Monday, March 31, 2014

What, Why and How I Write

Recently, I was asked by fellow writer Keris Stainton (left) to take part in a blog tour on the theme of What, Why and How I Write. I was thrilled to be asked by Keris because she is a super writer, all-round good egg and tireless supporter of UK YA writing.

This is how it works! A participating author answers four questions about their writing on their own blog, and then nominates other writers (ideally three) to answer the same questions on their blog one week later, and nominate further participants. This was Keris' contribution last Monday: What, why and how I write by Keris Stainton

Keris nominated me and Sophia Bennett - and today it's our turn to answer the questions! So here goes.

What am I working on?

I’m just about to start the edits on Urban Legends, the third book in my Forbidden Spaces trilogy (the first book was Silent Saturday, the second is Demons of Ghent, coming out in June 2014). For obvious reasons I don’t want to say too much about Urban Legends, but the book continues with the theme of urban exploration, this time taking the lead characters into more extreme and terrifiying locations. And of course there are some very nasty deaths!
Once I’ve finished with Urban Legends I’ll be starting on something completely new. It will be quite hard doing that. I love the characters in the Forbidden Spaces trilogy and I’ve really enjoyed writing about Flanders.


Above: Urban Legends doesn't have cover art yet so you'll have to imagine that one
with the help of this handy sign generator thingy.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I guess my genre is “YA thrillers”; I haven’t read tons of other books in the category so I can only really give my own opinion about what makes my novels different from any others. The big thing is the use of international settings. My first three novels were set in small-town Germany, and the Forbidden Spaces trilogy is set in Brussels and Flanders. So there is a lot of local cultural stuff going on – the Saint Martin procession in Germany, the Silent Saturday tradition in Flanders. This also means that I can put a different twist on the old “teen hero(ine) as outsider” thing: Pia Kolvenbach, the heroine of my first novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was half English and half German, which meant she was in both worlds and in neither.

Above: me in Bad Münstereifel (left) and Ghent (right).

Why do I write what I do?

I write the sort of thing I like to read. I’ve always been in love with the idea of “abroad” so I revel in foreign locations. Also, I like thrilling stories myself. I read a lot of ghost stories, crime, thrillers and apocalypse fiction. So it was not really on the cards that I was going to write domestic comedies.

Above: despite the kitchen knife, not a kitchen sink drama...

How does my writing process work?

I’m always working on the next book or the one after that in my head whilst I am writing the current one. I like to mull ideas over for a long time – sort of like marinating them to allow the flavour to develop! By the time I actually sit down to start writing a new book, I like to have the plot mapped out in my head. I’m definitely not one of these people who sits down in front of a blank screen and just wings it. I like to know where the book is going before I write the first line.
The longer I’ve been writing, the keener I’ve become on having a detailed synopsis before I start work. It’s a great way to iron out any plot wrinkles. On the occasions where I’ve been under a lot of time pressure and have started with a less detailed idea of what was going to happen, I’ve inevitably ended up with a whole heap of rewriting to do.
I work Monday to Friday except in the school holidays when I work until my kids wake up! (So I don’t urge them to get up at 7am to go for a healthful run or anything…as far as I am concerned the teenage lie-in is God’s gift to writers). I have a set number of words that I try to write each day. If I get ahead of myself and have the week’s target done by Thursday, I take Friday off. This might sound mechanistic but it works for me. If you don’t have targets it is too easy to end up with nothing done at all thanks to the Scylla and Charybdis which are Facebook and Twitter…

Above: looking for inspiration for future books...

Those are my answers to the four questions! And so now onto my nominees for next week's blog tour posts. I was glad to have a bit of warning about this blog tour because this allowed me to pick three authors whom I can wholeheartedly recommend, and then talk them into it! All three write YA/MG books so if that's what you're into, I urge you to take a look. Here they are:

Catherine Johnson is a Londoner living on permanent holiday by the sea in Hastings. She writes YA and MG fiction, sometimes historical, not always though. Her most recent book, Sawbones, is a forensic murder mystery set in the 18th century, with intrigue and danger and anatomy. She also writes for TV and film including Holby City and Bullet Boy. Her radio play Fresh Berries was shortlisted for the Prix Italia and the Imison Award. 
And she's a contributor to the wonderful collection of short stories Daughters of Time edited by Mary Hoffman; the picture (below) was taken at the launch at Aphra Behn's grave in Westminster Abbey.

Catherine would like a pony of her very own and an endless supply of Freddos. She is freakishly good at knitting.

 Here is Catherine's Blog, so be sure to drop by next week and see how she answers the questions!

Next up, Jane Casey! Born and brought up in Dublin, Jane Casey has been twice shortlisted for the Irish Crime Novel of the Year Award. She is the author of The Missing and two previous Maeve Kerrigan novels The Burning and The Reckoning.

Married to a criminal barrister, Jane lives in south-west London. Jane has also written two YA novels, How To Fall and Bet Your Life, both featuring heroine Jess Tennant. I devoured both books - they are YA but they make a great light read for adults too. Jane is going to tackle her four questions on her Facebook page, which is here: Jane Casey Facebook page so look out for her replies, which are sure to be interesting! (I for one would love to know whether she is writing another Jess Tennant book - I hope so!)

Last but most definitely not least, I am also nominating the fabulous Che Golden!

This is what Che says about herself on her website: "I have led a typical second-generation Irish life, spending most of my childhood shuttling backwards and forwards between London and Blarney, Co Cork, where my mother comes from. My father is a Scottish protestant, which starts some really good fights in their home.

After graduating from Brunel University, I moved to Dublin where I worked in IT journalism, first as a senior reporter and then as publisher and editor of the ezine IT MONDAY. After ten years in this field I was feeling a little burned out and bored – I had always wanted to be a writer and I had a feeling that I had to just do it. It was now or never! So I moved to Bath, and enrolled in the Masters course in Creative Writing for Young People at the University. and soon after graduating in 2010, I was offered a contract by Quercus for my trilogy, which draws on Irish mythology and faerie tales."

The first book, The Feral Child, was published in 2012 and the second, The Unicorn Hunters, was published in 2013. The final instalment, The Raven Queen, has just been published.

Che adds: "Apart from writing, my other passion is horses, which I share with my two young daughters. We own Charlie Brown, a 10-year-old Dartmoor x, and Robbie, a Highland pony."

Che also writes the Mulberry series  for younger readers published by OUP. The series focuses on the adventures of ponies and their riders at a local riding stable. Here is Che's blog.

