Sometimes, a seemingly innocuous object found in an unusual
place can spark an equally unusual train of thought that leads to the creation
of something quite unexpected. Thus it was that a year ago I happened to be
holidaying in France in a rather idyllic gîte that had retained a number of its
original features. One of these was its bread oven, which had long ago ceased
to be used for its intended purpose, and now remained solely as an object of
decoration. Whereas I was content to leave it be and pay it but the most
cursory attention, my wife, imbued with a Pandora-like curiosity, insisted upon
easing the grille from its mouth and looking within. Thankfully, although this
action did not unleash a stream of untold horrors upon us, it, and what was
inside – a handful of aged curios which included this pair of old boots – did
unleash the imagination.
We challenged each other to come up with an idea for a story based upon the oven and its contents, and having mulled this over for half an hour or so, we discussed our ideas, which although both taking the supernatural as a central theme, were quite divergent in both their tone and subject matter. It was mine that proved to be the grimmer of the two, and this is what has lately come to fruition in my novelette entitled – perhaps unsurprisingly – The Bread Oven.
Although our accommodation last year happened to be in
Normandy, the story was transplanted to neighbouring Brittany, from which it
takes certain additional elements. Whereas it is a relatively modest piece in
terms of its length, it had to wait until last week to see the light of day, as
I’ve been busy with other writing projects in the interim. I’d originally
intended to publish it later this year, but interruptions to the composition of
my next novel led me to pause and publish this shorter piece first.
The Bread Oven is a contemporary tale, in which the past nonetheless looms large. In part ghost story, in part something else altogether, its opening may contain hints of the strangeness to come, but in all respects otherwise resembles the normal everyday world which we all inhabit. To give away any more would risk spoiling the story, so without further ado I invite you, should you dare, to enter the world of The Bread Oven.
Ghosts are, as a rule,
conservative creatures that do not tend to wander much beyond their favoured
haunts. That they are also, at least in literature and the traditional ghost
story, bound to return to our plane with some form of purpose, to re-enact some
past trauma, or to seek retribution, or some form of restitution, is a given.
On occasion, however, the ghost may venture further abroad, and such is the
case in this tale, where the protagonist finds that a certain presence
manifests itself at a far remove from where it was originally encountered.
In this novella, Hill leads us on an excursion into the contemporary gothic, where secrets, the supernatural, and psychological repression converge within the confines of an idyllic English country garden. It is a literary tale with a literary theme, where an antiquarian book dealer’s quest for a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio becomes entwined with a deep self-questioning and sense of doubt, arising from a sequence of vivid impressions that he is unable to explain with any rational lucidity. The chill follows the protagonist from the Downs to loftier heights amidst the mountains of France, where a monastic setting provides an additional soupçon of the gothic. There may be others who possess an insight into the state in which he finds himself, but any such revelations you must discover for yourself.
This is an enjoyable read that I found more to my taste than Hill’s Printer’s Devil Court. Rather than focusing upon ‘jump scares’, as seems to be much the fashion these days, this novella focused upon creating a general ambience of unease, which is a technique that I, personally, find far more satisfying.
The Small Hand by Susan Hill may be previewed and purchased by clicking here.
It is, perhaps, not so serendipitous that the reading matter for the M.R. James Ghost Stories Discussion Group this Valentine’s Day should happen to be the second of James’s stories, Lost Hearts. However, the reader would be very much mistaken if they happened to take this for a romance of some sort, for it is anything but.
As with a number of James’s works,
this tale unfolds within the atmospheric confines of an isolated country house
of a ‘modest’ grandeur, with its cast of characters limited to its proprietor,
the eccentric Mr Abney, his two servants, and a new arrival, his recently
orphaned and much younger cousin, Stephen Elliott. At first, Mr Abney would
appear to be a kindly gentleman of an esoteric scholarly bent, a confirmed
bachelor who is now rather advanced in years, but as time passes, it becomes
apparent that his concern for the welfare of his young cousin is not quite as
disinterested as it might at first have appeared.
