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 helplessness.
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 overall tale.
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.
It’s been a delightful few months, bashing away at my new novel. I decided that I wanted to do something in the haunted house line, but with a twist. Not that there’s anything wrong with the classic setup of wronged spooks roaming a creepy old building. I love books like that. One joy of the ever expanding horror market, is new authors bringing their own perspective on that delightful, tried and tested formula.
Towards the end of 2013, I rented a cottage in the small Dorset village of Sydling St. Nicholas. As a keen walker, I spent time traipsing through the surrounding valleys and enjoying The Wessex Ridgeway. During a climb from Cerne Abbas up to the broad ridge (from where the word ‘Sydling’ derives) I mused what a wonderful spot it would be for a windswept haunted house. Five and a half years later I built one there (in fictional literary terms at least), and you can now read about it in ‘Caveat Emptor.’
A number of real-life local spots feature in the book, including Sydling St. Nicholas, its church and the beautiful river walk, Cerne Abbas, St. Mary’s, Giant Hill and the street of Tudor cottages outside the old abbey that form the lead character’s flat in the story. You’ll find a few snaps I took from those locations, scattered throughout this blog post.
The tale predominantly focuses on thirty years in the life of David Holmes, a twenty year old man who moves over from Wiltshire in 1985, to become a Dorset estate agent. His first day on the job finds him performing a visit to a fire-damaged manor that pre-dates the English Civil War. Recent occupants died during the conflagration, and the house will be one of his responsibilities for sale.
Among the distinct joys of writing this book, I’ve most delighted in taking a trip down memory lane. Cars, fashions, technology, music, films, attitudes and current events are all used to set the scenes. From ‘Live Aid’ in 1985 through the ’87 hurricane, ’89 fall of the Berlin Wall, millennium bug, dot-com collapse, 911 attacks and 2015 Conservative win, there is a rich backdrop against which to present the various scenes. However, this was not done just for the heck of it. The principal antagonist is an ancient entity for whom unfolding centuries are a solitary agony, punctuated by occasional decades of joy. I won’t go into the source of that joy, because: spoilers! But observing David’s relatively brief life and the changes that occur, place the entity’s torment into a much clearer perspective.
I took a big risk at the climax as – while the ‘baddie’ element is defeated after a fashion – it’s not quite vanquished in the way a reader might expect. I guess it’ll be the ‘Marmite’ of Horror/Paranormal Romance/Supernatural Suspense, in that they’ll either love it or hate it.
At the time of writing, ‘Caveat Emptor’ is available for pre-order in Kindle format, ahead of its 25th March release date. As with my other work, a paperback version will roll out around the same time. Should you clock the Amazon page count on the pre-order, please ignore it. They always under-read by a huge margin. The book is 81,000 words/348 pages in a 5.25 x 8 paperback. Once the product descriptions are linked on Amazon, the Kindle page count will correct to reflect the actual length based on the print version.
Do you believe a house can have a soul?
If you had asked that question to David Holmes back in 1985, it might have given him pause. The next three decades of his career as a Dorset estate agent, provided a very definite answer.
Meoria Grange is an impressive manor, built around the time of the English Civil War. It stands sentinel atop the Wessex Ridgeway, occupying a site of historical importance dating back into the mists of British antiquity.
When a family move in to renovate after a tragic fire, horrific outcomes draw David ever closer to their disturbing source.
Similar repetitions unfold each time he instigates another sale, until a very personal impact causes him to seek out some answers once and for all.
How can pure love and abject horror exist together with such inexplicable harmony?
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.
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?
This story was a great joy to write, as it includes two of my favourite things:
- The Cotswolds – A place where I have spent considerable time over the years.
- 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.