Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014: ghosts, demons and musical instruments

2014 is drawing to a close, and Facebook is sprouting dozens of photo retrospectives perkily labelled "It's been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it." I've avoided doing one of those, mainly because nearly all my photos would be of me poking around old graveyards, which wouldn't make for very jolly viewing! All the same, I thought I'd take a look back at the year and pick out some of its memorable moments.

I'm pleased to say that I made it back to Belgium, where we used to live, and where my most recent books are set, three times this year, which was a huge treat for me. I went over at Easter to see Flemish band Clouseau play at AB Brussel, again in September to hold launch events for my new book Demons of Ghent, and a third time in October for the British School of Brussels' Book Week. Like most people these days, I don't have a big budget (or even a budget at all!) for travel and accommodation so the fact that I was able to make these trips  was largely due to the kindness of my German friend Gaby, who still lives in Belgium, and who ferried me about and offered me her guest bedroom. Gaby gets a well-deserved mention in the acknowledgments at the back of Demons of Ghent. A major highlight of my time in Flanders this year was taking a group of students from the British School of Brussels on a tour of the city of Ghent, and showing them the real life locations that appear in the book. I would gladly do this every day, if only someone would hire me to do it! It was great fun listening to the students discussing the practicalities of hiding inside the Gravensteen castle.

Demons of Ghent was my main published work of 2014, but I'm pleased to say that one of my short stories, The Third Time, appeared in the Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows Volume Two in September. Like the first Book of Shadows, this was an anthology of prequels and sequels of the ghost stories of M.R.James. The Third Time is a sequel to James' A Neighbour's Landmark, which is in my opinion one of his most underrated tales. Although the stories in the Book of Shadows anthologies must be related to the tales of M.R.James, there is no requirement to write them in a "Jamesian" literary style, nor to set them in the same period as his stories. The Third Time has a contemporary setting and I turned up the nastiness to a higher setting than James would have liked! The Book of Shadows Volume Two has now sold out and copies are changing hands at rather unaffordable prices on eBay and Amazon, however, if you would like to read The Third Time, I am delighted to say that it will be appearing in Best British Horror 2015 edited by Johnny Mains, and due out in April from Salt Publishing.

Also during 2014, I finished working on the third book in my Forbidden Spaces trilogy: Urban Legends, due out in March 2015. I have to admit to lingering somewhat over the final edits of the book, because it broke my heart to say goodbye to Veerle and Kris, the heroine and hero of the trilogy. Writing these books, urbex thrillers set in Flanders, has been some of the best fun I have ever had as a writer; the research was particularly exciting! I began by climbing the bell tower of a little village church in Flanders to research the very first scene of Silent Saturday, spent days exploring Ghent for Demons of Ghent, and visited a deserted industrial site with some seasoned urban explorers for Urban Legends. I also visited the Brussels sewers, which was an interesting if somewhat niffy experience! You'll have to read the book to find out what use I made of these adventures.

After finishing work on Urban Legends, I recently began work on a new novel. I'm not going to say anything about that at present other than that it is set in Scotland. As I've mentioned before on this blog, as a writer I am very influenced by setting, and when I'm on the lookout for ideas I often visit atmospheric places in the hopes of finding inspiration, a method I find to be pretty much infallible! So I've spent much of my spare time since we moved to Perthshire poking about in ancient castles, ruined churches and other interesting locations. I'm pleased to say that this has paid off!

As well as the new novel, I've also written a new short supernatural story, which will be appearing in Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands, part of the excellent Terror Tales series of regionally-inspired supernatural anthologies edited by Paul Finch. I'll post details of where to get this book in due course.

As well as actually writing in 2014, I was delighted to be one of the Scottish Book Trust's Author Ambassadors for Book Week Scotland in November. I had some ambassadorial duties such as composing a love letter to my favourite library, but I also tried to lead by example by making and honouring two reading pledges. One of these was to read aloud to my family from the works of a Scots author every day in Book Week, and anyone who follows this blog will have read about the excerpts I chose. The other was to read Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.

This brings me onto something else I wanted to mention in this 2014 round-up: my "books of the year". Ivanhoe was my absolutely top book of 2014; it was challenging to find time to do justice to Scott's early nineteenth century prose but it was well worth the effort. I've thought about Ivanhoe a great deal since reading it and I doubt I'm ever going to quite get past the marriage choice of the eponymous hero!

