Harris’s fast-paced novel of life, and mass death, in Pompeii during the final days of its existence in AD 79, manages to create an evocative picture of first-century Roman society, in all of its opulence, corruption and squalor. His protagonist – Marcus Attilius Primus – has been sent to the nearby city of Misenum to act as the replacement for his missing predecessor, Exomnius, who was responsible for maintaining the Aqua Augusta, the mighty aqueduct which supplies the region with its water. The solving of the mystery of Exomnius’s disappearance is played out against the lead-up to, and climax of, the Vesuvian eruption, with the latter being described in vivid, and convincing, detail.
It is within the interplay between Attilius and his nemesis, Ampliatus, a sadistic, nouveau-riche, former slave turned regional plutocrat, that the primary drama of the book inheres, and it is in the portrayal of the pursuit, and abuse, of power and wealth that Harris exceeds. Ampliatus proves to be a compellingly repulsive character, an embodiment of the worst in Roman society, whereas Attilius serves as his principled foil. The reality of city politics is portrayed in a manner that is at once, depressingly, recognisable. Harris also provides us with a glimpse of the character of Pliny the Elder, who perished in the tragedy, courtesy of the notes regarding the eruption compiled by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. It is to the latter, of course, to whom we owe our knowledge of what unfolded in Pompeii during that fateful August, with his gift to posterity being honoured by the use of the adjective ‘Plinian’ in categorising the type of eruption observed at Vesuvius.
Harris’s research shows in the convincing detail that he deploys, which is woven into the warp and weft of the tale without being ostentatiously, and incongruously, displayed for the sake of ‘showing off’. The alien world of ancient Rome is thereby rendered almost familiar, despite the attitudinal, and philosophical, differences that framed the worldview of Roman citizens in this distant age. An enjoyable read which I finished surprisingly quickly.
Previously published as standalone pieces in my West Country Tales series, this anthology gathers together five twisted tales of the uncanny that venture beyond the mere ‘funny peculiar’, into the realms of black comedy and satire. From the acid-fried occult oddity of Gwydion’s Dawn, to the bizarre rites of a seventeenth-century cunning man in The Cleft Owl; the psychological horror of 3:05 am, to the vengeful fury of a woman of more than 300 years of age in Old Crotchet, nothing will unsettle the reader more than the playful malignancy of the guide in Agnes of Grimstone Peverell. It would seem that in this much-loved and familiar region of rural England, it is not difficult to unwittingly unleash unseen forces which render it both hostile, and dangerous (and in writing this I am not referring to the effects of imbibing excessive quantities of scrumpy, although that can, of course, have the self-same effect).
The ‘horror’ that you will encounter within is of the understated English variety; it is often implied and psychological, rather than being of the type favoured by the exponents of the ‘slasher’ genre. There is also – with the exception of The Cleft Owl – as much humour as there is terror.
Whereas these tales are unconstrained by the bounds of any single genre, amongst their number you will find plenty to engage your attention should you possess a taste for mysteries, the paranormal, ghost stories, the occult, psychological horror and historical fiction, as well as, of course, satire.
To view a sample, or to purchase, please click on the image above. Free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
All being well, an anthology of my tales entitled ‘Wry Out West’ should be published and available for purchase by the end of next week – Friday 28th April. All that remains to be done is for me to tweak the cover artwork a little, and to finish formatting the text. Unlike the novelettes and novellas that I have thus far published in Kindle ebook format, this collection will also be available as a paperback.
‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ is omitted from this collection merely on grounds of length, and will eventually become available in hard copy as part of a future anthology, but that may be a year to eighteen months away, owing to my next priority being the completion of a novel that I have been working on this past two years. It will likely be bundled with the forthcoming tales: ‘Upon Barden Moor’ (currently scheduled for publication in October) and ‘With These Hands’, with the latter being intended for a pre-Christmas release this year. Whereas the last of these tales will unfold on Dartmoor, ‘Upon Barden Moor’ is set in the Yorkshire Dales, marking a geographical departure from the West Country.
I will post a cover preview for the anthology here early next week. The Kindle version will be priced at £2.99, but the price of the paperback has yet to be set. Once I am fully apprised of the printing costs, I will update readers here.
We find ourselves in Widecombe, Dartmoor, in the late autumn of 1683. Dr Robert Tooley – wise man, conjuror and confidence trickster – takes in hand the fortunes of a vulnerable family, as the harshest winter of the century is about to take the parish in its grip. Through his bizarre rites, paid for with their money, he has promised to deliver them from the reach of their tormenter, but the man in question happens to be dead. The gullible villagers, however, entrust their faith to his occult practices, at least for a time.
Based upon a little-known and strange case, a number of the characters here portrayed – Tooley, the Reverend Tickle and the Worshipful Sir William Bastard – all lived and played a role in the life of this late seventeenth-century community, although it should be noted that the words written here are a loose work of fiction.Inspired by an incident related in Keith Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic.’ To read a sample, or to purchase for 99p, click the image above.
One thorny challenge for the writer of historical fiction is how to capture and convey the language of a particular time and place in history, or indeed, whether to bother at all. To what extent should an author seek to reproduce past patterns and modes of speech, bearing in mind that they should be comprehensible and engaging for the modern reader?
