Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Mud


There are certain places in the world that seem to be inherently creepy. The coast of New England in the USA is one, East Anglia in the UK is another.

Whether these places were already creepy, or whether they have become creepy over time through association, is harder to judge. New England has the connection with devil-obsessed Cotton Mather and the Salem Witch Trials, the writings of H P Lovecraft and latterly Stephen King, as well as countless movies. East Anglia has Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, and the writings of M R James.

Oddly enough, a quick glance at a map of New England will show you that many of the settlers there were from East Anglia and took the names of their towns and villages with them. They also, sadly, took their superstitions with them. I wrote a book about the Salem Witch trials and examined the court records and family history of those involved and the links with East Anglia and Norfolk are very clear. But I digress. . .

The wonderful thing about Norfolk is the feeling of openness. Certainly in the north-west, where my story is set, the view to the distant horizon is often unbroken. This effect is even more pronounced on the coast, with its tidal marshes and long beaches. Then there is the light of course, and the wild weather.

And the long stretches of deep, glutinous mud. . .

I was thinking of the area around Thornham when I was writing the scenes in Mud where the brothers come ashore. I think it is always a good idea to have an actual place in your mind as a guide whenever possible. If you have the location firmly in your head, then it will be easier to make the setting real to the reader, even if you are not actually setting the story in an identifiable place.

Mud is also about twins. Twins are fascinating as characters, and they give lots of scope for a writer of chillers. Once again, it brings up notions of the doppelganger and the demonic double. It can also cause confusion in the reader and the characters themselves. Controlled confusion can be very useful to a writer.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Nature




One of the things that excites me about writing these stories is the challenge of finding new ways to deliver a shiver.

There is something especially revolting about a monstrous threat that moves slowly. As terrifying as it would be to face a tiger or an axe-wielding maniac, at least the ordeal might not last too long.

But supposing there was a threat that moved painfully slowly; a threat that you knew was going to bring a horribly slow and painful death, but one which you were utterly powerless to stop. The crew on George's ship are trapped in the way that the crew of the ship in Alien are trapped. It's just that my monster moves at a snail's pace.

I often say that I am not really that interested in gore as a writer, but Nature is definitely at the gruesome end of my work. . .

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The boy in the boat


The Boy in the Boat is a story I played around with for a long time before I was happy. It differs from many of the stories in the Tales of Terror collection, in featuring a child as the malevolent presence in the story.

All my stories for the Tales of Terror have a young protagonist - and The Boy in the Boat is no exception - but this story is one of the few where the supernatural threat is coming from another child.

Children and young people are commonly found in uncanny or macabre stories. Many Saki stories feature children: The Open Window, The Lumber Room, Sredni Vashtar to name but a few. Children also play a big part in M R James' The Lost Hearts and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (wonderfully filmed as The Innocents). Then there is John Wyndham's classic The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned).

The Midwich Cuckoos plays on the idea of children as an unlikely source of danger and this idea is a firm favourite of horror movies - The Orphanage is a recent one that comes to mind. The Japanese seem particularly obsessed with this notion - the movie Dark Water being an excellent example of the genre.

So why are children creepy? Well, it is something to do with what I was talking about a couple of posts back when I said that we are unnerved when our expectations are dramatically contradicted. A child is expected to be playful and lively. A poorly lit, persistently silent and sullen child staring at the camera is usually all it takes to set a scary tone to a scene.

I thought I would take this idea one step further, and have a child who was cute and lively and seemingly good-natured - and turn all those qualities into a nightmare.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Irezumi


I find something both revolting and compelling about bodies covered in tattoos. Maybe that is what is at the basis of this story about a sailor and his visit to a Japanese tattoo parlour.

As with Piroska, this story possibly came about as I went through various association with the sea - and sailors and their tattoos came naturally to mind. Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man may have drifted by in my imagination, but I'm not sure.

I think two things were at work as I wrote Irezumi: the idea of a living tattoo that could move on the body, and the fun of misdirecting the reader. The horror reader has been trained to expect twists and stings in the tail, of course: they know that you are taking them into a dark room to shout 'Boo!'

But a writer can play with that expectation. . .

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Pitch


Pitch is perhaps the most deliberate homage to Poe in all the Tales of Terror. It has elements of both The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart.