I'm not generally one to be put off by a book being "antique"; I love the works of Dickens, Trollope, etc. However, I had tried to read Ivanhoe when I was a teenager and had not managed to get past the jousting scene. For this reason, when I pledged to read the book I posted it on Goodreads, so that everyone would see my progress and I couldn't worm my way out of finishing it. In the event, the more I read of the book, the more I loved it. I shall certainly be reading more Scott in 2015!

As a YA writer, I naturally get to hear about other YA releases so I also read a few of those in 2014: The Fearless by Emma Pass, Bet Your Life by Jane Casey and Now You See Me by Emma Haughton were all really excellent.

Finally, I asked for Necropolis: London and its Dead by Catharine Arnold for Christmas after a recommendation from Twitter pal Paul Haine. This has turned out to be an utterly gripping read, for which I have forsaken several other books I had already started. There's nothing like a good book about burials!

Aside from strictly bookish things, I've spent more time exploring in 2014; I'm not sure you could call all of it "urbex" though, as many of the places I have visited have been in the countryside, such as the abandoned village of Tirai and the Glenfargs railway tunnels (pictured).  I don't need to do any more urbex research now that Urban Legends is done and dusted, but I guess I've got the bug in a small way! I shan't be breaking into opulent expat houses in Brussels like my heroine Veerle, though, and hopefully I shan't run into any crossbow-wielding serial killers either...

There's one other thing I'd like to say about 2014, and that is: thank you. Thank you to the very kind friend (you know who you are!) who gave my daughter armloads of books and who also gave us a saxophone in beautiful condition for our musical son. Thank you to the former owners of the lovely Victorian piano on which my son is now also learning to play. Thanks again to Gaby and to all the friends in Belgium who came along to my book events this year. And a very, very big thank you to everyone who read my books, especially those who reviewed them, either on their blogs or on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. It is very, very much appreciated! Wishing you all an enjoyable end to 2014, and a very Happy New Year 2015!

Above: star treatment at the British School of Brussels! I'd share with my readers, though!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Ghost Story Christmas Special! (This offer has now ended.)

As Christmas is not only a time for candlelit carols and mince pies but also ghost stories, I'm planning to post something special online in honour of this spine-tingling tradition!

As you may know if you've read some of my previous posts, I'm a big fan of the Library of Innerpeffray, Scotland's oldest lending library and home to books that are centuries old. For Hallowe'en 2013 I spent the day there as Writer in Residence and created three ghost stories set in and around the Library itself. I read these aloud that same evening, and the reading was kindly recorded by Ralph Haggerty.

The audio recording of one of these tales - Lilith's Story - has been available on my SoundCloud account since last year, but the full set of three stories with their interlinking narrative has never been made available in this format, mainly because I did not want to encroach on the printed version, which was sold for a limited period to raise funds for the Library.

I'm going to post the full version of Ghost Stories of Innerpeffray on SoundCloud on Christmas Eve 2014. From then until Boxing Day (26th) it will be available free to listen, share or indeed to download, if you would like to listen but don't have time over Christmas.

I do hope you will enjoy these stories, which are written in the traditional mould and are very much inspired by the wonderfully atmospheric situation of the Library. If you would like to make a donation to the Library of Innerpeffray to help support the upkeep of their marvellous collection of antiquarian books, you can do it here:

Here is where to find my SoundCloud account:  - the full recording will be up on Wednesday but currently you can listen to a single story.

Happy Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Who'd be your literary lunch date?

Christmas is almost upon us, so I've put a seasonal question to some of the other authors I know: if you could invite one literary character to your Christmas lunch, who would it be, and why? This is what they said!

Sheena Wilkinson (author of Still Falling, out in February from Little Island): I would love to invite the March sisters but would be worried they would make me give all my food to the Hummels!

Rhian Ivory (author of The Boy who drew the Future, coming in September 2015 from Firefly Press): I'd like to invite Mr Joe Gargery from Great Expectations because he is the loveliest and most honest man I've ever met and would be good company over a meat pie and ale.

