Up until now, I’d resisted the urge to write a vampire novel. Not because I don’t enjoy them (I like them a lot), but because I’m neither an authority on the topic nor did I feel I had anything original to offer the genre.
While researching ghost stories from around the world, I happened upon two Asian vampires: the Krasue and Penanggal. I remembered the latter (also referred to as a penanggalan) from teenage role-playing games, so decided to dig further. What intrigued me about the penanggal especially, was her daytime mortal existence. Penanggals are women who meditate in vats of vinegar and are able to detach their heads and connected viscera, which float within a mist of lights. Malaysian Will-o’-the-wisp sightings are often attributed to them in folklore. Penanggals feast upon the unborn and children in ‘Kampung’ villages. Any pregnant woman who loses her foetus to a penanggal, wastes away to nothing. Anyone who comes in contact with the flesh of a penanggal, suffers horrendous open sores.
I liked the concept of a monster who appeared normal by day, because the scope for intrigue and an interesting backstory was huge. A penanggal could literally be the person sat next to you, and you’d have no idea.
Being an English horror novelist, I wanted the bulk of the tale set in the UK but still connected to the beast’s geographic and cultural roots. I opted to lean upon overseas missionary experience as a vehicle to launch the story. A minister returning on furlough from Malaysia with his new bride gave me a good springboard.
In Malaysia, penanggals are supposed to flit beneath stilted village houses, sniffing for prey. That’s a big ask in England, since we don’t have such structures. The massive network of caves under Nottingham provided an excellent solution. They pop up in cellars and back gardens right across the city and number more than five hundred. It also enabled me to incorporate popular local spots associated with the labyrinth, such as that wonderful, haunted inn, ‘Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem.’ Nottingham’s twin universities and cosmopolitan demography made it the perfect setting to include a resident Malaysian community of students and immigrants. Thus the Malaysian flavour of the myth is maintained, rather than nicking the monster and anglicising it.
‘Penanggal’ will be available in Kindle and Paperback formats like my other novels. The Kindle version is available for pre-order, ahead of its 23rd September release date. Once the paperback and Kindle versions are live, the Kindle page count will correct on Amazon to 360.
The title of this post is a nod to that classic 1915 John Buchan novel, ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps.’ A book that has seen more film and television adaptations than you can shake a stick at.
When I write articles at the time of a new book release, I often include one about featured locations. In ‘Pilgrim,’ a story that begins in Kent leads to a pair of wrongfully accused protagonists going on the run to avoid capture, clear their names, unmask a sinister cult and stop an impending atrocity via a vexing trail of desecrations. The trail follows nine specific locations visited by a shadowy, hooded figure with bizarre occult powers, performing a series of rituals. These rituals form a spiritual path to an ultimate wickedness designed to give fallen entities (masquerading as the pagan deity Baphomet) greater access to and influence upon modern society.
The only similarities with Buchan’s novel are a man and woman on the run, and a powerful group intent upon destabilisation. But, as I like to consider ways to answer the inevitable question: ‘So what’s your new book like/about?’ the reply: ‘A supernatural, occult suspense thriller akin to a metaphysical version of The Thirty-Nine Steps,’ gives people a clue.
During my police career, I was licensed to train detectives in using communications data for tracking. There’s a lot of nonsense out there thanks to movies and TV, so it was a pleasure to write a story in which our heroes go on the run employing realistic considerations over what their pursuers can (and definitely can’t) do. All the places they visit, the train, bus and walking routes chosen, are also true to life. Should you wish to play at being Vicky and Bill, you can follow their trail for real.
The tiny island of Lundy, off the north Devon coast in The Bristol Channel, proved perfect for the climax and denouement. While no Templar ruins exist on Lundy, the island was gifted to the order, who maintained a fleet nearby because of its strategic importance. Incorporating popular tales regarding lost weaponry from the wreck of nineteenth century blockade-runner ‘Iona II,’ added gravitas and realism. It also offered a perfect excuse for firearms availability, when the story warranted them. I even squeezed in a dramatic appearance by the Royal Marines. Brilliant fun!
