Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Tunnel's mouth tales

The blood test shows my INRs still haven't reached 2, let alone the magic 2.5 we are aiming for. So another week (at least) of clexane jabs for me. I am not a happy man.

Life goes on however. My blog tour takes me to Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books today where I am talking about how the Tales of Terror books came about.

And that reminds me that though I went through the first two books outlining the inspirations for the stories, I never did get round to talking Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. I thought I'd put that right today. . .

The Train

I think the idea of setting one of the Tales of Terror books in a railway carriage had been in the back of my mind for a while before I suggested it to Bloomsbury. A big part of the inspiration behind the whole notion of these books was my enjoyment of portmanteau movies. The British production company Amicus made portmanteau movies something of a specialty and one of them - Dr Terror's House of Horror - was set on a train.

The movie stars two of the greats of horror - Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (both of whom were in my mind when I was developing the character of Uncle Montague). Cushing (who I was in awe of as a teenager - that voice, that amazing face) plays a fortune teller - Dr Schreck (German for terror, of course) who gives a tarot reading to each of the occupants of a railway carriage. I haven't seen the movie since my teens and looking at the plot summary online, I was taken aback to find that one of the tales features murderous plants and another is set on a Scottish island. . .

The Glasshouse

There is something creepy about Victorian palm houses. It's something to do with the soporific stuffiness and the slightly obscene exuberance of the plants. Some stories came out of my decision to set the tales in the Victorian era - this is one of those. But it also came from my love of John Wyndham who, lets face it, is the king of dangerous plants.

But actually Saki was in my mind most of all. If M R James was the touchstone for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and Poe for Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, I think Saki was to the fore in this volume.

The Island

I was thinking particularly of Wiltshire when I was writing this story. Travelling down the A303 to Somerset, where my mother-in-law lives, there is a point beyond Stone Henge where there seems to be a barrow every few yards. I was thinking of one of those huge fields that you get there - and in East Anglia for that matter - where some small piece of land has been left unploughed and untouched. The tractors and harvesters go round and round these islands like rakes round a boulder in a zen garden. How long have they been there? What might be secreted in those copses and spinneys?

A New Governess

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James - or more correctly, the movie version directed by Jack Clayton as The Innocents - has always been in the back of my mind (as an an exemplar of the kind of mood I'm aiming at most of the time) when writing these stories, but A New Governess draws on that work more explicitly than the rest.

The Little People

I was not very amused when I went to see Hellboy II: The Golden Army at the cinema and saw that my idea for unfriendly fairies was not unique. But what idea is? The setting is very different of course. I wanted to have some fun with that airy-fairy Pre-Raphaelite silliness of the period.

The Crotach Stone

The first holiday I went on with my wife - though she wasn't my wife then - was to the Outer Hebrides via the Isle of Skye. We stayed in a tin-roofed bungalow on Harris on the shores of Loch Seaforth and had an amazing time. It has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The beaches of Harris are stunning and few are better than the one at Scarista. The Scarista Stone, which stands on the dunes there, was the inspiration for the Crotach Stone.


Puppets are inherently creepy. Actually anything with a painted face - puppets, clowns, mannequins, dolls. We need to trust the expression on a face and we are disturbed when that expression does not move, or may hide a very different one. I had already picked at this phobia with The Un-Door in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. This is a kind of odd spin on the voodoo doll idea.

Sister Veronica

Mad nuns? Well - I suppose Powell & Pressburger's Black Narcissus played its part. But I think this story actually came from a different direction. We had a few holidays in Italy when my son was young. Many friends at the time said that their children would never go to art galleries or museums or into old churches and cathedrals, but we were determined that we would at least try and enthuse him before giving up.

So when we went into a cathedral we would look at the carved animals and the wall paintings. He was fascinated by the idea of reliquaries - those treasure troves of jewel-encrusted vessels for holding pieces of the true cross or the finger bone of St Peter. Sometimes, in a side chapel there might even be the whole body under the altar.