Katy Moran (author of The Hidden Princess, which came out in June 2014): I'd really like to meet Jack Kerouac but feel that lunch could end up in all kinds of mess if he turned up. Jane Austen would be good – witty as well as tidy and the whole experience less likely to involve barbiturates.

Eve Ainsworth (author of Seven Days, out in February 2015):  I'd love to invite Tom from Tom's Midnight Garden. I think he might need a good feast.

Susie Day (latest book: Pea's Book of Holidays): Mr Tumnus from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I'd like to know what he's got in all those parcels - and 'always winter and never Christmas' means he's entitled to extra turkey.

Bea Davenport (author of The Serpent House): I'd like to invite the White Witch from Narnia and let her put her side of the story.

Kate Kelly (author of Red Rock): I would invite Dr Watson, ply him with port and persuade him to tell us the bits he missed out when he was writing up his case notes!

Kerry Drewery (author of A Dream of Lights): I'd invite The Cat in the Hat because it'd be utter madness and we'd all have to talk in rhyme all day!

Natasha Ngan (author of The Memory Keepers): This is so much fun! I'd invite Levi from Fangirl, because - huge crush. I want to see all his smiles for myself!

Emma Haughton (author of Now You See Me): I'd invite the Mad Hatter because we could be crazy and annoying together.

Isabel Thomas (check out her many children's books here):  Definitely not The Tiger Who Came For Tea... this Christmas, all the beer in the tap is for me!

Rachel Hamilton: I'd invite Oliver Twist over for Christmas lunch, because then at least I'd have one person there who wouldn't complain about my cooking! (Rachel is the author of The Case of the Exploding Loo which she says had nothing to do with her attempts to cook Christmas dinner...)

Alex Campbell (author of Land): Holden Caulfield to satisfy all my teenage angst that's still hanging on in there...!

Sarah Sky (new book Fashion Assassin out on January 1st 2015): Matilda (Roald Dahl). She'd be good fun and could use her powers of telekinesis to clear the table after lunch.
...and me? I'm re-reading Middlemarch again, so I think I'd probably invite Dorothea Brooke, and over the turkey and roast potatoes I would do my very best to talk her out of marrying Mr. Casaubon! 

Whom would you invite?! 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

6 Ghost Stories for Christmas on film

I've been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of my last post, about ghost stories - it's one of my most viewed posts ever in spite of only having been published last week. It's good to know that there are lots of fans of the classic ghost story out there!

I thought it might be fun to put together another list of scary stories, this time ones on film! So I've spent the last couple of days rewatching old favourites and watching some new films on Vimeo. (I probably should have been working on my book, but hey, it's nearly Christmas and we all deserve a bit of fun, right?) I wanted these films to be short ones, which can be watched in a few minutes, and ones that have touched me in some way - either moved me, or made me jump out of my skin! I also wanted to select films that can legitimately be watched free online, so all of these have been posted to Vimeo by their makers.

I think I have watched dozens of films but these are the ones I liked best! NB There are a couple of jump scares in these videos and I'm not saying which ones, so if you are of an excessively nervous disposition you might prefer to have a nice cup of tea and a biscuit instead of watching...

Lights Out Who’s There by David F. Sandberg - you may have seen this one already as it's a bit of a classic (if you did, I doubt you've forgotten it). A woman alone in her apartment prepares to go to bed, but feels strangely uneasy. And that's even before the lights start going on and off by themselves... Watch it here:

Ghost by Tobias Gundorff Boesen - this is hauntingly sad rather than scary, but also extremely tense in places. It's a beautiful film too, with excellent production values, and some wonderful visual metaphors. An interesting fact about this film is that it was shot in Viborg, the Danish town that is also the setting for M.R.James' story Number Thirteen. Watch it here:

Ghost Story by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland - at just under twelve minutes, this is the longest of the six. Absorbing rather than scary, this film was shot in an abandoned house in Glasgow, a wonderfully atmospheric location. Watch it here:

Haunt Ed by Andres and Diego Meza-Valdes - vloggers have been in the news a lot recently, so this is a topical film (well, sort of)! An extreme vlogger decides to record himself passing the night in a haunted house, inadvisably supplementing the experience with drugs. This was never going to end well, was it? Watch it here:

Somnium by FotoShaadi - Grudge-style creeps in a call centre! I thought this one was slightly slow to start with, but the pace - and the scares - are ratcheted up as it progresses. I've fallen asleep in front of my laptop a few times - well, never again. Watch it here:

Lot 254 by Toby Meakins - I've blogged about this film before because I like it so much. At three minutes it's one of the shortest, but it really manages to pack a lot of atmosphere - and fright! - into those three minutes. An absolute treat and my personal favourite of all six - I'll be looking out for more by the same director.

