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.

IN LOVE WITH THE VILLAINS

When portrayed on the grand scale, villains in fiction can be surprisingly fascinating.  Would vampires as a race have gained such worldwide appeal without a sinister undead gentleman in evening dress dominating the screen or the page?  Equally, would psychological thrillers be so appealing without a smorgasbord of juicily evil, darkly charming murderers?  Hannibal Lecter, let’s remember, could be very courteous if you caught him in the right mood.

Creating a fictional villain is an absorbing exercise, although there are a number of decisions to be made at the outset.  All characters need motives, and villains need them more than most characters.  They have to have reasons for what they do.  Revenge, money, the righting of a wrong.  A traumatic event in childhood, perhaps, that’s warped the character’s view of the world.

Even after the motive has been satisfactorily worked out, there’s still a vast embarrassment of riches from which to choose. Is the villain to be an outright maniac, stalking, Jack-the-Ripper-like, through dark streets, with the accompaniments of swirling cloak and sinister surgeon’s bag?  Would it be over the top to have a chuckling, hand-washing Sweeney-Todd character?  While acknowledging the irresistible Johnny Depp’s performance in that role, it has to be observed that nobody could do Victorian blood and thunder with quite the same glee as Tod Slaughter, who played the Demon Barber in 1936, and who romped with exuberant relish through so many late 19th/early 20th century stage plays and films?

Gesvengaliorge du Maurier, creating Svengali, gave the world a mesmeric character, as well as a new word for the English language, and even a legal tactic – the ‘Svengali Defence’, in which a defendant claims to be a pawn in the scheme of an overpowering and influential criminal mastermind.  It also gave actors from Beerbohm Tree to John Barrymore and Donald Wolfit the chance to flex their fruitier acting techniques.  (It probably helped the sales of Trilby hats too, although that’s a frivolous aside speculation).

As an alternative to Eastern European mesmerists or East End barbers with an innovative idea for meat pies, the villain might be given a more homely image.  Perhaps he can credibly be portrayed as a mild-mannered gentleman, about whom shocked neighbours say that no one would ever have suspected him of such wickedness.  He seemed so considerate, diligently looking after his house and his garden, even laying that beautiful patio…  You wouldn’t have thought he would have bumped off seven people for the insurance money, or killed the golf club treasurer for the deposit account.

One of the interesting aspects of this part of characterisation is showing the multi-layered lives villains lead. They aren’t always stalking hapless heroines through fog-bound Victorian London, or laying macabre traps for unwary widows with Bankuseful fortunes.  As well as those activities, they have to do ordinary things like collecting the dry-cleaning or going to the dentist.  Applying for mortgages, perhaps:   ‘Occupation, sir?  A doctor?  Oh, well, Dr Crippen, we’re always happy to lend money to members of the medical profession…’   Or, possibly: ‘We’ll just get this house in Rillington Place surveyed before you buy it, Mr Christie…’

The Gilbert & Sullivan verse from the Pirates of Penzance, sums it up quite neatly:

‘When the enterprising burglar’s not a-burgling/When the cut-throat isn’t occupied in crime/He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling/ And listen to the merry village chime.’

As for the villain’s appearance, it can be entirely ordinary.  You don’t have to give him eyebrows that meet in the middle or hair that grows to a peak on his forehead – or allot to the villainess the kind of pallor and brooding eyes associated with Morticia Addams, or the black hair and rearing horns favoured by Maleficent.  On the other hand, a disfigurement does not necessarily detract from a certain dark charm – as Gaston Le Roux proved in creating his famous Phantom, a character he apparently based on the discovery of a corpse found in the foundations of the Paris Opera House.

Generally, the villain, no matter how charismatic or multi-layered, does have to be given his or her just desserts in the final chapter.  It’s not exactly a convention that has to be observed, but it’s expected.  Even if he/she isn’t tried and sentenced in the conventional manner, some kind Bleak Houseof fate has to be meted out. This might cheat an author of writing a taut courtroom/prison cell scene, but it does open up a beautiful range of dramatic possibilities, including sending the culprit tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls, being submerged beneath the Paris Opera House, spontaneously combusting like Krook in Bleak House, or falling into the jaws of a crocodile as Captain Hook memorably did in Peter Pan.

