Thursday, 17 March 2011

Deutscher Jugendsliteraturpreis


I am very pleased to announce that the German translation of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - Onkel Montagues Schauergeschichten - has been nominated for the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis. The book is published by Bloomsbury in Germany.

David Roberts and I have been invited to the awards ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. The winners are not announced until then. It will give me a chance to meet my editors over there and hopefully to thank my translator, Beatrice Howeg, who has obviously done a very good job.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Blood

I flew up to Newcastle yesterday to visit my father who is ninety-one this year and is very ill in hospital. My brother, who lives in France, also flew over and we had a very rare lunch together with our sister and her daughter.

We have never been one of those families where siblings are on the phone to each other every day - although that has changed a little recently with my father's illness. I speak to my sister pretty much every week now, although sadly much of our conversation these days seems to centre on hospital visits.

My father was too tired and ill to speak, but he was certainly aware that we were there. He was such a big presence in my early life - often an intimidating, even frightening one at times - that it is strange to see him so weak, so fragile.

My father was the person everyone deferred to in the family. He seemed to know a lot about pretty much everything. Immensely practical, he could fix almost anything and was of that generation where, if your car broke down or you washing machine stopped working, you reached for the toolbox rather than the phone.

My brother arrived in Newcastle ahead of me and was lucky enough to see my father more alert and able to talk. But his condition when we went up together was more typical of the state my sister has found him in on her daily visits. There is more to life than simply being alive and my father, almost immobile, unable to see or hear properly any more, has little way of getting any pleasure from life. It is all very sad.

I flew back to Stansted with my brother and he stayed the night before flying back to France the following day. We spent the morning together just wandering around Cambridge before I drove him to the airport. It was the longest amount of time we'd spent in each others company for some considerable time. And my son was very excited to see his uncle and have a chat before he left for school.

I had a blood test in the morning and the warfarin nurses rang me in the afternoon with the annoying news that my INRs were down again. I was expecting them to tell me to inject myself with clexane again, but they didn't. They did tell me to up my warfarin dose again though.

Diet is a big factor with INRs and I tried to think if I had made any significant changes to mine in the last week. Nothing came to mind, but doing a little research online I came across a warning about drinking green tea, although it says nothing about it in the pack I got from the hospital.

I had green tea after lunch up in Newcastle. Maybe that threw the results out. In a way I hope it did, because that should mean they will go back to normal.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

You can stop injecting yourself now. . .

Yesterday was a good day. I had an early appointment to see my consultant at Addenbrookes. It is amazing to think it is three weeks now since I was there. It was a beautiful, bright clear morning and I drove for the first time since my stroke.

Addenbrookes seems almost designed to make any given part of it seem inaccessible. I suppose it is because the original building has been added to and added to over the years. It is a great labyrinth of a place now - and still growing.

After the uncertainties of the last few weeks - the constantly changing drug regime and the reluctance of my INR to get to the required level - it was good to be back in the reassuring hands of my consultant. He gives off an aura of having seen it all before and this familiarity is a comfort when so much of it seems new and disconcerting to me.

He did an ultrasound scan of my neck to check on how the artery is now. The only time I can recall having anything to do with one of these machines is when my wife was pregnant, but this seemed a much more swanky piece of kit. It was in colour (simulated coulour), for one thing and when my head was tilted that way, I could see vermilion-coloured blood surging through my arteries in steady pulses. Another setting brought the sound of those pulses, not in a drum beat, but in an unearthly THRUPPP-THRUPPP-THRUPP that changed tone and volume as he moved the device across my neck, explaining that though the tear had been in a rather awkward place to get at, he could tell how the artery was getting on by the level of flow elsewhere.

This was a test I had dreaded somewhat. Right at the beginning, the doctors had explained that medication was the preferred treatment, but that surgery was also an option. Although it was not explicitly said, I suspect that had this not gone well - had the artery not been healing itself - surgery would have been back on the agenda. But it all seemed to fine and I was told to come back in five months.

I had a blood test while I was there. The nurse used the little needles with the flexible tube attached that I had been used to in hospital and as then, she had no problem getting the blood out of me. And because I was there so early, the results were in that afternoon.

One of the warfarin nurses rang me to say that my INR was now 2.2. This was the first time I had been over two since I left hospital and this was good for two reasons: I was now at, or at least near, the prescribed level and I no longer had to inject myself with clexane.

