 80,000 words in a week! Luckily we already had so much of the book planned out in our heads, otherwise we never would have been able to manage it. But it did almost kill us!

Covers for some of Gordon's books

Covers for some of Gordon's books

We didn’t win the competition, Sarah Wray’s excellent The Forbidden Room did. But Faber loved The Inventors, and offered us a deal the week the winner was announced. It was the best news I’d ever had! There’s no doubt that the Wow Factor was my big break, and I was luckily enough for it to be my first proper shot at drawing attention to my writing. The great thing about competitions is that they are a way to fast track your manuscript to an editor’s desk, which is far and away the most difficult and frustrating part of the publishing process. But more than this, if the competition had never pressured us to finish The Inventors then I doubt we ever would have – the first three chapters would probably be lying forgotten in a drawer somewhere.

With The Inventors, Jamie and I did quite a bit of the publicity stuff ourselves, which was great fun but extremely time consuming and expensive. Fortunately with Furnace Faber took over and had the website and game built. I had quite a lot of input into it, especially with the game and the editorial content. The best thing about it was seeing the Furnace in my head suddenly come to life on screen, especially with the game and the images. It was a very, very small taster of what writers must feel when their books are turned into films – watching something extremely personal to them suddenly grow into something much larger, something communal. It’s a great feeling!

Generally I like to lock myself away and write the books, it’s what I love to do. But the marketing stuff is so important, especially with children’s books. Websites, promotional items, school visits, authors tours, blogging and social networking, communicating with fans – these things may be the total opposite of the introverted writing process, but they are absolutely vital. You’re not just promoting a book, you’re promoting yourself. I find it difficult, as I’m not a natural extrovert, but I know that if I get myself out there and build up a presence then readers won’t just recognise the names The Inventors and Furnace, they’ll recognise the name Alexander Gordon Smith. It’s what so many of the most successful children’s authors have done.

FeardrivenfilmsI hate being bored! I guess part of it is that ever since I learned that ‘ordinary’ people wrote books I realised that even the most extraordinary things are done by normal, everyday people. Which essentially means that anything is possible. I’ve heard so many people say that they’d love to do this or that, but that they just can’t. But they can! I started Egg Box when I was at university, because I loved books and I wanted to publish them. I used my student loan to set it up, and to publish our first book. We publish new poets, so there is no money in it, but it’s great fun, and very satisfying. I don’t really have much to do with the company any more, it’s run by my great friend Nathan Hamilton, but it’s still fantastic to see new Egg Box books on the shelf every year.

Fear Driven Films came about in the same way. My sister, Kate, wanted to make a horror film, and so we said ‘why not?’ Yes it’s hard work, and at times it seems impossible, but it’s an adventure, and it’s fun. I get that same tickle of excitement starting a new project that I do starting a new book. I just love that sense of being at the beginning of something, of facing a challenge. It doesn’t always work out – I’ve had plenty of failures – but so long as you learn something from it then it’s never a total loss.

I would say to anyone who’s got a dream but is nervous about going for it – just go for it! Adopt the ‘why not?’ philosophy. It may be tough, but it’s never impossible.

  • How different is it writing a series from writing a one-off (like The Inventors first was)? How much of the series do you plot out in advance, and how much do you make up as you go along?

I never really set out to write a series, usually it just turns out that way! With The Inventors, Jamie and I got to the end of the book and realised that although part of the tale was complete there was another half of the story to tell, so we left it on a cliffhanger. The same thing happened with Furnace. It’s really a 1,500 page story that is being split into five books. I just reached a point with the first book, Lockdown, where it felt natural to have a break. The same thing happened with the rest of the books, which is lucky!

There’s also something really nice about being able to return to the same characters for another book. Writers get very attached to their characters, and I know I’m not alone when I say that finishing a stand-alone novel can be upsetting because you know you’re never going to get into the heads of those people again. Writing a series really gives you a chance to see how characters develop and evolve and grow.

I have to confess that I don’t spend much time plotting. I haven’t got the patience for it! I just like to leap right into the writing and let the story tell itself. I used to try and plot, but it’s amazing how much changes when you’re actually writing – characters tend to do their own thing and throw your carefully laid plans out of the window. I absolutely love that, though. It turns what would be writing-by-numbers into a wild ride where you have no idea what’s going to happen! Saying that, I do have a rough story arc of key points when I start writing. If I didn’t then I’d end up getting totally lost!

furnaceThanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was a great day. I haven’t done very many workshops, I tend to do events with larger groups which makes sessions like that one quite difficult. I’d love to do more of them, though, so if anybody is interested in organising a workshop at a school, club or library, or a larger talk, then just email me at!

  • Favourite part of being a writer?

It’s a dream job for so many reasons, but the best part for me is the writing itself. The moment that you start a new story is unlike anything else. It grabs you and carries you along with it and even though you’re writing it you feel like you’re part of it, like this is your adventure as much as it is that of the characters you have created. It’s like you’re right there alongside them. And for the next few weeks I’m just utterly absorbed – the real world might as well not exist – until I fight my way out the other end of the story. It really is an incredible sensation, and I’d do it now even if nobody was publishing my books!

  • Least favourite part of being a writer?

I hate editing! For me it’s the opposite of writing – stilted rather than spontaneous, crawling along instead of flying, and just so boring! But it’s essential, every book needs edits, so I just put my head down and do it.

  • One bit of advice to new writers?

Have fun. Pick a story that really appeals to you, an adventure you wish you could have. That way you’ll be engrossed by the story, and it won’t really feel like you’re writing at all. You’ll be living it. Don’t do what so many writers do, and pick an idea you think will sell, or that you think will fit the current fiction market. Your heart won’t be in it, and a reader (and a publisher) will sense that. Be brave, go with the ideas that you find exciting, let yourself be carried away.

Also don’t worry about making it perfect first time. Let the story pull you along at its own speed, get the first draft finished, and there will be plenty of time to polish it. The writer and the editor inside your head don’t work well together – if you let them do their jobs separately it will lead to a much more rewarding experience, and a much better book!

And read! As much as you can!

THANK YOU GORDON!! We can’t wait to check out the rest of Furnace!

And PS: Fergus is nearly one month old! Amazing! He’s growing out of the “size 1” nappies and several of his cutest outfits (not that he cares what he wears, nappies included).