When does fan fiction cease to be the somewhat flattering plagiarism of someone else's genius, and become a work of literature in its own right? How many years has to pass before copyright no longer applies; when authors can recognise its existence without worrying about legal issues?
I think, 'after their death' is the phrase which applies to the latter. Fifty or a hundred years to be precise. So those writers of Harry Potter fan fiction will have to continue to do so in secret, under the bedclothes, publishing only to online communities under an alias.
While we're on the subject, what about Susan Hill's 'Mrs De Winter'? Sebastian Faulk's 'Devil May Care'? Pretty much anything written by R A Salvatore? All could easily be a school English assignment: what happens next in the story? What if this happened? They're hardly using original ideas. What they are doing is using their own imaginations to make it DIFFERENT.
Go back a hundred years. It's probably best if your 'fan fiction' is the sort that gives a new take to the Classics, rather than something that could be too fresh in people's minds. I thoroughly enjoyed 'Mr Creecher'. I liked the story, but mostly I admired its cleverness.
Billy is a young boy living on the streets of London, mainly by his wits, those of which he has, picking pockets when he can. He is haunted by vicious street gangs, hunger, and loneliness. He is rescued from thugs by a huge, scarred monster of a man - terrified at first, he soon realises that befriending someone like this could be beneficial to him, and a wary friendship develops. Mr Creecher needs his assistance in heading North - in search of somebody called Dr Frankenstein.
What's interesting abut what Priestley's done here is that this really is the tale of how somebody has become a monster, but it isn't who you think. He sufficiently pulls the wool over your eyes so when you finally read the name 'Bill Sikes' on the last page, you nod, smile, and think, 'Well done, Sir.' (Well, I didn't, because I'd already read the 'Author's Note' at the end, but had I not, I would doubtless have thought this.) You then realise that Billy has indeed displayed the characteristics of Dicken's villain: manipulative and ruthless. He doesn't spend too much time thinking on the murder of a street thug at Mr Creecher's hands. He never understands Mr Creecher's discomfit and humiliation from being the main attraction in a freak show. He almost sees Mr Creecher as a weapon which he can use in order to undertake bigger and nastier robberies.
Fagin, too, is very cleverly written. He is never mentioned by name, just as the nephew of Gratz, who is someone who will buy suspicious goods without asking too many questions. Oh, and did we mention he's Jewish, too?
I love Chris Priestley. I love his anthologies especially - they keep you guessing, and can be genuinely disturbing. Even the end of 'The Teacher's Tales of Terror', his World Book Day contribution, took me completely by surprise. 'Mr Creecher' is not scary in the same sense. It's not really a ghost story. But it is disturbing on a human, psychological level; how a 'monster' can show greater heights of kindness and moral clarity than most humans. It is slightly more 'adult' than his previous works, if you can't find it in the bookstore with his other books. (Although that might also be because it's not out until October.)
In conclusion, he's written something clever. Very clever. It's a bit of fan fiction which manages to keep the identity of its main character a secret. But it makes me want to re-read 'Oliver Twist'. And 'Frankenstein'. Hell, perhaps even some of those pretentious romantic poets...