NB Friends of Che's and mine on FB will be familiar with our regular slanging matches, in which words like "harridan" and "saggy" are the least offensive epithets traded! Today I'm declaring an amnesty in the name of young adult literature...but normal service will be resumed tomorrow. Che, you have been warned...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Writer in her natural habitat

I seem to be irresistibly drawn to ruins! You'd think I'd have learnt my lesson after the Hallowe'en shenanigans...but seemingly not. 

This week I was part of a very interesting project by photographer Brian O'Neill, of Crieff Photography. Brian is taking a series of portrait shots of people from Crieff - ranging from the guy who works in the whisky shop to the lollipop lady to local artist June McEwan. You can see some of them on Crieff Photography's website, here:

Brian has also been posting these photos on Crieff Photography's Facebook page, which is where I saw the one of Alan from J.L.Gill the whisky shop in Crieff. I admired that particular portrait very much as it seemed to me to embody the difference between taking a technically good photograph (which is getting easier and easier with digital camera technology) and creating a real portrait.

Perhaps it was my effusion of admiration which prompted Brian to ask me if I would like to be featured too! I was absolutely thrilled at the suggestion but felt a wee bit guilty because unlike most of the other subjects, I haven't lived in Crieff for very long: only since 2011, in fact, when we moved over from Belgium in an epic seventeen-hour car journey from which my lower back has barely recovered. However, luckily for me, Brian didn't mind this. I'm still a resident of Crieff after all! So we had a chat about where to do the photograph and I came up with...Saint Kessog's, the ruined church near Auchterarder.

You'd think I'd have had enough of the place after being stuck there for hours in the rainy dark last time, but no; it still seemed like the perfect setting. I love poking about in old ruins and this one is a bit special. The east end, which was later converted into a mausoleum, is still fairly complete, with a skeleton metal roof and all the walls intact. Trees have grown up through the floor and creepers hang down from the ceiling. In the kirkyard, mossy gravestones abound and there is also a creepy-looking mausoleum. And it was in front of that mausoleum that Brian took the photograph you can see below.
A writer in her natural habitat, you might say.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Spotlight on...Wish Me Dead

I've just finished and sent off a big chunk of work, and it's raining too hard to go out anywhere, so I thought I'd settle down with a nice cup of tea and do another one of my occasional "spotlight" blog posts introducing one of my books! Today it's Wish Me Dead, which was my third novel, published in the UK by Penguin in 2011.

Wish Me Dead is the last of my books to be set in Germany. It sees a return to Bad Münstereifel, the setting of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Although it is a stand-alone novel, it takes place in the same "universe" as The Vanishing did, although a decade later. The same familiar places are mentioned, and some of the characters who appeared in The Vanishing also make a reappearance, although they are, of course, also ten years older.

So, what's it about?

Wish Me Dead is all about Steffi Nett, the daughter of the town baker (so look out for lots of references to cream cakes, rye loaves, and in one scene, death by cherry streusel!). Shy and unassuming, Steffi is always being put upon by other people - her parents, who are just assuming that she wants to take over the family business when she gets older, her boyfriend Timo, who has a wandering eye, and slimy Achim the baker's assistant, who keeps propositioning her. However, events take a surprising turn when Steffi and her friends decide to pay a visit to a ruined house in the forest, where a notorious local witch is supposed to have lived. They hold an impromptu ceremony and make a wish - that a local celebrity should drop dead. And she does... As the friends experiment with further wishes it soon becomes clear that only Steffi's wishes ever come true. What is behind this extraordinary power that Steffi seems to have? And after being pushed around by others for so long, can she resist the temptation to have her own way for once?

Where did you get the idea for the book?

Just as The Vanishing of Katharina Linden was inspired by the genuine folklore of Bad Münstereifel, Wish Me Dead was inspired by the real history of the town and the surrounding area. The seventeenth century saw a proliferation of witch trials in the Eifel. Hermann Löher, one time mayor of Rheinbach and born in Bad Münstereifel itself, wrote a book denouncing the persecution of supposed witches, and was obliged to flee to Amsterdam with his family, in fear of his life. Witchcraft was a hot topic in the Eifel in the 1600s, and the sorry (fictional) tale of Red Gertrud is based on the real life witch trials.

Hmmm, witches. And what about the bakery bit?

The bakery products were researched as *cough* lovingly as the witch trials. I was advised by Herr and Frau Nipp of the Erft Cafe (sadly now defunct) and the Cafe am Salzmarkt, both in Bad Münstereifel, and Frau Quasten of the Bäckerei Cafe Quasten in Kommern. All of these were kind enough to let me go "behind the scenes" to see how a German bakery works, and they also explained quite a lot to me about the different types of breads popular in Germany. And then there are the cakes. I tried quite a lot of those - for research purposes, obviously...

These characters from The Vanishing of Katharina Linden who reappear in this book, do they include Frau Kessel by any chance?

Well, it is about witches...

Did the book win anything?

Wish Me Dead was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2012 and shortlisted for the Worcestershire Teen Book Awards.

What did the critics think?

"Wish Me Dead is the kind of book that makes you want to curl up on the sofa on a rainy day and devour it in one go."
  - Caroline, Chicklish Blog

"Helen Grant's third book is probably her scariest yet...This book had me too scared to turn off the light, but unable to leave the next page unread. The ending was unpredictable and the characters were believable, responding to Steffi's "ability" in a realistic way. Overall, very, very scary and very, very good!"
 - Derby Telegraph

"The German flavour is what makes the story. That, and the gory horror."
 - The Bookwitch

My Dad also votes Wish Me Dead as the one of my novels most likely to make a cracking film. So if there are any film producers reading this...

So did everyone love it?

Er, no. One Spinebreakers reviewer found the book "tediously average" ...but conceded that "The ending was made of pure awesome."

Who is the book for?

I know I keep saying teens and adults...Wish Me Dead is probably for slightly older teens than the previous two books. Owing to some of the content, I'd put this at 14+. And adults too.

Anything else to declare?

There is a high redhead count in Wish Me Dead. This is because whilst I was working on the idea for the book, I was outraged to read a newspaper article about yet another child who had been bullied very badly for having red hair. Grrr. Red hair is beautiful! So I decided to give the hero flaming red hair. Red Gertrud - the witch - also had red hair and is supposed to have been beautiful - infuriatingly so to the men who persecuted her. Finally, to even up the goodies and baddies, there is a nasty redhead too.

And finally...

