Friday, December 27, 2013

"Places I have tried to visit": Marcilly-le-Hayer (with update 13/2/14)

UPDATE! (13th Feb 2014) I am delighted to say that you can now listen to a podcast about Marcilly-le-Hayer and M.R.James' story fragment, recorded by the excellent A Podcast To The Curious. Regular podcasters Will and Mike, plus myself, discuss the story fragment and the location and related Jamesian things. If you have a little spare time, do listen - these podcasts are always great fun and easy to listen to. 
Meanwhile, you can still read my original article about Marcilly-le-Hayer below. 


As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a great fan of the English ghost story writer M.R.James, and have previously published some of my articles about his work (and particularly the story locations) here.

All my articles about M.R.James first appeared in the excellent M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, edited by Rosemary Pardoe. The Newsletter has its own extensive website, upon which a number of my articles are reproduced, but some of the more recent ones have only ever appeared in the print version and have therefore been available to a limited audience. This includes an article I wrote in 2010 describing a visit to the French town of Marcilly-le-Hayer, mentioned in Stories I have tried to write. As the issue in which it appears is now out of print, I am posting it on my blog, with kind thanks to Rosemary Pardoe both for first publishing it, and for agreeing to its reappearance here. 

The M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter is printed in black and white in chapbook format, and I am therefore delighted to say that I can now include more photographs than originally appeared with the article, all in colour! NB If you like this article, do check out the Ghosts and Scholars website, which is a fabulous resource on all things Jamesian, and consider subscribing to the printed newsletter, which now also includes fiction in the tradition of M.R.James as well as non-fiction articles. 

"Places I have tried to visit": Marcilly-le-Hayer
by Helen Grant

In his essay Stories I have tried to write (1929) M.R.James outlined a tale concerning the French town of Marcilly-le-Hayer. An earlier story draft was very much more recently published, in Ghosts and Scholars 22 in 1996 and in a revised and corrected form in The M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter in 2006.
The two versions of the story have broadly the same plot: a traveller in France purchases an old book and is reading it on a train; in the same compartment is a Frenchwoman of mature years. A conversation reported in the book deals with a woman living at Marcilly-le-Hayer, whose husband has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The traveller subsequently visits Marcilly-le-Hayer; opposite his hotel is a house, apparently quite an impressive house, with three gables. The house belongs to a widow whose husband vanished, as in the conversation in the book; the conversation is then discovered never to have appeared in the novel at all.

The road to Marcilly-le-Hayer is paved with good intentions. I had long wished to visit the town, scene of an embryonic MRJ story, but had never managed to put the intention into action. I had even booked a trip to the area on one occasion, only to cancel at short notice when one of the party fell ill. Having visited the locations of other MRJ stories – Steinfeld, St. Bertrand de Comminges and Viborg – I felt sure that Marcilly, like them, must offer something intriguing in the way of history, architecture or legend. Amendments to MRJ’s story draft suggest that he may have originally intended to set the story elsewhere, since he mentioned Moulins and Nevers (later changing Nevers to Troyes). This implies that there was something peculiar to Marcilly which interested him. But what?
Internet searches about Marcilly offered no clue. The town seemed rather inaccessible – just too far from Paris for a combined trip and with no railway station. Most information about the sights of the town itself seemed to focus on the ancient dolmens, which still stand in the fields close to Marcilly  – objects outside MRJ’S usual period of interest and unlikely to be counted amongst the "interesting buildings in and near Marcilly" which his traveler goes to see in the story draft.

Above: the intriguingly-named Dolmen de Vamprin, which lies in a field of oilseed rape to the west of the town and is reached by a deeply-rutted farm track lined with blackthorn hedges.  It was classified as a historical monument in 1936.

Finally in May 2010 I was able to satisfy my curiosity. We spent a week in Fontainebleau, and from there we were able to make a day’s excursion by car to Marcilly.  Looking at the map as we travelled, I was a little perplexed. From MRJ’s descriptions of Marcilly-le-Hayer as a town with a "Grande Place", houses with pretensions, interesting buildings and so forth, I imagined at the very least a moderate sized market town, whereas the tiny dot on the map suggested nothing larger than a village. As we approached Marcilly we passed through rolling fields of crops – rape and barley, with a few red poppies at the edges of the fields. There was no sign of a town ahead – nothing in fact but farmland. No other cars passed us. I began to wonder whether we had made some kind of mistake.
Finally, as we crested a small rise and descended on the other side, we came to a faded road sign reading Marcilly-le-Hayer. A few minutes later we were passing through the town. We saw a boulangerie, and a pharmacy, both closed, and a church set back behind a little tree-lined square. We saw nothing that could be described as a "Grande Place." A minute or two later we found ourselves on the other side of the town, driving back out into open countryside. Confounded, we turned the car in a small farm track and drove back into the town.

Since the only recognisable square was the small Place des Tilleuls in front of the church, we parked there and got out to explore on foot. The church - L'église Saint Loup de Sens – proved to be locked, nor were there any clues to be found in the churchyard. Disappointingly, not one gravestone bore the names Giraud or Dupont, suggesting that MRJ had not taken his inspiration there. I could not see any building in the church square that might correspond to the house with three gables described in the story. There were some semi-ruined buildings at the side of the churchyard that might have had any number of gables in the past; it was difficult to say now. Opposite the church and on the other side of the road were several large buildings, one of which might conceivably have been an inn in the past judging by its large arched gateway, but which now houses the pharmacy (below).

 Whilst we were wandering about the square, two mature ladies arrived to tend the graveyard.  I accosted them and and explained what I was about in my best French. Apparently completely unaware of MRJ’s connection with Marcilly, they were a little nonplussed by my interest but nonetheless very willing to help; the pharmacy had not been an inn, they explained, but a casino. As regards the square and the inn, there was a bigger square around the corner, and there I might find the Auberge de l'Espérance.
We went in the direction the women had suggested and found ourselves in front of the Auberge; on a wall nearby was a plaque reading Place de l'Espérance. We had passed through the square on our way through the town without realizing it was one; the curve of the modern main road across it had so disfigured the square that it was no longer recognisable as such. At any rate, here was an inn; but was it the inn from the story, and where was the house with the three gables?

