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.

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:-


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…












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:

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



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.


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.


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.


It’s a fact of life that there are times when the shadow can be mightier than the substance.

nosferatu-bwshadowOver ninety years ago the German film-maker F.W. Murnau chilled cinema audiences with the 1922 silent movie, Nosferatu.  It’s still chilling people today, and probably the creepiest scene of all is where the vampiric  Count Orlok steals up the dark stairway, only his shadow visible on the wall.  Thus sparking off a tradition that was to go from Hammer to Twilight, and provide a stream of starring roles for actors capable of turning on sinister charm at the drop of a garlic clove.

In the 1960s film-makers again became aware that what you don’t see is often scarier than what you do.  Anyone who watched Hitchock’s The Birds will remember how menacing it was when ordinary birds began to gather on rooftops.   And with Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby, did we actually see the demon who attacked Mia Farrow?  My memory is that we didn’t, although it’s always possible I had gone out to buy the popcorn at that point.

Fiction writers have always known that what you don’t see can be a whole lot scarier than what you do see, but sometimes there’s an irresistible temptation to add that last swish of the knife, to include that extra sh-dinner

The famous and exclusive Detection Club, (think Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton), reportedly required (and indeed may still require), its members to take an oath, part of which warns them to avoid: ‘Sinister Chinamen,’ (doubtless a sly nod there to Sax Rohmer, creator of the Fu Manchu books), as well as ‘divine revelations, and poisons unknown to science’.  The oath also apparently forbade members to purloin other people’s plots, ‘whether under the influence of drink or not’, but that’s probably another story.

ghost-2Translated into a warning to writers of pyschological thrillers, this oath might read:  ‘Let there be no superfluity of splattering gore, no unnecessarily-festering corpses, no wild-eyed axe-killers or gibbering maniacs springing out of cupboards.  Instead, let there be the midnight creak on the stair, the whisk of something sinister disappearing round a corner, a glimpse of the shirt-tail of a ghost rather than a glimpse of the ghost itself…’       And let the chills be understated, and let the reader’s own imagination fill in the blanks.

Because it’s another undoubted fact that radio has some of the best pictures. Continue reading