If you'd like to see the book trailer, made by the fabulous Lumiere Productions, it's here:
Wish Me Dead book trailer
You can also read a sample of the book on Amazon's Click to look inside function: Wish Me Dead sample

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

New look Silent Saturday!

I'm very pleased to say that tomorrow - Thursday 27th March - sees the publication of Silent Saturday in paperback!

I never seem to get much of an opportunity to celebrate book-ish milestones! When my first book was published and I was writing the second, we had only just moved to Flanders and were desperately trying to find our feet there. My third book, Wish Me Dead, came out in summer 2011, at a time when I was frantically organising the move back from Belgium to the UK, so I didn't spend much time cracking open bottles of champagne then either. Tomorrow will be pretty much business-as-usual, because I have a huge pile of work to do and some fairly short deadlines.

All the same, I am quietly pleased to see Silent Saturday in paperback. The cover of the hardback edition was wonderful - the design had a really atmospheric feel and the title and my name were in gorgeous big shiny letters. Still, there are some great advantages to paperbacks - speaking as a reader. They are not half so heavy, so you are less likely to drop them in the bath(!), and your arms don't get tired so quickly if you are reading in bed. And of course, paperbacks are that bit more affordable. So I'm very pleased to see this one, and I'll be raising a glass to it tomorrow evening.

Silent Saturday is available through the normal outlets but if you'd like to support your local bookshop, do consider ordering through Hive, here: Silent Saturday paperback on Hive
The Hive website allows you to order online, with the book delivered free to your nearest independent bookshop. If (shock horror!) you don't know where that is, there is a bookshop search function too. There's even a discount on the retail price.

Above: Silent Saturday is an urbex thriller - it will take you to places you really, really shouldn't be...

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ghosts in the library

If you happen to have read my blog post about Hallowe'en, you will know that I spent 31st October as "Writer in Residence" at Innerpeffray Library, Scotland's oldest lending library. Sitting in the upper reading room, with its charming view into the kirkyard, I spent the day composing a series of three ghost stories connected by an overarching narrative. The same evening, I read them aloud to an audience in the library, by the light of artificial candles (real naked flames being inadvisable next to all those antiquarian books). All the stories are set in and around the library and the neighbouring kirkyard of Innerpeffray, so it made for an atmospheric evening, especially as the audience had to leave via a path that runs alongside the kirkyard in question, with its mossy graves!

I wrote the stories to increase awareness of Innerpeffray Library - which is a fabulous and uniquely literary local attraction - and also in hopes of helping to raise funds for it. I am therefore very pleased to say that Ghost Stories of Innerpeffray is now available from the library as an exclusive chapbook. You can order it here: Innerpeffray library shop. It costs £5 plus postage (orders from outside the UK also accepted).

The three stories are:
Nick's Story: The Spell -  in which a scholar inadvertently repeats an ancient incantation aloud;
Lilith's Story: The Unreturned Volume - a tale to delight a librarian's heart: retribution falls upon someone who fails to return a book;
Jude's Story: The Book Of Fate - it's dangerous to read - but which book is it?

If you would like a taster of the stories, a single one - Lilith's Story - is available in a free audio version here: Lilith's Story audio. You can listen to it, share it, or download it to listen to later - all completely free. If you enjoy that sample, do consider buying the chapbook to help support Innerpeffray Library!

Above: the library is the white building on the left; the other is the chapel. 
As you can see, the library really does look straight out onto the kirkyard! 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Spotlight on...The Glass Demon

I'm up early on a Sunday morning (couldn't sleep), so I thought I'd do another blog post in my occasional "Spotlight" series introducing my novels to new readers. Today: The Glass Demon, first published in the UK in 2010 by Penguin, and subsequently also published in the USA (Random House), the Netherlands, Germany, Norway and France. A Brazilian edition is also planned.

The Glass Demon is my second novel, published a year after The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Like my first book, it is set in the rural Eifel region of Germany. It isn't set right in Bad Münstereifel this time, but the town is mentioned several times.

What's it about?

The heroine of The Glass Demon is 17-year-old Lin Fox, whose father Dr. Oliver Fox is a university don working in mediaeval studies. Oliver Fox is good-looking (George Clooney comparisons are made) and has rather an ego, so when he fails to get a professorship he wants, he is looking for excuse to get away from the university for a while. Dr. Fox has received a letter from a local historian in a town called Baumgarten, claiming that he knows the location of the missing stained glass windows of Allerheiligen Abbey. These windows are a kind of "Holy Grail" for mediaevalists; they are also rumoured to be haunted by the demon Bonschariant, who can be seen looking through the glass, with fatal results for anyone who sees him.
Oliver decides to move the entire family over to Germany to hunt for them, the entire family being: himself, his vain and impractical wife Tuesday, Lin, her sister Polly and their baby brother Ru. Shortly after their arrival in Germany, however, Dr. Fox and Lin find that the historian who wrote the letter has died under mysterious circumstances - and broken glass was discovered at the scene. Was the death an accident, murder, or could it possibly be the work of the demon Bonschariant?
The superstitious locals close ranks, Oliver and Tuesday are too obsessed with their own concerns to see what is going on, so as the attacks continue, with broken glass found at every scene, it is up to Lin to solve the question of who is behind them: a very human killer, or the legendary demon? Whoever it is, he is not going to stop until he has got rid of Lin and her family - forever.

So is it a real person or is it the demon?

I'm not telling you that.

Where did you get the idea for the book?

I got the idea from the fascinating real-life history of the Steinfeld Abbey stained glass windows. You can read all about that in a previous blog post entitled Lingering memories of the treasure. The Steinfeld glass - like the fictional Allerheiligen glass in the book - dates to the 16th century. A number of times during its history it was removed from the abbey windows for its own protection, and then at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the abbey was closed, it vanished altogether. A century later, the famous English ghost story writer M.R.James identified a large number of panels from Steinfeld in the windows of Ashridge House chapel, which he was cataloguing for Lord Brownlow. The windows inspired M.R.James to write The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.
Two things about the Steinfeld glass interested me very much. Firstly, I was amazed that it was even possible to remove stained glass from the window frames and transfer it to another church without smashing it all to smithereens. Secondly, given that the Steinfeld glass was auctioned in the 1920s for the equivalent of about £800,000 in modern money, if another comparable set of windows were to be discovered now, they would probably be worth £1,000,000. Their rarity and value would be excellent reasons for Dr. Fox to want to find them, and for other people to want to stop him...

And the demon? Did you make him up?