And again, Gilbert & Sullivan knew about appropriate fates, when they caused no less a person than the Emperor of Japan to vow, in The Mikado, that he would always let the punishment fit the crime.

That said, it must be admitted that before writing the closing scene, the monster might escape his Frankenstein, to the extent that around Page 200 you realise you’re making notes for a sequel in which the miscreant will return like a giant refreshed.  On that score, though, it’s probably as well to resist the temptation to allot to your villain one of the hammy Hammer finale lines.  Fu Manchu, in the last reel of most of the film versions of Sax Rohmer’s books, comes to mind here – he had the way of raising an elegant hand, and portentously announcing that, ‘The world will hear from me again.’  Thus paving the way for sequels by the cartload.  But perhaps the palm for a really indelible last line should go to Hannibal Lector.  Who can forget him strolling into the sunset of the last page/reel of film in Silence of the Lambs, informing his protagonist that he’s about to have an old friend for dinner…?

Shakespeare (of course), sums it up neatly in Gloucester’s words in Richard III:

‘…thus I clothe my naked villainy with odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ…  And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

WRITING FOOD INTO BOOKS… SEDUCTION OVER THE CHICKEN NUGGETS?

dinner-party-2There’s frequently a point in a book where it’s nice to have characters grouped round a dinner table discussing the latest plot developments.  This can be helpful for giving the reader an update on where the story’s got to – not to mention doing the same for the author, who is probably utterly confused by that time anyway, and may well have lost the synopsis, flow chart, and chapter precis all so optimistically started around Chapter One.  Not that I ever do lose such things, of course.  Well, not often.  Hardly ever, really.

It’s remarkable how much it matters to get food right in books. The meals that characters eat or cook can be an insight into their personalities.  An invitingly-laid dinner table can set a scene, although the wrong kind of meal can ruin it altogether.  You can’t really have the hero and heroine dining on fish fingers or frozen chicken nuggets as a prelude to the grand bedroom scene.  On the other hand, neither of them will want to spend half the evening in the kitchen peeling grapes for sole veronique, or diligently tweezering bones out of a trout.  Ordering pizza or dashing out to collect a take-away, however tasty and convenient (not to say avoiding the necessity to wash up afterwards) doesn’t seem to quite fit the scenario.

ghost-songFor Ghost Song, I managed to churn out a song about food, for the Edwardian music-hall performer, Toby Chance, to sing.   I called it All Because of Too Much Tipsy Cake – by which I mean Toby called it that.  Tipsy Cake, as a dish, hails from the mid-eighteenth century, and it was a beautiful and dangerously rich version of the trifle we eat today – layers of fresh sponge cakes, soaked in sherry and brandy.  When Toby Chance sang the song on the stage of his (fictional) theatre – The Tarleton – it was an instant success, and next day the barrow boys and the street sellers were whistling it in Covent Garden – in those days, the equivalent of reaching No 1 in the charts, and trending or going viral on Twitter.

sin-eaterIn The Sin Eater, one of my favourite minor characters, Nina Doyle who runs her own catering business, lurches from one culinary disaster to another, frenziedly pitting half a kilo of cherries for duck á la Montmerency while menacing echoes from a macabre Victorian murder swirl around her – and later causes mayhem when a pair of live lobsters, intended for a waiting Thermidor pot at a Soho supper party, try to escape their fate, resulting in a traffic jam in Old Compton Street.

Sending characters out to restaurants can bring a whole new set of problems.  Any genuine restaurant you use will undoubtedly have changed hands by the time the book is published, and the new regime will most likely be so disastrous that the 2-star Michelin rating will have been summarily removed.  Alternatively, the place will have been taken over by a tattoo parlour or a chain store selling cut-price DVDs.

There’s also the problem of fashions changing in food, which can date a book beyond redemption.  It’s not so long since it was the height of sophistication to dine on prawn cocktail, steak Diane, and Black Forest Gateau.  Now, it’s more likely to be chorizo, squid-ink pasta, quinoa, and a variety of dishes with complicated and usually unpronounceable names.  (By the time this article is posted, it will probably be something else again).  It is, though, rather heartening to note that many menus now include bread and butter pudding, and also fish cakes, and that even The Ivy currently offers its own version of a hamburger – admittedly with pommes allumettes and dill relish, but still…   Not that I’ve ever actually created a character who’s rich enough to eat at The Ivy, or sufficiently organised to be able to plan his or her life sufficiently far ahead to get a table there.

