Thursday, 14 October 2010

Out and about

Before I get into talking about Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth, I want to tell you about events I'm attending in the near future.

This coming Sunday I will be appearing with the very talented Justin Richards at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Justin and I will be chatting about writing scary stories in a public event called Don't Be Scared.

On 21 October at 6.00pm I will be appearing in an event at Eason's bookshop in O'Connell Street in Dublin along with Becca Fitzpatrick and L A Weatherly as part of their Dark Days & Long Nights theme.

On Saturday 30 October I will be at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival at Dean Clough between 1.30 and 2.30 and I'm looking forward to revisiting Lawrence Gordon Clark's BBC adaptations of M R James' ghost stories and meeting the director on Halloween night.

On 4 November I am delighted to be having the launch event for The Dead of Winter at Heffers in Cambridge.

If you can make any of these events then I would be delighted to see you there. Most, if not all, are ticketed events. I have put links through to the relevant places.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


We had wolfsbane - or monkshood as we called it - growing in our garden in Norfolk, it's beautiful deep blue flowers glowing from the shade of a tangle of willow and hazel and lilac. It grew alongside foxgloves - which, like the monkshood, are, of course, poisonous.

The Crime Writer's Handbook could also be called the Murderer's Handbook as it lists methods of killing people with a points rating based on detectability and effectiveness and so on. You certainly would not want it to be found on your bookshelves in the event of a suspicious death.

The comforting thing is that it appears to be quite hard to poison someone. Either the smell or taste of the poison is too obvious or you have to administer too much of it (or both). The victim is likely to vomit in reaction to a poison, lessening its effect and alerting the victim and those nearby to what is going on.

The roots and leaves of wolfsbane contain an alkaloid called aconitine, which is very poisonous. It gets 8/10 for effectiveness and 6/10 for detectability and has a long history. It was popular in Roman times for getting rid of unwanted relatives, apparently.

Wolfsbane is one of the darkest stories in the Tales of Terror series. And perhaps the saddest.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The black ship

As I mentioned a while ago, The Black Ship was originally written as part of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, but I took it out when I realised that it might make the basis of a set of nautical creepy stories.

I wrote the story long before Pirates of the Caribbean came out. Publishing is still, even in this digital age, a long-winded affair. But although I knew that, it was still disturbing to see that my Black Ship seemed a bit too similar to The Black Pearl of that movie. It was actually Death's rotten and tattered ship in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner I had in mind. . .

Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun,
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?

Is that a Death? and are there two?

Is Death that Woman’s mate?

I first read The Black Ship at an event for teachers in Norfolk, long before it actually appeared in a book. In many ways it is a perfect story to read, because it is a story about storytelling. Consequently I have read it many times.

The first time I read it to a group of - admittedly quite young - children, I looked up from the book to see the front rows staring back at me like Macaulay Culkin in the Home Alone poster. Very satisfying.

The strange thing is, though - every time I read it, I find myself getting a lump in my throat towards the end. I know what's coming and yet it gets me every time.

It is odd when you get ambushed by your own work.

The scrimshaw imp

This was my son's favourite story of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship I seem to remember. It is one of my favourites too. As usual, it is hard to say what it is about the story that I was trying to achieve or why I think I succeeded without ruining it for anyone who hasn't yet read it.

I suppose I can say that it involves a haunted or possessed object - a piece of scrimshaw work - but almost anything else I say will give a hint or clue that will spoil the story.

I do like scrimshaw work. If you don't know the term, it is the name for the artwork done by sailors - whalers, for obvious reasons - etched into whale bones and teeth (often of sperm whales) with the incised lines then filled with pigment or ink.. There is something about the intensity of the work and the often clumsy, naive imagery that combine to fascinating effect.

I find the idea of whaling abhorrent, but that doesn't stop me finding these artifacts weirdly compelling.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Back to the monkey

I am aware that I have broken off from working my way through the stories contained in Tales of Terror from the Black Ship and I want to return to them now. The Dead of Winter is not the only book of mine published this autumn. Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth is out now in paperback and I want to move on to talk about that book next.

The Monkey is one of those stories it is difficult to talk about in terms of the plot without spoiling it, but I can say that it would have seemed an opportunity missed had I not had at least one story in Tales of Terror from the Black Ship about pirates.

I mentioned the movie Alien a few posts back. Well, The Monkey too sinks its teeth into a similar vein. The crew of pirates find a deserted ship and get more than they bargained for when they go aboard. A monkey may not seem a very satisfactory monster, but you will need to read the story.

My wife is usually my first reader. Before I ever let the book leave the house, I like her to check through it. I duly gave her a copy of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship to read. A couple of days later, as I was working in my office, I heard a shriek from downstairs.

My wife had just reached the end of The Monkey.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The lady by the lake (part II)

Sue Gedge left a comment on the previous post saying that the photo put her in mind of Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. That story was beautifully filmed as The Innocents and this creepy still shows the ghost of Miss Jessel standing in the reeds.