No - there really is a local Eifel legend about the demon Bonschariant. It's connected with Steinfeld Abbey. Count Sigebodo (love that name!), who built the abbey, is supposed to have had a mysterious servant named Bonschariant ("the good servant") who was actually a demon. The count turned a blind eye to Bonschariant's demonic aspects for a long time because he was such a useful person to have around - he once flew into the air during a battle carrying the count with him to save him from being killed. But eventually the count's wife became frightened and encouraged the count to get rid of Bonschariant. The count built the abbey and fixed a cross to the highest point - when Bonschariant saw the cross he flew away snarling and was never seen again.

Above: the Norwegian cover. 

So Lin (who is 17) is the it a teen book, then?

It's suitable for anyone over about 14 (admittedly I was reading much gorier stuff when I was younger than that, cough). In some countries it was actually sold as an adult title, and a large proportion of the readers to date have been adults. There are some cryptic M.R.James references in the text that only fellow fans of MRJ would "get", and most of the people who have picked up on those so far have been adults!

Are the places in the book real ones?

Yes, but unlike the places in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, I renamed most of them. Some real place names are used: Bad Münstereifel, Köln. But Baumgarten, Nordkirchen and Traubenheim are all made up. This is because much of the action is set in a castle. There are many castles in the Eifel and some are still in private hands or are actually inhabited. I didn't want anyone to think that I was writing about their home and perhaps be offended, so I decided to give the locations fictional names, and I combined elements from several different castles to be on the safe side.

Did the book win anything?

It didn't win anything but it was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2011 and shortlisted for the Leeds Book Awards 2011. The US edition was shortlisted for the International Thriller Writers Awards 2012, category: Best paperback original.

What did the critics think?

"For teenage readers, Helen Grant's second novel, The Glass Demon, is told from the point of view of a modern-day teenage girl temporarily and unwillingly relocated to a German forest while her image-obsessed, university-teacher father does research into some missing medieval stained glass. Witty instead of facetious, occasionally scary without seeming merely silly, well-plotted and beautifully written, it is everything a young-adult novel should be. Helen, please keep on writing."
   —The Independent

"Helen Grant's publisher is marketing her as "the Stieg Larsson of teen fiction", but don't let that put you off. Grant is an original, accomplished author in her own right and with The Glass Demon, her second novel, she brings us a gripping and atmospheric adventure, involving murder, family break-up, chilling folklore and warped religion.
The story centres on 17-year-old Lin, the daughter of a failed academic who drags his entire family from their home in an English university town to rural Germany in search of some missing medieval stained glass he believes will make his name and his fortune. The glass is said to be haunted by a demon who will punish any efforts to remove it from its hiding place. As soon as the family arrives, a spate of gruesome murders begins, with the bodies always surrounded by shards of broken glass.
There are shades of Larsson in the way the murderer takes his cue from biblical stories, but the dark, chilling mood is really closer to the Brothers Grimm. Grant builds the suspense cleverly, maintaining the tension with a light touch, and Lin is an appealingly spunky narrator. It is barely a year since this author's impressive debut, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, earmarked her as a writer to watch, and this follow-up will consolidate her reputation as a talented new author."
   —The Guardian

"Helen Grant's wonderful debut, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, has just been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. This second novel confirms what a talented writer she is. It is a compelling mystery about an English family staying in a grim house in German woods, and the search for some stained-glass windows from which an evil demon is said to spring. A series of deaths and threatening events fill the reader and the 17-year-old narrator, Lin, with foreboding. An atmosphere of mounting unease builds to a terrifying climax and, along with Lin, we are drawn towards believing the unbelievable. The novel is knowledgeable about German Life, and well observed about unrequited fancying and family relationships: the vain father, shallow stepmother, sweet, self-destructive sister and baby brother are all memorable and persuasive. This book is both painful and sometimes blackly funny. Grant handles place, people and red herrings with originality and precision."
   —The Sunday Times (Children's Book of the Week)

And in the interests of taking the rough with the smooth, I should add this from a 3-star Amazon review: "Possibly the only reason why I didn't rate this higher is because of the cliché of the ruined castle in the German forest..."

That particular comment has stuck in my mind because the setting had not struck me as a cliché at all - because it was inspired by a real place! I suppose on reflection the "creepy old castle" is a bit of a cliché. But there are a great many of those clichés all over that part of Germany...Ah well.

Above: the Dutch cover.

Anything else we should know about this book?

It's one of my personal favourites out of everything I have written. This is partly because of the connection to M.R.James, whose work I love - I had always fancied writing something that was a bit of a tribute to him. He and Father Nikola Reinartz, a German priest who corresponded with him and whose articles about the glass I have read with interest, are both mentioned in the acknowledgements at the back of the book. The other reason I loved working on this book is that I really love the characters. Oliver and Tuesday are such awful parents - it's so much more fun writing dreadful characters than goody-goody ones! And I really love Michel, the local boy who helps Lin in her investigations. After I'd finished writing The Glass Demon, I slept with the manuscript by my bed for months. I didn't want to let go of it! 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Urbex: the novel

I love Twitter (I've got 34,900 tweets on the clock to date) but now and again someone asks me something that it is very difficult to answer in chunks of 140 characters (I love being asked anyway!).

My last novel, Silent Saturday, features a secretive group called the Koekoeken, who break into empty buildings around Brussels for kicks - either to explore or to enjoy the luxurious interiors. In return for the experience, they always do one small piece of maintenance or repair - sometimes something as small as rewiring a plug or tightening a screw on a window catch. Heroine Veerle De Keyser and her friend Kris Verstraeten enjoy a series of these adventures, until one night they turn up at a house and find a murder taking place...

Today I had a tweet from mum and English teacher Lisa Farrell, who is reading Silent Saturday and wanted to know "Do people actually do that - squat in empty houses? Where did you get (the) idea? Intrigued!" I did my best to reply in chunks of 140 letters, but actually I thought there is enough to say about this to fill a blog post!  So here goes (and thank you for the question, Lisa!).

Yes, people really do squat in and/or explore empty houses. I guess everyone's heard of actual squatters, who occupy empty houses as living spaces, but exploring abandoned buildings falls more into the category of urbex (urban exploration). There are whole websites devoted to photographs of these haunting and often beautiful locations. Here is one: Abandoned Scotland.

There are other "architectural" pursuits too, such as "buildering" (climbing up buildings), which inspired some of the goings-on in The Demons of Ghent, due out on June 5th and the sequel to Silent Saturday.  