The nineteenth century is far safer for describing fictional dining experiences in real restaurants.  There’s Rule’s, where you can refer nonchalantly to the oysters and to Henry Irving eating there on account of the Lyceum being just a few doors along…  (‘Oh, Sir Henry often comes in on matinee days.  Very partial to a bit of steak and kidney pudding between his Richard III and his Othello, Sir Henry is.’)

simpsons-1There’s also Simpsons in the Strand with the silver-domed trolleys that would be wheeled to the tables to avoid disturbing the restaurant’s chess players.  (‘Don’t take the roast beef to the corner table yet, Fred, there’s a battle going on between the Sicilian Defence and the Queen’s Gambit.’)  There’s surely a good murder plot in there, with a chess-player bumped off between pawn to queen’s knight 4 and a bishop’s fianchetto, but with nobody noticing the corpse until the waiter starts carving the joint.  Also, using Simpsons means you can sprinkle your text with names such as Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You never know when this might be useful in a plot.  And then, of course, there’s the Café Royal, where, if you get the dates right, it’s almost obligatory for a character to remark, ‘Oh, I say, isn’t that the writer chappie, Oscar Wilde, over there.’

It’s probable that Oscar Wilde would not in the least have minded sitting down to a freshly-delivered pizza, and that Henry Irving and Charles Dickens would have thoroughly enjoyed a hearty take-away chicken korma.

But I’m still not sure about that seduction scene over the frozen chicken nuggets.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghost-Song-Sarah-Rayne/dp/1937384101/ref=tmm_pap_title_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1444750229&sr=1-1

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books/dp/0727881620/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1446715917&sr=1-8

SERIOUSLY SERIALIZING

When I began to write the first of the Michael Flint/Nell West haunted house series, I didn’t actually know it was destined to become a series. In fact I had never previously considered writing a series at all – or even so much as a trilogy.

Despite working in the kind of muddle with which Sherlock Holmes might have sympathised, (‘Don’t disturb the dust, Watson, the varying layers are my filing system,’)  a kind of symmetric romanticism always took over when I approached the ending of a book.  Having inflicted shattering events on the protagonists, ranging from long-reaching tragedies on the Greek scale to mere murder, I could never bear the hero and heroine to woman-writer2miss out on their hand-in-hand into-the-sunset moment.  Even the villain might enjoy the occasional bright interlude before being summarily banished to his or her fate.  Life shouldn’t be all gloom and misery, even for multiple murderers. This compulsion to provide a neat, happy finale was so strong I often had to be restrained from painting impossibly sentimental word-pictures of moonlit terraces or technicolour skies, and if I could somehow import the strains of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto into the closing paragraphs I usually did.

couple-shoppingBut once you’ve written that emotional, emotive closing scene, where can your characters go next?  Do you keep them happily together, letting cosy domesticity into the plots, so that they solve murders while shopping or washing up, or disinter ancient secrets inbetween choosing new bedroom curtains and worrying about the central heating boiler?  Or do you scrub the sunset finale altogether, and let them lurch on their own, book by book, from one love affair to the next?

Then I wrote Property of a Lady, and almost without noticing it, a series was born.  Because when I finished that book, I saw that my Oxford don, Michael Flint, couldn’t possibly be banished to the obscurity of that stand-alone title.  Having discovered ghosts – having also discovered a fellow ghost-hunter in Nell West – he was keen, in his own understated way, to embark on more exploits.  I was keen, as well, to explore the sometimes difficult, but gradually developing, relationship between the two characters.

So, from Property of a Lady came The Sin Eater, in which Michael and Nell uncovered the truth about a murderer who once prowled the fog-bound eeriness of Victorian London.  After that was The Silence, inspired by childhood memories of a quiet house with apple-scented gardens, belonging to two spinster great-aunts who could spin enthralling stories out of their memories of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the Great War…  And who played soft, magical music on the piano – music that might echo down the years to the present…

The Whispering followed, with the classic ghost-story setting of an old library in a remote house, and faded diaries and letters to hint at the secrets in its past.  Then came Deadlight Hall, with its dark menacing echoes from the concentration camps of WWII.  And most recently, The Bell Tower, the sixth in the series, set on the wild Dorset coast where uneasy memories of an ancient and sinister piece of music called Thaisa’s Song linger.

