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.

THE RETURN OF THE WOLFKING

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote a quartet of fantasy books set in ancient Ireland and starring a charismatic, slightly-dangerous, and not entirely human creature…  Cormac mac Airt was inspired by a medieval King of Ireland of the same name, and I loved creating him. The books have been out of print for many years, but early in 2016 I was approached with a proposal to digitally re-issue them. And so, 20 years after I spun him out of Celtic myth and legend, I’m delighted that the Wolfking is returning…

 WolfkingThe genesis for the Wolfking series came from two sources.  The first was a song that was part of my school tradition.  It’s an early nineteenth century poem by Thomas Moore, set to an old traditional air:                                                                     The harp that once through Tara’s halls       The soul of music shed,                              Now hangs as mute on Tara‘s walls              As if that soul were fled.’

Even today, the words conjure up end of term concerts, with rows of beaming parents.  But beyond all that, the idea of Tara itself brought a marvellous tumble of images: purple forests and the misty mountains of Erin, and the dazzling halls of the Court.

In creating Cormac I drew on a very different childhood memory.  A fear of wolves. One dark, rainy afternoon, I found an old book containing that most famous of all children’s stories, Little Red Riding Hood.  The pages were dry and foxed, and the illustrations (probably they were by Gustave Doré), were the stuff of nightmares.  But I read the story over and over again with a kind of helpless compulsion.

But years later, drawing on those fears to write the Wolfking quartet, I discovered that wolves could be tamed.

Something else I discovered during the writing of those books, is what fun it is to write fantasy – also how different the process is from setting a book in the real world.  For instance:-

FOOD

The preparing and eating of meals might initially seem to be a problem in fantasy. You can’t send your characters out for a pub lunch or to the Italian trattoria on the corner.  Nor can they phone for a pizza delivery, to scoff with a bottle of vino in front of a DVD.  On the other hand, you can create marvellous banquets with all kinds of strange dining customs, and characters can feast off exotic dishes, long since forgotten.

ROMANCE

Writing about romance (to give it its polite term) in the real world might call for a candlelit dinner, soft music on the stereo and silk sheets in the bedroom.  Or, if you’re reaching the maximum word-count and your hero and heroine tend to be brisk about such things, you revert to the Italian trattoria and plenty of Chianti.  In fantasy you might not get the silk sheets, but you can have a bedchamber strewn with rose petals, and the soft music can be supplied by a fantasy version of a Palm Court orchestra.  (If you’re a ruler in fantasy land you can order pretty much what you want on these occasions, as the Wolfkings usually did).

PLOT SNAGS

 In fantasy you can often cut your way out of these by creating a spell – newly-woven or disinterred from a cobwebbed crypt, or possibly stolen from a rival sorcerer.  This last is good, because it allows you to start a sub-plot, in which a few characters can be sent on a quest, braving assorted dangers along the way.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

 There’s no NHS in fantasy, of course, or private medical schemes.  But if a character has over-indulged at one of the lush banquets, or, more likely, has a sword-wound from a battle, you can have a great time creating an eccentric druid or a wandering bard with a useful store of medical knowledge and a cartload of potions.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

CourtBoth have to exist in fantasy, but the crimes can be pleasingly exotic.  They might range from the pilfering of a spell to the usurping of a throne.                             The punishments are exotic, as well.  It isn’t a question of turning up at Court No 3 and being sentenced to two years in the nick, or even an afternoon in the stocks.  In fantasy, people can be exiled from kingdoms.  They can be turned to stone or drowned in lakes of blood. They can be sacrificed in a ritual specially written for the occasion.  Often, they can be dramatically killed in a battle.  This allows the author to write a lively chapter, brimful of heroism, with the air ringing with Henry V-type rallying cries – after which everybody can have a splendidly Bacchanalian banquet by way of celebration.