This has prompted much discussion over the years, particularly with respect to the language of Shakespearian English, for it is striking to any speaker of English today that many of his sonnets do not rhyme, and his comedy is often desperately short on laughs. Why should this be so? It would seem that this is largely down to shifts in the spoken form of the language, and the following discussion of how it has changed – featuring examples of lines from Shakespeare rendered in both Received Pronunciation and ‘Original Pronunciation’ – is both illuminating and entertaining. There is an earthy rusticity to Shakespeare’s language in its originally accented form that is missing from its contemporary delivery which greatly enhances its comprehensibility, restoring missing rhymes and puns. It’s well worth listening to: http://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/10/31/listen-shakespeare-sounded-original-pronunciation/
Whilst I have been busy working upon ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ over the past month, I have also been writing ‘The Cleft Owl’, which is a markedly different piece in terms of mood, style and setting; altogether much darker. It is a tale of the occult based upon fragmentary evidence relating to real events that took place in seventeenth-century Widecombe-in-the-Moor, weaving together both historical personages and fictional characters. Few know of the events upon which this story is based, events which readers will doubtless find both bizarre and disturbing.
So, without further ado, I present you with a preview of the cover for ‘The Cleft Owl’, a tale of mystery and occult deception, which opens in November 1683, and will be published in February 2017.
With prose pedestrian and dialogue stilted, is it any wonder that my attention wilted?
By the time that I had read thirty or so pages of this book, I had a hunch that getting through it was going to be something of a slog. For the first 220 pages or so, it read like a second draft rather than a polished final product, but to be fair, Sansom thereafter made some effort at fleshing out the rather two-dimensional characters thus far encountered. As this was his first novel, I will be charitable and own that he must have been learning his craft as he went, but there were a number of features of this novel that jarred, including the manner in which the author crowbarred his twenty-first-century preoccupations and outlook into the world of Reformation England.
Yes, the protagonist Matthew Shardlake may not have been ‘shaped for sportive tricks’, but just how many times did the author need to hammer home the fact that he shared his defining trait with old Crookback himself? It was monotonous. Moreover, beyond the dominating presence of the hump, Shardlake appeared to possess little to distinguish himself from the other underdeveloped characters who populated this work, other than a seeming compulsion to explain the obvious to his younger sidekick. The presence of the latter appears to have been engineered as a clumsy device for explaining aspects of everyday life in Tudor England to the historically unaware reader. Why otherwise, for example, would Shardlake have found it necessary to explain to Mark Poer the significance of All Hallows Eve? Given that church attendance was compulsory during this period and Poer was part of this society and no suckling babe, he would have fully understood what it meant, as well as have been conversant with the customs and rituals observed on this day.
As for the idealisation of Brother Guy, the blameless, persecuted Moor, and the soon-to-be ‘mud-coloured ex-monk’ befriended by Shardlake, there could be no clearer illustration of anachronistic attitudes being shoehorned into Henrician England. Anachronism also occasionally slipped into the dialogue, with the use of the term ‘pressure point’ making me wince; clumsy evidence of this being an unpolished draft, rather than a finished product. Although I have been reassured that further books in this series are better written, I am not sure that I will read anything else by Sansom, for his style did not grab me, po-faced and humourless as it was. If, however, you are looking for a novel in which a Tudor hunchbacked lawyer endowed with twenty-first-sensibilities finds himself hanging on to a clanging bell in a monastery bell tower, then this is the book for you.
‘Write what you know’ is one of the cardinal commandments that hangs over the heads of aspirant authors, and if taken too literally, could be fatally crippling to the imagination, particularly with respect to the venture of writing historical fiction, for what do you, I, or anyone else living today, know of, for example, the nineteenth century? Nothing, in terms of direct experience of course. That said, there is still a great deal that we can ‘know’, should we care to take the trouble to find out, and it is this process of investigation, this uncovering and reconstruction of worlds long since lost, that makes the writing of this particular type of fiction doubly rewarding, if your interests happen to incline in this direction.
We can never fully immerse ourselves in first-century Rome, fifth-century Gaul, the Russia of Peter the Great, or seventeenth-century England, but neither can we truly know what it is like to have grown up in a country, or culture, of which we have no direct first-hand experience; the nature of the author’s abstraction from a particular context – whether it be geographical, cultural, temporal, or a combination of all three – is only a matter of degree. The interposition of time serves to make this exercise of ‘retrieving’ or ‘recreating’ human experience more difficult, but not impossible, and it is important to recall at this point that the author is creating a work of fiction, rather than a history. The author of historical fiction seeks to create characters, scenarios and behaviours that are historically plausible, rather than necessarily entirely accurate. The primary challenge could be said to be that of producing a work that is both authentic to its period, yet engaging for the contemporary reader, given the transformations in attitudes and beliefs that have occurred over the centuries and millennia that might render the reader unsympathetic to the characters depicted. One thing, however, appears to remain constant across the ages: the foibles of human character.