I took out my camera and began to take some photographs of the buildings around the square.  Half a minute later I was hailed loudly in French. I looked around; in the corner of the square was what appeared to be an old farm building, with tractors parked in its courtyard. Behind the railings was a middle-aged man dressed in green workman’s overalls; he was the one who was calling me.  I suppose that he thought I was up to no good in some way; at any rate I went over to explain what I was up to.  He had not heard of M.R.James, any more than the ladies who tended the churchyard, however, he was interested in my researches and suggested I try talking to an old woman who lived a little way up a nearby street, running to the south east of the square.  She lived in the house with the tall chimney, he told me, pointing; and he waited to see that I was making for the right one before he went back into his courtyard.
Feeling a little apprehensive about imposing on an elderly stranger, I nevertheless went to the house he had suggested. There was a gate bearing the name of Madame P----- on it, leading into a little courtyard, and to the right was the house. The front door was open; I knocked as loudly as I could and called out. Madame P----- appeared at the doorway; she was a handsome old lady , neatly dressed and quietly spoken. Once again I explained what I wanted. She listened without much surprise. She told me that the inn had always been there, as far back as she could remember; the building next door had been the gendarmerie. I asked her rather tentatively how old she was; she seemed  a little taken aback but told me that she was 91 years old – born, therefore, before MRJ penned Stories I have tried to write.
I returned to the square, feeling more confident that the Auberge de l'Espérance was the inn in the story; however, where was the house with the three gables? Out came Monsieur in the green overalls again; had I spoken with Madame P-----? he asked, and had she shown me her book, with photographs of the town in the past? She hadn’t? What a shame, he said; it was such a beautiful book. He was much interested in the question of the house with three gables. I explained that the house should be opposite the inn; there was indeed a house there, large though not particularly prepossessing, with what appeared to be the remains of stables at the right hand side of the courtyard. I could not identify three gables unless I had misunderstood what was meant by gables, however, Monsieur offered to go and speak to the owners and see whether they would talk to me or let me view the house. He crossed the road and marched into the house without knocking; a few minutes later he came out shaking his head. The owners didn’t want to see anyone.
I asked myself whether there were any other candidates for the house with three gables.  There were the buildings on the corner of the square, from which my new acquaintance with the green overalls had issued forth; might they be described as “opposite” the inn? I thought perhaps they might; at any rate they were clearly visible from the inn’s front door. There was a long, low house and several buildings running along the opposite side of the courtyard, which might have been stables, with exposed wooden beams and a paved floor.  But what of the three gables? I consulted Monsieur again on the subject; the house only had two, he agreed, but it had had to be reduced when the road through the square had been built. Previously it had extended to the corner of the courtyard. Impossible to say whether it might have been the model for the house in the story in its original state; at any rate it was not to be ruled out.
I left Marcilly feeling baffled. I had found possible originals for the inn and the “house of some pretensions” but little else; nothing to show what in this nondescript and quiet little French town could have inspired MRJ’s story draft.  What Marcilly has to offer is not to be compared with the splendid treasures of St. Bertrand de Comminges or the astounding history of Steinfeld Abbey and its stained glass.

 Above: The Place de l'Espérance today.

Since then I have continued to research Marcilly-le-Hayer, in the hopes of finding some further clues. As well as internet-based material there is an excellent book entitled Le Canton de Marcilly-le-Hayer, by Simone Subirà-Puig, which contains many old photographs of the town and historical information.  In 1853 Marcilly had a population of 808 – hardly a major conurbation – and twentieth century statistics from the French website of Le Splaf give the population as 514 in 1936, 482 in 1954 and 702 in 1999. It must be said that Comminges is also a very small town, and yet the magnificence of its cathedral makes MRJ’s interest immediately obvious.  It is less clear which “buildings in and near Marcilly” might have piqued the interest of a traveler. Since the church is kept locked it was impossible to assess its contents, but photographs from Mme. Subirà-Puig’s book do not reveal anything out of the ordinary. Mesnil-Saint-Loup, which belongs to the canton of Marcilly-le-Hayer, has a Templar chapel, but it lies 13km away from Marcilly, which probably excludes it as a building “near  Marcilly”. One possibility is the Château de la Mothe, located to the west of Marcilly, a medieval castle with tower and moat, extended in the nineteenth century. Featured on postcards of the early twentieth century, it was clearly considered one of the sights of Marcilly in those days.
A postcard from 1909 shows the Place de l'Espérance with the now-truncated building on the corner in its original state, although it is not possible to see whether it had three gables or not at that point. The square has had many different names over the years, including Place de la Gendarmerie and Place des Hôtels. At no point was it named the Grande Place, although before the building of the main road through it the square did give a grander impression than it does nowadays.
I spent a number of hours studying the old postcards reproduced in Mme. Subirà-Puig’s book, particularly those of the square, and it was at the end of a particularly frustrating afternoon’s work that I noticed something I had overlooked before, perhaps because I had assumed that the Auberge de l'Espérance was the inn featured in MRJ’s story draft.  Two of the photographs show a second inn on the square.  This was the Hôtel du Cuirassier Français, owned by Monsieur L.Borgne. According to the book, the hotel disappeared after the war when its owner, a local character of some eccentricity, died. The building still stands but there is nothing nowadays to identify it as a former inn. What was opposite this building? This was more difficult to determine. There was no shot of the square in which both the inn and the building opposite could clearly be made out, however there was a postcard from around 1900 in which the Auberge de l'Espérance is identifiable; the building two doors down must therefore be the Hôtel du Cuirassier Français, although the lettering is illegible at the distance and angle at which the photograph was taken.  Opposite the hotel is a large and imposing house with three prominent gable dormer windows.  The same house can be seen at closer quarters in a second postcard confusingly titled Marcilly-le-Hayer - Rue des Hôtes.
I did not remember seeing such a house when we visited Marcilly. Was it possible that I had overlooked it? It seemed unlikely. By the time I made the discovery we had long since returned home from France; attempts to check whether such a building still existed via satellite pictures were inconclusive. I went through the photographs we had taken of the square. Here was the house whose occupants had refused to speak to us; but what was the building next to it? In my photographs I could just pick out a rather smaller house than the one I was looking for, apparently set further back from the road. Did this small house replace the one with the three gable windows, or was it its neighbour? Closer inspection showed that the house with the uncooperative residents had a distinctive chimney. In the postcard dated 1900 the very end of this house, with the chimney clearly visible, appears next to the house with three gable windows. Evidently the house with the gables had been knocked down, perhaps when the main road was laid through the square, and replaced by the smaller one. This was confirmed by once more comparing my own shots of the square with the postcard; the house with three gables, if it were still standing, should have obscured part of a distinctive house at the north end of the square, but in the modern photograph that house is completely visible.
I feel personally convinced that the inn featured in the story draft is the Hôtel du Cuirassier Français, and that the house with the three gables is the now-vanished house which stood opposite. The question of quite what it was which inspired MRJ remains more difficult to answer. The fact that the town was able to support two inns is demonstrative of the fact that it was a major staging post at the end of the nineteenth century. We may therefore assume that the town had a throughput of travelers disproportionate to its small population.  Perhaps it was this very transience which suggested the idea – implied in the story – of an undiscovered murder with a commercial motive. The bustle and energy of such a staging post is long gone today; the town slumbers as deeply as the traveler on the train in MRJ’s story draft.
One thing remains to mention: the Hotel Terminus in Troyes really did exist. It stood on the Boulevard Carnot and was used by the German commandant during the Occupation. It was subsequently replaced by the Royal Hotel, which still receives guests to this day.  As far as I can tell, however, it was never known as the Hotel des Ambassadeurs; this appears to be an invention of MRJ’s.