The Innocents is a wonderful movie and is always there when I write as an exemplar, along with The Haunting for example, of the kind of effect I want to create. If you haven't seen The Innocents then you should put that right immediately. If you haven't seen it for a while then watch it again and see how strange and dark it is and how wonderful Deberah Kerr is as the governess.

The Innocents
will make another appearance when I come to talk about Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. . .

Friday, 8 October 2010

The lady by the lake

Most things I have written have had some one specific starting point. This is often visual. I will see an image and that image will resonate somehow. It is not simply that the image will suggest a story - although often it does - it is that the image itself speaks to me in some way. It is as if it is already an illustration to a story - as if it carries a story with it.

This is a page I tore from a magazine years ago - more years ago than I care to remember. I have habitually kept such pages since I was at school. Mostly they were kept as possible reference for illustrations. In the days before Google Images, I wanted to have quick access to a visual library, so I kept such pages in my filing cabinet labelled as 'Politicians - British' or 'Landscape - Italian' and so on.

There were always pictures I kept though, that did not easily fall into any specific category. They were just pictures I kept because I did not want to throw them away. Google Images has made the keeping of much reference obsolete and in any case I am no longer an illustrator in that way. My days of being asked to do a portrait of a pop star or the US President at short notice are well and truly over, thank goodness.

Anyway - this picture (I don't know the photographer, but it is obviously early) is one of those hard-to-categorise pictures that I find hard to throw away. There are lots of things I like about it, not least the fact that because the woman is standing so far back from the edge of the lake, she appears to have no reflection. That and the lovely glow she is giving off gives the picture a haunting quality. Who is she? Where is she? That sweep of dark water and the ancient house. . .

If The Dead of Winter has one single beginning in my my mind, it was twenty years or so ago, when I first saw this picture.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The haunting

The Haunting - the original, not the awful-sounding remake - was another big influence on The Dead of Winter. I hadn't seen the movie for ages and in fact I had only ever seen it two or three times, but it was the first time I saw it, when still in my teens, that seemed to have seared itself onto my consciousness. It scared the bejabers out of me.

Famously, nothing very much happens in Robert Wise's movie. There are no ghouls or monsters. Heads don't spin round. There is no projectile vomiting. Instead we have shadows and a wonderful use of sound. We also have Julie Harris, whose performance and narration is superb throughout. As with the House of Usher, Hill House appears to be sentient.

I didn't watch The Haunting again until after I'd written the book. I bought a DVD on Amazon and stopped myself viewing it until I'd sent the book off, worried that it might contaminate my thinking. When I finally did watch it I was a little taken aback by what an influence it had been. The terrifying banging on the walls and woodwork had certainly made its way into my book.

It is dated - of course it is. It feels rushed in places and Russ Tamblyn is not a great asset to the movie. Some of the dialogue clunks. But it still works somehow and I realised - as is so often the case - the reason it had such a lasting impression on me, was that it really is quite strange.

It was only recently that I finally got round to reading the book on which the movie was based - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. What a great book and what a wonderful writer.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year

As I have already mentioned, I thought of the stories in the Tales of Terror books as occupying spaces left vacant in the short stories and novels of Victorian and Edwardian authors. I was borrowing their sets and costumes and hopefully some of the uncanny atmosphere they created. I wanted my stories to be taking place next door or in a house nearby.

The Dead of Winter followed a similar course. It is another response to the Gothic chillers I read and watched when I was younger. I say 'watched' because I came to many of the horror classics via film and television. I discovered M R James through the wonderful BBC adaptations and I came to the novel Frankenstein via the James Whale movie. So it was with Edgar Allan Poe.

I can't remember when I first saw those weird and wonderful Roger Corman adaptations of Poe. I was in my teens. They are often preposterously over the top, but they do have great deal of style. They look like nothing else. And they often have the extraordinary presence of Vincent Price.

I had become acquainted the name Edgar Allan Poe at an early age, when The Raven was read to us at school. I'm not sure when I first decided to actually read the stories. I think I would have been in my late teens. It was then that I discovered that the hallucinatory and slightly hysterical tone of Corman's movies was an attempt to reflect Poe's writing style. Here is the first sentence of The Fall of the House of Usher (filmed by Corman as House of Usher):

During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the House of Usher.

This sentence shows a lot of what is both compelling and frustrating about Poe - the wonderful ear he had for the poetry of prose - During the whole of a dull, dark day in the autumn of the year - combined with at least one too many sub clauses. But what a way to open a story!

I said a few posts back, madness is often a theme in Poe and his writing often seems as crazed as the people and events he described. But it works somehow. Like H P Lovecraft, Poe's writing style seems add another layer of anxiety to the stories he tells.

The Fall of the House of Usher was a big inspiration for The Dead of Winter - perhaps the biggest. Poe said that when he wrote it, he wanted the Houseof Usher to be a character in the story. I too wanted Hawton Mere to be a character in The Dead of Winter.