There are many ways in which we can access past experience and the worldviews that bounded the horizons of our ancestors, the most obvious of these being the use of contemporaneous written sources in the form of books, letters, official documents and archives. These do, however, possess their limitations, particularly as we travel further back in time, for within a couple of centuries we already arrive at a point when only a minority of the population was literate, resulting in a narrowing of perspective that becomes increasingly filtered through the attitudes and preoccupations of elites. Thus, although seventeenth-century England was a relatively literate society by historical standards, the level of literacy varied greatly between class, gender and region, and whereas we are at this point able to directly access the written reflections of the upper classes and many of the middling sort of folk – particularly of men – the voices of the lower orders of society and women are largely lost to us.
There are also the material remains of the past, some of which survive in something approximating their original form, and others which have been updated or repurposed. Architecture, monuments, the visual arts, furniture, personal effects and costume, even the landscape itself, all provide sources of information and inspiration relating to different periods and aspects of our past. The more places that you visit and the more attention that you pay to what you see, the more finely attuned you become to the flow of time and changes in architectural forms, interior decoration, style and the attitudes and beliefs that fashioned them. In the UK for example, visiting properties and sites owned by the National Trust or English Heritage will provide an insight into the lives of the wealthy elite in particular, although a glimpse into the everyday world of the lower orders can be had in the kitchens, stables and working buildings such as watermills, windmills and forges. If you are lucky, your visit will coincide with a day during which corn may be milled, metal worked or re-enactments of different aspects of everyday life staged. Should you have children, the latter will soften the ‘ordeal’ of being dragged around a historic property on a day out, and, hopefully, stimulate their imaginations.
There are also museums of course, which house invaluable collections of artefacts from the past, and a number of which are classed as ‘living museums’, meaning that they attempt to demonstrate a number of crafts, industries and agricultural practices that have now passed away. To witness a defunct or rare craft being demonstrated provides the author with an invaluable aid to the imagination, even should that craft itself not be described in writing. Knowledge of a character having engaged in a particular line of work will have an impact upon how he or she carries and expresses themselves, as well as, potentially, upon the types of aches and ailments that they may suffer from.
London’s Geffrye Museum, whose focus is the domestic sphere, contains a series of reconstructed interiors spanning the period from 1630 to 1998, and is well worth a visit if you are on a trip to London (who knows, a visit may even provide you with the inspiration to remodel your own domestic surrounds). Many living museums tend to focus upon one particular time period, although often also possess exhibits relating to other periods, thus Butser Farm spans a vast expanse of time from the Stone Age to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, whereas Morwhellam Quay focuses upon the Victorian era. The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, and St Fagan’s National History Museum in Wales both feature collections of vernacular architecture reassembled onsite. Londoners are spoilt for choice, home as their city is to the great national art collections in the National Gallery, Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, but there are also many provincial art galleries that are worth visiting. One quirky establishment worth visiting if you should be in the vicinity is Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, which caused quite a furore when it initially opened in the village in 1960. However, it should be borne in mind that much of its content focuses upon the distinctly modern English invention that is Wicca (or it did when I last visited many years ago. I shall give an update on my impressions following a forthcoming visit early in 2017).
One of the most important concerns for the author writing about the past is avoiding anachronism, which can be difficult. A good rule of thumb with respect to diet is to remember that all of those foodstuffs originating in the New World would not have been available to the inhabitants of Europe, Asia and Africa before 1492. There should thus be no mention of potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, chocolate or chillies, to name but a few, in any work set before the European discovery of the Americas, nor indeed of that noxious stinking weed named tobacco, unless that is your piece should be set in the Americas. Diets around the world have changed greatly since the golden age of European exploration.
Technology is another sphere in which we encounter much potential for anachronism. It is particularly important to note that people’s sense of time has changed greatly since the introduction of the clock, for thinking in the sense of seconds, minutes and even hours, would have been alien to our forebears for the greater part of history. One’s sense of space, time and the wider world has changed greatly, with unified national time not coming into existence until the spread of the railways, communications being far slower during the era of poorly maintained roads than during that of steam and the telegraph.
Our forebears were attuned to the rhythms of the seasons, from which we have, to a greater or lesser degree, been largely insulated since the introduction of gas and then electric light and heating. Our bond with the natural world and sense of place within it has become increasingly attenuated on a practical day-to-day level.
The warp and weft of everyday life, which usually escaped specific thematic documentation and treatment in days gone by, is particularly challenging to reconstruct. What rituals of personal hygiene did people observe? How often did they bathe? How did they look after their teeth? How many changes of clothes did they possess, and how frequently were they laundered? If you are naturally inclined to writer’s block, writing historical fiction, throwing up so many questions as it does, may engender complete and protracted paralysis. Beware.
Once we have done our research and are satisfied that we have gleaned sufficient knowledge to commence writing our tale, the next task is how to create a text that is both ‘authentic’ and yet engaging and comprehensible. It is something of a conundrum, to which I shall return in a later post when I reflect upon creating the characters and voices that inhabit my forthcoming novel set in seventeenth-century Cornwall. Before closing, it may be worth mentioning that I find it helpful to track down and listen to music from the period about which I am writing. Even should it not be successful in eliciting an appropriate mood, it is at least enjoyable.