TRAVELLING THROUGH FICTION… IT’S NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE

ancient_world_map_by_bilui.jpgThere was a time when a degree of glamour attached itself to a journey – when journeys themselves could provide a writer with a splendidly atmospheric setting.  You could place your characters on a train or a ship and cast them into all manner of perilous, murderous, or even merely romantic situations.  You could bump people off, cause annoying bit-part players to vanish, and you could develop relationships over a civilized meal in the restaurant car or at the captain’s table, (assuming you had remembered to allot to the lovers the income needed to travel First Class).  You could even allow a casual encounter to become an actual liaison – providing that if the characters were destined to enjoy the railway’s equivalent of the Mile High Club, you were careful to avoid such busy intersections as Crewe and most of the main London termini.

But although travel is nowadays fast, clean, and efficient, (we could possibly exclude the train networks on that last one), something’s been lost for authors.  Because if there had been a high-speed, open-carriage service, would Agatha Christie’s redoubtable Miss Marple have become imbroiled in the murder on the 4.50 from Paddington?  And would the English lady have vanished so completely and so intriguingly in Ethel Lina White’s classic The Wheel Spins, filmed as The Lady Vanishes? Would the ill-starred Anna Karenina have had quite such a complex relationship with Vronsky if they had not been shut into a railway carriage together so early in the plot?

Brief EncounterIt’s difficult, as well, to picture the lovers in Brief Encounter playing out their grand renunciation scene without the swirling smoke of steam engines shrouding them, the relentless chug of trains blurring the dialogue, and the crashing of crockery from the seedy buffet.  Even if you imported all three movements of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto and had Lang Lang playing them, gut-wrenching farewells just aren’t the same on a modern, multi-platformed station, with indecipherable announcements assaulting the senses, and soulless machines dispensing tea, coffee and soup.

To be fair, murders can still be staged on inter-continental journeys, but Dame Agatha did really corner the market on that one, and the Inland Revenue are annoyingly suspicious of expense claims for a trip on today’s version of the Orient Express.

It would be lovely to set a ghost story on a railway station, as Charles Dickens memorably did with The Signalman, and as Arnold Ridley did when he wrote The Ghost Train – the stage ghost-train-1version of which is still being performed up and down the country by professional and amateur companies alike.  Anyone who ever saw the 1941 film version with Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch can probably remember the marvellous scenes in the tunnel, where the mysterious figure of Ted Holmes is said to be glimpsed, “His lamp still burning in his hand,” singing Rock of Ages as he haunts the tunnels.
But ghosts don’t seem to have a place in train stations any longer – although St Pancras is still nicely gothic, and you might get a good bit of atmosphere from the Underground, as a number of film-makers have discovered.  Creep comes to mind here, of course, and also The Taking of Pelham, 1, 2 and 3.  And J K Rowling certainly immortalised Kings Cross and its fabled Platform 9 ¾, with Goathland Station in North Yorkshire (largely unchanged since 1865), providing a terrific setting for Hogsmeade in the film.

The old story-tellers knew the value of adding a bit of mystery to a journey.  Travellers on the brink of unexplored lands (perhaps running out of energy, courage, or simply food), would instruct the map-makers to write, ‘Here be dragons’, on the uncharted areas.  Thus conjuring up all kinds of alluring lands for future journeys, and far more fun than losing the signal on a sat-nav, or running out of petrol on the M25. Although both these events can open up intriguing possibilities for plot developments.

James Elroy Flecker, in his 1913 verse-drama Hassan – The Golden Road to Samarkand, wrote:

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.

Those are words that conjure up the ancient silk routes and the caravanserai of Persia and Isfahan.
Standing on a railway platform, sipping a plastic cup of instant coffee, listening to automated announcements about delays due to leaves on the line (sometimes snow, as well), doesn’t have quite the same resonance as the dimly-lit night corridors of Hercule Poirot’s Orient Express, or of Flecker’s glimmering sea…   Perching on an uncomfortable chair in an airport lounge for five hours because your flight is cancelled owing to an air traffic control computer crash can’t compare with Rider Haggard’s doughty travellers trekking across deserts and braving shipwshangri-lareck fever to discover King Solomon’s mines…
Nor is there any comparison with the
romantic allure contained in the plane crash in a Tibetan snowstorm in Lost Horizon – a crash that sent the passengers on the legendary journey to the fabled and fabulous Shangri-La.
Those really were journeys.

