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.
If you’re stuck for gift ideas this Christmas, how about helping someone get a little De’Ath in their life?
All my titles are available in paperback as well as Kindle format. The good news is, the paperbacks are also enrolled in ‘Matchbook.’ This means that if you purchase one, you can also acquire the Kindle version at a decent discount. So, why not treat someone else and yourself at the same time?
Merry Christmas, Folks.
‘Nevermere’ opens with an ‘Ordeal by Water’ witch trial during the English Civil War in 1644.
While the rest of the book is set in the present day, repercussions from this action impact on the modern inhabitants of a small, Gloucestershire village. For the opening scene, I wanted to get a very genuine feel for the setting. The reader only spends one chapter in that timeframe, so it needed to stand apart.
At first, I found myself writing in ‘Thees’ and ‘Thous’ to such an extent that it became an unwieldy caricature. This is a technique used to comic effect in several films. I adore the Disney production of ‘Hocus Pocus’ and watch it every year. There we have three witches from 1693, who – thanks to a spell – come back to life in 1993. To create a definite sense of two timeframes colliding, the witches all speak in (what writers sometimes call) ‘Bygonese.’
It was after re-reading my own first chapter, I knew that wasn’t going to work in a more serious, chilling tale. So, I decided to read up on historical linguistics. It was during this research that I learned nobody was still using ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ in everyday speech much after 1600. Studies of diarists of the period – like Samuel Pepys – proved quite enlightening. So too were several articles by academic authorities on old speech.
So it was that I came to re-write the opening with more generic language. I added common terminology and salutations from the era like ‘Goodwife’ or ‘Goody’ and so forth. The result is a chapter that is a lot easier to read. It conveys an atmospheric setting without the language becoming intrusive or lunging into cartoonish parody.
‘Susan Blackwood. You have been found guilty via ordeal by water of the crime of witchcraft. That you did send out your spirit to attack Goodwife Parsons in an act of maleficium has now been irrefutably established.’
I’m sure you get the idea.
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.
Well, if you’re going to start the week off right, waking up to the book review I found this morning is one good example of how to do it.
When I released my debut horror novel, ‘Maria’s Walk,’ I chose not to solicit reviews from anyone and just let the chips fall where they may. I’m an author in a number of different genres, but decided to let my horror work develop organically and see what sort of responses (if any) it received.
The following succinct review is from a reader in the US on Amazon, who found the tale to have had an emotional impact upon her. Clearly the mix of horror, romance and good old-fashioned storytelling worked like a charm here. It was so nice of this lady to jot down a few kind words, and also very much appreciated.
So, a big thank you to ‘Jennie’ – whoever she may be – for making my Monday morning such a happy one with this first review of my first horror novel. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Your encouragement certainly made sitting down to continue work on my second horror novel an effortless task.