I showed my son how different artists had depicted the same bible scenes over and over again through the ages and how a visual shorthand had developed so that the viewer could easily identify a given character and story. Mary wore blue, Peter wore yellow and held keys, John the Baptist wore a hair shirt and pointed to heaven. And so on, and so on. We would go on a search for saints.

Some saints were recognisable by the method of their martyrdom. St Lucy with her eyes on a platter, St Bartholomew carrying his own flayed skin, St Peter Martyr with a knife sticking out of his head. What child isn't going to be fascinated by that kind of stuff?

And how did I know about any of this? Well - partly because I took Gothic Architecture as part of my Art A Level and developed a bit of a passion for churches, partly because I know a little bit about religious art, but mainly because of a book called Signs and Symbols in Christian Art by George Ferguson. The reproductions are all poor quality, in black and white, and one of them is a grainy rendering of a painting attributed to an assistant of Piero della Francesca. It is of an unpleasant-looking St Apollonia standing holding a pair of pincers. The seed of the story took hold when I first saw that picture.

The Whispering Boy

I have no idea where this story came from, other than from my own fervent dislike of flies. When we lived in Norfolk we were plagued by them at certain points in the year. Working in the garden would attract flies immediately, buzzing round, horribly thirsty for sweat. But far worse were the cluster flies that would erupt from the attic and gather in their hundreds at the windows. My son had the loft hatch in his bedroom and we had to seal the gaps around it with masking tape or his room would fill with these revolting creatures. I hate flies. I. Hate. Flies.

But having said that, I think this may be my favourite story in the whole series.

A Crack in the Wall

There are many cliches in horror movies and one of them is the image of someone peering through a hole in a wall or door. Sometimes eyes move in a painting comic horror effect. The photo shows Anthony Perkins as voyeur in Psycho. Here the threat comes from the watcher. But there is also something scary about putting your eye so close to a crack or hole that you can feel your lashes brush against the surface on either side. You are fearful of what you might see, but you can't stop yourself from looking.

The Tunnel's Mouth

I have praised Lawrence Gordon's Clark's 1970s M R James adaptations many times on this blog, but actually Lawrence's finest work for the BBC's Ghost Story at Christmas strand was arguably his 1976 adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Signalman.

I have very self-consciously made off with the set of The Signalman. There is no actual signal box in my story, but the steep-sided railway cutting leading to a tunnel is a direct lift from Dickens.

Having said that, the line that Robert travels on is a version of the line between King's Lynn and London's King's Cross - a route I travelled at least once a week for much of the time I lived in Norfolk. Between Cambridge and London, there are long tunnels - and it was here that I imagined that Robert's train had come to a halt.

As for Robert's back story, a part of that certainly came from this creepy 1970s public information film voiced by Donald Pleasance.


  1. Fascinating...did we watch The Tenant in the Lake District and scare ourselves silly? Was that you? The eye peering out of the bandages was horrifying as was the hair in the wall.
    Alex D.

  2. Ooooh, The Tenant. That's a weird and unsettling movie. We may have watched it in the Lakes. Can't really remember, Alex. I've got it on DVD somewhere. Must watch it again. Repulsion too. That's horrible. Polanski knows about creating nightmares that's for sure.

  3. Sorry to hear the jabs continue, but good luck with the blog book tour. And many thanks for posting The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. So great to see it again.

  4. It's great isn't it? Thanks for the sympathy. It all helps!

  5. I was a child in the '70s, but as an American, I'd never seen "The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water." It would have terrified and fascinated me if I had! It's fantastic! I have recently discovered and obsessively read "Uncle Montague..." and "...Black Ship." I can't wait to read "...Tunnel's Mouth." I have it, but I'm rather hoarding it up, anticipating it...I love these stories!

  6. Thank you so much for that. Hope you enjoy Tunnel's Mouth when you do get round to reading it. And the clip is great isn't it? So much weirder than it needed to be. I remember finding it scary and fascinating in equal measure.