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DROWNING IN THE PLOT

 

bell-tower-copyQuite near to where I live is a beautiful and mostly unspoilt village which is chockful of history.  It’s home to the 1,000-year-old Horn Dance, whose performers still caper through the village with enthusiastic glee once a year; it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book, Henry VIII dissolved its monastery and Dick Turpin stabled his horse at the local inn.  On the outskirts is a massive reservoir, and there’s a wonderfully eerie legend that tells how the reservoir’s creation drowned a number of buildings.  At times, the legend expands to describe how an actual hamlet, if not an entire village, lies at the bottom of the reservoir.

AtlantisLegends about drowned cities and drowned worlds are deeply woven into the folklore of the human race, of course.  There’s Atlantis which might not have existed at all, or which might still lie ‘full fathoms five’ in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There’s Lough Neagh in Ireland, immortalised in a ballad of 1852, called Let Erin Remember.  And there’s the ancient port of Herakleion, near Alexandria, dating to around 500 BC, and discovered as recently as 2000.  Incredibly, a slab of black granite was found in the watery ruins, inscribed with a tax edict signed by the Pharaoh Nectanebo.  Possibly proving that the Inland Revenue is a much older organisation than anyone realised.

Brittany’s myth of the drowned City of Ys is a particularly vivid one.  The city’s bells are said to be still heard chiming at times, which must be annoying for anyone in the vicinity trying to watch TV.  The Ys princess, Dahot, who had devoted her time to organising orgies and had the worrying habit of systematically killing her lovers next morning, managed to cheat the gods when they destroyed the city. She transformed herself into a mermaid, and took to materialising with languid grace on a rock to lure fishermen to their doom.  Considered as an escape ploy it’s an enterprising idea, although as a seduction technique it might have been a tad unreliable particularly in Winter.  In later centuries, the 1824 poem, Die Lorelei, has a golden-haired heroine also seated on a cliff, this time above the Rhine, eternally combing her hair and distracting sailors who crashed their ships on the Lorelei Rock – which is sometimes translated as the Murmuring Rock.

For a long time I wanted to use this concept of a drowned town or village in a book.  The trouble was that a great many writers had had the same idea.  Among them, are:-                                                                Reginald Hill, with On Beulah Height.                                                           Peter Robinson, writing In a Dry Season.                                                   Dennis Wheatley, whose famous best-seller, They Found Atlantis, uses not just a drowned village, but an entire civilization.                            And in the Idylls of the King, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, has Arthur and Mordred fighting their last battle near the drowned city of Lyonesse, off Cornwall’s coast.  Lyonesse apparently had the disconcerting trick of surfacing above the waves when nobody was expecting it.  To see an entire city suddenly rear up from the depths of the English Channel must have been alarming, although Alfred puts it rather more elegantly:                                                                                                               “A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.”

So, to base a book on a drowned village was clearly to tread an already well-trodden path – a path so frequently used, in fact, that it had assumed the importance of an actual genre and had taken unto itself a name – reservoir noir­.

But how about using a single building, ruined and desolate, doomed to be submerged by the sea at high tide every day…?  An old bell tower, perhaps, Bell Tower 2on the edge of the English coast.  A tower that would jut up from its shelf of rock like a decaying black stump, and – drawing on the Lys and Lorelei legend – a tower that would have a carved stone figure on the seaward side.  A figure that would be completely immersed at high tide, its blind stone eyes staring into the under-sea world for hours.  At this point, I found the painting shown here on the left, and it was propped up on my desk during the writing of the book.  It’s the work of a 19th century American artist called Thomas Cole and it acted as a terrific visual inspiration.

As for the other inspiration…

When I was about eleven years old, a particular film was shown on television.  It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and there was nothing much to do, but the Radio Times was advertising an old film from the 1940s.  (Those were the mystical days when there was only one TV channel).  I thought, vaguely, that it would be utterly boring, with people talking in impossibly clipped accents and ladies with corrugated hair.  But I curled up in a chair to watch it anyway.  (There may have been tea and toasted crumpets with butter halfway through viewing, which would have added to the cosy eeriness).  The film absolutely enchanted and mesmerised me.  It was never televised again, but I never forgot it.  Some people will know this film as The Dream of Olwen – it was also titled While I Live.  It’s based Olwen 3on a play called This Same Garden by Robert Bell, and the plot centres on a girl coming into a clifftop house, not knowing who or what she is, sitting down at the piano and playing an unpublished piece of music that was written twenty years earlier, by a girl long since dead.  For me that film ticked all the boxes – eerie music, secrets from the past, and, of course, a faint whiff of the supernatural.  Working out the plot for the book that was to become The Bell Tower, that long-ago rainy afternoon came back to me vividly.  Music – specifically a lost, sinister  piece of music – and a wild clifftop setting.