Some urban exploration is done by permission of the landowners; on other occasions it is entirely "unofficial" and the explorers post their reports anonymously. So the secrecy observed by the fictional Koekoeken is well-advised, especially since some of them explore houses that are not abandoned at all - the owners are simply out of town. At the time of writing Silent Saturday the Koekoeken website with its carefully concealed forum was simply something I invented - I was quite surprised when an article appeared in the Daily Telegraph in February 2011 describing how squatters were pooling their information about properties on the internet. So the idea is not as far fetched as you might imagine. The Koekoeken, however, do not occupy the buildings they enter; their aim is to go in and out without their visit ever being detected, and to do one single piece of work inside as a repayment.

That piece of maintenance work is also mirrored to a certain extent by reality. I'm intrigued by the Guerrilla Gardening movement, which promotes "illicit cultivation" - the improvement of drab public spaces by planting flowers. The Koekoeken's explorations include some derelict buildings, such as the castle that appears early on in Silent Saturday; these too are unloved spaces which the members improve in small ways.

Researching these books - and especially the third one, Urban Legends (out in 2015), was very interesting indeed. But more of that later...

Above: this is more rural than urban exploration (rurex perhaps?). Here I am exploring 
a ruined church in Scotland. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

'Tempered in the flames of hell': The Bottle Imp

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a great fan of English ghost story writer M.R.James. However, my researches into his work have occasionally led me along quite different paths!

Some years ago, I was researching for an article about the demonology of Canon Alberic's Scrap-book, and one of the points I tackled was why the sacristan in that story insists on selling the scrap-book at a fraction of its real value. The idea of selling at a lower price than the purchase sum rang a bell; I immediately thought of Robert Louis Stevenson's excellent story The Bottle Imp, part of his Island Nights' Entertainments.

Stevenson's tale was published shortly before MRJ wrote Canon Alberic's Scrap-book, but even if MRJ did not see it, it was the latest version in a long tradition of bottle imp stories with which MRJ may very well have been familiar. Whilst investigating these, I gathered so much material that in the end I decided to write an article about The Bottle Imp and its antecedents. The article was published in All Hallows 40 in October 2005 and as it has never been republished, I thought I would post it here, with a bibliography and a few small corrections.

I don't believe it breaks much new ground, as some of the influences on Stevenson's Bottle Imp are very well known - Stevenson himself refers to the stage play of the same name by R.B.Peake in his notes on his own story. However, it is a (I hope entertaining) round-up of previous bottle imp tales and may suggest some new reading for anyone interested in the tradition!

‘Tempered in the flames of hell’: an examination of
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp

It is fairly well known that Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale The Bottle Imp was inspired by an early 19th century stage play of the same title by Richard Brinsley Peake; Stevenson himself owned the debt in his introduction to the story when it first appeared in the Sunday New York Herald in 1891. Others, including J.W. Beach in his 1910 essay on Stevenson’s sources, have traced the bottle imp motif further back to La Motte Fouqué, Grimmelshausen, even to the djinn of the Arabian Nights. I would like to examine these sources – specifically, which elements of earlier versions Stevenson has used, which not, and why - in order to understand what Stevenson contributed to the tradition, and how he made the bottle imp story particularly his own.

Stevenson’s Bottle Imp is set in Hawaii and tells the story of Keawe, a young man who buys a magic bottle containing an imp. The imp will grant any wish of the bottle’s owner, but there are two catches: firstly, whoever dies in possession of the bottle must go straight to hell, and secondly, the bottle must always be sold for a lower price, which means that ultimately the owner will be unable to sell it on. In addition, if the owner is not content with what he has wished for, ill will befall him once he has sold the bottle to someone else. Keawe also discovers that the good fortune brought by the bottle often comes in undesirable ways. In the course of the story, the bottle passes in and out of the possession of Keawe and his wife Kokua, but at the very last is purchased by a foul-mouthed and drunken sailor, who has no fear of the bottle imp’s taking him to hell because he is convinced he is going there anyway; he lurches out of the story with the bottle under his coat, and Keawe and Kokua live happily ever after.

The key element of the story is the danger of wish-fulfilment: Keawe gains his wonderful house through the deaths of his good and beautiful relatives; he wins the love of Kokua but then discovers that he has leprosy, and all his good fortune cannot avail him; he buys the bottle back to wish for his health, and then cannot enjoy it because he lives under the shadow of damnation. Wish-fulfilment stories are amongst the earliest ever told: Greek legend included the tale of Midas, who wished for everything he touched to turn to gold, and then discovered to his dismay that even his food and drink turned to metal when they touched his lips. Tithonus wished for eternal life without wishing for eternal youth, and became so wrinkled and shrunken with age that he turned into a grasshopper. Semele wished to see Zeus in all his divine glory, and was instantly fried to a crisp by his radiance. The Greeks believed that to commit hubris, an act of blasphemous arrogance, would bring down nemesis, retribution, on one’s head, and such stories reflect this; in Christian culture, seeking the fulfilment of one’s wishes through supernatural means leads to the endangerment of one’s soul, hence the story of Faust and the proliferation of other tales of diabolical pacts. Wish-fulfilment is a very dangerous thing in anyone’s book.

As regards specific bottle imp stories, these could ultimately be traced back to the legend of Solomon and the demons. In the very early Christian text The Testament of Solomon (possibly originating as early as the first to third centuries AD), King Solomon imprisons the demon Kunopaston in a phial and seals it with his ring. The djinn of the Arabian Nights appear to be demons imprisoned by Solomon: in The Tale of the Fisherman and the Genie, for example, a poor fisherman discovers a yellow copper bottle bearing King Solomon’s seal; when he opens it, a terrifying djinn bursts forth. In the tale of Aladdin, the ifrit which appears from the lamp is ‘as tall as one of Solomon’s djinn’ and is controlled by whoever wears a magical ring – perhaps the very one used by Solomon. Interestingly, there is some suggestion that possession of the ring and the lamp is spiritually dangerous; Aladdin’s mother is terrified of the djinn and implores Aladdin to throw the ring and the lamp away; she tells him that it is unlawful for anyone to have any dealings with them, and that the Prophet himself had warned against them.