I’d like to think Michael and Nell’s relationship has developed throughout these books, and that they understand one another better than they did at the start.  They’ve certainly had many a sunset-tinged romantic night, and around halfway through each book I wonder if I ought to write them into matrimony.             But book-cat-1Michael’s place seems to be his book-lined study in Oriel College, with the tempestuous cat, Wilberforce, causing mayhem every other week.  And Nell’s place is her shop in Quire Court, the cobbled square near to Turl Street, with the beautiful antiques that she loves buying and selling.  So I don’t really think I can let the washing-up intrude on them quite yet.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B011M9L7D6/ref=series_rw_dp_sw

THE MOTIVES OF GHOSTS

ghost with bookGhosts, like any character in a book, need a motive – a reason for haunting.  They don’t just turn up because there’s a vacant slot at the moated grange, or because the grey lady at the old rectory wants someone to make a fourth at bridge.  They don’t attend night classes on the subject.

Usually, ghosts haunt because they’ve been cheated out of something.  Or because they’ve been punished or even executed for a crime they didn’t commit.  Or defrauded of an inheritance.  Often they’re murder victims, of course.

attic-1The creation of ghosts is interesting.  There are so many guises they can be given.  They can be sad wailing shades who inhabit chilly ruins or cobweb-shrouded attics, or who drape themselves over stone fountains, and flit through tanglewood gardens.  They can be murdered Tudor queens or spectral bridegrooms or walled-up nuns.

They can even be charming gentlemen in Elizabethan outfits, hinting slyly that they know where an undiscovered Shakespearean folio is buried.

But when I embarked on writing the second of Michael Flint and Nell West’s ghost exploits (the first was in Property of a Lady), I wanted a ghost who had a completely different set of motives.

I started by exploring the old religions.  There’s a treasure house of material in ancient legends and lost rituals – except that not all of the rituals are lost. That search turned up munslows-gravethe practice of sin-eating – an extraordinarily ancient custom. There are references to it as far back as the Old Testament and in some Aztec beliefs, but there are also much more recent traces of it.  In Shropshire is the grave of a man called Richard Munslow, who died in 1906 and who is believed to have been the last known sin-eater in England.

In remote parts of the world, where an ordained priest couldn’t be brought to a dying person in time for a confession, the sin-eater would undertake the task.  He – only rarely was it a ‘she’ – would be brought to the dying person’s bedside.  There he would eat bread and drink water – wine if it could be provided – which had been placed on the breast of the dying one.  It was believed that by this act the sin-eater removed the sins from the dying person, and took them onto his own soul.   It’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to make a connection between the sin eater and the Jewish ‘scapegoat’ of the Old Testament.

sin-eaterThe descriptions that exist of sin-eating rituals resemble each other strongly.  The isolated hill farm or croft – the small, low-ceilinged room, smoky and dim from candle light and woodfires.  The dying man or woman reciting the list of sins committed.  And the sin eater absorbing the sins as he ate the symbolic meal. Afterwards he scurried off to find a priest to confess the catalogue of sins.  If he couldn’t find a priest he might even go to another sin eater.

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica has this entry about sin eaters:

‘A symbolic survive of it (sin eating), was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire.*  After a preliminary service had been held over the coffin in the house, a woman poured out a glass of wine for each bearer, and handed it to him across the coffin  with a “funeral biscuit”.  In Upper Bavaria, sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsula a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family.  The Dutch doed-koecks or ‘dead cakes’, marked with the initials of the deceased, introduced into America in the 17th century, were long given to the attendants at funerals in old New York.  The ‘burial cakes’ which are still made in parts of rural England, for example Lincolnshire and Cumberland, are almost certainly a relic of sin-eating.’

*This is possibly a reference to Richard Munslow of Shropshire.

 One account I found of the sin-eater’s incantation is this:

 ‘I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man.  Come not down the lanes or in our meadows.  And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.’