Then, researching for something quite different, I discovered, by chance, by serendipity, by divine (or even demonic) providence, an ancient lament.  A death song. It’s the eerie and hauntingly beautiful The Unquiet Grave, sometimes known as How Cold the Wind Doth Blow.  It’s believed to date to around 1400, but, incredibly, it can still be heard today.  It’s been recorded by many contemporary musicians and singers including Joan Baez, the Dubliners and Steeleye Span.  A plethora of folk musicians have sung it, assorted progressive and alternative rock groups have given it their own upbeat and quirky twist, and at the other end of the scale several arrangements have been made by the great romantic composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams.  I based Thaisa’s Song, which is at heart of my book, on that ancient song.

The village in The Bell Tower is called Rede Abbas. It’s fictional, but its counterpart can be found in many places along the wild and beautiful stretch of England’s southern rim known as the Jurassic Coast.

The ancient bell tower of the title is, on the other hand, entirely a creation of my own imagination.   At least, I hope it is…

FINAL NOTE:  The film, While I Live, was released on DVD two or three years ago.  I’ve watched it several times now, and it still works the magic for me.  (Corrugated hair and cut-glass accents notwithstanding)I’m hugely grateful to that film and to whoever wrote The Unquiet Grave for providing me with the plot for The Bell Tower. I find it sad that the name of that song’s original composer has been lost, because I would like to have given credit to someone for that marvellous inspiration – no matter how long ago he – or she – lived.

Of the many recordings available via YouTube etc, this one, by Luke Kelly seems to me to come closest to conveying the raw emotion of the lyrics.  So for anyone who would like to hear it, here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfgwxn95U6g

And for anyone who might like to read The Bell Tower, here are the Amazon links:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bell-Tower-Haunted-Mystery/dp/0727885596/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_img_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=13XHBZN2MKWNJCAN6ZVA

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0727885596/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=1VK9Y0WXBNGYQBEEKZ6S&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=2079475242&pf_rd_i=desktop

 

THE UNEXPECTED GHOST

overworkedIt was not a day on which I was expecting to meet a ghost.  I know I write books with slightly eerie settings and incidents – also outright, unashamed ghost stories – but I don’t actually expect to actually find myself in one of those settings.

It was, in fact, a perfectly normal working morning.  There was a chapter of my current book to get into shape, and it was going to contain an interesting, not too taxing, scene, describing how the main character was singled out by a lady as being a very desirable property.                                                           Actually, I had singled him out as a very desirable property, as well.  It’s a sad fact of life but writers are fickle and heartless – in love with the current hero (sometimes also the villain), for as long as the book lasts, then on to the next one.  Asked about a previous hero or heroine, they’re apt to say, ‘Who?’, struggle with memory for a moment, and then, with supreme indifference and even a touch of promiscuity, say, ‘Oh yes. That one.  Yes, of course I remember that one.’

I described this particular hero as being in his early thirties, with john-m-h-copysoft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie, and cotton shirt.  Rather like my beloved Victorian actor-manager, Sir John Martin-Harvey, whose photograph has hung above my desk ever since I can remember.  Sir John played Sydney Carton, (for me, the all-time romantic anti-hero), in his own stage version of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. I’d have to admit Sir John’s brooding countenance has launched at least half a dozen of the characters in my books.

I re-read the scene with critical suspicion, convinced myself it might scrub up reasonably well, then went off to collect some shopping.

And in the supermarket checkout, two customers ahead, was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie…   I watched, transfixed, as he put items into a plastic bag – pasta, wine, cheese and fruit.  (If he had been buying the cut-price ready-made spaghetti bolognaise I would have had to abandon the entire chapter and re-think the seduction scene planned for Chapter Eight.)

groceryshoppingHe went out with his shopping, and I half fell through the check-out after him, scattering assorted items en route.  Somebody helped field the tinned soup but the muesli had to be swept up and I don’t think they ever did find the scouring pads.  But eventually I reached the car park, which by then was awash with torrential rain.  Visibility was on a par with a Victorian London pea-souper.
And by that time, whoever he was (whatever he was), my dark-haired, green-jacketed man had melted into the mist.  But I prowled hopefully round the car park anyway, peering into likely-looking cars, heedless of the melting bag of frozen carrots, never mind the CCTV.