Above: War memorial in the town: no Girauds or Duponts here either. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ghosts for Christmas!

Christmas and ghosts! They go so well together. Personally I like a wee bit of excitement in my life, but when I look out of the window at 4pm and see nothing but dark and rain, I don't feel tempted to go and look for it outdoors. Far cosier to sit inside with a deliciously creepy tale, whether in print or on film.

This Christmas sees a super treat for ghost story fans - a double bill from Mark Gatiss, who has directed a BBC dramatisation of M.R.James's classic tale The Tractate Middoth, and who also presents a documentary about M.R.James featuring footage from St. Bertrand de Comminges, the setting of Canon Alberic's Scrap-book. Look out for these on BBC2 on Christmas Day, kicking off at 21.30.

As a long time fan of M.R.James I can't wait to see these programmes - I have a special interest in the documentary because I visited St. Bertrand de Comminges myself in 2004, in the guise of the Ghosts & Scholars "roving reporter", and wrote a description of what I found.

You can read my article online here: - it includes a photograph of that notorious stuffed crocodile and some other pics by William Bond, who accompanied me on my visit.

The photo at the top of this post is of the interior of the cathedral, with the organ seen at the back behind the wooden chancel - a photograph which very strongly echoes the original illustration which accompanied James' story and which you can see here:

And whilst we wait eagerly to see The Tractate Middoth, here is another library-related ghost story:
Lilith's Story - set in the Library of Innerpeffray here in Perthshire, and available free in audio format to listen, share or download as you please!

I mentioned in my post of 1st November that I had spent 31st October as "writer in residence" at Innerpeffray, with the aim of writing a ghost story inspired by the location, which I would read aloud that evening (Hallowe'en) in the library itself. The day proved so inspirational (how could it not be, considering the reading room looks out over a churchyard?!) that I actually came up with three ghost stories, connected by an overarching narrative. Lilith's Story is the middle tale of the three and the audio recording was made at the event itself on Hallowe'en.

I hope in due course to have the entire "Ghost stories of Innerpeffray"available in some format but in the meantime this tale can be enjoyed on its own. I hope it will give some of the listeners a pleasant chill or two, and perhaps raise a wry smile on the face of any librarian who happens to listen to it!

Above: Innerpeffray. The library is the white building on the left, the chapel is the building on the right. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Exploring ruins as inspiration

I'm very pleased to announce another event here in Scotland - on Thursday (5th December) I shall be at the University of Stirling giving an illustrated talk on the topic of Exploring ruins as inspiration.

The talk is open to anyone and entry is free. It starts at 2pm and is being held in Pathfoot B2 on the university campus near Bridge of Allan.

The idea for the talk came from Professor Danel Olson, who was the unfortunate(?) American academic who got stuck in the mud outside a ruined church on Hallowe'en with me and my daughter!

Undaunted by this experience he continued to express his enthusiasm for my exploration of ruined places, and eventually talked me into giving a lecture about it.

I have even promised to include some never-before-seen photographs of some urban exploration I did whilst we lived in Belgium.

I'll be talking about some very ancient ruins and some very modern ones, and reading some excerpts of my work that were directly inspired by these locations. I'll also be taking along some books to sell, so if anyone would like a signed copy, now is your chance!

In other news: I hope to have a recording of one of my Innerpeffray ghost stories online in the next few days. I spent 31st October (the library's last day before its hibernation) at Innerpeffray as "writer in residence" and wrote a set of three interlocking stories set in and around the library, which I read aloud to an audience the same evening. We have had a few minor technical hitches in processing the recording (a ghost in the machine, perhaps?!) but I hope to be able to post something very soon.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The inspiring scent of sewers!

25th November to 1st December 2013 is Book Week Scotland and I am pleased to say that as part of the book-related activities I shall be appearing at Breadalbane Community Campus Library in Aberfeldy to talk about the inspiration for my work. 

The theme of the talk is "Sewers, Bell-towers and Catacombs"because these are some of the things I have visited as part of the research I do for my novels, and they - and other creepy locations - have inspired some of my scariest scenes. 

The talk will be accompanied by slides with photographs of some of these places so if you've always longed to know what it's like down the Brussels sewers or the Paris catacombs, come along and see for yourself!

The talk begins at 4pm. Tickets are FREE but you are asked to reserve them in advance from the Community Library (01887 822405). 

Friday, November 1, 2013

FACT: only 1 in 8 motorists stop for vampires on Hallowe'en...