‘Pilgrim’ will be available in paperback and Kindle formats from 23rd June.
Inspiration for my latest novel, ‘Pilgrim,’ came from a situation I encountered twenty-four years ago while I was a minister and missionary.
At the time of the incident in question, I was living and working at a combined mission station and plantation in the densely forested hills above Montego Bay, Jamaica. During the humid mid-summer heat, several staff fell sick with a curious, cold-like illness nobody seemed able to shake. Weeks dragged on with more falling ill. We were getting short-handed and wondering at the cause as nobody in the local parish of St. James appeared affected.
One morning, an indigenous worker harvesting in our banana grove, spotted a strangely dressed individual crouching near a spot along the site boundary. It aroused his suspicions, so he went to check. The odd figure had planted an Obeah curse. For those unfamiliar, Obeah is a Jamaican form of Voodoo that’s still illegal to practise in the country. Our team scoured the site to discover an abundance of similar curses concealed around the entire plantation boundary. Being Charismatic Evangelicals, we set about destroying the curses and engaged in spiritual warfare through prayer, praise and Biblical declarations. Make of it what you will, but recovery came on swift wings to our afflicted comrades.
Fast-forward to the present, that encounter saw me toying with several story concepts involving a mysterious hooded figure on a diabolical UK pilgrimage to desecrate sacred sites in a form of inverted veneration. Ask any seasoned author and they’ll tell you story ideas are two a penny. Translating them into compelling, three act structures of novel length is the real challenge. I find ‘interrogating’ an idea the best form of ‘plot laxative’ to get things moving.
Who is the hooded figure?
Why are they desecrating sacred sites?
Which particular sites are they desecrating, and is there a pattern with some underlying meaning?
Is this person human, or something else?
Who will tie the threads of these desecrations together (protagonist/s), and for what reason?
How do the story arcs of protagonist/antagonist intersect?
Listing multiple likely answers to questions like that, quickly leads into a three act, plot point framework. From there, an outline with detailed scenes, character and location profiles flows with reasonable ease.
At the same time I’d been bashing around other story ideas involving a shadowy cult with powerful connections, shaping and influencing society behind the scenes. Making my hooded figure part of this larger group presented many more interesting possibilities. Once I looked into the concept of ‘Spiritual Magnetism,’ which even normally atheistic socialists consider a fusion of spirit and science leading to a perfect social order, I knew I was onto something. Another aspect of ‘Spiritual Magnetism’ is Baphomet worship. As a student of church history with a longstanding interest in militaristic holy orders like the Templars and Hospitallers (predating the time those topics became fashionable), I knew accusations of Baphomet worship formed a significant part of false charges levied against The Templars. Charges heralding mass executions and the destruction of the order.
Suddenly I had a spiritual focus for the hooded figure AND an answer to which places they were desecrating. In this case, former Templar sites to hoover up negative energies from wrongful association with the androgynous deity its cult worship. Throw in some human sacrifice, a blending of chaos and sex magic, an escaped former prisoner of the cult and a homeless man turned private investigator who become fugitives from the law, plus a ‘ticking bomb’ in the form of an upcoming atrocity that must be averted, et voila – things are about to get interesting.
Like my other novels, ‘Pilgrim’ will be released in both paperback and Kindle formats, from 23rd June. You can pre-order the Kindle version. Its page count will correct to 354, once both products go live and are linked on Amazon.
I’d put off maturing the premise for my seventh horror novel into a full-bodied plot by two books. While ‘the written word made manifest’ is nothing new in fiction (or religion), I kept throwing out obvious branching concepts. They all seemed too predictable to my brainstorming mind. Like many writers, I ended up keeping the best scene ideas, though the story they occupy is a world apart.
