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:
But we return all gentlemen,
While conquering colours we display,
Over the hills and far away.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On 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).
‘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).
Their 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.
(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).
Gaby 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.