I think it was that  phrase, ‘I pawn my own soul’, that triggered the plot of the book.  Supposing a sin eater took on a batch of sins – including the most mortal sin of all?  Murder.  And supposing that sin-eater died before he could offload the sins?  Died – with his soul in pawn – believing he carried a murderer’s guilt?   It seemed to me that if ever a ghost had a strong and slightly unusual motive for haunting, surely this was it.

And so the second book of the Michael Flint/Nell West series, The Sin Eater, came into sin-eaterbeing.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1847514251/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_img_13?ie=UTF8&refRID=1X283VHQBK1KG5YXSXV1

THE MASQUERADE. A short story by Sarah Rayne

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I seldom attend parties unless I think they might be of use in my career, so it was all the more remarkable to find myself attending this one.  This reticence is not due to shyness, you understand, nor to a lack of self-confidence – I value myself and my attainments rather highly.  But I have always shunned larger gatherings – the chattering, lovely-to-see-you, how-are-you-my-dear, type of event.  Loud music, brittle conversation, ladies air-kissing one another and then shredding each other’s reputations in corners.   Not for me.
My wife, however, has always enjoyed all and any parties with shrieking glee, telling people I am an old sobersides, and saying with a laugh that she makes up for my quietness.

But here I was, approaching the door of this house whose owners I did not  know, and whose reasons for giving this party I could not, for the moment, recall.
It was rather a grand-looking house – there was an air of quiet elegance about it which pleased me.  One is not a snob, but there are certain standards.  I admit that my own house, bought a few years ago, is – well – modest, but I named it ‘Lodge House’ which I always felt conveyed an air of subdued grandeur.  The edge of a former baronial estate, perhaps?   That kind of thing, anyway.  My wife, of course, never saw the point, and insisted on telling people that it was Number 78, halfway down the street, with a tube station just round the corner.  I promise you, many is the time I have winced at hearing her say that.

This house did not appear to have a name or a number, or to need one.  There was even a doorman who beckoned me in; he seemed so delighted to see me I felt it would be discourteous to retreat.

‘Dear me,’ I said, pausing on the threshold.  I do not swear, and I do not approve of the modern habit of swearing, with teenagers effing and blinding as if it were a nervous tic, and even television programme-makers not deeming it always necessary to use the censoring bleep.  So I said, ‘Dear me, I hadn’t realised this was a fancy-dress party.  I am not really dressed for it—’  You might think, you who read this, that someone could have mentioned that aspect to me, but no one had.

‘Oh, the costume isn’t important,’ said the doorman at once.  ‘People come as they are.  You’ll do very nicely.’

He was right, of course.  Dressed as I was, I should have done very nicely anywhere.  I am fastidious about my appearance although my wife says I am pernickety.  Downright vain, she says: everyone laughs at you for your old-fashioned finicking.  I was wearing evening clothes – one of the modern dress shirts the young men affect, with one of those narrow bow ties that give a rather 1920s look, and I was pleased with my appearance.  Even the slightly thin patch on the top of my head would not be noticeable in this light.

Once inside, the house was far bigger than I had realised; huge rooms opened one out of another and the concept put me in mind of something, although I could not quite pin down the memory.  Some literary allusion, perhaps?  It would be nice to think I had some arcane poet or philosopher in mind, but actually I believe I was thinking of Dr Who’s Tardis.  (Pretentious, that’s what you are, my wife always says.  We all have a good laugh at your pretensions behind your back.)

There were drinks and a buffet, all excellent, and the service—   Well!  You have perhaps been to those exclusive, expensive restaurants in your time?  Or to one of the palatial gentlemen’s clubs that can still be found in London if one knows where to look?
Then you will have encountered that discreet deference.  Food seemed almost to materialise at one’s hand.  I was given a glass of wine and a plate of smoked salmon sandwiches straight away and I retired with them to a corner, in order to observe the guests, hoping to see someone I knew.

masquerade-paintingThe term ‘fancy-dress’ was not quite accurate after all, although a more bizarre collection of outfits would be hard to find anywhere.  There was every imaginable garb, and every creed, colour, race, ethnic mix – every walk of society, every profession and calling.  Try as I might I could see no familiar faces, and this may have been why, at that stage, I was diffident about approaching anyone.  It was not due to my inherent reticence, you understand: in the right surroundings I can be as convivial as the next man.  This was more a feeling of exclusion.  In the end, I moved to a bay window to observe, and to drink my wine – it was a vintage I should not have minded having in my own cellars.  Well, I say cellars, but actually it’s an under-stairs cupboard containing several wine-racks bought at our local DIY centre.  It is not necessary to tell people this, however, and I always remonstrated with my wife when she did.