If you were driving along an unlit single track road in the middle of the countryside after dark on Hallowe'en, and you suddenly saw a figure in a black velvet evening cape and cowl standing outside a churchyard trying to flag you down, would you stop?
I'm here to tell you that only one in eight motorists would stop. The other seven wouldn't even slow down; they'd put their foot down and zoom away up the darkened lane.
How do I know this? Because, gentle reader, last night that figure in the black cape outside the lonely churchyard was me.
How do I get myself into these situations? The evening started so well. Yesterday I was "Writer in Residence" at Innerpeffray Library, challenged to write a ghost story about the library which I would read out at a special Hallowe'en event in the evening. As you may know if you have read any of my previous ramblings, Innerpeffray Library is Scotland's oldest lending library and housed in a stunning Georgian building next to Innerpeffray chapel. As the library building is not only charmingly antique but also overlooks the churchyard, it is the ideal setting for some spectral shenanigans.
I had a very intense but enjoyable day of writing, finishing three minutes before closing time. I'm pleased with the stories, which I read out that evening by the eerie light of electric candles (naked flames being prohibited on account of all the books). I am also delighted to say that to thanks to the kind assistance of Lara and Ralph Haggerty, a recording was made of the reading, and assuming that the sound quality is sufficiently good throughout, I shall be making this available online for those who would like to hear the stories.
Anyway - one of the things about Innerpeffray is that it is not easy to get to if you don't have a car, being "out in the middle of nowhere" about five miles from Crieff. Once upon a time there was a railway station at Innerpeffray, but that is long gone. I have cycled there, but not after dark in cold weather. So on a chilly and indeed wet October evening, you really do have to drive there.
Shortly before the event I was contacted by an American acquaintance, an academic seconded to a Scottish university for a few months; he was interested in attending the reading but wanted some advice about how to get to it. To cut a long story short, I said I would give him a lift there and back. All the other options were impractical or very expensive, and he did seem very keen to come.

So, I did the event, dressed appropriately in funereal black from head to toe, including a black velvet evening cloak with a huge cowl that I bought years ago in Barcelona and rarely wear because my husband always says it reminds him of the "Scottish Widows"advertisements. 
Afterwards whilst I was packing up my things, I happened to mention to the American professor that Innerpeffray is very close to a couple of interesting and atmospheric ruined churches, and that it was a pity it wasn't daylight otherwise we could have stopped off on the way home to look at one of them.  Someone - I forget who - then suggested that perhaps we could stop and look at one of them anyway. It was dark, and it was damp and cold, but it was Hallowe'en - what better time to go and look at a creepy old church? So the three of us - the American professor, my daughter and myself - piled into the car and went off to look. 
 You do rather need eyes in the back of your head to find this particular church, especially after dark, and we had one or two false turns, but eventually we came across it, and I parked in the only possible spot, a little triangle of grass outside the churchyard gate. There is nowhere else to park that isn't dangerously obstructive of the narrow road, so it had to be there. 
We went into the churchyard and had a look around by the light of my daughter's iPod, which was the only torch we had with us. We didn't go into the ruined church; abandoned buildings are hazardous enough in daylight and this was pitch dark. I congratulated myself silently on my responsible behaviour, not realising that pride comes before a fall... 
We got back to the car, tried to drive back onto the road, and discovered that we were stuck fast in the mud. Then followed a considerable length of time during which we tried fruitlessly to get the car out. We tried putting tree branches under the wheels; we tried putting the floor mats from the car under the wheels. We tried reversing, and simply got stuck in a different patch of mud. We tried again with two of us pushing. Nothing helped at all. The wheels simply kept spinning, throwing up huge gouts of wet brown mud. By this time it was raining heavily, and the car just kept sinking more and more deeply into the morass. 
I telephoned my husband to tell him what was going on, in case he wondered where we had got to, but it was no use asking him to come and help because we only have one car, and I was in it. We also tried flagging down passing vehicles, but nobody stopped. I suppose you cannot blame them, really! By this time it was past ten o'clock, pitch dark and raining heavily, and it was Hallowe'en. There we were standing at the edge of a lonely road outside a disused graveyard with a ruined church in the middle of it, with me dressed in a black evening cloak and cowl. Short of trying to thumb a lift with a sign marked TRANSYLVANIA I couldn't have looked any more dodgy! Seven cars passed us and zoomed hastily on up the lane, the drivers probably rubbing their eyes and pinching themselves. 
Finally, a couple of vehicles driving in convoy stopped for us. One of them was a very large van, and the owner actually had a tow rope. Within a relatively short time they had hauled the car back onto the road, a task somewhat akin to pulling a dinosaur out of a tar pit. I can truthfully say it has been a long time since I have been so grateful to anyone. So, to you two knights of the road, in the unlikely event that you are reading this: once again, THANK YOU. 
After that, we had a relatively uneventful journey through the rain to drop the mud-spattered American academic at his home, and then drive back to Crieff. 
So this, dear reader, is how I know that 7 out of 8 motorists won't stop for vampires on Hallowe'en. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Things that go bump in the night!

I am slightly horrified to see that it has been well over a month since my last blog post! I've been putting all my energy into my current work-in-progress, Urban Legends, the third book in the Forbidden Spaces trilogy that began with Silent Saturday. The first draft is supposed to be ready by Christmas but I made a very late start on the book because of revisions to the previous one. So now I am working all day every day (my record for finishing the day's work is 10.23pm) in a bid to meet the deadline. I get very fidgety about deadlines; I can't bear to miss them!

Unfortunately, this means that everything else is being neglected, including my blog, the recycling, the housework (we can still see through the windows, but only just) and the exotic recipe planning (I think last night was the third time we had noodles this week). All the same, I thought I had better get online and blog about a very exciting event I have planned for later this month. If I don't tell anyone about it, I may end up like the boy I read about this morning who forgot to give out his 10th birthday invitations at school, so nobody came and he had to eat all the Wotsits himself. This is a fate worse than death especially if you don't like Wotsits...

Anyway, the event I have planned is at Innerpeffray Library on Hallowe'en. Innerpeffray Library is the oldest lending library in Scotland, as you probably know if you have read my blog before. (I shouldn't have to add that Hallowe'en is 31st October but when I told an acquaintance I was doing a Hallowe'en event she said, "Oh, when is it?")

A while ago I did a ghost story evening at the library, by the light of electric candles (naked flames being inadvisable near ancient books) and as Hallowe'en is approaching it seemed an ideal opportunity to do another one. If you are within travelling distance of Innerpeffray (it's near Crieff in Perthshire, Scotland), the event is (indeed) on Thursday 31st October, beginning with refreshments at 7pm and ending at around 9pm. Tickets are £5 each. You can book directly with the library, by calling them on 01764 652819. For details of how to get to the library etc, check their website.