I’d like to think he had gone quietly back to the netherworld of ghosts and fictional beings thuntil wanted again (in Chapter Eight), but logically it’s more likely he had simply driven back onto the main road and gone home to cook his pasta and drink his wine.
I do know that the sensible explanation is that I had seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion and subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it…

victorian-writerBut I have never been able to rid myself of the sneaking suspicion – and the hope – that he had stepped, however briefly, from the pages of my own imagination, and that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.

THE BIRTH OF A SERIES

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The haunted house series, featuring Michael Flint and Nell West, was born several yearsahh-2 ago, when I was asked to write and present a ghost-story evening at a local historic house.  There were so many legends attached to the place it was almost a question of auditioning the resident spooks to decide which to use. (‘No, sorry, we can’t have a headless horseman because of Health & Safety regulations…’ ‘Chain rattling is fine, though, providing you keep the noise down…’)

Tales ranged from spectral footsteps to an old lady in a rocking chair, and the amiable figure of a shopkeeper, apparently waiting to serve customers with a variety of goods. In the psychedelic 1960s a séance was held in the house, but the findings were ambiguous. (Reports of a cavalier appearing during the séance were never considered reliable, largely because he apparently winked at one of the female ghost-hunters.)  I took two or three of these tales, stirred in a couple of my own, and presented the result as a series of diaries ‘found’ during renovations of the house. Spooky music, operated from a portable stereo behind a curtain, lent a touch of eeriness.

Since then I’ve repeated the performance in various venues. A marvellous Victorian theatre redolent of gaslight and Henry Irving… A delightful old bookshop, where Pepys might have browsed…

We do not need to dwell on the night the stereo jumped forward to a recording of The Archers that had been inadvertently left on it.  It was unfortunate, though, that instead of spectral midnight chimes from an abandoned church and the mournful hooting of an owl, the all-too-recognisable Ambridge theme music romped rollickingly in.

And it’s always interesting and fun to research ghost tales within the different places, and adapt the original setting to the locality. Because is there a town or village in the UK – in the world in general – that doesn’t have its own ghost legend?

For Property of a Lady, which was to become the first of a series, (although I didn’t know that at the time), I disinterred these diaries, hoping they could be used as a base. There are many downsides to ghosts, but there are also a few advantages, and a large advantage is that they don’t date.

But if the ghost who walked through those pages was still credible, the diaries themselves needed a modern-day frame.   They needed modern people to find them, read them, be affected by them.  So, strongly aware of treading in the steps of the incomparable M.R. James, but hoping to print new footsteps of my own, I created an Oxford don – Michael Flint – as reluctant hero.
As for the house – the ‘Property of a Lady’ of the title – I moved it to the Shropshire borders, and summoned up a house with a dark reputation and lingering remnants of a strange legend – the legend of a nightmare figure carrying a grisly lantern.  A figure that wandered the countryside, and sometimes got inside the house itself, and that chanted eerie lines from an old country rhyme as it went:

‘Now open lock to the Dead Man’s knock,ingoldsby-1
Fly bolt, and bar, and band!
— Nor move, nor swerve
Joint, muscle, or nerve,
At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand.
Sleep all who sleep!– Wake all who wake!-
But be as the Dead for the Dead Man’s sake…’

For that beautifully macabre verse, (of which I’ve included only a fragment here), I’m hugely grateful to the Reverend Richard Barham and the marvellous Ingoldsby Legends. In particular, I’m indebted to him for the macabre tale of the Hand of Glory.

In Property of a Lady the house is called Charect House – according to the dictionaries also pronounced CARECT – which is a very old term for a charm: a spell set down in writing. Literally in characters – to ward off evil.

In 1749, a charect was apparently found on a condemned murderer in Chichester Gaol – he had it smuggled in so he could cheat the gallows. And the eerie thing is that he did cheat the gallows. While he was being measured for the irons in which his hanged body would later be displayed, he expired on the spot from sheer terror. Which perhaps goes to prove the old saying that the devil never honours his side of a bargain.

Did the long-ago owners of Charect House give it that name to ward off evil? If so, did it work? Well, it’s all in the book – the first of the series.

Ghost stories should be listened to or read in complete safety. They require a warm room – firelight – curtains drawn against the night, doors locked. All the things that reinforce security, so that you know the ghosts can’t get you.
Or can they?

polhttp://www.amazon.co.uk/Property-Michael-Flint-Haunted-House/dp/1847513476/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_img_9?ie=UTF8&refRID=069E3DDPA8F4TQTECB4S