I'd love to know what you think of these films, and I'm always pleased to hear other people's recommendations for further watching! Happy Christmas!

Scary shorts: watch them from behind the sofa!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Top 10 Classic Ghost Stories for Christmas

Further to my last blog post about gruesome and creepy writing for Christmas, I thought I'd put together my Top 10 classic ghost stories for the festive season. I decided to select classic stories because while there are many superb modern ghost stories, I personally quite like something with a patina of age on it for Christmas (12 year old malt also welcome, cough).

I love ghost stories and have many tatty old Fontana anthologies and well-thumbed collections by M.R.James, Sheridan Le Fanu, L.T.C.Rolt, etc. For this Top 10 I've tried to choose the stories that have really stayed with me after reading, which usually means that they genuinely gave me the chills! They are creepy rather than bloody; I don't mind a bit of gore in scary stories if it is well done, but that wasn't what I was looking for here. I've gone for spine-tingling rather than gut-wrenching!

If you love the classic tales as much as I do, and you've already read all of these, you can amuse yourself deciding to what extent my Top 10 coincides with yours.

By the way, many (though not all) of these stories are available online; however, if you can find an anthology with some of these tales in it, it's probably worth investing in your own copy. I know I love to re-read them!

1. Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book by M.R.James
Any list of classic ghost stories has to include one by the master of the creepy tale. The problem is: which to choose? I think out of all of James' tales, the one that scares me most is probably A Neighbour's Landmark, with its unpredictable shrieking ghost; I'm so fascinated with that story that I wrote a sequel to it, The Third Time, which appears in The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows 2. However, I suspect that most other fans of James' work would not select that one as their favourite. I think the laurels should probably go to Canon Alberic's Scrap-book, which was the very first story in James' first collection, Ghost Stories of An Antiquary. This particular tale, of a scholar who picks up an antiquarian book in a sleepy French town and thus brings himself into highly undesirable company, is a chilling example of James' skill that will make you want to sit with your back to the wall for the rest of the evening.

2. Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Sheridan Le Fanu has the accolade of being a ghost story writer whom James himself admired. Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter is my favourite of all his stories, and one that gives me a genuine sense of dread every time I read it. Although the tale is named for Schalken, the victim of the supernatural is the unfortunate Rose Velderkaust, whom the painter loves. I think her fate has a peculiar horror for female readers. Brrr.

3. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman
There are a great many supernatural stories in which the protagonist wittingly or unwittingly commits some offence and is then implacably pursued for it - M.R.James' Count Magnus being a superb example - but The Inner Room uses this theme in a much subtler way than most. The narrator acquires a splendid dolls' house as a child but it appears to have some mysterious and repulsive qualities; she is not sorry when it is sold again. Later she re-encounters it in a waking nightmare. That is the obvious part of the story. More chilling is the sense that these events have tainted the psychological landscape of the family - and that the narrator has not behaved any worse than we ourselves would have.

4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
It's de rigeur to include this one on any list of Christmas ghost stories. Personally I find A Christmas Carol for the most part entertaining rather than frightening, with the exception of two points in the story. The first is when the ghost of Jacob Marley unwinds the cloth around his face and his lower jaw drops down upon his chest. If I were Scrooge, I think I should have died of fright at that point; there is something so horribly grotesque about it. The second point is when Scrooge perceives a claw-like hand under the robe of Christmas Present, and the ghost shows him what it is.

5. Man-size in Marble by E.Nesbit
A village church has a monument with two knights in armour "drawed out man-size in marble" on it; according to local legend, on All Saints' Eve they climb down from their tomb and walk back to their former home, and woe betide anyone who meets them. Naturally as soon as we read this, we know that somebody is going to...