Now - here's the exciting bit! The stories I am going to read have not been written yet. I am going to spend the whole of 31st October as "writer in residence" at Innerpeffray, writing a set of interlocking ghost stories set in and around the library itself. Those stories are the ones I am going to read at the evening event. I'm very much hoping that the ghosts of Innerpeffray will crowd around and give me some inspiration!

This is going to be a very exciting challenge for me, and for anyone who attends it means that you are guaranteed to hear some entirely new stories. Weather permitting, we may include a visit to the adjoining church and graveyard, so prepare to have your spine chilled! Innerpeffray Library is right out in the middle of the countryside so on an October evening it is VERY dark indeed and super spooky.

PS If you'd like to attend, please do pre-book if possible so that we can make sure we have enough drinks and chairs available. Thanks!

Above: Innerpeffray church.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Listen with Helen...and Susy

Above: "An Audience with Helen Grant & Susy McPhee"

I haven't found much time for blogging recently because I have been frantically trying to finish the revisions to The Demons of Ghent, which is the sequel to Silent Saturday and the second book in the Forbidden Spaces trilogy set in Flanders. I've also been very busy preparing for and participating in the Crieff High Street Arts Festival, about which I blogged recently.

I'm glad to report some success on both fronts - The Demons of Ghent has now gone to the copyediting stage, and the High Street Arts Festival went off very well, with lots of exciting creative exhibitions and performances at nearly 50 locations in Crieff.

I participated in two events at the festival - the first was "Meet the Author" at S.Campbell's newsagent and bookshop on the High Street. I was one of a line-up of authors that included local poet Patricia Ace. This cutting (left)  from the Strathearn Herald includes a pic of me at this event together with Trudyann Gauld from the shop, and book fan Kate Walsh, who had heroically come all the way from Dunblane to attend!

On Saturday evening I took part in "An Audience with Helen Grant & Susy McPhee" at the Drill Hall in Crieff. This venue was very kindly loaned by local business Vivace Lichtman and wine for the evening was sponsored by Harrison's Fine Wines of Crieff. Helen Lewis-McPhee kindly volunteered (well, okay, she was press-ganged) to interview us, and we also read from our books and answered questions. 

If you'd like to listen to a podcast of the event you can find it here: Audience with Helen Grant & Susy McPhee. It includes a reading from Silent Saturday by me, and - excitingly - an excerpt from Susy's brand-new book Back to you, which is so very brand-new that the reading was done from a print-out of the manuscript! Susy and I also talk about location, whether we ever base our characters on real people, and whether writers are constitutionally morbid! 

The sound recording was made by Kona MacPhee, local poet and techie. The editing and uploading to Soundcloud was done by me, a feat which took many hours and a lot of swearing yesterday. I probably should use video tutorials before I throw myself into new software (in this case Garageband) but I prefer the time-honoured method of bumbling through it and occasionally screeching for one of the teens who inhabit the house to come and tell me what to do next. 

Whilst I was struggling with MP3, my daughter meanwhile took delivery of a second-hand sound system she has wanted for ages. There seems to be some reverse audio evolution going on in the Grant household, because whilst I have been doing my best to do everything digitally, she was desperate to get a turntable so she can play vinyl records. As we have moved about a lot in the last 15 years (Spain, Germany, Belgium...) we have had to have regular turn-outs of old stuff, so our old turntable and nearly all our old vinyl records had been donated to charity shops. I had however hung onto a single LP: the soundtrack to The Singing Detective. Whilst my daughter was just getting to grips with the new turntable ("It goes round!!! How do you make it move to the next track?" etc) I refused to let her play my LP in case it ended up scratched. Instead she had to make do with some dodgy K-Tel records from the charity shop. I'm quite glad I insisted on this, after hearing her accidentally playing I don't want to dance by Eddy Grant (1st track on an LP) at 45rpm... Eventually, however, we put my precious LP on and spent the rest of the evening listening to Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots, Sam Browne with the Lew Stone Band, etc. The very last song on the B side was Vera Lynn singing We'll meet again. Listening to that wartime favourite with the familiar but long-forgotten hiss and crackle of vinyl sent shivers down my spine. Some things still sound better on vinyl. 

Anyway, as a result of sitting up until midnight listening to stuff that was cutting edge in 1940, all of us woke up feeling the worse for wear this morning. Having packed everyone else off to school/work I am supposed to be getting on with book three in my trilogy: Urban Legends, but it's hard going on five and a half hours sleep. I think I'd better have more tea first...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Welcome to Crieff High Street Arts Festival!

As I mentioned in my last post, I am going to be taking part in the upcoming and first ever Crieff High Street Arts Festival, taking place on 24th and 25th August. The Festival is the brainchild of local artist June McEwan and it is largely thanks to her energy and enthusiasm that it is taking place (June is an energy bomb - as I remarked once, we should forget fracking and just connect June to the power grid).

The Festival is going to help put Crieff on the artistic map - but if you don't know where it is on the ordinary map, it's a town in Perthshire, Scotland, set in gorgeous countryside and home to such interesting things as the Famous Grouse distillery and Crieff Hydro. Well worth a visit if you're within travelling distance, and the Festival could be the very excuse you need to make the trip!

All sorts of events and exhibitions will be taking place over the weekend of the Festival, including an acoustic music workshop, taster sessions in spinning, ceramics and felting, an exhibition by the Strathearn Arts Society and a mandolin and guitar concert. More details about the Festival are available here: Crieff High Street Arts Festival

Of course, locally-based writers (of which Crieff has a surprising number) are getting involved too. On Saturday 24th August I am appearing alongside Susy McPhee (author of The Runaway Wife and Husbands and Lies) at the Drill Hall on Meadow Place, for "An audience with Helen Grant and Susy McPhee."

Above: Susy McPhee

The event starts at 7.15pm and entrance is free! This is largely due to the generosity of local businesses who are sponsoring the event. The venue itself (below) is being offered by Vivace Lichtman. Wine for the evening is being sponsored by Harrison's Fine Wines and nibbles by McNee's of Crieff. A very big THANK YOU to these brilliant sponsors! 

