Category Archives: Book Background

Sheep, Spooks & Spells

It was a joy to use the Cotswolds as a setting for my second horror novel, ‘Nevermere.’

I first went to this beautiful region as a child, and have been a regular visitor ever since. A keen walker, its array of interlocking sheep hills, little rivers and charming woodland valleys always lifts my spirits. Whether I’m spending a week or more renting a cottage or just a few days on a short break, the effect is ever one of rejuvenation. It’s a place I know extensively and have spent time in every season.

I always break into a smile after responding with authority to a request from a tourist for which local knowledge is essential. The typical look of incredulity when their follow-on question about how long I’ve lived there is answered, never ceases to disappoint.

Over the years I have witnessed the Cotswolds become ever more popular. The downside is that – like many pretty rural communities up and down our land – it has been the target of second home purchases by the wealthy. Well-heeled incomers have turned village locals into gastro-pubs, many of the houses sit empty of year-round residents, and local youngsters have zero chance of owning a home in the place they grew up. It’s such a talked-about topic, that I thoroughly enjoyed making my protagonists encounter these experiences first hand. The character of Bob Faringdon was especially a joy to write. It has been my pleasure to meet many wonderful, old-school Cotswold locals. ‘Nevermere’ is even dedicated to one-such chap, who grew up in a village where I rented a cottage for five years.

If you’re interested in some real-life, regional ghost stories, this is a good place to start.

Should this blog post or my second book inspire you, the Cotswolds is a fine choice for a holiday or mini-break destination. If you’ve never visited, I highly recommend it. But, please allow the region to leave its mark on you, rather than the other way around.

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Honey Wine & Horror

My second horror novel, ‘Nevermere,’ features a family of five who move from London to the Cotswolds.

Douglas Ashbourne finds himself made redundant at Christmas from his project management job. His wife, Elizabeth, convinces him to start a new career at her late grandfather’s cottage. A career that involves him turning his hobby into a full-time business.

What is the hobby?

Meadmaking!

This story was a great joy to write, as it includes two of my favourite things:

  1. The Cotswolds – A place where I have spent considerable time over the years.
  2. Making meads, melomels and country fruit wines.

The oldest alcoholic drink – 9,000 years from archaeological evidence, mead has gained increasing popularity of late. This is due in no small part to works of fantasy fiction entering the mainstream as hit television shows.

The images in this post feature some of my own meads and melomels from this past year (though there were many more).

The word ‘Honeymoon’ derives from a tradition of giving newlywed couples enough mead to last an entire lunar cycle. This was thought to bring good luck to the marriage, aid fertility and virility.

Cheers!

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Mind your ‘Thees’ & ‘Thous’

‘Nevermere’ opens with an ‘Ordeal by Water’ witch trial during the English Civil War in 1644.

While the rest of the book is set in the present day, repercussions from this action impact on the modern inhabitants of a small, Gloucestershire village. For the opening scene, I wanted to get a very genuine feel for the setting. The reader only spends one chapter in that timeframe, so it needed to stand apart.

At first, I found myself writing in ‘Thees’ and ‘Thous’ to such an extent that it became an unwieldy caricature. This is a technique used to comic effect in several films. I adore the Disney production of ‘Hocus Pocus’ and watch it every year. There we have three witches from 1693, who – thanks to a spell – come back to life in 1993. To create a definite sense of two timeframes colliding, the witches all speak in (what writers sometimes call) ‘Bygonese.’

It was after re-reading my own first chapter, I knew that wasn’t going to work in a more serious, chilling tale. So, I decided to read up on historical linguistics. It was during this research that I learned nobody was still using ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ in everyday speech much after 1600. Studies of diarists of the period – like Samuel Pepys – proved quite enlightening. So too were several articles by academic authorities on old speech.

So it was that I came to re-write the opening with more generic language. I added common terminology and salutations from the era like ‘Goodwife’ or ‘Goody’ and so forth. The result is a chapter that is a lot easier to read. It conveys an atmospheric setting without the language becoming intrusive or lunging into cartoonish parody.

‘Susan Blackwood. You have been found guilty via ordeal by water of the crime of witchcraft. That you did send out your spirit to attack Goodwife Parsons in an act of maleficium has now been irrefutably established.’

I’m sure you get the idea.

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Around Ardenham

Regular readers will be aware that the fictitious town of ‘Ardenham’ from ‘Maria’s Walk’ is actually based on Faversham, my hometown on the Swale Estuary in Kent.

Maria herself was also inspired by a famous, real-life spectre known as ‘Diana.’ The book is dedicated to her. Maria’s character in the story is loosely drawn from a number of local speculations about who Diana may have been (albeit with much invention and embellishment to bring the plot to life).

Here are a few locations that inspired places in the book, with appropriate quotations and the odd note for your enjoyment.

Let’s start with the title image from this post.