‘Scribe’ opens with a man named Michael Brooks, who lost his wife, Julie, to a Cerebral Haemorrhage. A sensitive introvert, it doesn’t take long before the effects of his grieving energy impact the physical world around him. His bereavement counsellor recommends a change of scene and the act of journaling to process his grief. And so the stage is set to roll out a weird house full of restless spirits that play havoc with his isolated literary therapy.
During the process, I turn up the heat from random, unusual occurrences to undeniable supernatural encounters with mortal outcomes. Along the way Michael discovers a raft of ghosts, including those of five children who disappeared between 1885 and 1886. Michael and his wife could not conceive, yet desired a family of their own.
With a lot of horror/supernatural suspense novels, the antagonist remains a faceless beast, unveiled near the climax in a big reveal. While this is necessary for many plotlines, it can leave the villains feeling like undeveloped characters. One thing I found most enjoyable about writing ‘Scribe’ was the ability to have my (deceased) ‘baddie’ interact with Michael throughout. This occurs via paranormal experiences and the written word in his journals. By the time he makes a full-blown appearance near the end, readers know all they could want about this semi-religious, psychopathic child rapist and murderer. There’s a certain added satisfaction from that, when his plans are brought low.
Rape is an overdone and often cringe-worthy trope in the horror genre. I steer clear of it (as a general rule), with the notable exception of that mildly worded but heart-breaking scene in ‘Maria’s Walk’ where hired thugs abuse and kill Maria Belmont. It’s difficult to write without falling into classic pitfalls that trivialise a devastating act. It can also be lazy writing: i.e. we all know rape is horrible, so just roll out some rape scenes to keep the horror amped, right? Wrong! Awful though it is, reading rape scenes gets old quickly. Unless the device forms a pivotal part of the story, I wonder about the plot structure of a book that focuses on it. Throw children into the mix and you’re walking on eggshells with every word written.
However, for ‘Scribe’ it made perfect sense for the main story arc, though became a difficult cross to bear on occasion. The children all disappeared without trace in the Victorian era. Readers learn the truth behind those disappearances, the nature of their adversary and Michael’s part in the ongoing story through historic flashbacks, journal entries, and murderous manifestations affecting the supporting cast of characters in the present.
I’m of the firm belief that once you’ve established a clear character trait, reinforcing it with repetitious actions is pointless. This comes back to my earlier statement about reading rape scenes getting old. After the nature and appetites of the villain are rolled out in ‘Scribe’ with a teenage girl, I give subsequent incidents cursory mention. That, or hint at them without specific descriptions.
The first rape scene was the toughest in the book to write. I must have reshaped it a dozen times to strike a correct balance. A wobbly place between giving necessary information, sparking an emotive response and not going overboard with graphic details. Heaven forbid anyone read such an encounter and experience any kind of titillation. I opted for focusing on the girl’s traumatised mental state and physical pain, replaying certain aspects of the act with metaphor and simile. It’s like walking a tightrope in a hurricane, but the result advances the story with the right tone. A follow-on scene featuring twin victims (a boy and girl) includes just enough post-horror suggestions to show our rapist’s tastes extend to both sexes. Then things are kept to his written rantings, which blend a strict religious upbringing with depraved statements suggesting sexual imagery. In a classic example of psychological gas-lighting, he blames his victims for his own evil deeds.
Because of his grief, Michael doubts the evidence of his own senses at first. This is a mild nod to that other overused trope: ‘The Unreliable Narrator.’ As I prefer writing in the third person, this doesn’t get much more than lip service. But it helps mix things up while our suffering hero discovers what’s going on both inside and out.
Given the two heavy topics covered – bereavement and child abuse/murder – I couldn’t leave my readers without a heart-warming climax and denouement. ‘Scribe’ is also a love story. A tale about unconfessed affection finding a second chance at the right moment. If you read it, I hope it moves you. Ultimately, I hope you walk away with a positive experience.
‘Scribe’ will be out in paperback and Kindle formats before the end of March.
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
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
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.
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.