Strange and disquieting nocturnal
visions and impressions are deftly conveyed by James’s pen, conjuring up a
frisson of unease that does not dissipate until the final scene. The servants
seem to know a little more than they let on, but it is when young Master Elliott
listens to the recollections of Mrs Bunch concerning two other children who had
taken up but a temporary residence at
Aswarby Hall, that the significance of these spiritual visitations begins to
become apparent. A reek of the sinister hangs about the place, in the form of the
Gnostic beliefs, hermetic magic and ritual practised by Mr Abney. A glass of
wine set aside for the vernal equinox is not, it would appear, a mere innocent
libation in celebration of the turning of the seasons.
Lost Hearts was adapted for television by the BBC in 1973, with its version faithfully adhering to the text, although it deviates in one or two respects to make clear some elements of the story set at night that would not have otherwise been easy to convey on-screen. It is an atmospheric piece, enhanced by its use of music, including that of the hurdy-gurdy. Sadly, the actor who played young Master Elliott was to meet a tragic end at an early age, for Simon Gipps-Kent was found dead of morphine poisoning at the age of 28 in September 1987.
Lost Hearts is included in the Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James, published in a Wordsworth edition for the bargain price of £2.99. It’s one of my favourite volumes.
Having just read The Crow Garden, an enchanted brew of mesmerism, madness and the parting of the veil, I am left pondering the following question: is Alison Littlewood the new Queen of the Yorkshire Gothic? Could Kate Bush one day find herself penning, and performing, another wild and windy Yorkshire ditty by way of tribute? We shall have to see. One thing, however, is for certain: the author has found her forte in the world of the Victorian Gothic.
In mood and tone, this novel shares much in common with Littlewood’s previous book, The Hidden People, in which another young male London protagonist finds himself lost amongst the darkness of rural Yorkshire. This time, however, the young Victorian gentleman in question does not quite find himself away with the fairies, although he too is possessed of an equally powerful, and destructive, idée fixe. Also, as with The Hidden People, the figure of an alluring and yet unobtainable woman stands at the heart of this story. She is an enigma, and she not only holds Nathaniel Kerner in her thrall, but the reader too.
Séances, abduction, mesmerism and hysteria make for a heady concoction, served up in a dense descriptive prose, very much in keeping with the time in which the novel is set: the 1850s. It is something to be savoured, rather than rushed, but if a pacey read should be what you’re looking for, this is not a book for you. There is a certain sickening twist near the end of this tale which made me almost wish to gag. I really didn’t see it coming.
I shall say no more, for to do so
would risk spoiling the shocks, and surprises, that lie within. The question
is, will you dare take a step inside the doors of Crakethorne Asylum? Doctor
Chettle awaits, with his calipers and a curious gaze. Has no one previously
made mention of what a fascinating skull you possess?
In this slim volume, the reader encounters five tales centred upon the Royalist Siege of Gloucester in 1643. Each is narrated by the author’s roguish character, Sir Blandford Candy, who provides the reader with insights into life both within the besieged city, and without. Notable historical personages make an appearance – Charles I, Sir William Davenant, and Colonel Edward Massey – as well as plausible sundry ordinary folk, such as a couple of gravediggers, trying to go about their everyday business in far from everyday circumstances. Evans thus paints with a varied palette, vividly transporting the reader into the miserable and dangerous reality of the time, but not without a certain admixture of wit.
The author has researched the history underpinning the siege well, which helps lend an authenticity to his stories, and out of the five, it would have to be The Gravediggers, with its slow-witted and yet noble Haystack that proves to be the most moving. However, it is in the last tale – The Red Regiment – that we finally hear Candy speak in his own voice, and what a scurrilous and appealing voice it is. It contains one of the most memorable images encountered within the book’s virtual pages, in which Candy voids the contents of his bowels in a field, before wiping his arse on pages torn from a book of psalms and prayers. In the trilogy of novels associated with this collection, it is Candy who speaks to the reader in the first person, and from what little I have so far read of its first instalment – The Last Roundhead– his irascible and witheringly witty voice comes across as a strongly appealing one, suggesting that the novels make for a more satisfying read. There might lurk within, just the slightest smidgen of Smollett, and that’s no bad thing.
