The Power of Where

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.

Locations 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.

Bridechurch Revisited

There’s a 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.

Bridechurch 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.’

I’ve included 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 Bridechurch.

There’s a 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.

Setting the Tone

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 dear.

The story 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.

Way beyond Country Dancing

Well, it’s about that time again, Folks: the release of another novel.

It’s been a busy year since I sat down to write my first foray into the horror genre, ‘Maria’s Walk.’ On 27th June my fourth title, ‘Maypole,’ will take its place among the growing collection.

As a child at a small Kent primary school in the 1970s, country dancing classes were a regular part of our curriculum. Weaving together a new tale that folds in a lot of different folklore about Maypoles and their origin has been a great joy. These traditions are found across Europe and consequently travelled to the new world. I’ve examined associations from the Axis Mundi to dubious claims of phallic symbolism and everything in between. In the book, I draw out links with Yggdrasil and Norse mythology upon which to ground the mythos that leads to the inevitable, dramatic climax. And what a climax it is. I had a lot of fun with this one; not least of all because I got to blow stuff up. There are chases, escapes, a helicopter crash, Demonic imps manipulating children in a state of temporal flux, and an inter-dimensional showdown with a mythical spirit dragon. All that wrapped in a love story sitting on a theme of loss and transience that dispels the illusion of permanence. Phew!

If you’ve not read any of my work before but enjoyed titles like ‘The Magic Cottage’ and ‘Creed’ by the late, great James Herbert, you might find this story entertaining. However, if the magical environments, energy blasts and multi-dimensional transforming monsters of those books gave you a problem, ‘Maypole’ probably won’t be your cup of tea either. I know some people prefer tales of a more subtle nature and are quite concerned with their horror feeling ‘believable.’ I understand that, and like a well-written, subtle ghost story myself. What’s scarier than something so very close to the everyday, yet just beyond it in a way that feels like it might happen to you? Great stuff. However, I also enjoy outrageous fantasy horror (albeit set in the real world) with pace, action and heart. That’s more along the lines of my work in the genre.

For readers of my previous books: if you loved the magic battle at the pond in ‘Nevermere,’ then this new title should be right up your street.

As with its predecessors, ‘Maypole’ will be available in Paperback and Kindle formats.

The Durham Chase

My new, upcoming indie horror title, ‘Maypole,’ opens with the central character, Lisa Marston, fleeing her abusive boyfriend. The chase begins at their flat in the old town part of Durham and follows a specific route (about 0.6 of a mile) to the traffic lights on Church Street. Here the pursuer gets in a scrap with a passing motorist and is arrested by police.

For those unfamiliar with this beautiful northern city, I include a series of images below to illustrate the route of the chase and an approximation of the journey seen through the fleeing woman’s eyes.

I hope you enjoy them.

‘Maypole,’ is due for release in paperback and Kindle on 27th June. The Kindle version is available for pre-order now.

Embracing my inner Tom Sawyer

Over the last week I’ve been forcing myself away from the computer. One of those counter-intuitive but necessary moments of space writers sometimes need.

Another first draft in the bag, I decided to replace a few garden fence panels and give the entire span a few coats of paint. Whenever I conduct an activity like this, I can’t help but make a mental connection with Mark Twain’s classic work, ‘Tom Sawyer.’ I imagine most people who grew up with the book will never forget that iconic scene where Aunt Polly forces Tom to whitewash the fence rather than go off to play. In a stroke of pure genius, he manages to not only get all the neighbourhood kids to paint the thing for him, he markets the idea in such a way they offer up their treasured items to pay him for the privilege. Either I need to work on my interpersonal and child exploitation skills, or I’m too much of an introvert. Yes, I painted the thing myself.

With nicer weather now present, I’m dividing the next couple of weeks between early morning gardening and later edits on the upcoming novel. As a true Heinlein disciple, I didn’t stop working during the fence episode of course. Outlining on the next book began once the manual labour was done each day. Robert Heinlein’s six rules are the bread and butter of how I tend to work, and they always serve me well. Technically of course, only the first five are his rules. The sixth is often added by commentators as a logical progression in this blueprint for success as a prolific author. In many ways ‘Start working on something else,’ is simply a way of re-stating rule number one: ‘You must write.’