6. The Tower by Marghanita Laski
I read this story years ago, and it's stayed with me ever since. Perhaps it affected me so much because I like to poke about in old and abandoned places myself! In The Tower, the wife of a British man working in Italy sets out alone to visit a very high tower built by a sinister nobleman in the 16th century. I dare not say very much more about this tale; it is such a good story that it would be a pity to give any spoilers. Suffice to say that the heroine's climb up the tower is vertiginous; the descent is much more frightening.

7. Thurnley Abbey by Percival Landon
Once again, a master of the terrifying takes a familiar theme and ramps up the fear. There are many tales about waking up and seeing something nasty at the end of the bed - in fact there are several supposed "real life" occurrences of this in Haunted Homes. Where Percival Landon's story scores is in its description of the paralysing fear this creates. The ghost is pretty horrible but it's the terror it evokes in the other characters that's really chilling. I like this story so much that I use excerpts from it for ghost story workshops. "Here's how to do it, kids."

8. The Accident by Ann Bridge
Unusually, this story is set in Zermatt, in the world of mountaineering. A pair of climbers, one of them a distinctly unpleasant personality, have died in a mysterious accident, but it seems that they have not finished with the world of climbing. The terror kicks off with the discovery of two sets of tracks in the snow - that begin in the middle of nowhere. Then the messages start arriving...
I like this story for the same reason I like Aickman's The Inner Room. There's more to it than the obviously supernatural events. The characters themselves question whether what is happening is reality or mental illness; and we experience through the eyes of one of them the agony of having failed to protect the innocent.

9. Lot 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Lot 249 isn't strictly speaking a ghost story - it's more of a necromancy story. I've included it though, because personally I find it the scariest of Conan Doyle's supernatural tales. He did write some actual ghost stories - The Brown Hand, for example - but I find them less thrilling than this tale of malevolence worked out through Ancient Egyptian magic. I love the sense of arcane mystery that pervades the story, the wonderful descriptions of place including Bellingham's room full of antiquities, and the thrilling denouement: "He (Smith) was a famous runner, but never had he run as he ran that night." Brilliant.

10. Bosworth Summit Pound by L.T.C.Rolt
I love the supernatural stories of L.T.C.Rolt, who chose unusual, often industrial settings: a foundry, a  mine, a railway, a canal. If you haven't read any of them, I thoroughly recommend his collection Sleep no more (it definitely "does what it says on the tin..."). Bosworth Summit Pound is my favourite, although The Garside Fell Disaster also gives me the almost unbearable creeps. It is the tale of a man who witnesses supernatural vengeance - again, a familiar theme, but handled masterfully by Rolt, who provides some supremely chilling moments, as when the protagonist seemingly dreams of something sinister, then awakes to find himself actually outdoors, shivering and staring fearfully into the dark...

Canals: spooky

As I said at the beginning, this is my Top 10; I'd love to hear some recommendations from other people! Do you agree with my selection? What would you leave out, what would you include that I haven't?

Meanwhile, here are some ghost stories of mine: (free audio, read by me). If you enjoy them, you might like to check out my collection The Sea Change, which is available from Swan River Press.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Christmas reading. With added gruesome.

In spite of the fact that it's supposed to be the season of goodwill, there's a great tradition of associating Christmas with all things scary and gruesome - ranging from Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas to the annual ghost story readings of M.R.James.

I'm pleased to say that I have added to the store of Christmas grisliness with my novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. The story begins with a freak accident at an Advent dinner and ends a year later with grim death in the December snow. I'm venturing therefore to put it forward as a possible gift idea, for those who like a bit of mystery and murder alongside their turkey and roast potatoes!

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden was my debut novel and was inspired by Bad Münstereifel, the town in Germany where I lived for seven years. We had many very snowy winters when we lived there, plus a couple of actual "white Christmases". I remember one year when my son was small enough to be in a pushchair and the temperatures dropped to -19°; I used to have to take my gloves off to take him out of the pushchair and strap him into his car seat, and in that short time my hands would go numb with the cold! Brrrr. But the freezing weather was more than compensated for by the wonderful German Christmas customs.