To dip into the tale of another seventeenth-century rogue by the name of Robert Tooley, click here.
Although I saw the film adaptation of The Crucible upon its release over twenty years’ ago, I have never seen it performed on stage, and it is only during this past week that I finally got around to reading a copy of its script. Whereas many now read this piece in school, it was not on the curriculum all those aeons ago when I studied O Level English, but as a piece of vintage Americana, I certainly preferred this creation of Miller’s to what we had to read at the time: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Miller’s script is powerful, and
taut, with the language of its characters providing a plausible facsimile of
the forms of English that would have been spoken in late seventeenth-century
New England. It succeeds in generating an atmosphere that is suffused with
religious mania, sexual tension and bitter personal rivalries, with the tenor
and pace of the play being such, that the reader is left feeling emotionally
drained at its conclusion.
The Crucible is quite rightly lauded as a classic for its portrayal of a tightly-knit community in the grip of religiously-inspired hysteria, but although it is closely based upon the historical witch-hunt and trials that took place in Salem Massachusetts in 1692, Miller made it clear from the outset that this work was intended to possess a wider political resonance. His specific intent was to draw parallels with the paranoia of McCarthyism that then held its malign sway over much of US society, with its frenzied hunt for Reds under seemingly every bed. But these observations were not intended to be restricted to the parochial political situation in America in the early years of the Cold War, for they are applicable to any society in which the maintenance of the social order rests upon a framework of values that has at its core a definable ‘other’ against which it defines itself. Thus Miller noted that both the countries of the Communist bloc and capitalist America, possessed opposing contemporary forms of ‘diabolism’, in which citizens in both societies were enjoined to search for signs of the demonic other. In either social system, the simple act of naming, and then accusing, the alleged deviant – Communist or Capitalist – could be enough to destroy the reputation, and livelihood, of the accused. Accusation proved guilt.
Alas, as you might well observe, the situation today is in many regards but little changed, for although the demonological discourses may now run in different channels, employing different labels and expressing different preferences, the psychological and social mechanisms at play remain essentially unaltered. The ‘righteous’ perceive that the world is out of joint with their ideology, and they then seek to change it so that it is brought into conformity. This they attempt to achieve by hunting for those whom they deem to be impure, following the well-trodden path of select, name, stigmatise, accuse, judge and destroy. In America in particular, and to a lesser extent in the UK, a debased and perverted form of liberalism now reigns, which is anything but liberal, characterised by a pathological obsession with identity politics and collective group ‘rights’, rather than the rights of the individual. There is a great crying out for all to join in the chorus of the ‘righteous’, whatever cause they may espouse at a given time, and if anyone does not do so, they are immediately placed under suspicion, for the ‘righteous’ see in this reticence a sign of their diabolical complicity.
And so, we have yet I am afraid,
to break free of the mentality of Salem, for all too often, accusation is taken
to be synonymous with guilt. We have need of greater scepticism, rather than of
Dear reader, might I recommend the services of the good Doctor Mortimer as a companionable guide to the highways and byways of life in Restoration England, with occasional, albeit brief, remarks upon the lives of the North Britons, who pride themselves upon the name of Scots. From the life of the meanest peasant to that of the most urbane and profligate rake, you will find yourself witness to the pleasures, and pains, of our forebears, as they throw off the restraints of those dismal and earnest years of Old Noll, and the Commonwealth. From the squalor and superstition of the old world, we see the glimmerings of a new and more rational age, ushered in by the gentlemen of the Royal Society, and the efforts of architects in the wake of the Great Fire. Fewer crones in their dribbling dotage now find themselves prosecuted and hanged for witchcraft, but still other women find themselves consigned to the flames for the petty treason of dispensing with an abusive husband. The law must be seen to be done, and so the highwayman sways in his creaking gibbet, and the corpse of the pirate hangs tarred on the shores of the Thames; many a thief must hang, or be indentured to the West Indies, and the heads and quarters of traitors may find a public resting place upon a spike, or nailed up somewhere for the edification of the populace.