As for the overall structure of the books, I wanted to tie those ancient forests and that lost Irish grandeur into the future.  To create a bridge to that long-ago world – but a bridge that would not start in the present, with its too-easily-recognisable technology, but that would be far in the future…  In a world where technology was an almost forgotten word – where things such as television, telephones, cars, electricity, were only legends.  A world destroyed and laid waste by a catastrophe so massive it had torn open a chink in Time’s fabric…  A chink through which someone from that future world might fall, to find herself in the Wolfking’s enchanted lair on the very edge of the dazzling halls of Tara’s Court…

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LEGALIZING THE PLOT

C DickensThe legal profession has always been a novelists’ treasure house, and lawyers themselves are a gift to writers of fiction.  If your plot has wound itself into a hopeless tangle, you can often solve matters by allowing the family solicitor to discover old documents or a Will which will provide motives the reader hasn’t yet suspected exist, (and that the author didn’t realise were going to be needed).            There can even be the discovery that the solicitor has forged the Will/siphoned off the trust fund/faked a promissory note – even pilfered the petty cash – thus giving him/her a credible motive for one or two juicy (or even judicial) murders, and so becoming the villain of the piece.

Wills can be very useful to an author.  If a house needs to be polempty for a number of years, one way to achieve this is by a Will’s disappearance.  For Property of a Lady, I created an old-fashioned firm of lawyers whose senior partner wore a high-wing collar, and whose office was crammed with decades of stacked-up deed boxes. The gentleman died at his desk – he was found by a junior clerk, but several sets of vital documents were not. This allowed the property – Charect House – to stand empty for a very long time, crumbling into suitably gothic dereliction while the ownership was disputed and fruitless searches made for the Title Deeds.

Comedic lawyers in fiction are regarded with affection.  John Mortimer (himself a former barrister), knew this when he created Rumpole of the Bailey, memorably portrayed on TV by Leo McKern. Frequently awash with his favourite claret (‘Chateau Thames Embankment’), Horace Rumpole cheerfully wrought havoc in his Chambers, doled out wise, if not always practical, advice to juniors, and generally managed to confound most judges before whom he appeared.

Other writers, however, were not always favourably disposed to the legal profession.  Shakespeare, in Henry V1 Part 2, gives one character the line, ‘First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. Hamlet, exchanging macabre pleasantries with Horatio in the graveyard and considering a disinterred skull, asks, ‘Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?’  And in Goethe’s Dr Faust, the hapless doctor grumpily observes that, ‘All rights and laws are transmitted like an eternal sickness.’  Given that poor Heinrich signed a legal document that went horribly wrong, perhaps the sentiment is understandable.

Bleak HouseCharles Dickens drew on his time as a solicitor’s clerk (a job he apparently disliked), and as a court reporter, to weave satirical portrayals of the English legal system, with characters caught like hapless flies in the dusty spider strands of the law.  When, in Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble advised a court that, ‘The law is an ass’, Dickens may have been borrowing from a 17th century play called Revenge for Honour, which is attributed to both George Chapman and Henry Glapthorne, depending on which source you check.  Not much seems known about Henry Glapthorne, but apparently Master Chapman signed an agreement for a loan which never materialised.  According to the reports, he spent years petitioning Chancery to release him from payment, but at one stage was arrested for debt.  (A fate which hovers over many writers to this day). Under those circumstances (supposing the facts to be accurate), it’s hardly surprising that Master Chapman did what a great many other writers have done:  he wrote out his frustrations in the plot.    

Recently I came across the term “infangentheof”.  I had never encountered it, but it seems that the literal translation is “in-taken-thief”, and it permitted the owners of a piece of land the right to mete out justice to miscreants captured within their estates, regardless of where the poor wretches actually lived.  It’s an Anglo-Saxon arrangement, supposedly from the time of Edward the Confessor, but when the Normans came barrelling in, they made cheerful use of it as well, because it helped keep the rebellious Saxons in their place.

