Inspiration can come from a million different places, but with Lockdown I had a single goal: to write the most terrifying book imaginable. To do this, I decided to write about my own worst nightmares, which include being buried alive in a prison a mile beneath the surface, being locked away in the dark, in a tiny cell, for the rest of my life, being hunted by freaks in gas masks and mutated dogs, and being turned into a bloodthirsty monster.
But it wasn’t just the idea behind Lockdown that proved to be scary. In order to research the book I asked my eleven-year-old brother Jamie for help. Jamie actually co-wrote my first ever novel, The Inventors (which came out in 2007, the year I wrote Lockdown – that's when the picture was taken), and he was more than happy to be my research partner.
The first thing Jamie suggested was that I should visit a real prison. It was a great idea: if I wanted to capture the atmosphere of my location then it made sense to see it for myself. So the two of us drove up to our local prison. It was an imposing place, and I was very nervous as we walked into reception. Eleven-year-old Jamie, however, strode confidently over to the guard and announced:
‘My brother is writing a book about prisons. Can we come in and have a look around?’
You could hear a pin drop. The guard just glared at us. Undaunted, Jamie tried again. This time she told us in no uncertain terms that only prisoners were allowed inside the cells.
‘Cool,’ said Jamie. ‘So will you lock him away for five minutes if, say, he steals your stapler?’
At this point the guard looked like she was about to radio for backup, so Jamie and I made a run for the car – I didn’t want to hang around in case we actually got locked away!
On the way back into town Jamie suggested that instead of visiting a real prison, we should investigate a medieval dungeon. Fortunately, Norwich – my home town – is a very old city and it's full of subterranean vaults and tunnels. We went to a building that was once a prison, centuries ago, and got permission to go down to the underground cells. It was a warren of corridors with hardly any light or air, and I was terrified! People had died down here, and I was convinced there were ghosts.
I took a deep breath, walked into one of the tiny, windowless cubicles, soaked up as much atmosphere as I could bear, turned around to go… only to see the solid oak door slam shut in my face!
Jamie had locked me in.
It was pitch black in that cell, and empty, but I was convinced I was going to hear a voice whispering in my ear, or a hand on my shoulder pulling me into the darkness. I was banging on the door yelling for Jamie to let me out, but all I could hear from the other side, other than his laughter, was: ‘No!’
Fifteen minutes later – and I’m not kidding when I say it felt like forever – Jamie unlocked the door and I shot up the stairs back into the sunlight. Once I’d recovered from the shock, however, I realised how useful the experience had been. For one, it made me realise that I wanted Furnace Penitentiary to be like a medieval dungeon – tiny cells, buried beneath the ground, no light and hardly any air – rather than a modern prison. It also gave me a very real sense of what it was like for Alex, the main character, the first night he is locked up inside.
I did try to get my revenge on Jamie… Often if I have difficulty finding the right words for a scene I stop typing and try to make things instead. I find that these props help me visualise the world of my story, making the writing easier. On this occasion, I was writing about wheezers – the hideous freaks in gas masks which roam through Furnace, injecting prisoners with darkness before dragging them into the blood drenched tunnels below. I couldn’t find the right words to describe them, and I got so frustrated that I decided to make a full size wheezer head. The end result was horrifically realistic, and it really helped me bring these nightmare creatures to life in the book.
As soon as I’d finished writing, I knew what else the wheezer would be useful for… That night, after Jamie had gone to bed, I took it round to his house (he lives three doors down the road, with my mum), and positioned the head on a coat stand just outside his room, looking right at his door. I put an old raincoat around it, and tucked some muddy boots underneath. In the half-light of the house it looked extremely convincing! I left it there, and returned the next morning to find out what happened. As it turned out, Jamie hadn’t been scared at all—but mum had woken in the middle of the night and walked right into it. She didn’t talk to me for a little while after that…
We had many more experiences researching Lockdown and its sequels, and hopefully I'll get the chance to tell you about them soon. But suffice to say that much of Alex Sawyer's terror actually came from real life.