Wednesday, 15 September 2010
When I first wrote these stories they stood on their own. But short stories in children's publishing are seen as problematic. They are perceived as being difficult things to market and to sell. The solution to this was to have a storyteller and sell the book as a novel rather than as a collection of stories.
Happily, this actually seemed very natural to me. Television often used the device of having a story introduced. Rod Serling did this with The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock hammed it up on Hitchcock Presents and Roald Dahl introduced his own Tales of the Unexpected in the 1980s. It was also a feature of horror comic books like Tales from the Crypt and House of Mystery.
And of course M R James had famously read his own stories as a Christmas treat. In fact the idea of reading creepy stories at Christmas became an established convention in Victorian times.
But the most telling inspiration for me was the portmanteau movie. There are several of these, but the one that sticks in my mind is the wonderful 1940s Ealing Studios movie, Dead of Night. I can't remember when I first saw this, but I can certainly remember the horrible effect it had on me. The two most famous stories are one about a ventriloquist dummy and another about an antique mirror, but the endlessly repeating framing story also sticks in my mind.
Cinema and television were both a big influence on these books. I discovered M R James through the 1970s BBC adaptations and I came to Poe via the wonderfully over-the-top Roger Corman movies (usually starring Vincent Price - pictured at the top of the post). It was Vincent Price (and the other greats of horror movies, like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee) whom I had in mind when I pictured Uncle Montague.
As I've said, Uncle Montague was named in honour of M R James. Edgar was named after Edgar Allan Poe (though he regularly gets called Edward in reviews). Franz, Uncle Montague's unseen servant, is named for Franz Kafka and his noisy scuttling along the corridor is meant to suggest Kafka's Metamorphosis story, in which the main character awakes one morning to discover he has turned into a beetle. I like the idea that Franz is not necessarily human. Or not all the time anyway.
The whistle with which Uncle Montague summons the children is a reference to O Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad by M R James in which an antiquarian makes the mistake of blowing into a ancient whistle he unearths.
I heartily recommend both the original story and the 1960s Jonathan Miller adaptation (available on DVD as Whistle and I'll Come to You)