Infangentheof fell more or less into disuse in the fourteenth century.  But one afternoon, having become lost in the depths of the countryside, I came across a field with a sign on the gate saying, ‘Infanger’s Field’.  A fragment from the past?  A shred of some long-ago feudal baron who had named a field as a warning to miscreants?  I made eager notes, although it was a bit unfortunate that I dropped my notebook in the mud, (I think it was mud – I hope it was mud), and perhaps I wouldn’t have worn scarlet gloves if I had known there was a bull in the field.                                                                                                   I’m doubtful if I could find the field again.  It might not even exist.  It might have been time-slip land – a fragment of the medieval era that had momentarily slipped through a tear.  Being prosaic, it’s also possible that a Mr or Mrs Infanger might live – and farm – in the area. Whatever the truth, the notes are perfectly legible (even if the paper is somewhat pungently scented), and I daresay the bull enjoyed eating the woolly gloves I threw to him by way of diversion while I scrambled over the gate to safety.                                                                   Writers go to considerable lengths to get a plot sometimes.

Dark Dividing USWriting A Dark Dividing some years ago, I searched for an appropriate house name for the brooding old orphanage/workhouse that played such an integral part in the plot.  Names of places matter just as much as names of characters.  You can’t call a Victorian asylum Rosemount Manor or a gaol housing condemned prisoners Summerville Court.   Then I came across the word mortmain, which opened up another unknown chink of law. The Statute of Mortmain (ie dead man’s hand), dates back to around 1200. The kings of that time used to hand out land to religious houses, but after a while it dawned on them that the owners of the land would never actually die – ownership simply passed from abbot to abbot.  That meant the medieval equivalent of death duties were never payable.  So the Mortmain Law was created to close up this loophole and allow the monarchs to scoop up the dosh.  A cynic might wonder if the law was also intended to check the growing wealth of the church, but whatever the reasons behind its creation, it gave me Mortmain House.

The law, with all its quirks and archaic convolutions, provides remarkably good plot devices for authors.  There are tithes and torts and peppercorn rents. There’s assumpsit (medieval breach of contract), and gavelkind (a Saxon form of limited land ownership).

Since Magna Carta a great many of those old laws have been repealed.  Some remain though, and traces of others can still be found today.  Even if one of those traces is simply a field that might once have known the ancient practice of infangentheof, but that now houses only an indignant bull.

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BUILDING THE INSPIRATIONS – AND AVOIDING THE PITFALLS

 

There’s a marvellous theme running through Benjamin Britten’s opera, Owen Wingrave, which is based on the Henry James’ story.  It’s, ‘Listen to the house.’  It’s something I’ve done for years.

owen-wingrave
Set for the BBC2 production of Owen Wingrave, designed by David Myerscough-Jones

By ‘listen’ I don’t mean yomping round the Tower of London and thinking you’re hearing Ann Boleyn grumbling about the damp cell she was put in.  Or taking a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament, and imagining echoes of a muttered conversation in a dark corner… ‘And if we hide the gunpowder here they’ll never find it, but this time, Guy, please don’t forget the matches…

I mean ordinary buildings – places where people have lived and worked.  Their atmospheres, their histories, their usage, present and past – these are all chockfull of interest

There are, though a few pitfalls that can trap the unwary author who makes use of real buildings and genuine places:-

DISAPPEARANCE

The original venue can have disappeared without you realising. In that case, there’s usually a reader who lives there, and who writes to you – or, worse, to your editor – indignantly pointing out that Arnold couldn’t have drowned Ethel in the duck pond, because since last year it’s been a supermarket.

DIVERSION

The building is certainly still there, but between your research and the book’s publication the local authority has built a bypass and/or a four-lane motorway. Consequently, instead of the reader being able to imagine the unravelling of dark secrets and discreditable histories in a remote house shrouded in brooding silence, the action now appears to take place to the accompaniment of rumbling pantechnicons and police sirens chasing joy-riders.  Alternatively, a neighbouring land-owner has extended his farm, so the seduction scene in the coppice, with the heroine swooning to the scent of meadowsweet and the sound of birdsong, would now appear to happen against a backdrop of clattering tractors and the pungent atmosphere from the new pig-sties.

