Regular readers will know that I like to base the locations of my novels on actual places. There will – of necessity – always be some artistic license and pure fictional content. But, you’ll find plenty of genuine sites recreated and featured throughout the course of each story.
For my seventh horror novel, ‘Scribe,’ it was important to contrast the comfortable Suffolk life of protagonist, Michael Brooks, with a different setting as he seeks to recover from the loss of his wife. I opted for the windswept wildness of beautiful Northumberland, which plays a striking role as a character in its own right. Michael rents a converted watermill and former gamekeeper’s bothy between the rivers Coquet and Breamish. While the site of Shillmoor Barton (a manorial estate with clusters of farms) is a fiction, Shillmoor itself exists. I love the Breamish valley and the hamlet of Ingram, which also features in the book. Other iconic Northumberland sites make appearances, including Alnwick, Morpeth, Wooler and Lindisfarne. It’s a part of the world I’ve stayed in and explored many times.
On a similar note, Michael hails from Framlingham in Suffolk and lives in Woodbridge, where some old friends of mine reside. It was a delight to include several of my favourite Framlingham places, including ‘The Crown Hotel,’ Framlingham Castle and St Michael’s church in various scenes throughout the book.
For the spooky house in which the principal action takes place, I drew upon true inspiration. If you’ve read the interview on my ‘About’ page, you’ll be familiar with a house I once stayed in, which played out (in minor respects) like a classic ghost story. The converted watermill and former bothy exists in border country, though it lies on the other side of the Tweed, about forty-eight miles from Shillmoor as the crow flies. From the single-railed footbridge crossing a cascade, to the setting and interior furnishings, it’s real. There was little I needed to invent. It made such a perfect, remote location. I’ve placed a plunge pool beneath the cascade and amped the size of the woodshed a little. But the rest would be recognisable if you ever stayed there – right down to the loft hatch above the master bed.
As I write this, it was seventeen years ago that I rented the mill alone. It dropped off the radar for a while, but has been back as a popular holiday let for many years. If there ever were any genuine, strange goings-on, all seems well now. The house is beautifully decorated and sits in a breathtaking setting. Don’t blame me if you read ‘Scribe’ while holidaying in the house and experience uncomfortable dreams, though. Definitely don’t blame the owners! It’s a stunning retreat in a fabulous landscape.
‘Scribe’ will be available in Kindle format from 25th March at an introductory price for its first month of 99c / 99p. The paperback version is already available to purchase, with Amazon estimating delivery in time for the eBook release date.
I’d put off maturing the premise for my seventh horror novel into a full-bodied plot by two books. While ‘the written word made manifest’ is nothing new in fiction (or religion), I kept throwing out obvious branching concepts. They all seemed too predictable to my brainstorming mind. Like many writers, I ended up keeping the best scene ideas, though the story they occupy is a world apart.
‘Scribe’ opens with a man named Michael Brooks, who lost his wife, Julie, to a Cerebral Haemorrhage. A sensitive introvert, it doesn’t take long before the effects of his grieving energy impact the physical world around him. His bereavement counsellor recommends a change of scene and the act of journaling to process his grief. And so the stage is set to roll out a weird house full of restless spirits that play havoc with his isolated literary therapy.
During the process, I turn up the heat from random, unusual occurrences to undeniable supernatural encounters with mortal outcomes. Along the way Michael discovers a raft of ghosts, including those of five children who disappeared between 1885 and 1886. Michael and his wife could not conceive, yet desired a family of their own.
With a lot of horror/supernatural suspense novels, the antagonist remains a faceless beast, unveiled near the climax in a big reveal. While this is necessary for many plotlines, it can leave the villains feeling like undeveloped characters. One thing I found most enjoyable about writing ‘Scribe’ was the ability to have my (deceased) ‘baddie’ interact with Michael throughout. This occurs via paranormal experiences and the written word in his journals. By the time he makes a full-blown appearance near the end, readers know all they could want about this semi-religious, psychopathic child rapist and murderer. There’s a certain added satisfaction from that, when his plans are brought low.
Rape is an overdone and often cringe-worthy trope in the horror genre. I steer clear of it (as a general rule), with the notable exception of that mildly worded but heart-breaking scene in ‘Maria’s Walk’ where hired thugs abuse and kill Maria Belmont. It’s difficult to write without falling into classic pitfalls that trivialise a devastating act. It can also be lazy writing: i.e. we all know rape is horrible, so just roll out some rape scenes to keep the horror amped, right? Wrong! Awful though it is, reading rape scenes gets old quickly. Unless the device forms a pivotal part of the story, I wonder about the plot structure of a book that focuses on it. Throw children into the mix and you’re walking on eggshells with every word written.
