Friday, 10 September 2010

The gilt frame

The Gilt Frame was a story I wrote specifically for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. Writing a story to order is a very different thing from having one in your notebook for years, tinkering with this and that, without pressure of time.

Having a background in illustration and cartooning, I am reasonably at peace with the notion that you can't simply sit around waiting for an idea to arrive. For much of my illustration career I was working for newspapers and to very tight deadlines. Often you were expected to fire back an idea immediately on hearing the outline of a piece that was yet to be written. Doing this requires being able to mentally search in a lot of different directions at once, whilst also being able to make decisions quickly. You have to be brutal too - if an idea isn't working (either for you, or your editor) you have to ditch it and try something else. It was very good training for a writer, I find.

The Tales of Terror books each have at least ten separate stories and then a wraparound plot about the narrator. Not all of these stories will be fully (or even partially formed) when I sit down to write the book. I am constantly scribbling down ideas and possible scenarios. But some of the stories exist only as a title in my notebook - a title that suggests something, but not anything specific. The Gilt Frame was one of those.

It is quite hard to talk about The Gilt Frame without spoiling it for someone who has yet to read it. But I liked that play between the world 'Gilt' and 'guilt'. As a story it falls into the 'be careful what you wish for' category - The Monkey's Paw by W W Jacobs being perhaps the most famous and satisfying example.

At the beginning of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, I have Edgar follow Uncle Montague down the dark corridor of his house, desperately trying to keep in contact with the light from his uncle's flickering candle.

I wanted this to be a metaphor for storytelling (or of a particular kind of storytelling at any rate). The writer is only illuminating a very selective part of the imagined world that he or she is describing. Because the reader is completely reliant on the writer for all their information, it means that they have to take much of that information on trust.

It is part of the writer's job to thoroughly abuse that trust.


  1. Hi Chris
    I really loved this story with it's twist at the end (I didn't see it coming, well not at first anyway). Did you mean this and the other stories to be cautionary tales? This is how they seem to me, that's just my opinion though. James wrote a story about a frame, didn't he? I can't remember the title of it though. If I remember rightly, it was a very ornate frame with strange carvings around it.

    Oh and this is in reference to my comment about Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, in case you're interested, you can download the Vampire Maid for free here: It's a good little story.

    That's interesting that you are also an illustrator - what do you find more difficult, writing or illustrating? I personally find the process of drawing quite exhausting sometimes, I can never ever get exactly what's in my head down on paper, it's frustrating to not be as good as I'd like to be. Do you ever have that feeling?

    Best wishes

  2. Thanks for the link. My mind has gone blank. Can't quite bring the M R James story to mind - unless you are thinking of The Mezzotint.

    As them being cautionary tales, I'm not sure. Sometimes the children are 'punished' for their bad behaviour, but sometimes they are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think there is always a 'curiosity killed the cat' element in horror. But I'm not sure I'm really cautioning my readers to have a lack of curiosity.

    Drawing and writing are both equally difficult and simple depending on what mood I'm in. I love doing both, although I don't do as much illustration as I used to now. I hope that may change in the next few months. I want to create a project that employs both aspects equally.

    If I ever get a spare moment to think about it. . .

  3. Hi Chris
    I will have to apologise as my memory has misled me; the story I was thinking of is 'The Old Portrait', coincidentally by Hume Nisbet again. I've found and online copy here:
    The passage I was thinking of in particular was this: "The frame, also, I noticed for the first time, in its details appeared to have been designed with the intention of carrying out the idea of life in death; what had before looked like scroll-work of flowers and fruit were loathsome snake-like worms twined amongst charel-house bones which they half covered in a decorative fashion, a hideous design in spite of its exquisite workmanship, that made me shudder and wish that I had left the cleaning to be done by daylight".

    Your illustration/writing project sounds very exciting! Do you read graphic novels? One of my favourites is Epileptic by David B. I recommend it if you haven't read it already.

    Best wishes

  4. Thanks for the link - I'll have a read. Nice excerpt. I do indeed read graphic novels. I like David B - I have his book of illustrated (and very weird) dreams.