Much of what might appear on the surface as a fear of the supernatural, is actually a fear of madness. Or at least it is a fear that we have lost the ability to be sure of what we are seeing. We rely on our interpretation of what we see to guard us against danger, but if what if we are confronted by something that we 'know' can't possibly exist? What do we do then? Where do we run? Where do we hide? Is there even any point in running, or any point in hiding?

Madness is a great theme in some of Poe's best stories, both in the weird obsessive nature of many of the characters (the murderer in The Tell-Tale Heart kills his victim because he does not like the old man's pale cataract-clouded eye), but also in the way those characters implode, mentally. They are no longer sure of what they are seeing or hearing. And neither, as readers, are we.

I wanted Tom to have the deranged arrogance of many of Poe's characters. I wanted us to see that he was unhinged, but have him be cockily oblivious to his own mental state.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Piroska



I was making the point at the YLG conference that stories - good ones anyway - are rarely about one thing. Being boxed into a genre can give the impression that the work is just 'romance' or 'thriller' - or 'horror'. But horror, like crime, is a genre that actually allows the writer to talk about anything they like. In fact, the more compelling the situation, the scarier the denouement will be.

Piroska is as much about romance and longing as it is about horror. I'm not sure where it came from. I suppose I may have just brainstormed on the theme of the sea and the idea of emigrants just popped into my head. I know that I wanted to create an atmosphere of lethargy and melancholy. Most stories pick up speed towards their conclusion. This story does the opposite.

Right up until the end.

Thinking of ideas for stories can be a strange business. If you try too hard the ideas feel forced, but with a deadline ahead, waiting for an idea to appear isn't really an option. I tend to just hit an image or a situation (like emigrants on a ship bound for a new life) and move sideways through that seam until I (hopefully) hit gold.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Tales of terror from the black ship


I had not really intended to write a series of Tales of Terror. I just found that I had lots of stories that needed a bit more work. Some of the stories I had planned for Uncle Montague just would not fall into place in time. I had a Tales of Terror 2 folder in my computer where these stories were stored whilst I worked out endings or beginnings or just tweaked them into shape. A Tales of Terror 3 folder duly appeared later on and I already have a Tales of Terror 4 folder.

I wrote the story The Black Ship for the Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror collection, but at the last minute I took it out because I had the idea that it might make a good wraparound story for a set of marine ghost stories. And so Tales of Terror 2 became Tales of Terror from the Black Ship.

I had been reading Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and really liked the idea of writing some stories about ships and sailors and the sea. If M R James and Saki were my guides on Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, then Poe was foremost in my mind when I sat down to write the stories in this collection.

I wanted these stories to be a little more bloodthirsty - a little more grisly. I also wanted them to be bit more. . . grotesque. Like the 'Here be monsters' warning on an ancient map, I wanted these stories to widen the spectrum of possible (or impossible) dangers for my characters.

A confined space is a standard device in horror fiction - from the creepy old house to the spaceship in the movie Alien. But it's not just the fact that you can have your characters face a threat and give them very limited options for escape, the world of seafaring suggests all sorts of possible story lines, from smugglers to pirates, storms to shipwrecks.

In the end, it turned out that The Black Ship did not make the perfect wraparound I'd thought it would. It would have meant that each of the stories would have had to have been first person narratives (and I did not want that limitation) and it seemed to spoil the balance of a story that I was very happy with as it was. But more of The Black Ship later.

With that realisation came the need for an alternative setting and narrator for the stories. The story of Cathy and Ethan, and the sailor, Thackeray, who comes in from the storm to tell them tales.

The framing stories have to do more than the stories they frame. They are far more about the characters involved. I want the reader to be interested in the characters and intrigued by their situation. These episodes must not turn into unwanted interruptions to the stories - they have to be a big part of the reason why the pages keep getting turned.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Uncle Montague


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)

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The path



I was very proud to see that Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror appeared on Charlie Higson's list of his top ten horror books. Mine was the only children's book on the list and I was in some very illustrious company - Stephen King, M R James, Richard Matheson and Daphne du Maurier all getting a mention.

I was also sent a link by Mary Hoffman to a lovely Bookbag review of The Dead of Winter

And then, yesterday, I was told by Ian Lamb at Bloomsbury that Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth had been awarded the Dracula Society's Children of the Night Award. This is not - as its title may suggest - a children's book award. It is an award given by the society for the best book (fiction or non-fiction) in the previous year with a Gothic horror theme. Robert Westhall, Sarah Waters and Terry Pratchett have all been past recipients. I'm off to an awards dinner in November and I'll tell you more about it then.

