Monday, 6 September 2010

The un-door

In the last post I was talking a little bit about ideas. Children's publishing is very plot-orientated - for very good reasons - but it is how that plot or idea is delivered that separates one writer from another. Give the very same plot outline to ten different writers and you well get ten different books. The better the writers are, the more different those books will be.

I have written quite a lot of work that has been fast-paced and has a lot of action and even violence in it. The stories in the Tales of Terror series are very different. They are altogether more quiet. There are sequences of fast action and violence, but they happen in bursts and erupt from a relative stillness.

I had written, as I said yesterday, quite a lot of historical fiction before I wrote these books. I began writing them as contemporary stories, but quickly came to the conclusion that they would be better in almost every case if they were sent into the past, just as I had found that even though I had originally devised them with adult protagonists, changing those to children made the stories scarier. Setting them in the past meant poor lighting and bored children - a very scary combination.

But I was determined that these would not simply be historical fiction. Rather than being set in any specific year, they are really set in the world of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, or at least my memory of them. But at the same time I did not want them to be pastiches. If the effect was too contrived it might get in the way and I wanted my reader to lose themselves in the story. I simply knew that I liked a particular kind of literary ghost story and knew that I wanted to see if I do something similar. There is a stuffy, rainy Sunday afternoon mood to many English creepy stories that I particularly wanted to emulate.

The Victorian/Edwardian setting also presents plot possibilities of course. Children can be more believably left to roam and get into difficulties, for one thing. But there are specific historical things too. The Victorian obsession with spiritualism and mediums provided the background for the seance in The Un-Door.

I have shied away from using the term 'ghost story' to describe my work or the work of others. Even someone like M R James seems a bit constrained by the confines of that term. His stories have a supernatural element to them - but 'ghost' often seems too simple (or gentle) a word to describe it. Saki - another writer that was very much on my mind when I was writing these stories - wrote many strange and uncanny stories, but I'm struggling to think of one where an actual ghost makes an appearance.

When I do write about ghosts I do not assume them to be the floaty, glow-in-the dark creatures of cartoons and bad movies. I am much more interested in the idea that they might simply go unnoticed among the living and that they themselves might not even realise that they were not alive.

The Un-Door, as I have already said, has a seance at its heart. Harry Houdini visited so-called mediums and psychics after the death of his mother and was disgusted to see the crude tricks they employed to fool their clients. Houdini was a master illusionist himself and was not so easily fooled. He set out on a quest to expose these charlatans and fakers. My story features a couple that Houdini would have enjoyed making fools of.

I can't say too much more about The Un-Door without spoiling it for anyone who has not read it yet. But I will say that the idea of the faceless china doll goes back - I think - to watching Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte in my teens. There is a sequence in that movie in which faceless dancers fill a ballroom and for some reason I found that idea very unsettling. I still do, remembering it now.

I hope I managed to pass on some of that unease.

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