DESTRUCTION

You base an historical sub-plot around a building, then discover the building no longer existed at the time of your story. This happened to me when I wove a Russian theatre into a sub-plot about the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.  It wasn’t until I had written four chapters that I discovered the theatre had burned down eight years before Alexander was bumped off – and that re-building hadn’t begun until two years after it.  At this point, I should acknowledge – and apologise for – the fact that writers have a regrettable streak of egocentricity.  I suspect it’s not uncommon for authors wanting to use an historical event to curse the fact that a war/coup/assassination happened inconveniently early or just six months too late.

DIFFERENCE

You don’t check out the venue beforehand – probably because you’re too broke to travel to it at the time – but you write the book anyway. Later, you visit the place and find it’s blood-ritual-currenttotally different.  Some years ago I wrote a contemporary horror novel based on the seventeenth-century Countess Elizabeth Bathory.  She used to bathe in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth and beauty.  (I have no idea if it worked, although clearly Elizabeth believed it did).  She lived in the Carpathian Mountains, but she also had a town house in Vienna.  When I wrote Blood Ritual I wasn’t able to travel to either place, but a few years later I did go to Vienna, and I found her house in a place called the Blutgasse – Blood Alley. I was pleased to discover that the Blutgasse was as creepy and ancient as I had described – one of those really eerie pockets of Old Vienna – owing its name, apparently, to the slaughter of the Knights Templar in the 12th century, when the old cobblestones ran with their blood.  However, at one end of the Blutgasse was a kind of T-junction, with a house that was open to the public – it  was possible to stand in one of the rooms of that house and look through the window onto Elizabeth’s residence. That house was open to the public because it had once been lived in by Mozart, who had composed a great deal of his marvellous music there.  So he would have done so while looking across to the home of a woman who, in her day, had slaughtered more than 300 young girls.  If a century and a half hadn’t separated those two, they would have been neighbours; they could have waved to one another, or discussed the weather when putting out the milk bottles.  It’s certain that I would have portrayed parts of that book slightly differently if I’d been able to travel to Vienna before I wrote it.

DEMOLISHED

For years you intend to set a book at a favourite venue. In the town where I lived as a child was a semi-derelict castle.  It stood on the summit of a small hill – the old feudal lords always built their strongholds high up so they could keep out a watchful eye for any enterprising enemies that might sneak up on them.  The original medieval castle fell victim to a variety of fates, but the main stafford-castlereason for its downfall, was Time.  Simply, it crumbled away. So, with typical nineteenth century gusto, a replica was built on the site.  But it was a replica so outrageously gothic that if it had been offered for sale, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley would have climbed over one another to own it, and Edgar Allen Poe and Matthew Lewis would have been taking gleeful notes.  I was always determined to write a book using this gorgeously gothic old pile and its back story.  And then, one dark and stormy night (what else could it have been?) it toppled down.  The fact that it did so in instalments, one chunk at a time, rather than in a dramatic avalanche of stones and turrets, did nothing to save the embryo plot.

But using a real place can sometimes work brilliantly.   About 10 years ago I discovered a spider-lightwonderful 15th century flour mill in Nether Alderley in Cheshire.  The National Trust team there gave generously and enthusiastically of their time and knowledge, and the result was the macabre and – to quote one review – ‘nightmarishly unforgettable’ Twygrist Mill in Spider Light.  It looked, as one character said, as if it had ‘grown up by itself overnight when no one was looking.’

So, on balance, it’s usually easier, better for the plot, and certainly a lot of fun, to set aside real-life scenarios and construct a fictional building – mental word-brick by mental word-brick.  That being so, I’ll end this blog by explaining I’m off to don a hard hat, some snazzy overalls, and get the stepladder down from the attic…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blood-Ritual-Sarah-Rayne-ebook/dp/B0098OR9J4/ref=pd_sim_351_4?ie=UTF8&dpID=41Ofu4hUtgL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR102%2C160_&refRID=14KHDE32K64MS697A6V7

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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.

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 deserts 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.