And so, back to the stories in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. . .

The Path was one of the stories I had sketched in decades before this book was published. It went through many forms, but the Cumbrian location was always the same and many of the essentials remained unchanged as it shifted from having an adult protagonist to having a teenager as the main character. I have walked the route that Matthew takes. I know those hills very well.

Partly it is another story that plays on my fear of heights (despite my love of hill-walking), but it is far more about the idea of a sinister double. Edgar Allan Poe's wonderful William Wilson is about a doppelganger, as is the creepy German silent movie The Student of Prague. But the creature in my story is actually more of a wraith - a double that presages death. The Path is one of my own personal favourites. I have a vivid image of the thing that follows Matthew up that track. It catches me by surprise every time I read it.

I am a huge fan of cyclical stories - stories that eat their own tails, so to speak, and go round and round in a dizzying circle. A fine example of this kind of storytelling is Roman Polanski's The Tenant.

Which reminds me - I have that on DVD and haven't watched it yet. I haven't seen it for ages. What a treat. . .

Monday, 13 September 2010

A ghost story


I'm not sure what the direct inspiration was for A Ghost Story, another story that I wrote especially for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, although I do remember that I played around with it for a while before I got all the pieces to fall into place. Partly, it evoked for me a childhood memory of the thrill of hiding and of hearing the muffled footsteps of the searcher.

I think that I had been told several stories - by mothers or fathers of daughters - of their child having a tough time at school. Girls are much more social animals than boys, but the dark side of that, of course, is that this social network can be taken away. Girls suffer by exclusion more than boys, because boys are simply less reliant on a social circle.

So I suppose a little of that might have been in the back of my mind when I wrote this story. Certainly the girls are fairly unpleasant. Victoria herself is not a wholly sympathetic character, but she certainly does not deserve her fate. I am reminded of those toys - do they still exist? - where there is a plastic figure with a suction cup at the bottom. Gradually it comes away from whatever it is attached to and suddenly springs up into the air. Even though you know its coming it makes you jump. That is the effect I wanted with A Ghost Story.

It is a story within a story - a device I am very fond of. It is a story about storytelling. Books - not even books for children - have to be read aloud, especially books for older children, but with Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror is was very important to me when I was writing the stories that they would work well when read aloud. I wanted parents or teachers - or children themselves - to be able to read them and make them work. A creepy short story has to have the satisfying structure of a good joke. Timing is everything.

I have always enjoyed listening to stories and I enjoy reading them to an audience. It seems a shame to me that once we get past a certain age we get self-conscious about this and are only comfortable reading aloud to children. The popularity of audio books and programmes like Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 show that adults do still enjoy the experience of being read to.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Jinn


I've just returned from the Youth Libraries Group Conference in Cardiff. I travelled up yesterday by train. I didn't get to see much of Cardiff, but a considerable portion of it seemed to be shrieking and hooting outside my hotel at three in the morning.

That was after a very pleasant dinner which featured a fiendishly hard children's book-related quiz. I think I contributed two answers. It is always good to be among people who care so much about books and are so enthusiastic about writing and illustration. Writers still need librarians to guide and enthuse young people. Schools still need libraries - whatever successive governments may think.

The YLG are in charge of the selection process for both the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Carnegie Medal, both of which are awarded by CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) and we were all lucky enough to be given signed copies of both of this year's winning books - Harry & Hopper and The Graveyard Book.

The recipients had recorded video messages to the conference as they both live out of the country (Freya Blackwood in Australia and Neil Gaiman in America) . I particularly enjoyed Gaiman's warm and generous tribute to libraries and their importance in his life, and very appropriate that he should say it at this time when our public libraries are so much under threat. I'm not sure whether I would be a writer (or an illustrator for that matter) without the discoveries I made in libraries when I was young. As Gaiman rightly said - Google and Wikipedia are not a replacement.

It was also a chance to have a snoop around the publisher's stands - Chris Riddell (he had sadly left before I arrived) seemed to have a book on every stand. All the major children's book publishers were there along with their publicists. I was well looked after by Bloomsbury's Ian Lamb and Emma Bradshaw who provided a 'spooky tea break' before my talk and kept me fed and watered. It all seemed to go reasonably well considering I felt absolutely wrecked after the travelling and the lack of sleep.