By an odd coincidence, the wine seemed to be the one I had poured for my wife quite pineapplerecently, although I have to say good wine was always a bit of a waste on her because she never had any discrimination; she enjoys sugary pink concoctions with paper umbrellas and frosted rims to the glass.  Actually, she once even attended some sort of all-female party dressed as a Piña Colada: the memory of that still makes me shudder and I shall refrain from describing the outfit.  (But I found out afterwards that Piña Colada translates, near enough, as strained pineapple, which seems to me very appropriate.)

But on that evening we had been preparing to depart for my office Christmas dinner, so I was hoping there would be no jazzily-coloured skirts or ridiculous head-dresses.  It’s a black tie affair, the office Christmas dinner, but when my wife came downstairs I was sorry to see that although she was more or less conventionally dressed, her outfit was cut extremely low and showed up the extra pounds she had accumulated.  To be truthful, I would have preferred to go to the dinner without her, because she would drink too much and then flaunt herself at my colleagues all evening; they would leer and nudge one another and I should be curdled with anger and embarrassment.  Those of you who have never actually walked through a big office and heard people whispering, ‘He’s the one with the slutty wife,’ can have no idea of the humiliation I have suffered.   I remember attending a small cocktail party for the celebration of a colleague’s retirement.  Forty-three years he had been with the firm and I had been asked to make the presentation.  A silver serving dish had been bought for him – I had chosen it myself and it was really a very nice thing indeed and a change from the usual clock.  I had written a few words, touching on the man’s long and honourable service, drawing subtle attention to my own involvement in his department.

You will perhaps understand my feelings when, on reaching the hotel, my wife removed her coat to display a scarlet dress that made her look – this is no exaggeration – like a Piccadilly tart.  I was mortified, but there was nothing to be done other than make the best of things.

After my speech, I lost sight of her for a couple of hours, and when I next saw her, she was fawning (there is no other word for it), on the Chairman, her eyes glazed, her conversation gin-slurred.  When she thanked him for the hospitality she had to make three attempts to pronounce the word, and by way of finale she recounted to four of the directors a joke in which the words cock and tail figured as part of the punch line.
The really infuriating thing is that until that night I had known – absolutely and surely known! – that I was in line to step up into the shoes of my retiring colleague.  I had been passed over quite a number of times in the past, (I make this statement without the least shred of resentment, but people in offices can be very manipulative and the place was as full of intrigue as a Tudor court), but this time the word had definitely gone out that I was in line for his job.  Departmental head, no less!

And what happened?  After my wife’s shameless display at the retirement cocktail party they announced the vacancy was to be given to a jumped-up young upstart, a pipsqueak of a boy barely out of his twenties!  I think I am entitled to have been upset about it.  I think anyone would have been upset.  Upset, did I say?  Dammit, I was wracked with fury and a black and bitter bile scalded through my entire body.  I thought – you lost that promotion for me, you bitch, but one day, my fine madam, one day…

Nevertheless, I still looked forward to that year’s Christmas party.  I had always counted the evening as something of a special event, so before we left, I poured two glasses of the claret I kept for our modest festivities, setting hers down on the low table by her chair.             She did not drink it at once – that was unusual in itself and it should have alerted me, but it did not.  I remember she got up to find my woollen scarf at my request, and then, having brought it for me, asked me to go upstairs for her evening bag.  She knows I hate entering her over-scented, pink-flounced bedroom, but she sometimes tries to tempt me into it.  I have learned to foil her over the years: the room makes my skin crawl and her physical importunities on those occasions make me feel positively ill.  It was not always so, you understand.  I fancy I have been as gallant as any man in my time.

