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…

Our Journey Begins

It may perhaps seem a little corny that the debut novel and associated Internet paraphernalia of a horror writer should appear around about Halloween. But then again, why not?

For the committed horror fan, this date will probably be of little significance or interruption to a genre they enjoy all year round. To the occasional reader – perhaps shopping for thrilling and chilling tales at this traditional spooky season as the nights draw in – an opportunity to indulge their imaginations as they search for new scary stories by new (hopefully less scary) authors.

If you are looking for a good, old-fashioned haunting with a heart-filled backstory, allow me to introduce you to ‘Maria’s Walk.’ As with any work of fiction, names of people and places are either completely made up or have been altered as appropriate. However, those who grew up in my English country hometown – on which fictional Ardenham is based – will quickly recognise some of the locations. They’ll also be all too familiar with a genuine source of local folklore that inspired the equally terrifying and tragic apparition of Maria.

Please check back whenever you like for new posts, updates, titles, and occasional time-limited discounts. Or, better yet add your e-mail address to the sidebar ‘Follow’ widget and sign-up for ‘An Appointment with De’Ath’ to never miss out. I promise not to bombard you with too many new posts or advertisements for the same old titles over and over. I can’t stand that sort of thing myself, and don’t do it to others.

Thanks for joining me and have a great Halloween!

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