  1. You must write.
  2. Finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put your story on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold.
  6. Start working on something else.

Alone in the Dark

Recently I was part of a discussion that has cropped up several times over the years, in relation to the Stephen King classic, ‘Salem’s Lot.’

Whether you’ve read the book, seen the film adaptation or both; one scene sticks with everyone I speak to. If you haven’t already guessed, it’s the night time vampiric visitations of the Glick boys: first Ralphie to ‘convert’ his elder brother Danny. Then Danny, to sire Mark Petrie and bring him into the fold.

The first – brother on brother – is creepy and reminiscent of the Count’s visits to his victims in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’

But it’s the second visitation that haunts readers/viewers over forty years on: eerie clouds swirling outside Mark’s bedroom window. The floating approach of his school friend, sporting evil eyes and protruding fangs. A scratching of fingernails on the glass. The vampire calling out for Mark to let him in. Then Mark vacillating between acquiescence and confrontation; culminating in the latter as he snaps a cross from his graveyard diorama to drive the creature off.

Since the 1979 film production, audiences have grown accustomed to blatant gore and vivid portrayals of demonic forces. In a desensitised world of splatter-punk eviscerations, the afore-mentioned scene might sound banal. But it isn’t. Had the vampire been some OTT special effects horror that burst through the window and drained its victim dry, that might have been shocking – for a moment. Then viewers would have forgotten all about it and probably never given the encounter a second thought.

To my mind, Danny’s visit is memorable and frightening because it utilises one of the key tools in the horror writer’s kit: ISOLATION. Stephen King wields it with masterful brilliance.

Isolation can be both blatant and/or subtle in horror. We’re all familiar with the blatant scenarios: A person/people get cut off on an island/up a mountain/in a forest. Bad things are coming to get them and nobody’s riding to the rescue. Typically there might be a chance to escape, but it will involve a perilous trip into the monster’s den to retrieve a vital item, etc. Along the way, someone will probably die.

Subtler forms of isolation often revolve around societal mores and expectations, or being a misfit in a situation. Anyone who has suffered a mental health issue, physical disability or disfigurement knows what it’s like to feel all alone in a crowded place. Even introverted, loner types like myself are still social creatures at heart, despite a need for plenty of solo downtime to recharge. Being all alone is such a common human fear, some people go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.

In horror, this subtle isolation may manifest as someone who knows supernatural things are going on, but is afraid nobody else will believe them. Perhaps an entire group suspects creepy forces are at play individually, but none will discuss it collectively. If they did and banded together, maybe survival would become possible? They’re all isolated. A ‘dinner bell’ for the hungry antagonist, no doubt. Cue blood-curdling screams as it starts devouring the low hanging fruit first.

With regard to ‘Salem’s Lot,’ you have Mark Petrie as a victim of isolation. Earlier, his father rags on him for playing with magic tricks and building monster model kits. This gives us an insight into the kind of lad Mark might be: creative, imaginative, sensitive. Not a jock. An outsider from the ‘group’ in school. Someone who prefers one or two close genuine friends to a gaggle of surface relationships. In that sense he’s already isolated. Now King adds another layer of isolation, because his father instructs the boy to grow up and stop daydreaming about monsters. Great. So who’s he going to tell when his best (and probably only) friend appears at the window as a vampire?

Let’s add it all up:

He’s isolated as something of an introvert to begin with.

He’s isolated from his parents and can’t tell them about the real monster.

He’s isolated by losing his close friend to the vampire’s curse.

He’s isolated because there’s nowhere to run, nobody to tell, and the vampires could be back at his window any time they choose.

He’s isolated because he’s still a kid in an adult world.

As we know, Mark goes on to battle the creatures with the central character, Ben Mears. Even then they end up on the run, an isolated pair looking over their shoulders for those in pursuit.

Psychological fears remain scariest of all. I’ve no objection to gore – it features in my work. But sometimes it’s what you don’t show that stays with people. A scene like that can keep your audience drawing the curtains as soon as darkness descends forty years later, and not because they’re fastidious and organised…

The Pumpkin Approves!

Pumpernickel, my Halloween pumpkin, horror consultant and writing mascot is lending his support to the new book, as pictured above.

I should probably point out that humans also enjoy reading it.

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