Ardenham Marketplace

Faversham_Market_(6110526770)The guildhall stood an elegant, green, rendered structure with high, arched windows. The building rested on thick wooden stilts allowing a market to be held underneath. Once the local court house, it also featured a clock, flagpole and weather vane in the shape of a dragon. All around, wonky timber-framed buildings with high-pitched roofs clustered about the three principal streets that fed into this oft-photographed civic space.

Westbrook Pond

PondOn the other side of Dark Hill sat Westbrook Pond, fed from the Westbrook Stream that eventually flowed into Ardenham Creek in the centre of town. Lavington church reflected down into the mirror-like calm water from a tree-lined ridge above, and proved a popular scene for artists and photographers of all flavours. Jack had many fond memories of feeding the ducks there with his grandparents, whenever they came down to stay at Christmas back in the Seventies.

The Mermaid Inn

(Description based on the inn during the Regency period, as seen in a psychic dream by Gaby. It’s worth mentioning that the actual pub which inspired it – ‘The Anchor’ – is a great place to visit today. You can still sit in the room out back, where Richard Belmont meets with his henchmen in the book).

Pub‘The Mermaid’ was a large, tumbledown, timber-framed old inn squatting at the far end of Abbey Street. The place sat just before the wharf entrance to Ardenham Creek, where sailing vessels loaded and unloaded their cargo. Its reputation as a dirty, over-crowded den of cutthroats and villains of all shapes and sizes was well deserved. If you were a merchant, deckhand or salty sea dog in search of rough grog, a good fight, or pox-infested tumble with a coarse strumpet, you need go no further into town. The more genteel population of Ardenham secretly hoped the inn would never burn down nor shut its doors. While there were certainly other rough drinking establishments, fleshpots and diverse dens of iniquity to be found close by, its proximity to the embarkation/disembarkation point of maritime crews kept some of the rougher elements at arm’s length. Many never went any further than ‘The Mermaid,’ unless they had other business to attend to.

Glyndale Park Manor

(Note that the description doesn’t match the image here, as the building had a facelift during Victorian times. The reason this is an old black and white photo, is due to the fact the manor – Syndale – suffered a dramatic fire and was torn down in the 1960’s. Today there is a motel and gym on the site, which does indeed offer a commanding view of the estuary and town).

ManorTheir cork heels crunched on the gravel path. It led up to the tall pillars that supported a shady front porch fronting Glyndale Park Manor. White rendering shone in the late September morning sun, affording the impressive structure an almost ethereal quality to match its palatial grandeur. Even though the old place had clearly seen better days – particularly when examined up close – it was still an elegant former residence.

Gaby angled her head to look at Ardenham nestling in the shallow, rolling valley behind and just to the right of Abbey Wood. Above the assorted roofs, Lavington church could clearly be seen standing sentinel atop Dark Hill. Beyond, the estuary sparkled like a shimmering blanket of sequins.

Abbey Wood

(There are of course many sinister descriptions of Abbey Wood in the book. The real place – ‘Bysing Wood’ – can be pretty wild and creepy at times. However, since I have a more pleasant photo here of some bluebells in spring, I’ll include a quotation from near the end of the story).

WoodGaby grabbed his arm with a gasp, glancing around. “Jack, do you realise where we are?”

Jack studied his surroundings more closely. “Goodness. I hardly recognised it with all the carpets of bluebells. It’s the dell.”

So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed this little tour around Ardenham.

Heart of a Heroine (how one cup of coffee changes a woman’s life)

When you read the first couple of chapters from my debut horror novel, ‘Maria’s Walk,’ it becomes clear that Jack Foreman is one of the key protagonists. Here he comes, back home to Ardenham after the sudden death of his parents. An ex-minister, he’s lost his religious faith and has been struggling to make a go of ordinary life in the corporate workplace.

Then during a café breakfast, he has an unexpected encounter with Gabriella Wagstaff. She joins him for coffee and you know the sparks are going to fly – even if the fire is a long, slow burn. It’s a coffee that changes her life (and his, for that matter).

Gabriella Wagstaff“Jack?” the musical, lilting female voice evidenced a hint of surprise and cheekiness.  It stirred the diner from further deep thoughts his fathomless mind had wandered into whilst eating.  “Jack Foreman?” the tone sounded again, as if to reinforce its first word with a reassurance tag provided by his surname.

Jack looked up, a piece of sausage and mushroom squashed together on the back of his fork.

A slender, shapely woman – about five and a half feet tall – had walked past him on the pavement, before glancing back over her shoulder.  Long, wavy, light brown hair cascaded across bare shoulders leading down to a white, strapless top.  Below that a slim waist and tight, rounded buttocks were wrapped in a pair of stonewashed jeans.  Her legs ended in bare ankles and open low-heeled sandals.  Jack moved his focus back north.  It followed an elegant neck to where a pair of aventurine eyes sparkled out from beneath subtly shadowed lids.  Neatly trimmed eyebrows raised slightly as the woman regarded him.  A long, slender nose led down to full, coral lips and pristine white teeth.