The bottle imp in the form familiar from Stevenson’s story – i.e., a creature which remains imprisoned in a bottle and must be sold for an ever-lower price – can be traced back to German tradition; the earliest version appears to be featured in Grimmelshausen’s Trutz Simplex, published in 1670. Trutz Simplex is the scurrilous memoir of Courasche (Courage), who steals, cheats and sleeps her way through various adventures in a rollicking tale told without a shred of remorse. Courasche is persuaded by an old soldier to buy ‘something in a sealed glass bottle, which didn’t look exactly like a spider but also not exactly like a scorpion.’ She thinks at first that it must be a masterpiece of glasswork, as the thing inside seems to move but can’t possibly be alive since the bottle is sealed. The old soldier tells her that the bottle must always be sold at a lower price, but he neglects to tell her what will happen if she dies in possession of it. Courasche thinks she is buying a valuable piece of art, but is completely unaware of the bottle’s inhabitant or its powers. Later the old soldier tells her that it is a dienender Geist, a spirit that will serve her, and that it will protect her and bring her good fortune. Thinking that there must be some cost to the owner, Courasche presses him to tell her the catch; he reiterates that the bottle must always be sold at a lower price, but refuses to tell her why she should sell it. It is Courasche’s Bohemian foster-mother who informs her that she is in danger of damnation, since she has bought the bottle for two crowns – no-one will buy it from her for one crown, knowing that they cannot sell it on. One interesting feature of Grimmelshausen’s bottle imp is that it seems to provide good luck, protection and good fortune in a general kind of sort of way; Courasche does not make a specific wish for anything. When she finds hidden treasure, it is as the result of an innerliches Einsprechen or inner voice; otherwise she simply notices that all the men she fancies are attracted to her and her business ventures flourish more than anyone else’s. Courasche eventually sells the bottle imp to her associate Springinsfeld as a condition of a settlement she makes him. Springinsfeld inherits the good fortune with the bottle but soon becomes afraid of it and tries to dispose of it. He tries to return it to Courasche, and throws it into the Danube several times, but it always comes back to him, and as he has bought it for one crown he cannot sell it to anyone. At last he destroys the bottle altogether by throwing it into a baker’s oven.

Friedrich Baron De La Motte Fouqué, writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, further developed the bottle imp theme with his story Das Galgenmännlein (the ‘gallows mannikin’, a kind of homunculus created from the sperm of a hanged man; here the creature in the bottle). In La Motte Fouqué’s tale, a bottle imp is acquired by Reichard, a young merchant, described as ein fröhlicher und kecker Gesell, a lighthearted, saucy young fellow. The story is set at the time of the Thirty Years’ War, as was Trutz Simplex, and it swiftly becomes apparent that the environment of the tale shares much with Grimmelshausen’s: early in the story Reichard falls in with a group of rapacious courtesans, and it is partly to fund further amusements that he purchases the bottle from a Spanish soldier. The soldier tells him that the bottle must always be sold for a lower price, and warns him of the damnation awaiting the ultimate owner. Unlike Grimmelshausen’s creature lurking half-seen within the bottle, La Motte Fouqué’s imp appears as one of the dramatis personae of the story. It continually gloats over Reichard’s future damnation, even singing him a taunting song, and it appears to him in his dreams as a huge black being with bats whizzing around its head, which executes a foul dance and then lies full length upon him, grinning into his face. When Reichard falls ill, it eagerly awaits his demise in order to carry off his soul – La Motte Fouqué’s bottle imp does seem to grant (or deny) specific wishes, since it refuses Reichard’s request for good health – and when at the end of the story Reichard is finally able to rid himself of the bottle, the imp lies at the bottom of it in a depressed and disappointed heap.

The ultimate disposal of the bottle is more satisfactory in Das Galgenmännlein than in Trutz Simplex (in which one might have expected the bottle to reappear after melting, just as it did after being thrown into a river). Reichard sells the bottle to a terrifying giant who is a damned soul constantly slaving at Sisyphean tasks for the devil. Since the giant is already damned, Satan gains nothing by the transaction. Reichard resolves to live a better life, and ends his days as a prosperous merchant, warning his gathered children and grandchildren against diabolical transactions.
No examination of the German bottle imp tradition is complete without mentioning the story Der Geist im Glas in the collected fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, contemporary with La Motte Fouqué (their Kinder- und Hausmärchen was published in 1812). The Grimms’ tale is much more simply told and owes a debt to The Fisherman and the Genie:  a woodcutter’s son finds a bottle in the roots of an oak tree and sees a creature like a frog jumping up and down in it. When he releases the creature, it threatens to kill him, as does the djinn released by the fisherman; in both tales the imp is deceived into returning into the bottle, and in exchange for freedom performs a service to the person who releases him, leading to his eventual enrichment.

Then comes R.B.Peake’s play The Bottle Imp, first staged in 1828. As in Das Galgenmännlein, the imp himself was one of the dramatis personae; he was played by the actor Richard John Smith, dressed in a skin-tight green outfit with spreading wings, and with horns on his head. In this version, the hero of the play, Albert, is able at the end to resell the bottle to Nicola, the necromancer who sold it to him, and Nicola is unable to rid himself of it; the coin with which he has re-purchased the bottle is of the lowest value in the world. Nicola meets a Faustian end. A good description of the play is given in Joseph Warren Beach's article of 1910 (see bibliography and link below); this was the only text which I was unable to obtain at the time of writing this article, so I have not attempted it.

The works I have described above all deal with actual bottle imps; however, comparisons have also been drawn between Stevenson’s Bottle Imp and Balzac’s novel La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin). Published in 1831, the book details the adventures of Raphael, a young Parisian who purchases an ass’s skin from a curio shop; the skin possesses a peculiar quality, in that it can grant any wish of its owner, but with every wish it diminishes in size, and the length of the owner’s life is likewise diminished. Raphael initially enjoys the good fortune the skin brings, but gradually becomes obsessed with the shrinking of the skin, and thus also his life expectancy. He is forced to withdraw from public life and live as monotonous a life as possible, since whenever he so much as thinks of wishing for anything, the wish is granted and the skin shrinks. In the final scene, the skin has become a tiny fragment – one wish’s worth – and Raphael is trying desperately not to wish for anything. However, his desire for his mistress Pauline is too great, and he finally expires in her arms.

