Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Curious Mystery of the Haunted Mansion

With my first book of Victorian mystery and science fiction in the hands of publishers and agents across the realm, I've been working on all sorts of side projects whilst I await that magnificent, rare gem that is the Acceptance Letter. Regular visitors to my Facebook page will know that I've recently turned in a short Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and I'm currently working on some more science fiction short stories for the Black Library.

However, a good friend recently gave me the idea of writing a second novel; not only to submit to agents to help get the ball rolling a bit faster, but also to practise the craft of novel-writing, exploring different genres and plot structures. I've taken his advice. You see, I'd already started the second book in my Victorian series - I have a plot that I'm very happy with, and a first chapter that's quite well polished. But until book one has been snapped up by a publisher, book two seems a rather distant prospect. With that in mind, I've decided to embrace this 'modern day' era, which has so often been a source of confusion to me as a time-travelling 19th century gent: I'm going to write a contemporary horror novel.

Today has been the first day of plotting and research, and my head is already swimming with ideas. But the thing that's really got the creative juices flowing is the research about locations. The websites I've uncovered today about the phenomenon of Urban Exploration have been immensely illuminating. All of the pictures attached to this post are from genuine urban explorations.

The pictures of abandoned, creepy old houses, asylums, factories and prisons that these intrepid (and sometimes daft) explorers have taken is the stuff of dreams (or nightmares) for a writer. It's astonishing just how many derelict mansions and such like are scattered around the British Isles; some of them are in a very sorry state, but others are probably worthy of a field trip to fill in the all-important details of my story.

Of course, I'll probably have to find someone willing to come on a jaunt to an abandoned and potentially haunted house, but I'm sure there'll be no shortage of volunteers. a Victorian such as myself has no shortage of companions with the requisite resolve and stiff upper lip!

I'm not sure whether the creepy old place in my story is going to be a residential or public building, or even if it'll be a real or imagined place; but you can be damned it'll have a dark history, a sinister secret, and at least one inhabitant who isn't of this earth. While the location is key to making the tale scary, the biggest challenge I'll be facing is how to make the traditional haunted house horror story surprising. Watch this space!

Monday, 17 June 2013

Inspiration for the Time-travelling Writer

Following up on last week's blog about Victorian reference material, I thought it'd be well worth looking at the fiction that has inspired me to write in the nineteenth-century idiom too. As I tend to devour nineteenth century novels, some of the books on this 'Top Five' list are also among my favourite books of all time, but that's for another day!

The books that follow are the ones that have most inspired me to write. They were either produced in the Victorian/Edwardian eras, or are set in those eras. They contain information, conflicts, characters, themes and/or atmosphere that continue to feed my passion for all things Victorian, and influence my writing style. There are other, more important works of the period, and others that I love more than the ones on this list; but without these five, my writing would be very different.

Without further ado, here's the top five:

1. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
M. R. James

'Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle.’

It's well documented that M. R. James is one of my favourite writers; it's not Victorian, but it might as well be given its style. This collection comes top of my inspirational texts due to its subtle yet effective use of the supernatural. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that terror feels more terrifying if you first make the mundane world a real, living place. James lulled his readers (or listeners, really, as his stories were intended to be read aloud) into a false sense of security, by telling tales of crusty old academics studying crusty old books in musty old libraries. And then BANG! A completely inexplicable, sanity-blasting ghost appears, and turns the world upside down. The sense of isolation usually suffered by James' poor protagonists is somehow shared by the reader - there is no help available, and if there were, it probably wouldn't do any good.

2. The Woman in Black
Susan Hill

 'For a long time, I did not move from the dark, wood-panelled hall. I wanted company, and I had none, lights and warmth and a strong drink inside me, I needed reassurance. But, more than anything else, I needed an explanation. It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity can be. I had never realised that before now. In spite of my intense fear and sense of shock, I was consumed with the desire to find out exactly who it was that I had seen, and how, I could not rest until I had settled the business, for all that, while out there, I had not dared to stay and make any investigations.'

A fairly modern book, set in a fictional part of Edwardian England, this classic ghost story features my three favourite Gothic story elements: superstitious villagers, a claustrophobic old house, and a terrifying phantom. It's a story of an evil that cannot be destroyed, and of a terrible revenge enacted from beyond the grave. The most famous of Hill's ghost stories, it's written quite accurately in the period style, and draws from Wilkie Collins and M. R. James as inspiration. The Woman in Black is arguably the most successful attempt to capture the spirit (no pun intended) of the old-fashioned ghost stories, and is a masterclass in atmosphere. The stark beauty of the North in winter; the fog-shrouded causeway; the sinister sense of oppression of Eel Marsh House; and the isolated village of Crythin Gifford are all incredibly well realised. The plot is surprisingly simple, and the book very short, but the lasting effect it has on the reader is profound. If you've only seen the Daniel Radcliffe movie, then you're doing the book a disservice.

3. Dracula
Bram Stoker

No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.’

I've covered Bram Stoker's classic tale in a previous post, so I won't revisit old ground. Needless to say, it blends documentary level details about language, people, places and technology with a rip-roaring story of supernatural terror. The action-oriented style and historical record contained in this book make it essential reading for anyone who wants to capture the spirit of Victorian horror in their writing.