The evening will involve not only the "audience" itself - a chance to hear me and Susy talk about our inspirations and, as Susy puts it, "what it's like living for so much of the time in a world we've created inside our own heads" - but also an opportunity to ask questions and buy signed copies of our books. It will be fun and glam and we'd love to see you there if you are within travelling distance! 


If you are attending, please confirm this on Facebook, here: It is a big help with planning for the evening if we know roughly how many people are coming! 


Above: sponsors McNee's of Crieff and Harrison's Fine Wines!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

In which I do some "real" work...

I haven't blogged recently because I've been frantically trying to finish the edits on my next book, The Demons of Ghent, to be published in 2014. Writing, sadly, is not all lying on chaises  longues sipping absinthe and idly noting down the occasional stroke of creative genius in a moleskine notebook..! I've been very busy trying to get some major changes made without too much slippage in the deadline.

"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by," said the late great Douglas Adams. Well, that noise makes me feel very twitchy (control freak, moi?). Anyway, I more or less met the deadline, but now I am having to wade through a massive pile of tasks that were neglected whilst I was working on the edits. One of the big things is the preparation for the upcoming Crieff High Street Arts Festival on 24th and 25th August. I'm doing an event at that, about which I will blog separately later.

Anyway, I also found a bit of free time today to help my daughter with a temporary job she has, delivering leaflets door to door in the town. There is a certain sort of fascination in jobs like that, I think.  When I was a student I did the Christmas post a couple of times to earn a bit of extra money, and this reminded me of that. The actual "work" is pretty mundane - you just carry a bag of leaflets around and stuff them through each letterbox. However, that's not all there is to it.

For starters, there is a certain kind of door to door etiquette. When I approached most of the houses I didn't see a soul. When I did see someone working in their front garden, I made of point of saying hello to them so that they didn't jump out of their skin when I passed by. But in some houses there were clearly people on the other side of the windows. I pretended not to see them and they (I suppose, because I wasn't looking) pretended not to see me. The only exception I can recall to this was when I was doing the Christmas post on one particularly nasty snowy day, with no gloves on because you can't sort letters whilst wearing mitts. I walked up the drive of one cosy-looking house with all the Christmas lights on, whilst snow drove into my face and melted down the back of my neck, and the occupants sat snugly in the front room laughing and pointing. Grrr. But yes, you are probably right; I should have forgotten that by now...

Then there is Man's Best Friend, of course. We didn't see much of him today, though we did hear a bit from him. At one house we put the leaflet through the letter slot and it was instantly greeted with what sounded like an entire pack of very small dogs yapping their heads off. I am not sure there will be much left of the leaflet by the time the owner sees it! There was nothing however to rival the Hound that used to lurk on the post round I did all those years ago. The old postie who trained me warned me about that particular dog. I never actually saw it (well, not the whole of it) but whatever it was, it sounded like MacReady's description of the alien in The Thing: "weird and pissed off." Also enormous. A mastiff perhaps, or some kind of tyrannosaurus. Whenever it heard me approaching the door it would hurl itself against the other side, growling and snapping, and the minute I put anything through the letter slot, it would seize it savagely. I find it hard to imagine that the owner ever got a single piece of post that hadn't been shredded by its enormous teeth. Once I opened the letter slot and looked through it instead of putting a letter through, and I could see right down its throat.

The other endlessly, er, fascinating aspect of door to door deliveries is the varying accessibility of people's letter boxes. I probably make life more difficult for myself by refusing to walk across people's lawns in case they come out and shout at me. But I am amazed at the convoluted routes some people's paths take from the street to the front door: up the drive, turn right, cross the entire front of the house, turn left around the side, then left again up the steps... They remind me of those penitential mazes that mediaeval monks used to trudge around. My daughter and I whiled away the walk between houses by debating which was the most difficult to get at. I think the prize went to the one which had a drive, followed by a gate with a latch, followed by a garden and then one of those letter slots about three inches off the ground, so that you have to grovel on your knees to put the leaflet through. And it also had those brush thingies inside the letter box, which make it very difficult to poke a flexible item through, especially if the hinge of the cover is a snappy one. It was rather like that monstrous dog again, only with the teeth on the outside and the fur on the inside.

Anyway, it was fun. Sort of. And I got some fresh air after being cooped up with a hot laptop for weeks. My daughter will also be fantastically fit by the time she has covered the entire town. So that is also good. There is just one final thing to add. To the people of Crieff, those of you who have those letterboxes attached to the wall at the end of the drive, right next to the street: we love you. x

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Who's Karl?

Just recently I've been plaguing my parents with request for old family photographs. I wanted to get my hands on a particular photo for this blog, and the majority of the family pictures are at my parents' place, some 400 miles away in the south of England. When I was a child, most of the photographs from my father's side belonged to his parents, my grandparents. I can still remember where they were kept: in a drawer in the fairly hideous dark wood Art Deco sideboard in their house in Rayner's Lane. That sideboard, though ugly, was a repository of all kinds of treasures, including a black tin tray with pictures of cocktails on it and matching magnetic coasters - I thought that was terrifically sophisticated at the time. 

Anyway, most of those photographs now belong to my parents, so I had to prevail upon them to take time out from their busy schedules to look through them. Luckily my sister volunteered to help, and we had a merry afternoon during which she posted some of the ones she found to Facebook so I could look at them. There were so many and they were so interesting (even the ones that were clearly not the one I was after) that in the end we resorted to skyping each other, and she waved the photographs at me via the webcam. Here's one of them:

This is a pantomime staged during World War Two. That's my grandfather in the centre of the back row, the only one in uniform (I think he was the stage manager or something so escaped the indignity of having to wear a frock and a blonde wig).

I love exploring the past - not just the past of my own family, though I do find that especially interesting. "Exploring the past is like planning a trip to a foreign country," I told my Dad, who was somewhat bemused by my urgency to find the picture I was after. "Well," he remarked, "it should keep you occupied, it's a BIG country."

Sadly, the photograph I was looking for failed to surface, although I am hopeful that it may turn up in the end; some other pictures were also missing which suggests that somewhere in a forgotten and dusty corner there is another package of photographs waiting to be found.