The parallel between the shrinking ass’s skin and the diminishing price of the bottle imp is clear. However, the bottle imp threatens ultimate damnation: the ass’s skin threatens only physical death. Some have even interpreted La Peau de Chagrin in a non-supernatural way, ie. Raphael is slowly succumbing to obsession and disease, although this would rather seem to be contradicted by the fact that Pauline feels the contraction of the tiny skin in her hand in the final scene. The main interest in comparing Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin with Stevenson’s Bottle Imp is to observe the authors’ very different treatments of a similar theme: the one a full-length novel set in the gambling dens and salons of Paris, ripe with Baroque details and extravagant descriptions and peppered with exclamation marks, the other concise and understated – there is no melodrama in The Bottle Imp.
I have tried to summarise what one might term the bottle imp heritage prior to Stevenson’s tale; now let us examine what Stevenson himself made of the motif. Stevenson set his tale on the island of Hawaii; of course he lived for part of his life in the South Seas, in an attempt to improve his failing health. The story eventually formed what Stevenson himself considered ‘the centre piece’ of his collection Island Nights’ Entertainments. In his introduction to the story at its first publication in the Sunday New York Herald, he acknowledged the debt to the stage play of the same name, and remarked, ‘…yet I hope I have made it (the story) a new thing. And the fact that the tale has been designed and written for a Polynesian audience may lend it some extraneous interest nearer home.’ The story was in fact subsequently translated into Samoan, and is supposed to have been well-received by Samoan readers; for us the Hawaiian setting is exotic, and lends a fabulous feel to the story. This is further enhanced by the manner language Stevenson uses: for example, he tells us that Kokua ‘had the good word always’; elsewhere, the hero Keawe cries, ‘…it is for you, O Kokua! that I pour my lamentations!’ The effect is rather that of an English translation of a text written in a foreign language; it adds colour to the story, and also credibility: it is easier to imagine magic occurring somewhere far away and exotic, whereas the effect would be diminished in a homely environment. The fabulous quality of the story is further enhanced by the descriptions, for example of the house Keawe visits which has steps which shine like silver and windows which are bright like diamonds: these are fairytale qualities, reminiscent of the sparkling silver-leaved trees in the Grimms’ tale of the twelve dancing princesses, or the wonderful clothes in the tale of Allerleirau (the patchwork skin), golden as the sun and silvery as the moon.

Stevenson’s hero, Keawe, differs greatly from the heroes of Grimmelshausen, La Motte Fouqué, and Balzac. Courasche is an unashamed strumpet and vagabond, Reichard is a loose-liver, Raphael a gambler. Keawe is their opposite: when, for example, he discovers that he has leprosy, he laments that he may not now marry Kokua, but Stevenson comments, ‘…he might have wed Kokua even as he was, and many would have done, because they have the souls of pigs, but Keawe loved the maid manfully, and he would do her no hurt and bring her in no danger.’ Courasche would have had no such scruples, and indeed boasts of spreading the pox to a former lover. Of course, the greater part of Victoria’s reign lies between Stevenson and the earlier versions of the bottle imp story which I have described, and one would not expect to find his hero a hard-drinking, gambling and whoring man. But more importantly than that, Keawe is a hero for whom we can really care; furthermore, he is a kind of Everyman: he is not rich, but he is active; he is educated, but not showily – ‘he could read and write like a schoolmaster’; and he has practical manly skills – ‘he was a first-rate mariner besides.’ He is not so elevated in life that we cannot imagine ourselves in his place; nor is he a rascal like Courasche, whose antics we might observe with enjoyment but never dare to try ourselves; nor is he a bad man, whose damnation would be his just reward (compare him with the coarse boatswain who buys the bottle at the end of the story: who spares a thought for his welfare?). We can sympathise with Keawe; we can think, ‘How terrible if that happened to me.’

What also marks out Stevenson’s story from other tales in the bottle imp tradition is its restraint; the things which Stevenson does not show, or does not tell us in blunt words. La Motte Fouqué’s imp is out of its bottle whenever it can be, grinning into Reichard’s face and pressing its hairy body up against him. Peake’s imp flitted about in wings and horns, taunting Nicola with his doom. Stevenson’s imp is seen by Keawe and his friend Lopaka, slipping out and back into the bottle ‘swift as a lizard’; but we do not see the imp. Its appearance is such that the two friends sit, as though turned to stone, until night falls; it is mot until then that either of them can think how to react, and this is enough to impress us with the imp’s horror. From the outside of the bottle one can only see something which ‘obscurely moved, like a shadow and a fire’, almost an abstract thing, not the scorpion- or spider-like creature of Trutz Simplex or the anthropomorphic demon of Das Galgenmännlein. Hell itself is represented by images of flames and smoke, coals and cinders, a bottomless pit- There are no frolicking demons with pitchforks to bring the story into the realm of melodrama.

It is perhaps unfair to compare Stevenson’s treatment of his characters’ behaviour with that of Balzac in La Peau de Chagrin, since the two were writing within different canons; nevertheless, it is interesting to do so. Raphael’s last scene with Pauline is a wild drama of threats, passion, and physical struggle; he repulses her, then pursues her, screaming that he wants to die in her arms; Pauline, half-naked and writhing, attempts suicide to save him; Raphael batters down the door and embraces her, at the last sinking his teeth into her breast in a fit of passion. The overall effect for the reader is one of high drama and physical horror.

Stevenson’s characters walk a tightrope over a bottomless pit of fire, yet they are collected enough to keep up a pretence even to each other. Keawe does not at first tell Kokua why he is unhappy after their marriage; Kokua does not tell him that she has purchased the bottle through an intermediary to save him, and he only discovers this when he comes upon her secretly at night-time and finds her wringing her hands over the bottle – not screaming, crying or attempting self-injury, but simply brooding over it. Keawe feels the ground heaving and the house spinning around him, and his soul is bitter with despair, but he never raves like a maniac, instead maintaining a calm appearance before Kokua; he maintains his honour even to the foul-mouthed boatswain, whom he tries to dissuade from keeping the bottle. The effect of this restraint in the narrative is to heighten the sense of long drawn-out tension, the full horror of the Faustian pact. There is no need to rant and rage now; damnation is not upon our hero yet. But it is coming, slowly and surely, be it ever so far in the future. It is always there, underlying the actions and words of every moment that passes. If Balzac’s tale s a fevered nightmare, Stevenson’s is a waking terror.

Stevenson’s resolution of the dilemma at the end of The Bottle Imp is highly satisfactory. In creating a hero as sympathetic as Keawe, he could not then consign him to perdition. Grimmelshausen’s idea of destroying the bottle through fire is, to my mind, unconvincing; a bottle forged in the flames of hell and containing a denizen thereof is unlikely to be so simply melted in an oven. It has already bounced back from being thrown into a fast-flowing river and dashed to the ground. La Motte Fouqué prefigures Stevenson’s idea of transferring the bottle to someone whose soul is already damned, but his giant slaving away for the devil is a superhuman figure, a grotesque who dyes his clothing with his own blood. It is only through this supernatural agency that Reichard can rid himself of the bottle. Stevenson uses no such dues ex machina; instead the bottle is passed on, as it always should be, by selling at a lower price to another human soul. The foul-mouthed sailor who buys it is, by his own estimation, destined for perdition anyway, and he staggers out of the story with the bottle in his pocket to meet his end off-stage, the drama left to our imagination, as is the appearance of the imp itself. Keawe, who has proved his moral integrity by being prepared to buy the bottle back even from such a creature as the boatswain, is free to enjoy his wife and home. Chastened by his experience, he is destined to keep his good fortune, for he will never be discontented with it.