4. The List of Seven
Mark Frost

'Show a man a target he can strike back against, and you lend him a footing. 
Attack him with inexplicable night sounds, will-o'-the-wisps, macabre scarecrows by the sides of train tracks, incite the stuff of his own nightmares, and the suggestive vagueness of it alone could send him reeling into lunacy.'

Not a classic, by any stretch. This is a pulp mystery set in Victorian England, written by Mark Frost (of Twin Peaks fame), and drawing very much on Sherlock Holmes for its inspiration. It's full of inaccuracies and OTT villains. So why include it in a very exclusive top five? Well, quite frankly, it showed me that writing in a nineteenth century setting didn't have to be all serious and stuffy. It's a rollicking good read, with some creepy bits and some very silly bits. Most importantly, it's the book that actually inspired me to put pen to paper and write my first novel. It gave me the 'I can do that!' moment; and, as every writer knows, that moment is truly priceless. I owe a surprising amount to this pulp paperback, and I couldn't leave it off the list in good conscience.

5. The Hound of the Baskervilles
Arthur Conan Doyle

"He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any, but I did - some little distance off, but fresh and clear."
  "A man's or a woman's?"
  Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered: "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

A haunting, wind-blasted landscape. A drug-taking savant as the hero. An evil antagonist and an ancient family curse. This is the story that introduces most modern readers to Sherlock Holmes, and is still one of the very best adventures of the great detective. It demonstrates that the supernatural isn't always as scary as man's capacity for cruelty, and represents a masterclass in writing the classic mystery story.

The Runners Up: A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens); The House on the Borderlands (William Hope Hodgson); The Dark Water (David Pirie); Frankenstein (Mary Shelley); Short Stories, 1895-1926 (Walter de la Mare).

That's it for another blog. In the future I'm going to talk more generally about my favourite books of all time (three of which made this list). If you think I've missed anything off this list, or if there's some inspirational texts you think I should check out, then do let me know!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Encyclopaedia Victoriana

A bit more of a 'factual' post this time. I've been asked quite a lot recently about various facets of Victorian history and my methods for researching the stuff that I write about. Often, it boils down to questions like 'Where did you find the information on that village?' Or 'Was he a real person?' Or even 'So, if I was in Victorian London, how exactly would I send a telegram, and how much would it cost?

The secret is that I spend an awful lot of time in bookshops, and I own an awful lot of books (including many antique or out of print editions). This blog, then, is about reference material; I present to you my top 5 reference books on the 19th century. If I had to give up all my books but five, these are the ones I couldn't be without, as I use them almost every day!

1. Baedeker's Great Britain, 1890.
(reproduced by Old House Books, 2003)
The iconic travel guide to Britain in 1890, written with the English-speaking foreign traveller in mind, but now the ultimate guide for the time-traveller. This has a great introduction on British customs, etiquette and the prices of things, as well as a town-by-town guide to Britain itself. Best read alongside the Guide to London for probably the most exhaustive travel guide to Britain ever written.

2. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
(Daniel Pool; Touchstone 1993)
This is a lovely little book, focussing on everyday life in England from 1800 to around 1860. Full of facts and figures about everything from the hierarchy of English peers through to the social rules of the country house visit, and supported by quotes from period literature.

3. Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870
(Liza Picard; W&N 2005)
Simply the most engaging, well-researched and well-written guide to life in Victorian London ever written. There, I said it. It's third on the list only because its scope is quite focussed, making its use limited to the Big Smoke in mid-Victorian times. Thankfully, that suits me down to the ground.

4. Enquire Within Upon Everything 1890
(reproduced by Old House Books, 2003)
First published by Houlston & Sons of Paternoster Square, this book is the essential guide to, well, everything in the Victorian era. It sold over a million copies, which was unprecedented for its time, and was added to annually to cover more and more diverse topics. The Victorian householder would use this little manual to learn the rules of backgammon, prepare tonics, operate a barometer, treat the bite of a viper, or observe the correct etiquette at a dinner party.

5. Bradshaw's Illustrated Handbook to London & Its Environs 1862
(George Bradshaw; reproduced by Conway Books, 2012)
This is the book recently made famous by Michael Portillo in his Great Railway Journeys TV series. As a result of the show's success, Old House have published two facsimile versions of the book - one a standard hardcover, and one a plush leatherbound edition. Both offer the determined rail traveller an unparalleled companion around Britain. Used in conjunction with the Baedeker, this book provides a fascinating insight into the development of late-Victorian Britain.

And the Runners Up...
As I own over a hundred books on the subject, I couldn't leave it at five... Books that narrowly missed the final cut include: Baedeker's London & Its Environs 1900 (reproduced by Old House Books); Telling Dildrams & Talking Whiff-whaff (Mr. Holloway, 1839; reproduced by Old House Books, 2012); Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (reprinted by BiblioBazaar, 2010); Life in Victorian Britain (Michael Paterson; Robinson 2008); A History of Everyday Things in England (Marjorie & CHB Quennell; out of print); The Complete History of Jack the Ripper (Philip Sugden; Robinson 1994); A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Eric Partridge, out of print).