Back to Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. . .

Many years ago - back in the late 1980s when it was not quite the common destination it is now, I travelled through Turkey for five weeks. I was travelling with my then girlfriend and it was not always a happy journey - particularly when I contracted a hideous stomach bug.

We travelled to Istanbul, went by ferry along the Black Sea to Trabzon - Trebizond of old - and then down through Erzerum, Van, Diyarbakir and Urfa where Jinn is partly set. We had met a kind and thoughtful German couple in Trabzon - Wolfgang and Ursula - and though our route took us in different directions, we had agreed to meet up in Diyarbakir. To everyone's amazement we did actually manage to find each other and moved on together to Urfa. It is from Urfa that we went on a day trip to Harran.

Harran is an ancient village (proudly boasting that it is mentioned in the Bible) made up of what are usually described as 'beehive -shaped' houses, but which frankly always remind me of breasts. But that might just be me.

Tourism was already starting to have an unsavoury effect on this place. A group of children rushed at us demanding 'bon-bons' (sweets), which we did not have. This was a fairly common occurrence in Turkey, but these children were especially insistent. One little girl in particular seemed outraged that we ignored her pleas and as we walked away she picked up a stone and threw it at us.

And that was how Jinn came about. . .

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.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Winter pruning


The house we lived in when we were in Norfolk had originally been a row of cottages. The house had been reversed over the years; what seemed obviously the front of the house was in fact the back, and the ghosts of the back gardens could still be traced in the lawn. Although the gardens were gone, their fruit trees remained: a Victoria plum tree and a few gnarled and lichen-covered apple trees.

One of the very few jobs I was diligent about in our garden was the pruning of the apple trees. I'm not sure why, but I found something relaxing about pruning and something fascinating about shaping these apple trees into the clutching hand shape that is recommended. Every year you take out and shorten the twigs going up and sideways and encourage the tree to have branches that bend down and are reasonably clear of each other so that air can circulate. The tree heals over these many cuts, forming humps on the branches that look like arthritic knuckles. A well pruned old orchard in winter is a magical place, if just a little creepy.

Sometimes radical work might require a small pruning saw or loppers, but mainly it's a job for secateurs. A good sharp pair of secateurs can bite clean through the fattest of twigs. The strength of their jaws and sharpness of their blades, when combined with the numbness and clumsiness of fingers on a cold winter morning, means that secateur-related injuries are not uncommon. Both my wife and my neighbour had a go at taking the ends of their fingers off.

Winter Pruning was another of the stories that had been kicking around in my notebooks for some time. In the original, it had an adult protagonist - a zealous and officious new farm manager, keen to see why the lease on one of the farm cottages appeared to show the same tenant living there for at least a hundred years when clearly that must be impossible. . .

The fate of the farm manager mirrored that of Simon in the story as it appears in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. It is a fate that still makes me grimace when I think about it. Often what I am aiming for with my storytelling is a chill down the spine. Winter Pruning is more visceral.

One of the fears that a writer can guarantee his reader will share is a fear of pain. If I've told it right, Winter Pruning should make you wince.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Offerings


An exciting jiffy bag full of books arrived through the post yesterday. It contained the advance copies of The Dead of Winter and the paperback of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. Both are published at the beginning of October. More about them later.

Back to Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. . .

The next story in the book is called Offerings and is another favourite of mine. Again, it has an East Anglian setting. Whilst I did not have any particular Suffolk village in mind when I wrote it, I did have a very clear image of a lovely medieval church with its handsome Georgian rectory. There is no shortage of either in Suffolk.

As for the story, I'm really not sure where that came from. Part of the genesis came when watching my son absorbed in playing with his toy soldiers and action figures of various kinds. I could stand and watch him and he would be totally oblivious to me, completely caught up in his imaginary world.

This ability children have to be utterly absorbed in the moment is something I am nostalgically jealous of. Mostly, of course, this play is benign, but children also have the capacity to be cruel. I wanted to explore the idea that a bored boy could become distracted by something deeply unpleasant. In that it owes something to Saki, I think.

My own son (like me) is an animal nut - a lover of wildlife and fascinated by nature. I think I was perhaps thinking of that and what might be the most transgressive thing imaginable when it came to finally revealing what Robert was up to with his hammer and nails in that rectory garden.