However, for ‘Scribe’ it made perfect sense for the main story arc, though became a difficult cross to bear on occasion. The children all disappeared without trace in the Victorian era. Readers learn the truth behind those disappearances, the nature of their adversary and Michael’s part in the ongoing story through historic flashbacks, journal entries, and murderous manifestations affecting the supporting cast of characters in the present.
I’m of the firm belief that once you’ve established a clear character trait, reinforcing it with repetitious actions is pointless. This comes back to my earlier statement about reading rape scenes getting old. After the nature and appetites of the villain are rolled out in ‘Scribe’ with a teenage girl, I give subsequent incidents cursory mention. That, or hint at them without specific descriptions.
The first rape scene was the toughest in the book to write. I must have reshaped it a dozen times to strike a correct balance. A wobbly place between giving necessary information, sparking an emotive response and not going overboard with graphic details. Heaven forbid anyone read such an encounter and experience any kind of titillation. I opted for focusing on the girl’s traumatised mental state and physical pain, replaying certain aspects of the act with metaphor and simile. It’s like walking a tightrope in a hurricane, but the result advances the story with the right tone. A follow-on scene featuring twin victims (a boy and girl) includes just enough post-horror suggestions to show our rapist’s tastes extend to both sexes. Then things are kept to his written rantings, which blend a strict religious upbringing with depraved statements suggesting sexual imagery. In a classic example of psychological gas-lighting, he blames his victims for his own evil deeds.
Because of his grief, Michael doubts the evidence of his own senses at first. This is a mild nod to that other overused trope: ‘The Unreliable Narrator.’ As I prefer writing in the third person, this doesn’t get much more than lip service. But it helps mix things up while our suffering hero discovers what’s going on both inside and out.
Given the two heavy topics covered – bereavement and child abuse/murder – I couldn’t leave my readers without a heart-warming climax and denouement. ‘Scribe’ is also a love story. A tale about unconfessed affection finding a second chance at the right moment. If you read it, I hope it moves you. Ultimately, I hope you walk away with a positive experience.
‘Scribe’ will be out in paperback and Kindle formats before the end of March.
My latest novel, ‘The
Lychgate,’ allowed me to indulge in writing some good, old-fashioned,
last person standing survival horror. I always have a strong pull towards ‘story,’ so there had to be more meat on
the bone than pure situational hi-jinks. By the time everything kicks off, the
reader should feel invested in the characters and back-story. A tale that makes
sense, rather than offering some weak excuse for undead corpses going on a wild
killing spree as an afterthought.
The premise surrounding the book
had been bouncing around in my mind (and sitting on my ideas notepad) for about
a year. Lychgates have always held a distinct fascination. The variety and
history behind them, adds to the enjoyment of visiting many an English church.
As a long-time fan of fantasy literature and a student of folklore, the common
etymology shared by a mythical ‘Lich’
creature and this familiar churchyard architecture was too good to pass up. A
Lich is typically the resurrected but decayed body of a holy man, raised by
devoted followers reciting their ancient incantations. Legend depicts them
being master manipulators, enslaving an army of the risen dead. Both ‘Lich’ and ‘Lychgate’ come from the old English word ‘Lic,’ or corpse. Before mortuaries and refrigeration, when most
people died at home, bodies would reside with a guard under the lychgate until
the funeral took place. The service began at the gate and proceeded inside the
church; re-emerging for burial within its consecrated boundary.
For setting, I toyed with a
variety of environments. The one I kept coming back to, and which provided
ample scope for isolation and subsequent wild terror (hidden from the modern
world), was the South Lincolnshire Fens: Big skies, bleak landscapes, and
difficult to traverse terrain thanks to criss-crossing drainage channels. Close
enough to civilisation to be engaging, yet remote enough to provoke a sense of
A creepy setting always works
best when it’s an integral part of the story, rather than a tacked-on device
for dramatic effect. So it was that I delved into local history, in search of
characters and legends around which I could build the monster’s genesis. The
British Museum features a historic, pictorial document called ‘The Guthlac Roll.’ This depicts the
story of St. Guthlac, a late seventh century Mercian soldier turned monk. He resided
as an anchorite on the island of Croyland, where present day Crowland sits
today. Guthlac was said to have settled in an oratory formed from a barrow,
with his younger sister St. Pega and a male helper called Beccelm. Pega left to
found her own oratory at Peakirk, when both those sites were still islands in
the previously undrained fens. After Guthlac’s death, Pega supposedly moved several
items from her brother’s tomb, before his resting place was re-located. His
body was re-sited a couple more times after the construction of Crowland Abbey.