It is an age of tumult and colour, of enlightened discovery and casual cruelty, rendered in a deft and engaging manner, channelling the observations of Pepys, Evelyn, Fiennes, and others, to transport the reader into an everyday world that we can never directly know. The impressions are vivid, and the details striking, with the consequence that this volume is a delight for any reader who possesses an interest in social history, or this particular period in time. It is also, undoubtedly, a boon for authors of historical fiction. There are details here which will in turn surprise, delight, and disgust, and sometimes all three. Ladies, might you not consider the benefits of puppy water?
Old St Paul’s Cathedral stands at the centre of this complex historical murder mystery that vividly transports the reader to the London of the Great Fire and its immediate aftermath. Its first chapter literally – pardon the pun – crackles, as the old edifice is reduced to ruins and ashes amidst the roaring of the flames. This is where the novel’s dual protagonists – James Marwood and Catherine Lovett – encounter each other for the first time, and not for the last. It is a novel that plays with identities, real and assumed, weaving fictional characters into the lives of historical personages, with deception and subterfuge at its heart. Rape, murder, greed and religious fanaticism are given free rein to wreak their bloody work, whilst the spectre of the Fifth Monarchists stalks the world of Restoration London.
Both Marwood and Lovett have familial
skeletons in the cupboard that leave them vulnerable to manipulation from
without, and the reader’s sympathy is engaged as they attempt to find a place
in the world for themselves whilst being employed as tools in the stratagems of
others. Catherine Lovett makes for an unusual female lead, being possessed of a
taste for architectural drawing, but proving to be as free and easy with the
knife, as she is deft with the pen.
The book is lengthy, but the shortness of the chapters and the pace of the prose ensures that the reader’s attention is not lost. It is likely, however, to appeal more to readers of historical fiction than to those with a taste purely for crime and mystery, and although I have seen comparisons drawn between this volume and the works of C.J. Sansom, I must say that I prefer this one. That said, that may, at least in part, be down to my personal preference for the world of Restoration England over its Tudor equivalent, a preference expressed in my forthcoming novel The Gwennel Girl: A Cornish Mystery (to be notified of its discounted release, please click here to sign up to my mailing list).
This is the second volume that I’ve read devoted specifically to the subject of writing historical fiction, and it is the better of the two by far. It provides a good practical nuts and bolts approach to the crafting of stories in this most demanding of loose and baggy genres, focusing primarily upon the novel. If exercises should be your thing, then Darwin provides plenty of them peppered throughout the text to get your creative juices flowing. Her lengthy experience as both a tutor of creative writing and a novelist truly shows through here, and whereas some other books I’ve read on the practice of writing tend to contain a fair amount of waffle, this one doesn’t. It is packed with useful suggestions, and would likely be useful to anyone looking to write in a different genre.
One of the many things that I liked about this book was that
it cautioned against the slavish following of advice dished out by any one
author, as every writer has their own stylistic bent, and what is ‘right’ for a
predominantly American readership might grate with some UK readers and vice
versa. Every author has to find their own individual voice, as well as their
readership, with the latter being one of the hardest tasks of all, not least
because of genre constraints and expectations. Darwin touches upon several of
the subgenres of historical fiction such as adventure and thriller, crime and
mystery, and comedy to name but three, but alas she does not touch upon my own:
the rather idiosyncratic combination of ‘horror’, historical fiction, and, more
often than not, comedy.
As with every book I have read on writing and publishing, she emphasises the importance of submitting your manuscript to professionals in the sphere of copy editing and proofreading, although her text in the final two chapters provides ineloquent testimony to their fallibility in the form of a considerable number of typos, as well as a completely mangled and nonsensical sentence.