I also think there was a memory of (an atypically surreal, it has to be said) Alan Clarke directed, David Rudkin penned, Play for Today called Penda's Fen about a vicar's son who falls under the influence of all kinds of weird visitations. I remember finding it very disturbing indeed. I have never seen it since, although I think it may now be available on DVD.

I wonder if I dare take another look. . .

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The demon bench end


The Demon Bench End was one of the few stories I had actually taken to a point of completion years and years before I ever became a published writer, although it was originally written as a story for adults and had a contemporary setting (at one stage being set in Maine in New England).

The Demon Bench End - as it appears in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - is one of my favourites in the Tales of Terror series. At any one time, I have lots of stories in my head and in my notebooks: stories that are need of an ending, or endings that lack a beginning, or stories that simply need fleshing out or honing down. There are stories that I know will be better if I just bed them down for a while and come back to them. The Demon Bench End was one of those.

The basic idea of a demonically-possessed carving was there right from the beginning. But almost everything else changed over the years.

Location plays a huge part in classic English tales of the supernatural, particularly in the stories of M R James. I moved to Cambridge four years ago and it is Cambridge and Grantchester, and the river meadows between them, that provides the backdrop to The Demon Bench End. Thomas' father is the kind of arrogant medievalist who often meets a sticky end in M R James stories, but my story is for a younger audience and so I direct the attentions of the demon towards Thomas himself.

The notion of it being a bench end comes directly from taking Gothic architecture as part of my art A-level in secondary school. My art teacher, Joe Taylor, would take us off in the school mini bus to look at abbeys and castles on a Sunday. I became a little obsessed with the subject and still get ridiculously excited by a nice bit of chevron molding or a green man carving. Misericords and bench ends always intrigue me. I seem to remember Philip Larkin describing John Betjemen and John Piper as being 'randy for the antique'. I'm certainly a little infatuated.

East Anglian churches seem particularly well-endowed with carved bench ends - often elaborate figures on the ends of pews, smoothed and blurred by centuries of handling - and as many of M R James' stories have an East Anglian setting, this too seemed appropriate. The wonderful Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh was especially in my mind, with its bench ends depicting the seven deadly sins.

It is a story that I remember really enjoying writing and is one that particularly seems to stick in readers' minds.

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.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Climb not



One of the most common questions a writer gets asked is 'Where do you get your ideas from?' Sometimes there is a clear answer to this question and sometimes not. The fact is that writers absorb the same fairly random cocktail of news, stories, movies and so on as everyone else, and have similar trials and tribulations, triumphs and tragedies, in their own personal lives.

The only real difference is that writers are given to dramatising (or over-dramatising) their personal lives and that a writer's reading and viewing may (though not always!) be more selective, with a particular project in mind, and that a writer has the ability to process all this information and make new sense of it. All art (writing, painting, photography, film-making) is about editing. It's as much about what you discard as about what you collect.

I wrote Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror after writing quite a lot of historical fiction (and non-fiction). I wrote historical fiction because that is what I enjoyed writers of historical fiction as a child - Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Leon Garfield and so on. On the face of it the switch to writing horror looks like a change of direction, but that is not strictly true.

In fact many of the books I have written have an element of horror in them. My Tom Marlowe series for Random House - Death and the Arrow, The White Rider and Redwulf's Curse - all have a kind of Gothic aspect to the story. In fact had they been marketed as supernatural thrillers rather than historical adventures, they may have sold more copies. Even in my non-fiction output, I wrote a book called Witch Hunt about the Salem witch trials. I have always had a love of strange tales of one kind or another.

Long before I had anything published for children, I kept notebooks in which I would sketch out the plots of short stories - stories of a macabre bent. I was - and still am - an avid reader of this kind of story. There is a rich tradition of this kind of fiction in the British Isles (although not in any way confined to these shores) and it always felt very natural to me. Some of the stories I mapped out in those notebooks would find themselves in the Tales of Terror series.

Enjoying macabre stories is one thing - writing them is something else. I was determined right from the start that I did not want to write obvious horror - a story in which horror is the punchline. That kind of horror has its place, just as slapstick has its place - but for me it is more satisfying as a cinematic type of horror.

But I still wanted my stories to be scary.

An obvious place to start seemed to be with my own fears. Climb Not - the first story in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - plays on my fear of heights. It would certainly be a nightmare scenario for me, to be at the top of a very high tree and to be pursued with nowhere to go. . .

