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!


    This is a bit all over the shop and it's massive too, but I really enjoyed it :-)

    1. I have indeed read Drood. It was laden with atmosphere and period detail, wonderfully creepy, and the prose was fantastic. but it was so choppy, confusing and deliberately 'postmodern' that I couldn't say it actually inspired me.

      But what the hell was the Thing under the stairs?

  2. Read it ages ago, can't remember much other than liking it - and yeah, especially at the end, not being entirely sure what stuff was happening and what was due to the vast amount of drugs swilling around the story! Lots of fun though. :-)

  3. Hi Mark.I would add these to your list of books.

    The fall of the house of Usher ; Edgar Allan Poe

    The moonstone ; William Wilkie Collins

    The strange case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde ; Robert louis Stevenson

    Wuthering Heights ; Emily Brontë

    Jane Eyre ;Charlotte Brontë

    Thank you for the welcome:)

  4. More great suggestions. Wuthering Heights is one of my favourite novels of all time. I'll be looking at that one more closely in the future :-)

  5. A huge second for Jane Eyre from here too! I'm a grown up now and I KNOW intellectually that Rochester is dishonest, patronising, manipulative and all round a bit of a tit. But somehow this critical analysis cannot compete with the fact that Rochester beats frilly shirts off Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff and any other hero you want to throw in the ring. Some rebel bit of my brain remains stubbornly at age thirteen on this issue : )