NOT DROWNED, JUST POISONED...

July 18, 2011
For me, it’s usually a building that inspires the plot of a book. But for What Lies Beneath it was an entire village.

Quite near to where I live is a beautiful and mostly unspoilt village. It’s chockfull of history – it’s home to the 1,000 year-old Horn Dance; it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book, Henry VIII dissolved its monastery, and Dick Turpin stabled his horse at the local inn. In the best tradition of all self-respecting English villages, it had a feudal family of overlords who have now almost died out.

On the outskirts of this village is a massive reservoir, and there’s an elusive but wonderfully eerie legend that says the reservoir’s creation drowned a number of buildings. In fact, at times, the legend expands in the telling, and describes how an actual hamlet, if not an entire village, lies beneath the reservoir.

It’s the kind of legend that’s always fascinated me. A drowned village – streets, shops, a church, all lying silent and lost beneath thousands of gallons of water...

However, it’s the kind of legend that’s fascinated other writers, as well, and that was the stumbling block. The concept has been used several times and there’s even a term for the genre – reservoir noir. So I thought I would have to abandon the idea. But it persisted in my mind, and I delved a bit deeper into the tradition of lost villages.

Britain has a remarkable number of them. Remote pockets that once were thriving communities, but that, for widely different reasons, now lie dead and silent, as if preserved under dusty amber glazes. In the main, they were lost to the laws of enclosure, to coastal erosion or monastic depopulation. Some were wiped out by disease – the Black Death in particular. And, of course, there’s the famous account of how Henry VIII swept aside an entire Surrey village to build Nonesuch Palace. Ironically, the Palace only lasted for about a hundred and fifty years, and then was demolished and its building materials sold to pay the gambling debts of one of Charles II’s mistresses. More recently, villages and communities have been lost to less exotic causes – mostly motorways and by-passes.

And then, exploring deeper, I came across places that had been the subject of strange, even macabre, experiments. The most famous is perhaps Gruinard Island – the ‘anthrax isle’ in Scotland – which was sealed off from the world for almost half a century. And there are places such as Porton Down and Sellafield whose sometimes-contentious, occasionally-mysterious, research has become uneasily etched onto the fabric of England’s folklore.

Then I found a poem by Oliver Goldsmith called The Deserted Village, written in 1770. One of the lines is –

‘Silent bats in drowsy clusters cling to those poisoned fields.’

Could any writer be given a better image!

And that was when I came up with the idea of – not a drowned village, but a poisoned village. An ordinary English village that had been the subject of an experiment during the Cold War. But it was an experiment that went wrong, and the place had to be sealed up for the next fifty years.

What secrets can you hide inside a place closed to everyone for half a century? Could the core of those secrets be trapped inside an old manor house, crumbling quietly away within the poisoned village? My lost village, with all its dark and long-reaching secrets, suddenly became possible again.

My village is called Priors Bramley and it’s fictional. But its counterpart can be found in many parts of Britain.

Research can be fun

January 27, 2011
The voice at the other end of the phone sounded distinctly suspicious.

What kind of research for a book?’

‘I need to know if a church organ can make any kind of sound after it’s been abandoned for about fifty years.’

‘Do you mean somebody dumped a church organ somewhere?’ said the voice, clearly visualising an ecclesiastical version of Sainsbury’s car park.

‘No. The church – well, actually an entire village – was abandoned after chemical warfare testing in the 1960s. In my book, I mean.’

‘Oh, I see. Like Sellafield or that place in Scotland – Anthrax Island don't they call it?’

I thanked whatever gods might be appropriate for the sometimes-contentious, occasionally-mysterious Cold War research that has become uneasily etched onto the fabric of England’s folklore. And, this clarified, the suspicious gentleman – who held the daunting title of Music Director of something-or-other for several counties – was amazingly helpful. Ten days later I went out to a fourteenth century church to meet him and someone from a firm of organ tuners and restorers.

It turned into quite a party. The organ-builders had come in a force of three (grandfather, father and son), the Music Director came along to unlock the church, my partner elected to act as chauffeur on the grounds that I would never find the church by myself, and my brother joined in with the idea of photographing the proceedings. When we got there, a couple of grave-diggers were leaning on their spades, exchanging epigrammatical wit like the last act of Hamlet.

Inside the church it seemed some of the pipes had become clogged and needed cleaning. Something might have got into the pipes, said the elder statesman of the trio. (At this point Hamlet seemed to have yielded place to an episode of Dad’s Army – the one where they hide the pigeons in the organ loft.)

I explained the problem again. My plot required a church organ, abandoned for half a century in a desolate and eerie old church, to emit recognisable sounds when the village was re-opened. The organ itself would most likely be half-rotting from all the poisonous chemicals, but it had to be still capable of creating music.

This was greeted with silence, so I said, ‘I don’t mean a Bach fugue needs to be bashed out, just a few chords. Or,’ I said hopefully, as the silence lengthened, ‘a single note. Any note would do.’

By this time I was ready to abandon the plot, write a totally different book in the hope that my editor would have forgotten the original synopsis, and beat it out of the Saxon arch door to the village pub.

But incredibly, stops were pulled out (literally and metaphorically), and the trio of organ-makers nodded solemnly, and said, yes, it could be done. A wooden organ-frame would rot, but metal wind pipes were indestructible. You might drop a set of metal organ pipes in the Atlantic ocean, if you were so minded, and leave them there for a hundred years. They would still be capable of producing sound. The trio proceeded to dismantle the organ there and then – cheerfully calling down to one another as they did so to mind your toe, silly clot, the E-flat’s coming down.