Roundels on ‘The Guthlac Roll’ show the
saint fighting demons and driving out a demoniac. These tales offered a perfect
situation around which to introduce Nechtan, a holy man of the Bilmingas tribe
who comes into conflict with him. Keying aspects of Guthlac and Pega’s lives
into the plot became a joy after that, and added significant breadth to the
Parallels are always fun when
spinning a yarn. With ‘The Lychgate,’ there is a foundation
based on a vengeful, pagan spiritual manipulator, ousted by a new religion. He
carries that offence beyond the grave, longing for retribution and power. In
the modern world, several of the characters are ousted from their own
comfortable lives by new ‘religions’
like political correctness, corporate profiteering, liberal orthodoxy and an obsession with metrics. It is these
supplanting ideas that drive them to join life at an off-grid community. One promising
to provide an antidote to the modern world and its insane doctrines. The only
problem is that in literally digging up the past, they unearth an evil of
significant destructive power and unfathomable malevolence. Think ‘The Mummy’ meets ‘The Evil Dead’ and you’ll have some idea what to expect.
Like my other novels, ‘The Lychgate’ is to be released in paperback and Kindle formats, from 16th December. You can pre-order the Kindle version. Its page count will correct to 347, once both products go live and are linked on Amazon.
One joy of
writing a book that crosses multiple historical timeframes whose events spatially
intersect, is the ability to double-down on locations in a way that adds poignancy
to the story.
While ‘The Shackled’ features a central narrative of primary events occurring in
2019, there are side-stories with additional characters in various places from
1815, 1914-1918, 1941-2018, 1985-2005, 2008-2019 and 2016-2019. In the
interests of my readers’ sanity, I’ve labelled these to avoid confusion.
include: Rochester, Chatham, Folkestone, Maidstone, Barham, Selling, Gravesend –
(Kent), Middle Woodford – (Wiltshire), Bath – (Somerset), Gateleigh – (Fictitious Devon village), The Western Front (Belgium), Aylesbury, Bridechurch (a fictitious estate based on
Belmont in Kent, but not set there) – (Buckinghamshire),
Danbury – (Essex), Fernhurst – (West Sussex), and London.
Several locations feature in more than one of the side stories. The first is the Great Lines Naval Memorial in Chatham, visited by Andrew Miles and Sally Nelson.
The second is the Step Short Memorial Arch in Folkestone. This stainless steel construction marks the top of ‘The Slope,’ where First World War soldiers embarking on ships for France and Belgium from Folkestone harbour shortened their stride for the downhill march. In 2019, our central character Samantha Riley walks past it on her regular strolls along The Leas. By this time, the memorial has been constructed. In the tale of Peter Haws (who goes off to fight on The Western Front), we see him receive the command to ‘Step Short’ at the point where the arch would later be built.
All the characters are present in one form or another for the modern day showdown along The Esplanade in Rochester.
As I mentioned in another article, the central characters visit Rosalind Layton’s stately home of Bridechurch from 1815, at the end of the book in 2019.
‘The Shackled’will be available in paperback and Kindle formats from 19th September. It’s also free to read for ‘Kindle Unlimited’ subscribers.
I wrote about
the relevance of the old song ‘Over the
Hills and Far Away’ in a previous post that included a nice instrumental
version. It’s a piece which has featured many lyrics over the years. In the
book, I’ve used a verse and chorus from the 1815 version for accuracy:
Courage, boys, ‘tis one to ten, But we return all gentlemen, While conquering colours we display, Over the hills and far away.
Over the Hills and O’er the Main, To Flanders, Portugal and Spain, King George commands and we’ll obey, Over the hills and far away.
Here is a beautiful modern rendition with updated lyrics based on a similar time frame.
wonderful 18th century, neo-classical stately home near my house
called ‘Belmont.’ Containing the
finest clock collection in England, it is an exquisite property on a commanding
and beautiful spot in over three thousand acres of prime Kent countryside. The
name derives from its elevated position and extensive views. Belmont has
attracted a new generation of fans in recent years, thanks to the CBBC
production series of ‘Hetty Feather.’
I’ve been a
regular visitor throughout my life and drove past the house every day for a
decade and a half. About seven years ago during one of the guided tours, I peered
into a roped-off room set up as a nursery. It struck me how sad the fine toys
looked, waiting for long-departed children to come back and play with them. Fast
forward to 2019, and I knew I wanted to feature that room (and an estate
inspired by Belmont) in my fifth horror novel: ‘The Shackled.’ I took two
visits and another guided tour to refresh my memory as writing commenced. Thus,
‘Bridechurch’ – home of the tragic
Rosalind Layton and her rocking horse – came into being.
features in one of several side-story chapters which introduce us to shackled
spirits, who – for a variety of reasons – have remained trapped between worlds
after their deaths. Thanks to the courage of little Rosalind, readers are
treated to another visit to Bridechurch in the denouement.