Bad Münstereifel has its own Christmas market (as do larger towns and cities in Germany) and it was lovely to go and drink a glass of Glühwein, whilst admiring the Christmas lights. In Germany, Santa Claus, "der Nikolaus", visits children on the eve of St. Nicholas' Day, which is 6th December, so he visited our kids that night too - in fact he still does! We have kept up some of our German customs even though we no longer live there (not to mention the fact that the kids are technically far too old to have visits from Santa any more).

It's also the custom in Germany to have an "Advent crown", which is a table ornament with four candles in it; every Sunday in Advent a new candle is lit during dinner. One of these Advent crowns features in the freak accident I mentioned above, naked flames being a bit risky when there is flammable stuff around...

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is suitable for teens and adults. I'm pleased to say that it was recently named as one of the Times' 100 Modern Children's Classics of the Past 10 Years - although it's definitely at the Young Adult end of "Children's". It was also shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the Booktrust Teen Award in the UK, and won an ALA Alex Award in the USA. So I suppose it's as "respectable" as a book can be that mentions an exploding grandmother, a disappearing Snow White and housebreaking children...

Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands!

As anyone who's read any of my novels will know, I'm a writer who is very inspired by place; my first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was directly inspired by the town of Bad Münstereifel, where I lived for seven years, and my current Forbidden Spaces trilogy was inspired by my experience of living in Flanders.

Since 2011 I've lived in Perthshire, so it's no surprise that my latest ideas are inspired by Scottish locations. People sometimes ask me whether it's nice to be "back" after living abroad for so long, but actually I'm not "back" at all - until 2011 I'd never lived in Scotland, although I'd visited many times. So when we moved here, pretty much everything was new to me. I decided to adopt my usual strategy of going to visit anything that I thought might be creepy, atmospheric or historical in the hopes that I would find some local inspiration. (NB I don't just do this to find story ideas; it's fun!) So I've visited castles and churches (ruined and not ruined), standing stones, abandoned railway tunnels, Innerpeffray Library, Shackleton's ship Discovery in Dundee (below), Mary King's Close in Edinburgh and many other interesting places. 

I'm pleased to say that these excursions have been every bit as inspirational as I hoped they would be! I've already completed a set of three ghost stories set in Innerpeffray Library, one of which you can hear in audio format on Soundcloud. I've also contributed a story to the upcoming anthology Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands, edited by thriller writer Paul Finch and published by Gray Friar Press

If you've not already come across the Terror Tales series, they are anthologies of horror stories (uniquely?) set in different regions of Britain. There is a Terror Tales of Yorkshire, Terror Tales of Wales, Terror Tales of London and so on. So they are ideal for anyone who fancies a local thrill, whether horrors that might be lurking just up the road from you, or something spooky to fit a holiday destination! (And, of course, they're good for anyone who just likes being scared.)

I'm not going to say too much about my Highland story at this stage except that it is inspired by a real Perthshire location, one about which I have blogged before, and a genuinely creepy place.  

Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands will be out in 2015; as soon as I have details of how to order it, I'll post them here! 

Above: "Where do you dig your ideas up?"

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Books and high places

Today (30th November) is not only the last day of Book Week Scotland 2014, it is also St. Andrew's Day, a day on which Historic Scotland properties across the country are thrown open to the public free of charge.*

Last year my family and I visited Stirling Castle thanks to this offer; this time we decided to visit Doune Castle. We chose Doune because it is not very far away from us. I also thought that it might be fun to finish my reading pledge for Book Week Scotland (which was to read a piece of Scots literature to my family every day) by reading an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe in a genuinely mediaeval setting. I was delighted therefore to discover from a display in the castle that it was used as one of the locations for a TV adaptation of Ivanhoe! Actually, Doune Castle has been used as a film location a number of times, the most famous being for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I have to admit that I did succumb to temptation and lean off the battlements to shout, "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" at some baffled-looking tourists ("What did she say?" asked one of them, shaking his head). I won't have been the first person to do that; it's practically de rigeur for visitors to the castle...

The excerpt I chose to read was part of the scene in which Rebecca (my absolutely favourite character in Ivanhoe) is imprisoned in a turret room, and the evil Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert comes up to have his wicked way with her; she successfully holds him off by climbing onto the balcony and threatening to throw herself to her death if he comes one step closer. Impervious to pity, he is however impressed with her courage and self possession.