As I mentioned in my previous post, another inspiration for Climb Not was M R James' story, The Ash Tree. When I wrote Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror we were living in Norfolk and we had a very old ash tree at the back of the house - one that had a mysterious hole in it. The tree had been pollarded and so it's branches did not touch the house, as in M R James' story. Thank goodness.

We were also lucky enough to have a giant elm tree standing over the boundary wall that ran along our drive. Its crown used to shake like a lion's mane and it sounded like the ocean on windy nights. On still nights owls would screech from its branches.

The idea of objects being hammered into the bark came from a half-remembered documentary about this being done in Ireland to ancient, sacred trees. On our recent visit to Wales, we visited Portmeirion and saw trees with coins hammered into the bark. These were clearly not ancient, but it was still fantastic to see.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Uncle M R James



One of the strange things about being a writer is that you end up doing events, talking about a book that is at least a year old. Very soon, I will be going up and down the country promoting The Dead of Winter, a novel I submitted to Bloomsbury in the summer of 2009. I have already submitted the 1st draft of my next novel - Mr Creecher - but that will not be published until October 2011.

This autumn is even more confused because Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror has been chosen for the Booked Up list, as I mentioned in the last post. So, before I get involved in The Dead of Winter, I though I'd talk a little bit about how Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror came about and what inspired the stories therein.


I suppose I should start by talking about M R James, as Uncle Montague is named for Montague Rhodes James. M R James has a strong association with Cambridge, where I know live - he was an undergraduate here, and was Provost of King's College between 1905 and 1918. He is best known for writing a number of classic and very English ghost stories.

But my love of M R James had nothing to do with Cambridge and began many years ago, when I was in my teens. When I first came across his stories, I lived in a large council estate on the west side of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a world far removed from that of M R James and his stories. Added to which, I did not read the stories at all - or at least not at first.

M R James told his ghost stories in his candlelit rooms at Kings as a Christmas Eve treat for friends and favourite students. The BBC decided to give us all a similar treat in the mid 1970s, by adapting M R James' stories for television. I watched Lost Hearts and A Warning to the Curious absolutely spellbound and it was only later that I noticed the name 'M R James' on the credits and sought out his stories in print. Television is not always a terrible influence.

When I thought about having a character telling the creepy tales, it seemed only fitting to make a small acknowledgment to the one of the masters of the genre by having them share a first name. The very first story he tells in my book - Climb Not - was to some extent inspired by M R James' The Ash Tree - one of the stories the BBC adapted.

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror
owes a lot to both M R James and to the BBC adaptations of his stories, but their were many more influences at work. In the next few posts I'll talk about some of those. . .

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Pick me!


It was is son's first day back at school today. He would have started yesterday but we had an additional 'training day' added onto the school holidays and we took advantage by heading off up to Norfolk on what turned out to be a really beautiful day. Many blackberries were picked.

Even though I have not had a break this summer, my writing discipline definitely wavers over the summer. My work schedule tends to revolve around my son's school schedule and when he is on holiday everything seems to go a little fuzzy at the edges.

The beginning of the school year here in the UK is exciting for me this year because I am very pleased to say that Uncle Montague's Tales of Terrors has been included in this year's Booked Up list. As I explained some time ago, Booked Up is a scheme whereby all children beginning their secondary school life at eleven years old, get to choose one free book from a set list - a list that this year includes books by Philip Reeve, Mary Hooper, Alan Gibbons and Michael Rosen, among others.

The website is now up and running so take a look. I mentioned a while back that I had to go in and do a short piece to camera and that the experience had left me feeling drained and miserable for days. I had a chance to look at the film today and though I wasn't embarrassing (which would have been worse, admittedly) I certainly wasn't at the top of my game. I don't look as excited as I should be by my own work. But maybe there's an explanation.

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror is a creepy book. It didn't suit being under those bright studio lights. It is a book that rarely comes out of the shadows. It is a book that would ideally be read in a leather wing-backed arm chair, next to a roaring fire in an isolated cottage with a winter wind blowing rattling the windows.

But perhaps you don't have access to such a location. Never mind. That's OK. Luckily Uncle Montague lives in just such a house and he brings the location with him. All you have to do is snuggle up in the glow of your bedside light (first making sure that the wardrobe door is tightly shut and there is nothing under the bed that shouldn't be there), and read.

If you like scary stories that is. . .