Shiver me timbers

Vampirates author Justin Somper meeting fans at St Bede's Catholic High School, Lytham.' Justin (front) is pictured with L-R Alisha Yarwood, Oliver Pitt, Kated Baguley, Isobelle Rushton, Matthew Rhodes and Ben Smith.
Vampirates author Justin Somper meeting fans at St Bede's Catholic High School, Lytham.' Justin (front) is pictured with L-R Alisha Yarwood, Oliver Pitt, Kated Baguley, Isobelle Rushton, Matthew Rhodes and Ben Smith.
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Avast, ye varlets. The sun has barely risen above the yardarm and all the talk, among several hundred youngsters in the vast assembly hall, is of the best method of slaying a vampire – silver bullets, daylight, a nice juicy stake, decapitation?

It was never like this in Bram Stoker’s day. This is no ordinary assembly at St Bede’s Catholic High School, Lytham, either, for that matter, where teachers take a tolerant view of teenagers’ preoccupations in an age when the sun is just beginning to set on the Twilight craze.

The hero of this hour, author Justin Somper, aka The Captain, is holding forth, at the invitation of Kirkham bookshop Silverdell, to a rapt audience of 11 to 13-year-olds, on what happens to two favourite characters, killed in the final instalment of his best selling series, Vampirates Immortal War (Simon and Schuster).

All traces of his generally gentle, self-effacing manner are gone, as he describes a death plunge with the gory attention to detail the late Roald Dahl (whose literary estate he helps oversee) taught us the kiddies adore. And it’s been that way since days of yore.

Forget wrapping kids up in cotton wool. Even Sun Factor 50 wouldn’t save one of Justin’s finest, darkest, vampirate inventions, skin blistering off the bone, locked in mortal combat with a plucky pirate queen also destined for Davy Jones’ Locker, after a swift half at the Blood Tavern.

As Justin points out, when vampire villainess Lola, loosely based on The Wicked Lady highwaywoman of old, talks of uncorking a Cheeky Italian ... she really means a Cheeky Italian..

The colour drains from some teachers’ cheeks, but it’s all conspiratorial giggles among the children, and the questions come fast and furious. Including from some children, as one member of staff tells me, who wouldn’t normally say boo to a goose. That’s the power of books.

Why doesn’t the artwork of Sidorio, the most dastardly vampirate of all, show his gold fangs, asks Lauren Gee, 13, keen artist (and would-be animator) who’s so horrified by the arty affront to her favourite character she brandishes a plastic cutlass at the author later...

When is the film going to hit the big screen, ask Charlotte Goole and Naomi England, both 12, and relatively recent converts to the series. Justin’s holding out for a Hollywood live action movie, rather than animation.

Is it true Vampirates stage production starts its six-month tour this September? Yes. Actors are being recruited right now – no local performances, however.

Vampirates have unlocked the imagination of children all but weaned on computer games today: a million copies sold, in 34 countries, in 24 languages, fans now styling themselves the Nocturnals, the last book, Empire Book of the Night, Pick of the Year at this year’s Red House Children’s Book Awards.

All of which makes Justin a gamekeeper turned poacher, for when he’s not working as a publicist for some of the best known authors around, alive or dead, he’s on with his own undead creation, about to breathe its last, with Immortal War now out.

It all started with a eureka! moment, Justin admits. What could be more swashbuckling than pirates or bloodthirstier than vampires? “The word Vampirate just came to me.” Once he had the name, the game was afoot, Justin setting the action in a dystopian world ahead of our times, where global warming has done its worst, seas have risen, and pirates rule the waves, while vampires waive the rules.

He takes pains to stress this was pre-Pirates of the Caribbean hitting the big time, which saw the pirate genre riding the tide of a renaissance worlds apart from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “aha Jim lad” – although that was dark matter, too, of its time, Treasure Island initially serialised in a children’s magazine, before appearing as a book in 1883.

Justin has one of the most active fanbases of any author; 6,000 regulars registered online, around the globe, following his blog (at vampirates.co.uk) and twitter feed (user name: JustinSomper). There’s an online petition for the books to be turned into movies, since The Ultimate Book Guide listed it as number two in the Ultimate Readers’ poll of “Books That Should Be Filmed”.

Kyle Stride, 12, a dead ringer for Vampirates’ hero Connor, muses: “I think life as a Vampirate would be pretty good. I don’t scare easily. My favourite book’s The Enemy.”

That’s a post-apocalyptic zombie horror novel. Eat your heart out, Enid Blyton...