This was such fantastic news. I have a black and purple bruise on my stomach about an inch and a half in diameter and a smaller one on the other side of my navel. I was running out of places to put the needle that weren't already bruised.

I just hope that is the last I see of those syringes.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The tour ends

My blog tour comes to an end today with a visit to Book Chick City where I've listed five of my favourite scary books.

It has been a busy week. Despite the fact that I have hardly left my study I feel like I really have been on a tour! I was very sad to miss the World Book Day event yesterday but hear from Philips Reeve and Womack that it went very well. thanks again to Philip Womack for reading my book (and making a very good job of it by all accounts)

I had a giddy day yesterday watching the World Books Day flipbook hurtle up the Amazon listings here in the UK. I should clearly team up with Philip Reeve more often!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

World Book Day reading

The Teacher’s Tales of Terror from WorldBookDay's StoryTimeOnline on Vimeo.

World Book Day!



Today my blog tour arrives at Wondrous Reads. . .

It's World Book Day here in the UK and I ought to be sharing an event with Philip Reeve at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. Sadly, due to my recent illness I thought it best to cancel. Philip Womack is going to stand in for me and will do an excellent job of it I'm sure.

My story for World Book Day is called Teacher's Tales of Terror and tells of a supply teacher coming to a school that is celebrating World Book Day by having a Victorian dressing up day.

Mr Munro


The grim-faced Mr Munro arrives at St Apollonia's like a chill breeze. He is named for H H Munro, who wrote as Saki. After making it clear to the children that he will take no nonsense from them, he opens up a book and begins to tell them a story. . .

The Jet Brooch

The Jet Brooch is set in Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. It is a town I am very fond of. When I was growing up in Newcastle, we went there quite often. My father had sung here in choir festivals as a boy - in the wonderful St Mary's Church, with its interior of boxed pews and balconies and white twisted columns. I can remember lots of family trips there when I was young, and more recent trips with my wife and son, climbing the long flight of stone steps up to the abbey, to the church and to the gravestones, eaten by salt and soot, that are gradually tumbling over the cliffs.

Whitby is a superb location for a story. Bram Stoker spotted that when he stayed there and chose it as the place that Dracula would come ashore. It is famous for the seventh century Synod of Whitby, which resolved a dispute over deciding the date for Easter. It is famous for its whaling industry and two huge whale bones stand above the cliffs like an enormous wishbone topped with a harpoon point. It is also famous for the black stone called jet, so beloved of the morbid Victorians as jewelry. . .


The idea for the particular jet brooch in this story came from the St Hilda's snakestones carved from the fossil ammonites so common on this coast. Hilda was the abbess of Whitby Abbey where the Synod of Whitby was convened and legend has it that she turned a plague of snakes to stones (thereby explaining the ammonites which, though they do look like coiled snakes, are of course fossil shells of a nautilus-like creature).


I conflated this idea with the alchemical idea of the uroboros - a symbol showing a snake or dragon eating its own tail, used to signify eternity or cyclicality.

This tale eats its own tail.


Simon Magus


Simon Magus is a story that I have been playing around with for a very long time. I like the story of Simon Magus being brought to earth by Simon Peter. One version of the story goes that Simon Magus or Simon the Sorcerer had built a wooden tower in the Forum in Rome from which he levitated. Peter called on God to end the sorcery and Simon Magus came crashing to earth, dying later of his injuries. There is a lot more to the rivalry between Simon and Peter of course (mainly to do with the early church and its battle with 'heresies'), but it was this flying story that fascinated me. Pride comes before a fall. . .

The story is set in Sienna and is yet another tale that plays on my fear of heights.


Lydia


Lydia is an unashamed homage to Edgar Allan Poe, who had what can only be described as an obsession with premature burial and the blurring of the lines between sickness, sleep and death.

Lydia opens with Lady Overton brushing her daughter, Eleanor's, long red hair. She is tearfully remembering how, three months earlier, her other daughter (and Elanor's twin) had been lain to rest in the family vault. . .

Anything else I told you would ruin the story I'm afraid.

When the stories are finished, Mr Munro puts his book back in his briefcase and bids the children farewell. He has a rather troubling encounter with the headmistress as he leaves. . .