The man regarded her a moment longer, before his mind adjusted for the years and the penny dropped who it was.

“Gaby?  Gaby Wagstaff?!”  Jack released the knife and fork with a clatter, rising to his feet as the vision approached wearing a wide smile.  He took her by the hand and planted a reciprocated gentle kiss on the side of her face.

This younger sister of his childhood best friend, was deliberately created to be a perfect mirror character for Jack. In fact, the book is nothing without her. She is – in many ways – a stronger person than the quiet, brooding but sensitive man.

Gaby has been a massive success in the city, but now lost her faith in empty materialism. At the same time, her long-supressed psychic abilities kick-in with a vengeance.

So in Jack we have someone who once focused on the spiritual and ignored the material, but has now lost faith in the spiritual but wrestles with the material. While in Gaby we have someone who once focused on the material and ignored the spiritual, but has now lost faith in the material but wrestles with the spiritual.

Gaby wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s gentle but tenacious and often doubts her abilities. She finds strength in sharing her concerns with Jack. Her love for him and the figures in the unravelling backstory behind how the haunting of ‘Maria’s Walk’ came about, evidence genuine tenderness and empathy.

As the drama relating to the ghost of Maria unfolds, the conflict moves from internal struggles Jack and Gaby are wrestling with, to a full-blown, physical, emotional and spiritual battle that challenges both their worldviews. It takes a real ghost to help lay their personal ghosts to rest.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

I simply couldn’t resist the obvious title to this post about my debut horror novel, ‘Maria’s Walk,’ because – despite being the name of a famous song from ‘The Sound of Music’ – it is also an apt description of the central issue faced by the book’s main characters.

For me, the story is a deeply personal one on a number of levels. Those who have read ‘An Interview with De’Ath’ (see the ‘About’ page) will know a little of my own history of spiritual evolution. There is certainly a lot of myself to be found in Jack Foreman (one of the story’s protagonists). The journey he undertakes resonates strongly with my own, as do the challenges of faith he encounters.

Fictitious Ardenham – the setting for the novel – is based quite closely on my own sleepy medieval English country market hometown on the Swale estuary in Kent. While names of key locations / businesses / historical figures etc. have naturally been altered appropriately, I still deliberately wrote the tale in such a manner that those with local knowledge will immediately feel at home in the setting of the story.

As kids, we grew up and went to a school similar to Abbey Wood Primary. Our lives were frequently overshadowed by the real-life haunting on which Maria is based. If you hadn’t encountered those manifestations personally, you almost certainly knew somebody who had. My own Catholic priest while I was a lad, got called upon to perform blessings at some of the new residences built along the route (walk) of the girl’s demise. Residences that suffered significant psychic disturbances. The opening scene of the book where a kid wakes up screaming after falling asleep in class – remembering a terrifying encounter while camping in the woods – actually happened. Cars conking out on the wooded hill, followed by the spirit drifting across the road or seemingly gliding over the surface of the old gravel pit lakes (which weren’t lakes during her lifetime) are all tales you’ll encounter first or second hand if you ask around.

To this day, walking or driving through the haunted wood is not the most pleasant experience, although ignorance may in fact be bliss if you are from out of town and don’t know the stories. It’s partly a heritage country park these days. One doesn’t have to do much digging to learn of a recent episode with some poor soul who has unwittingly encountered the spirit we all know as ‘Diana.’ There are a number of tales about who she was and how she died, to be found in our oral folklore. I have woven some of that together and developed a fictional account and fully-fledged fictitious backstory springing from one such possibility.

Writing ‘Maria’s Walk’ gave me the opportunity to vicariously play with the idea of some person or people attempting to finally lay that poor soul to rest. It also enabled me to work from a broad palette of themes including (but not limited to): unrequited love, societal mores and expectations, post evangelicalism, spiritual/religious questioning of faith, reincarnation, demonic influence, possession and spiritual warfare.

I’m a firm believer that good horror writing should be about more than just scaring or disturbing your readers. People want three dimensional characters they can empathise with, a vivid, detailed setting that feels like a real place (Ardenham is strongly based on one, of course), and a resolution that appears to have pushed back the darkness – for now.

‘Maria’s Walk’ is more than just a ghost story. It’s a love story too and a tale about good conquering evil at the hands of two old friends: A confused, unsure couple who discover they are part of a tragedy, love triangle, and spiritual battle that has been taking place in their old hometown for nearly two hundred years. Their own level of involvement even catches them unawares, but answers several questions and soothes many anxieties with which they have both been struggling.

So, how do you solve a problem like Maria? Well, somewhere along the way, it looks like Jack and Gaby might find the answer…