They spread the metal wind pipes before my feet, and said I could have whatever sound I wanted. Thin reedy sounds from the small pipes, booming sonerous ones from the large ones. It was just a question of blowing into each pipe – two or three together if it could be managed. It was pretty much the same principle as a flute or a recorder.

They demonstrated. The smallest pipe gave a happy tootle, although it was perhaps unnecessary for my partner to remark that it sounded like a 1930s Mercedes. At the other end of the scale was a massive giant’s-drainpipe structure, which took all three men to lift it. That sounded like the QE2 coming in to dock.

The grave-diggers came in at this point and helped by trying to play Three Blind Mice.

‘Try it for yourself,’ said the senior organ tuner, so I did. I tried them all, in turn, from falsetto to bass. It was more fun than I had anticipated and my brother took a series of photographs, saying they might come in handy for publicity on publication and also he could hand them round at Christmas parties that needed livening up.

But the sounds were exactly what I wanted. The musically-knowledgeable hero could very easily prowl through the shadowy desolation of the old church, and try to re-create a fragment of its plainchant history with several of the dispersed pipes. The villain, up to no good in the grounds outside, could be very satisfactorily spooked by the sounds.

Research for psychological thrillers, has frequently taken me into some extremely dark places, but the morning I spent with three organ builders and tuners, two grave-diggers and a County Music Director, was one of the very nicest and most entertaining pieces of field research I have ever carried out.

UNDERSTATING THE CHILLS

August 12, 2010
Sometimes the shadows can be mightier than the substance.

Nearly ninety years ago the German film-maker F.W. Murnau chilled cinema audiences with the 1922 silent movie, Nosferatu. It’s still chilling people today, and the creepiest scene of all is where the vampiric Count Orlok steals up the dark stairway, only his shadow visible on the wall. Thus sparking off a tradition that was to go from Hammer to Twilight, and provide a stream of starring roles for actors capable of turning on sinister charm at the drop of a garlic clove.

In the 1960s film-makers again became aware that what you don’t see is often scarier than what you do. Anyone who watched Hitchock’s The Birds will remember how menacing it was when ordinary birds began to gather on rooftops. Similarly with Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby. Did we actually see the demon who attacked Mia Farrow? My memory is that we didn’t, although it’s always possible I had gone out to buy the popcorn at that point.

Villains, when portrayed on the grand scale, fascinate. Would vampires as a race have gained such worldwide appeal without a sinisterly sexy villain dominating the screen or the page? Equally, would psychological thrillers be so appealing without a smorgasbord of juicily evil, darkly charming murderers? (Hannibal Lecter, let’s remember, could be very gentlemanly if you caught him in the right mood.)

Writers have always known that what you don’t see can be a whole lot scarier than what you do, but sometimes there’s an irresistible temptation to add that last swish of the knife, that extra sentence describing the corpse – to apply just one more turn of the screw.

The famous and exclusive Detection Club, (think Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton), requires its members to take an oath, part of which warns them to avoid, ‘Sinister Chinamen, divine revelations, and poisons unknown to science’. (The oath also forbids members to purloin other people’s plots, whether under the influence of drink or not, but that’s probably another story).

Translated into a warning to writers of pyschological thrillers, this oath might read: Let there be no superfluity of splattering gore, no unnecessarily-festering corpses, no wild-eyed axe-killers or gibbering maniacs springing out of cupboards. Instead, let there be the midnight creak on the stair, the whisk of something sinister disappearing round a corner, the shirt-tail of a ghost rather than the ghost itself…

Let the chills be understated, let the reader’s own imagination go into overdrive, and let’s never forget that radio has some of the best pictures.

The One Who Got Away

August 02, 2010
It was not a day on which I was expecting to meet a ghost.

It was, in fact, a perfectly normal working morning. There was half a chapter to get into shape – an interesting, not too taxing, scene in House of the Lost, describing how the main character is singled out by a lady as being a very desirable property…

Actually, I had singled him out a very desirable property, as well. It’s a sad fact of life but writers are fickle and heartless – in love with the current hero for as long as the book lasts, then on to the next one. Asked about the previous hero or heroine, they’re apt to say, ‘Who?’, struggle with memory for a moment, and then, with supreme indifference and even a touch of promiscuity, say, ‘Oh yes. That one.’

In this case, describing the central character’s appearance for House of the Lost mattered a good deal – well, it always matters to let readers know what main characters look like – but this was a special case. The lady eyeing him with semi-suppressed ardour was doing so very guiltily, being a young nun for whom attraction to any man was utterly forbidden and entirely world-shattering.

So I described him as being in his early thirties, with soft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie, and cotton shirt.

I re-read the scene with critical suspicion, thought it might scrub up reasonably well, then went off to collect some shopping.

And there in the supermarket checkout, two customers ahead, was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie… I watched helplessly as he put items into a plastic bag – pasta, wine, cheese and fruit – if he had been buying chicken nuggets and frozen faggots I would have had to re-write the entire chapter and re-think the seduction scene planned for Chapter Eight. But clearly he was stocking up for a romantic evening, so it was all right.

I half fell through the check-out, scattering assorted items as I went (somebody helped field the tinned soup but the muesli had to be swept up), and reached the car park, which was awash with torrential rain. Visibility was on a par with a Victorian London pea-souper.

And whoever he was (whatever he was), my dark-haired, green-jacketed man had melted into the mist. But I prowled hopefully round the car park anyway, peering into likely-looking cars, heedless of the melting bag of frozen sausages, never mind the CCTV.

I’d like to think he had gone quietly back to the netherworld of ghosts and fictional beings until wanted again (in Chapter Eight), but logically it’s more likely he had simply driven back onto the main road and gone home to cook his pasta and drink his wine.

I do know that the sensible explanation is that I had seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion and subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it.

But I would much rather believe I had conjured him up and that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.

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