That is the end of Keawe’s story, but not of the bottle imp tradition, which has life in it yet. For example, the American TV series The Twilight Zone featured a bottle imp type story titled The Man in the Bottle. And in Germany, where there is a long tradition of Flaschenteufel stories, it is possible to buy toy bottle imps, tiny creatures made of blown glass in a bottle of water with a flexible seal – the seal can be pressed or released to change the water pressure and make the ‘bottle imp’ move. There is even a card game entitled Flaschenteufel, which requires that the ‘bottle imp’ be passed to whoever plays a card lower than, and closest to, the bottle imp’s value. It seems that the bottle imp theme, like the creature in Stevenson’s story, continues to be handed on.


Island Nights' Entertainments by Robert Louis Stevenson (on Project Gutenberg)

The Sources of Stevenson's The Bottle Imp by Joseph Warren Beach (1910)

Tusitala and his Polish reader from No Island Is An Island by Carlo Ginzburg (2000)

The Testament of Solomon, English translation by F.C.Conybeare (1898)

La Peau de Chagrin by Honoré de Balzac, French edition published by Le Livre de Poche

NB If you wish to read this in translation, an English version The Wild Ass's Skin, translated by Herbert J. Hunt, is available from Penguin Classics.

Trutz Simplex von Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, online text at

NB If you wish to read this in translation, an English version The Life of Courage, translated by Mike Mitchell, is available from Dedalus European Classics.

Das Galgenmännlein from Rittergeschichten und Gespenstersagen by Friedrich De La Motte Fouqué, German edition (2000) from Buchendorfer Verlag.

Märchen der Brüder Grimm, German edition with illustrations by Nikolaus Heidelbach, published by Beltz & Gelberg.

Above: a bottle imp yesterday.

Post script: My Ghost Stories of Innerpeffray includes a story, Nick's Tale, that is a twist on the bottle imp tradition. The complete set of three stories will shortly be appearing in chapbook format, available from the Library of Innerpeffray. I will post details on my blog as soon as the chapbooks are on sale. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

KEEP OUT. Really? YES.

I've been poking about in old ruins again. However, let's start from the beginning.

Today being 1st March, I went over to Innerpeffray to visit the Library, which was opening again after its winter closure. I am thrilled to say that I was the first visitor of the season! Of course they do let people in during the winter but it is mostly groups and by special arrangement. So those don't count. I made sure to sign the visitors' book to prove I had been there!

Last year saw the opening of a new and gorgeous reading room on the ground floor (pictured left). So I had a look in there and admired some of the Bannockburn-related exhibits, which include songs about that mighty battle. Then I went upstairs to the older reading room. I wasn't planning to transcribe anything today because my time was limited, but I wanted to see what was new in the displays and just get a lovely whiff of that delicious library smell that librarian Lara Haggerty prosaically described as "dust" but that I am convinced is the scent of thousands of books thinking. 

Today Lara showed me a charming little volume by Sir Thomas Overbury, entitled "His Wife" and containing a series of descriptions of character types. These included "A Maquerela, in plaine English, a Bawde", who, we are informed, "is an old Char-cole, that hath beene burnt her selfe, and therefore is able to kindle a whole greene Coppice."

I think this book should have been named "The Little Book of Innuendo", as there is very much more in this vein!

It is possible to "adopt" a book from the Innerpeffray Collection, and fund the repairs they sometimes need; "His Wife" is one of those who could do with a patron just now, as we discovered a badly torn page. If you are interested in sponsoring this or any other book, £20 pays for minor repairs such as mending the tears in "His Wife", and a really major bit of emergency surgery involving rebinding etc costs £50.

And speaking of supporting the Library, I am pleased to say that the set of ghost stories that I wrote last Hallowe'en during my day as Writer in Residence at Innerpeffray will soon be available from the Library as a chapbook. I think I have already mentioned on my blog that a single story from the set can be heard in free audio format on SoundCloud, here: Lilith's Story. I will post details of how to order the chapbook as soon as they are confirmed - usually with Innerpeffray Library publications this is done by emailing the Library.

Anyway, once I had finished in the Library I decided to take a look at Innerpeffray Castle, which is a treat I had been saving up for myself. The castle is quite close to the Library - only a few hundred metres away in fact - in a field close to the River Earn. Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I love poking about in old buildings - often churches, but I like old castles too! This one is ruined and I had heard various accounts of its state and accessibility so I was keen to take a look for myself. March is a good time to go because there are no crops standing - I would not want to damage anything. It was however very muddy!

This is what I found:

I also found this:

One of the things that impresses me very much about my explorations in Perthshire is that because of the remote locations of many ruins, they have not been fenced off or boarded up for safety reasons, so you can go in and poke around to your heart's content. This one was an exception, and I could see why - the exterior is fairly whole but most of the internal structure has collapsed, leaving heaps of rubble, blocking the doorways, and leaving the external walls unsupported. One false step in there and you could look forward to a grand burial under several tonnes of seventeenth century masonry. 

All was not lost, however: the fence that surrounds the castle is close enough that you can get a very good look at practically every part of the building. Built in around 1610 by James Drummond, 1st Lord Maddertie, it is described by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland as "a good example of a plain Scottish house of the beginning of the seventeenth century." Many architectural features are still plainly visible, such as this staircase:

I was also able to take a single photograph through one of the lower windows into the interior:

This is a frustratingly intriguing glimpse into what appears to be a fairly entire lower level with a number of different rooms! I wonder what interesting things might be found if one could dig up that floor? I imagine anything that was actually lying about in plain view would have been removed long ago, when the building was still accessible. The Library has, amongst their other treasures, a small cannonball that was found at the castle, although nobody knows why, as it was never the scene of any known battle. It may perhaps have been a souvenir brought home from elsewhere by one of the Drummonds. 

The castle has been on my mind all day since I visited it. The lonely location and the relatively scant amount of information available about its history cannot help but pique the interest. Imagination may perhaps go where the physical body may not...