But again - I think I ought to leave it to you to find out what happens to Mr Munro on his way home.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The new bits


Today my blog tour arrives at Carly Bennett's Writing from the Tub site.

The plan to rejacket the Tales of Terror series had been around for a long time, but last year Bloomsbury came up with the idea of adding a new story. It was a good idea.

So far I have talked about some of the inspirations for the stories in each book, but I have not mentioned the new sections. As the books are now hitting the bookshops, I thought I'd take a look at those added stories today. I'll start with the new edition of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.


The Snow Globe

The Snow Globe sees Edgar return to Uncle Montague's house. Despite the fear induced by his last visit, he feels compelled to return by his addiction to Uncle Montague's stories (perhaps a bit of author wishful thinking going on here!). I enjoy trying to link all the worlds of my books, and after writing my novel The Dead of Winter, I decided to make winter a common theme in all these new sections. Edgar picks up a snow globe with the figure of a skater inside and despite having being warned never to touch anything in the study without permission, he shakes it. . .

Skating

Near where I live in Cambridge is a small enclosed meadow. It is at the start of the busy path to Grantchester and in the summer hundreds of people must walk by without noticing that there is an old cast iron lamp post in the middle of the field.

In days gone by, the field would be flooded in winter. The water would freeze and an ice rink would appear, complete with lamp to light the skaters. It must have looked magical.


There is a tradition of fen skating in this area; a tradition that has been revived recently during the last two hard winters. There is, of course, a famous skating scene in Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden when Tom and Hatty skate along the frozen river to Ely.

All these things contributed in some way to this story, which follows 'willful' Diana Partington as she ignores her mother's advice and goes skating into the middle of the frozen lake to partner a handsome young man she has noticed.

But they are skating on very thin ice.

After the story Edgar finds that he is trapped in the house by a sudden and heavy snow fall. Uncle Montague asks if he would like another story to pass the time. Knowing that each of the objects in the study seems to have its own tale, he asks what the story might be behind the ship - a rather peculiar, black and rotting ship - in a bottle nearby.

Which leads me of course to Tales of Terror from the Black Ship.

Father

Father sees Cathy and Ethan awake from the sleep they fell into at the end of the previous edition of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. They find their father sitting in the room with them. He tells them a story in an effort to try and explain his terrible actions.

The Mermaid

The Mermaid almost appeared in the first edition of Tales of Terror from the Tunnels Mouth - or at least a version of it almost did. Mermaids are usually depicted as beautiful, flaxen haired lovelies with the tails of some dull, unspecified but benign fish. Why?

There are lots of fish in the sea. . .

At the end of the story is a very gentle nod towards James Joyce. I love the last few paragraphs of The Dead and his description of snow falling - 'the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight' and 'softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves,' and his linking of those snow flakes with human souls drifting in the darkness.

I find snow very magical. Most people do, who don't have to cope with too much of it. It has a complex effect on familiar surroundings. It doesn't simply make things feel more pleasant, in the way sunshine does - it changes things utterly. It is beautiful, of course, but it is also dangerous. It can be used for sentimental effect, or for a chilling one.

The snowy world of Narnia was hugely appealing to me and to all the children who read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but of course, the winter represented evil - the grip of the cold-hearted White Witch. The snow that falls on George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life seems belligerent and heartless, as though it is trying to erase him.

I have always loved snow myself - the look of it, the feel of it, the eerie dreamlike silence it brings with it. I love the way it turns adults into children. As a child I used to look up into the clouds as the snow flakes fell towards me, imagining that I was flying up into the sky with the flakes falling past me.

The Rest Cure

The Rest Cure sees Robert, traumatised by his experiences in Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth, spending some time convalescing with his stepmother in a small cottage in East Anglia. He realises he has misjudged his stepmother and is also forced to accept that she does possess some powers of precognition and telepathy. She tells him a story. . .

The Voice

The Voice is one of my favourite stories from the whole collection. It was a story that I worried over for a long time. There are some stories that are completely reliant on the controlled releease of information - this is one of those. It must never feel like that of course. The reader needs to see the swan, not the flapping feet below the water. It has to glide. Right up until the point it rears up and pecks you on the backside.

The snow that is falling throughout these new sections now comes to the cottage. To quote James Joyce again. . .

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

And through this swirling snow, they see a boy walking past. . .

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.

Gerald


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.