So, the evening bag collected as hastily as possible, I sat down with my wine although it was not as good as it should be.  There was a slight bitter taste – it reminded me of the almond icing on the Christmas cake in its tin – and I remember thinking I must certainly complain to the wine shop.  I set down the glass, and then there was confusion – a dreadful wrenching pain and the feeling of plummeting down in a fast-moving lift…  Bright lights and a long tunnel…

And then, you see, I found myself here, outside the big elegant mansion with the doorman inviting me in…

It was instantly obvious what had happened.  The sly bitch had switched the glasses while I was getting her evening bag.  She realised what I was doing – perhaps she saw me stir the prussic acid into her glass while she pretended to find my scarf, or perhaps she had simply decided to be rid of me anyway.  But whichever it was, I drank from her glass and I died instead.  The cheating, double-faced vixen actually killed me!

It seems this house is some sort of judgement place, for the doorman came back into the room a few moments ago and said, ‘Murderers’ judgements,’ very loudly, exactly as if he was the lift-man at a department store saying, ‘Ladies’ underwear’.
Are these oddly-assorted people all murderers then?  That saintly-looking old gentleman in the good suit, that kitten-faced girl who might have posed for a pre-Raphaelite painting?  That middle-aged female who looks as if she would not have an interest beyond baking and knitting patterns…?
Having listened to fragments of their talk, I fear they are.

‘…and, do you know, if it had not been for the wretched office junior coming in at just that moment, I would have got away with it…   But the stupid girl must go screaming off to Mr Bunstable in Accounts, and I ended in being convicted on the evidence of a seventeen-year-old child and the bought-ledger clerk…  Twenty years I was given…’

‘Twenty years is nothing, old chap.  I got Life – and that was in the days when Life meant Life…’

‘…entirely the auditor’s own fault to my way of thinking – if he hadn’t pried into that very small discrepancy in the clients’ account, I shouldn’t have needed to put the rat poison in his afternoon tea to shut him up…’

‘…I always made it a rule to use good old-fashioned Lysol or Jeyes’ Fluid to get all the blood off the knitting needle and they never got me, never even suspected…  But that man over there by the door, he very stupidly cut costs: a cheap, supermarket-brand cleaner was what he used, and of course it simply wasn’t thorough enough and he ended his days in Wandsworth…’

‘…my dear, you should never have used your own kitchen knife, they were bound to trace it back to you…   An axe, that’s what I always used, on the premise that you can put the killing down to a passing homicidal maniac – what?  Oh, nonsense, there’s always a homicidal maniac somewhere – I’ve counted six of them here tonight as it happens – matter of fact I’ve just had a glass of wine with a couple of them…  Charming fellows…’

Well, whatever they may be, these people, charming or not, I’m not one of them.  I’m not a murderer.  This is all a colossal mistake, and I have absolutely no business being here because I did not kill my wife.  I suppose a purist might argue that I had the intention to kill her, but as far as I know, no one has yet been punished for that, although I believe the Roman Catholic Church regards the intention as almost tantamount to the actual deed—

And that’s another grievance!  I may not actually have attended church service absolutely every Sunday, but I never missed Easter or Christmas.  As a matter of fact, I rather enjoy the music one gets in a church.  (Once I said this to my wife – hoping it might promote an interesting discussion, you know – but she only shrieked with laughter, asked if I was taking to religion, and recounted a coarse story about a vicar.)
But I have been a lifelong member of the Church of England and I should have thought as such I would have been taken to a more select division.  However, there may be chance to point this out later.  Presumably there will be some kind of overseer here.

drinking-wineIt’s unfortunate that for the moment I seem to be shut up with these people – with whom I have absolutely nothing in common.  And all the while that bitch is alive in the world, flaunting her body, drinking sickly pink rubbish from champagne flutes.   Taking lovers by the dozen, I shouldn’t wonder, and living high on the hog from the insurance policies…   Yes, that last one’s a very painful thorn in the flesh, although I hadn’t better use that expression when they come to talk to me, since any mention of thorns in the flesh may be considered something of a bêtise here.  They’ll have long memories, I daresay.

But I shall explain it all presently, of course.  There’s bound to be some kind of procedure for mistakes.  I shall stand no nonsense from anyone, either.  I did not kill my wife, and I’m damned if I’m going to be branded as a murderer.

I’m damned if I am…