As we enter another festive
season here in the UK, typically characterised by darkness, rain, drizzle and a
general sogginess that extends beyond the obligatory serving of overcooked
sprouts, our thoughts often turn to visions of a land mantled in crisp snow
held in the grip of a harsh frost. Sprouts, for some reason, seldom feature in
this wintry idyll, possibly because Dickens thought it too cruel to inflict the
windy pleasures of this diminutive brassica upon even so poor a family as the
Cratchets. It is therefore to fiction that we habitually turn to seek the
‘true’ atmosphere of Christmas that the British climate so obdurately denies
us. More often than not, the sought-after shivers are thus supplied not by the
weather, but by means of the ghost story which, unlike in America, is more
closely associated with yuletide than with Halloween. It would seem to be
Dickens himself who is to a considerable extent responsible for this
association, for A Christmas Carol is
by far the most well-known and popular Christmas story if we discount the
Nativity itself, and perhaps manages to encapsulate the essence of the Christian
message more effectively than the four Gospels combined.
The BBC has over the years helped
to popularise the association of the ghost story with Christmas, adapting a
number of the masterful works of M.R. James for the small screen, as well as Dickens’s
The Signalman which remains one of my
favourite adaptations to this day. As for the James stories, the two screen versions
that I find most satisfying would probably be A Warning to the Curious and The
Stalls of Barchester. When I first saw these, at rather a tender age, they
made quite an impression on me, and have remained lodged in the darkened
recesses of my imagination ever since. There they lurked for the span of four
decades, quietly fermenting and bubbling away, providing part of that creative
mulch that would prompt me to try my hand at penning a few ghost stories of my
own which, so it happened, have often clustered around this darkest time of the
Lionel Smallwood, the snobbish
and dismissive theatre critic who encounters his nemesis in the Minster of
Grimstone Peverell, would not have been out of place amongst the members of the
Critics’ Circle who meet their cruel and bloody fates at the hands of a
vengeful Edward Lionheart, played by Vincent Price in his magnificently
over-the-top comedy horror Theatre of
Blood released in 1973. That said, it is not some aggrieved actor who
proves to be Smallwood’s nemesis, but a mysterious guide named Agnes, who seems
to be something of a fixture whenever the Christmas market returns to her small
Dorset town, and the scent of mulled wine wafts about the market square.
A pair of Gothic tales, that in
part seek to channel the spirit of Wilkie Collins, also possess key scenes that
unfold over the Christmas period. The first of these linked stories – At Fall of Night – happens to open at
the close of 1843, the same year in which A
Christmas Carol was published, but unlike Dickens’s tale fails to provide
any message of hopeful redemption. It will have the ladies gasping for breath,
unfastening their corsets, and reaching for the smelling salts. Its follow-up –
Epona – possesses a climactic scene
involving the wild riot of the chase in a Boxing Day hunt, at which the
eponymous spirit makes a dramatic appearance in a moment of vengeful triumph.
The next brace of related stories
– Old Crotchet and its sequel Old Crotchet’s Return – possesses as its
supernatural setting a venerable and yet modest country pile in the county of
Somerset during the 1920s. The focus of the events that unfold is the now
largely forgotten highpoint of the Christmas season: Twelfth Night, or more
specifically Old Twelfth Night. Although the tone here encountered is much
lighter than that found in some of my other pieces, there are chills to be had
courtesy of a couple of spirits, both residents of Hinton St Cuthbert Manor
these last few centuries past. At least two female guests have found a certain
bedchamber more rewarding than they could possibly have expected, whereas the
other spirit, who views the house very much as her own, takes a distinct
dislike to any young lady who might cross the threshold of her domain.
I shall now close by wishing you
the most merry of Christmases, and a happy New Year. If you should be in the
mood to read a tale or two from amongst those mentioned above, I hope that they
should afford you a few shivers, as well as a few laughs along the way in many
Agnes of Grimstone Peverell and Old Crotchet are included in the collection Anthology: Wry Out West, available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.