The one I was so keen to share was a postcard-sized portrait photograph in black and white or sepia, taken around 1930. It showed a man with rather angular features standing at a slight angle to the camera; he was dressed (I think) in a light-coloured trench coat over a dark suit. He may have been wearing a hat too. This, according to my grandfather (now dead some years) was his German friend Karl, whom he knew before World War Two. My grandfather was a silk buyer for Chatillon, Mouly, Roussel Silks Ltd of Mayfair and sometimes travelled to Paris on business, so possibly he got to know Karl there. That is absolutely all I know (or surmise) about Karl. In 1931 my grandfather left that firm and he spent the rest of his career working in insurance, which was considered a much steadier job. No more foreign jaunts after that until he went back to Europe as a military motorcyclist in World War Two, and by then he and Karl were on opposing sides. So far as I know, they were never in touch again.

That photograph always intrigued me. Not, perhaps, as much as the one of my great-grandmother Louise in pearls, lace and velvet ribbons, or the one of my maternal grandmother posing on a beach in a very modest bathing costume and with a parasol - but it intrigued me all the same, to the extent that when I wrote The Glass Demon I put Karl in it. "Uncle Karl", Lin's German relative, is my grandfather's Karl, miraculously transported from 1930. The book is set in the early 21st century but Karl still has a rather old-fashioned (though suave) look: "I unlocked the door and opened it to find the tall angular form of Uncle Karl, looking like a 1940s private eye in a tan-coloured mackintosh with the collar turned up. Uncle Karl had a stern face, all square jaw and razor-sharp cheekbones, but he generally had a twinkle in his eyes which showed that his bark was worse than his bite. Now, however, he looked severe..."

I'd love to be able to show you the photograph of Karl. I don't believe it's gone forever; I'm 99% sure I have seen it since my grandmother died and her house was cleared. However, my father and sister went through all the photographs they could lay hands on, and the only one they could find of an unidentified man of about the right age was this one (below left).

I don't believe this is Karl, unless either this or the lost photograph happens to be uncharacteristic of him. I'm still hopeful that the lost picture may turn up. In the meantime, Karl - at any rate, my Karl, as I remember him from the lost picture - exists only in my memory - and in the book. I'm glad he has a role in that.

Whilst my sister was posting likely photographs on Facebook, my other sister, seeing them, posted, "Who's Karl?"
Who's Karl? Well, now you know.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Haunted Homes

It rained heavily today, and school sports day had to be postponed, leaving me with a bit of time on my hands; so what better way to spend it than browsing amongst all my old books again?

The book pictured left is a great favourite of mine: The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain by John H. Ingram. First published in the early 1880s, this is the fourth edition (1888). I found it years ago (probably decades ago, I think) in a junk shop by the side of a road somewhere in rural Scotland - I don't remember exactly where. This was long before we came to live here, so it must have been on one of our hill-walking trips.

Haunted Homes is a collection of "true" (as opposed to fictional) ghost stories, organised alphabetically by location. The preface declares that the book has not been compiled "with a view of creating un frisson nouveau*, but to serve as a guide to the geography of Ghostland - a handbook to the Haunted Houses of Great Britain."

It also claims to supply exact details where most people can only give a vague account of any particular apparition, ie. it is trying to be as scientific as possible. However, at the end of the preface the author says that if he had ever believed in ghosts, compiling the book would have cured him of "such mental weakness". So I must say I think he is being disingenuous when he claims not to be trying to give his readers a frisson; if he thinks it is all bunk then the only purpose is to entertain!

Anyway, the book is a fascinating read. It includes some fairly well-known "hauntings" such as Glamis Castle and Rainham Hall, but also a host of others that I had never come across before. Some of them are standard fare: misers haunting the hiding-place of their hidden hoard or people appearing to their relatives when they were known to be far away at the time, and later being discovered to have died at the instant of their appearance. Others of the stories are more disturbing.

There is, for example, an entry for a country house coyly described as "Yorkshire: ----- Hall" which has a very creepy little ghost in it. A young woman stayed with some cousins who lived in a mansion in North Yorkshire, in the summer of 1879. Between three and four in the morning she heard her bedroom door open and shut, and then the rustling of some curtains close to the bed. For several minutes the young woman had a strong feeling that she was not alone, and then she saw someone standing at the foot of the bed: "the figure of a little girl in her night-dress - a little girl with dark hair and a very white face." The young woman tried to speak to her, but couldn't. She reports what happened next as follows: "She came slowly up on to the top of the bed, and I then saw her face clearly. She seemed in great trouble; her hands were clasped and her eyes were turned up with a look of entreaty, an almost agonised look. Then, slowly unclasping her hands, she touched me on the shoulder. The hand felt icy cold, and while I strove to speak she was gone."

The young woman's hostess (presumably her aunt) encouraged her to think that the whole thing must have been a very vivid nightmare. It was not until after she had left the house and gone to stay elsewhere that her cousin told her that the apparition of the little girl had been seen by other people on three other occasions, but that the young woman's uncle had forbidden his children from telling her this, because he thought it would frighten her too badly!

The thing that I personally find most chilling about this account is that on all the previous occasions, the little girl in the nightdress with her dark hair had only ever been seen from the back, looking out of the window, running up the staircase, or on one occasion simply standing by the table in a room. The young woman who recounted the story said, "I am the only one that has seen its face."


* a cheap thrill.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Solstice shenanigans

Today (21st June) is of course the summer solstice, a date most people probably associate with press coverage of huge gatherings at Stonehenge, and jokes about Wicker Men on Twitter. The summer solstice always reminds me of something else entirely - my former home town of Bad Münstereifel, in Germany.

I lived in Bad Münstereifel for seven wonderful years, and my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was inspired by the town, its history and its folk legends. The book is about a series of disappearances that occur in this beautiful but seemingly sleepy little town; the heroine, Pia Kolvenbach, and her friend Stefan are inspired to investigate by the legends of the town, which suggest to them that there is some supernatural explanation behind what is going on. The legends are woven into the narrative and are all genuine local Eifel legends, retold by me. Equally, the locations that feature in the book are all real ones, down to the street names and even the locations of some of the shops and cafes. If you are interested in seeing some of them for yourself, I made a short film about these locations, which is on my YouTube channel.

One of the places that features significantly in the story is the Alte Burg or "old castle" (inventive name, no?) on the Quecken Hill close to the town. Bad Münstereifel actually has two castles, a more recent one which still stands in the town centre and houses a restaurant as well as residential flats, and the old castle, which is pretty much buried in the woods on the hill.