There are various features from the fictitious estate you can experience in real life at Belmont. These include the nursery, master bedroom, staircase, kitchens, stable, orangery and gardens. When we meet Rosalind in 1815, she is a ten-year-old child with a deep love of horses.
At the end of the book in 2019, our main protagonist Samantha Riley finds the house open to the public. She stops with her family for refreshments in the stables, which have been converted to a tea room. You can do the same at Belmont and even walk through the archway alongside. The place the book ends as Samantha hums Rosalind’s signature tune: ‘Over the Hills and Far Away.’
photos I took from some of these spots, along with this article.
‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ was a
popular song during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. In ‘The Shackled’ Rosalind
sings it with the household cook. Her frightened ghost sings it while she rocks
on Geraldine the toy horse. And she sings it to bolster her resolve and take
action during the intense story climax in a dingy Rochester warehouse. Finally,
as I’ve already mentioned, Samantha hums it during a modern day visit to
delicious joy that comes with fiction writing, when an already outlined scene gets
textured with additional details that add an unexpected richness to the overall
tale. I wanted readers to sympathise with the little girl and how the manor
staff loved her. In a story about setting trapped spirits free to cross over,
this traditional ditty ended up becoming an anthem for the entire book. Its lyrics
took on a new significance and enabled me to wrap the novel up in an emotive
style I know many of my readers have come to appreciate.
If you’ve never experienced Belmont and find yourself in Kent, I hope this post and the novel will inspire you to take a visit. It makes a wonderful day out.
‘The Shackled’will be available in paperback and Kindle formats from 19th September. It’s also free to read for ‘Kindle Unlimited’ subscribers.
I’ll leave you with a fine instrumental rendition of ‘Over the Hills and Far Away,’ performed by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
When it came time to look at suitable cover art for my latest novel, ‘The Shackled,’ I made the unusual choice to go with a predominantly black and white theme. Anyone who knows me, is aware I avoid purchasing books with black and white covers, unless I have a strong urge to delve into their contents. There may be many artistic reasons to employ such a medium, but to my mind it suggests boring, arty-farty lit-fic with unreadable purple prose and very little story. An unfair generalisation, but enough to cause me to pass over clicking the ‘buy now’ button on more than one occasion. There are always exceptions.
Thus it came as quite a wrench to make myself use black and white for the new book. Yet, somehow it suits the story. Okay, there’s some minor colour on the text. I couldn’t go full ‘two tone,’ or I’d never sleep at night. Take one look at how colourful my other covers are, and you may appreciate why.
‘The Shackled,’ is a book about extremes of light and dark; the dangers of all-or-nothing absolutism in thought, belief and action; tensions between spiritual forces for good and evil; and the drab, formless existence of being stuck in limbo after death. Not your typical jolt horror fare, nor overtly creepy or gory. After the bloody splatter-fest of ‘Maypole,’ this novel is rather tame. The central character, Samantha Riley, has come back from a Near-Death Experience with a gift for helping shackled souls cross over to the light. Samantha’s new abilities estrange her from a strict religious family, which provides an undercurrent of tension throughout. Add to that a formless spiritual entity seeking to oppose her (and something far, far darker with designs on walking this earth in robes of flesh), and there’s ample conflict. Marbled in between the central narrative, you’ll find additional tales about the lives and deaths of other characters, who’ll eventually come together at the climax and resolution.
It’s odd then,
that the book is ultimately about hope
beyond the despair of grief and separation from the people and things we hold
premise which acts as an overall organising principle is this:
‘You can love the past, but you will only
move forwards and free yourself when you learn to let it go.’
Way back when I wrote ‘Maria’s Walk,’ there were strong elements of a central character wrestling with Post-Evangelical withdrawal to what is effectively religious addiction. I know some readers had a hard time with that, and would have preferred more frights and chills with less introspection. My next three novels took faith largely out of the picture, focusing on creepy entertainment value instead. With this fifth book, the subject matter lends itself so easily to religious conflict that the story would have been empty without. I’ve kept things open enough at the end to allow readers to form (or maintain) their own individual views. Ultimately it’s nothing more than a work of fiction, though it draws on heavy research into Near-Death Experiences, and many years personal, first-hand experience of how religious bigotry can rip families asunder. If you read the book, see how Samantha is treated, and utter: “That would never happen,” then I’m sorry to say: You’re wrong and it does. A heart-breaking truth.
If you’re looking for something supernatural but different, with many intersecting characters and stories woven together into the whole, you’ll find ‘The Shackled’available in paperback and Kindle formats from 19th September. It’s also free to read for ‘Kindle Unlimited’ subscribers.