Poe uses the word 'House' both to mean the building and in its old-fashioned sense, to mean the family line of Usher. The house has a great crack running down in a physical manifestation of the sickness of the Ushers and of its present inhabitant, Roderick Usher.

I wanted Hawton Mere in The Dead of Winter to similarly be placed in a 'singularly dreary tract of country' - in my case the fen country near Ely. I also wanted my house to share the sickness of its owner - to be an extension of Sir Stephen's unstable mind. I wanted a house in which the secrets and traumas of its occupants would walk the corridors and passageways at night. I wanted a house in which a man is haunted by himself.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Publication day!

Today is the official publication day for The Dead of Winter! I went into Cambridge with my wife and son and we saw copies in Waterstones and Heffers and had a chat with the lovely Kate Johnson about the launch event I'm doing at Heffers in November. More about that later.

It is one of the odd things about publishing that you are inevitably promoting a book that was written many, many months previously. The Dead of Winter was delivered and edited last year and my mind has been filled with Mister Creecher ever since.

It is possible to see the Tales of Terror books as historical fiction, as they are set in a Victorian past, and The Dead of Winter has a similar nineteenth century setting. But I don't think of them in that way. The Dead of Winter and the Tales of Terror books are really set in the world of Victorian and Edwardian English ghost stories.

This world of country houses, formal gardens, stuffy morning rooms, governesses and bored children, is as rich and as established in my imagination as the deep, dark woods of folk tales. The Victorian era does throw up many story ideas and give me the opportunity to place young people in lots of different - and dangerous - situations, but it is that heightened, fictional take on the period that interests me. I would hope that I do nothing in my stories that could not believably happen in that period, but the action in most of the stories takes place in a very enclosed world. The Dead of Winter is no exception.

The novel - and it is a conventional novel this time, rather than a group of short stories - is a first person narrative about a friendless orphan, Michael Vyner, who goes to stay with his strange and troubled guardian in a remote house in the fens. The house is like an island or a ship, surrounded on all sides by flatlands of ice and snow. It is also filled with mystery and secrets.

I will tell you more in the next post. . .

More souvenirs

Here are a few more souvenirs of the evening. Immediately above is the English translation of the generous speech given to introduce my book. Above that is the award certificate.

Friday, 1 October 2010


I am taking a break from talking about Tales of Terror from the Black Ship to talk about my trip to Amsterdam where the Dutch edition of that book has just been awarded a Vlag & Wimpel by the Griffel jury of the CPNB - an organisation for the promotion of books in the Netherlands.

I was incredibly well looked after by my publisher Pimento and by Geri Brandjes, who was great, organising my whole schedule of interviews during the course of the two days. I stayed in the lovely Ambassade Hotel on Herengracht, a hotel that is famous for accommodating writers and which has a library filled with books signed by the visiting authors. I am very pleased to say that my book has now joined them.

I flew over very early on Wednesday and after doing some interviews - with VPRO (a TV station) and Kidsweek (a children's newspaper) - and having lunch with Geri, I wandered round Amsterdam in the lovely autumn sunshine. In the evening I was picked up from the hotel by my editor Hannerlie Modderman and publisher Mariska Budding, and off we went to the awards dinner where I also met Jochem Bouwens of Pimento and my translator Ellis Post Uiteweer. I was really struck by how articulate, charming and funny everyone seemed, speaking in a foreign language. There are times when I am not that fluent in my own language!

I was the only English person there, and I understand very little Dutch, so I was reduced to clapping when everyone else did during the speeches. Everyone at my table spoke perfect English and were so friendly that I enjoyed myself immensely. The organisers had gone to a lot of trouble - authors and translators had napkins with their books printed on them and I was given a translation of the speech given to introduce my book. A big thank you to the CPNB for the award and the invite to the dinner, to Pimento for treating me so well, and to Ellis for doing such a great job on the translation.

I was very proud to go forward and pick up my rather beautifully designed award certificate for De Verschrikkelijke Verhalen Van Het Zwarte Schip. I can only hope that the jury like De Verschrikkelijke Verhalen Van De Vrouw In Het Wit as much. That is Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth, but it has been retitled Tales of Terror from the Woman in White in the Dutch edition.

The next day I did another couple of interviews, with Nataszia Tardio of Ezzulia and with Marije Tol, and did a photo shoot for VPRO with a photographer called Merlijn - Merlin in English - Doomernik. What a great name!

I went for lunch with Minck Oosterveer, a very talented Dutch comic book artist, whom I had only previously had contact with in the online world. It was great to finally meet him in the 'real' world. We ate pancakes and talked about work and family. It felt very easy and relaxed. But then I did not have to speak in a foreign language the whole time!

I can't wait for an excuse to go back and I am already thinking that Amsterdam is one of those places I mentioned in a previous post - a place that is inherently creepy. That is not to say that it is not beautiful - it certainly is - but then so is Venice, another creepy city. The dark water of the canals, the distorted reflections - they do share many features. But there is something about the northern light (or gloom) of Amsterdam. . .

Autumn or winter in Amsterdam would certainly make a very good setting for a novel.