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.

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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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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 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