When I first moved to Bad Münstereifel, the old castle was quite difficult to find. It was featured in an out-of-print book called Mauern, Türme and Ruinen but the ruins were buried in deep undergrowth and were barely signposted. The one fairly intact architectural feature is a circular turret, but over the centuries this has gone from standing up out of the earth to being virtually buried in it, so that it takes the form of a pit some metres deep. When I first visited the castle, there was absolutely nothing to stop the unwary visitor from falling in. As the castle itself was off the beaten track, if you had fallen in you would very likely have waited for a long time for rescue.

Since then, the council have placed a cage over the turret to prevent accidents, and erected a nice clear signpost so that you can tell exactly where to find the castle. For me, this spoils the excitement of stumbling on it by yourself, with the added frisson of possibly falling into the turret. But at the time at which the book is set (1999-2000) none of this had been done.

This is what the castle looks like:

Apart from the turret, the most you can pick out are the mossy remains of sections of wall. The castle is over a thousand years old so I suppose it is amazing that anything remains at all! Anyway, the local legend of the "Eternal huntsman" whose ghost rides through the forest at night accompanied by spectral hounds is associated with this castle. 

And now we come to the reason why the summer solstice always reminds me of Bad Münstereifel! 
After I had first visited the old castle, I was bubbling over with the joy of discovery, and desperate to show it off to some of my friends (you have to make your own fun in small towns, you know). Eventually I managed to persuade a friend of mine to come up to the Quecken Hill to see it. 

We made our way through the undergrowth, peered down into the turret, and then wandered down the inside of the north wall (if you can call it a wall; it is more of a ridge covered in trees). And there we found this:

A stone circle! This picture was taken later, in 2010, when we were visiting from our then home in Flanders. When we first saw this circle, it was more complete, and there was a single flat stone in the middle of it. On the stone were the burnt remains of something unidentifiable. 

Evidently someone had been up here holding some kind of ritual! Maybe this shouldn't have surprised me all that much, because there is a Roman temple to the Matrones at nearby Nettersheim, and someone  leaves fruit, flowers and feathers in front of the carved figures of the goddesses. Still, it did strike me as rather creepy. It was obvious that the circle had been built recently, because it was not mossed over, and unlike the tumbledown walls of the castle it was entire. Then I realised that the date was 22nd June. It was the morning after the solstice. 

Thoroughly creeped out, we decided to leave well alone. When my friend related the story to a friend of hers, the friend said in alarm, "You didn't go inside the circle, did you???" I can't say this made me feel any better about the experience (I spent the rest of the day wondering whether I had perhaps gone inside it without noticing or something). Apart from anything else, it was the mysteriousness of the whole thing; the Eifel is a staunchly Catholic area and the castle is a very obscure and desolate spot; I couldn't think who would want to sit up there in the dark like that! 

I have never solved that particular mystery, except in the book, where I have constructed my own solution to it. But that is why the summer solstice always makes me think of Bad Münstereifel. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Princes, dead birds, and vegetative couture

A few days ago, the Bookwitch (who visited me at home recently) blogged about my bookshelves; "they are shelves," she said, "that anyone would enjoy browsing for unexpected – or for that matter, totally expected – books." She also commented on the lack of any discernible shelving system (it's a fair cop, guv), which no doubt contributes pretty heavily to the unexpectedness. Sometimes even I find books I didn't know I had. 

Today I came across a slim volume entitled A wreath of golden blossoms. I was looking for something light to read over lunch and picked this particular book out from its hiding-place between a paperback of The Hot Zone and Allan's Wife (1889 edition). When I looked inside, it had my mother's maiden name printed in large childish letters, so it must have been hers when she was little. There is no publication date but a quick online search suggests the 1930s. I have no idea how or when the book came into my possession but I am sure I wouldn't just have pinched it. 

I have blogged before about old children's books. I am fascinated by them - particularly by the sorts of things that people used to think suitable for kids. Here, for example, is the concluding illustration to a series of little stories about Cock Robin and his mate Jenny Wren:

There is only one grave because Jenny was eaten by a hawk. Robin died of a broken heart shortly afterwards, not before instructing the thrush to turn his beak into a pen nib for the king. Cheerful, no? Well, I didn't think so either...

Later on, we have a dramatised version of The Three Little Pigs, that culminates in this merry scene:

Personally I think Curlytail the pig should be ashamed of himself; doesn't he know that wolves are endangered?

My favourite story in the whole book, however, is undoubtedly Rushy Coat, which, I am informed by a Twitter friend, is of Scots origin (not surprising since the book was published by McDougall's Educational Co. Ltd. of Edinburgh). The heroine is a princess who is turned out of the palace by her evil stepmother and left to die of cold (actually, the more I read of this story, the more I detect its Scottish origins; if you turned a princess out in Perthshire in the winter she would definitely freeze). Luckily the princess is saved from hypothermia by the assistance of an old sheep who tells her to make herself a dress out of rushes. Here she is, in the dress (it looks like spring has arrived at this point, which would make it around June if this year is anything to go by):

Thus attired, the princess looks so hot that she attracts the attention of a passing prince:

"Hell-oo bay-bee."

The wicked stepmother is having none of this, though; she has Rushy Coat brought inside and put to work in the palace kitchens, where she won't attract anyone's eye except perhaps the rats'. Rushy Coat, however, instead of concentrating on making sure her souffles don't sink in the middle, keeps sighing over the Prince. Eventually she hatches a plot to go to church so she can check him out again. 

This is the bit I love. Rushy Coat changes out of her rushes into a totally staggering maxi dress teamed with shoes made of gold, and then she turns to the dinner and tells it to cook itself. 

Wouldn't that be good?! 

Off she goes to church and probably doesn't spend half enough time concentrating on her hymn book. Sure enough, the prince clocks her and all looks rosy. Unfortunately, things almost go pear-shaped as the prince nearly gets married to someone else by accident. He is actually on his way to the wedding when a little bird (yes, really) tells him that his One True Love is stuck in the kitchen.

"What's that, you say? I should be calling it off with duckface here, 
like Hugh Grant in Three Weddings?"

The Prince rides off to check whether the bird is speaking with forked tongue or not, recognises Rushy Coat at once, and they all live happily ever after. Except the girl who got left at the altar, presumably. And the stepmum...