We sat by the window in the upstairs room pictured in the photo above. I read from the book whilst my daughter looked at the drop and considered how very unpleasant it would be to throw yourself out! I absolutely loathe heights so I must say it certainly brought the scene to life in a very visceral way...

I'm thrilled that we had such a dramatic end to our week of readings for Book Week Scotland. Over the course of the week we have read from the works of Burns, Scott, Stevenson and Conan Doyle as well as a contemporary poet, Kona MacPhee. I'm very aware that we have only scratched the surface - I for one will certainly be reading more Scott in the near future. Recommendations from Scott fans welcomed!

As this is the seventh and last day of Book Week Scotland, I'd like to thank everyone who has followed this blog, and also everyone who has retweeted or otherwise shared my posts about Book Week on social media.

Above: Doune Castle 

* The free tickets have to be ordered in advance, so be sure to look out for this offer next time!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The speckled band

Today was day 6 of Book Week Scotland and it probably presented the biggest challenge yet in meeting my reading pledge, because we were out nearly all day visiting friends in Glasgow. I had had some idea of reading to my family in the car on the way to their house, but as there was a bike in the boot with the front wheel sticking out between the two rear seats (!) I was unable to sit in the back with the children as planned. Also, I had to map read. I don't think reading a map of Scotland is quite in the spirit of my reading pledge...

After we arrived at our friends', we went for a walk and the boys went mountain biking, then we had tea and cake, and then we had dinner and wine. By this time it was very dark outside. It was patently going to be impossible to read anything on the journey home, and too late to do it when we got there. So in the end, I left the adults chatting over coffee, lured my daughter into the hosts' kitchen and read to her in there. The boys missed out but I gave them a recap of the highlights on the trip home. I hope honour was satisfied.

Tonight's reading was The speckled band, a Sherlock Holmes story by Edinburgh-born Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of whose other, non-Sherlockian tales I read earlier in the week. I chose this story because I have a particular fondness for it. When I was a child, my father had a couple of vinyl records with dramatisations of Sherlock Holmes stories on them, and The speckled band was one of them. This was in the days before audio books and indeed even before CDs. I think there were at least four recorded stories, but the only one I can remember was The speckled band. I think that was the only one I was actually interested in listening to, because I found it incredibly scary - evidently I had a taste for the macabre even at an early age. I remember I used to listen out for the moment when Julia Stoner chokes out the words, "It was the band! The speckled band!" with a kind of horrified fascination. It was a moment of supreme and grotesque drama.

I very much enjoyed revisiting this story with my daughter. If you would like to read it, it is available online at but personally I think it is worth investing in a copy of your own. This is the one I read from (also pictured above): The Adventures & Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes Wordsworth Classics but there are many other editions.

I'll be back again tomorrow (Sunday 30th November) with my final reading for day 7 of Book Week Scotland!

Friday, November 28, 2014

"There was a man of the Island of Hawaii..."

It's day 5 of Book Week Scotland, and I am continuing with my pledge to read a piece of Scottish literature to my family every day! As it's Friday evening and for once none of us had to rush off anywhere, I had time to read something a little longer than the things I have been reading for the past few days, namely, Robert Louis Stevenson's story The Bottle Imp. 

This story is a particular favourite of mine. I've blogged about it before, in a post called Tempered in the flames of hell, which is a quote from the story. It concerns a "man of the Island of Hawaii" who buys a bottle containing an imp who will do the bidding of whoever owns it. There are two catches: firstly, that if someone dies whilst in possession of the bottle they will go straight to hell, and secondly, that it can only ever be sold at a loss. So the price is forever going down, and as it becomes lower it becomes more difficult to sell the bottle on, because when there is no lower price the last owner will be irrevocably damned.

Bottle Imps, as I've explained in my previous blog about them, were not invented by Stevenson, but he gives his own style and character to the story with its beautiful and exotic location, and the gorgeous language and descriptions. It also has a very satisfying ending, and if there is one thing I hate it is a cop-out ending; this isn't.

I can't say much more without risking an enormous spoiler, but if you wish to read the story for yourself, the entire thing is available online here: The Bottle Imp. I thoroughly recommend it!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Today is day 4 of Book Week Scotland, and I have been continuing with my reading pledge to read aloud a piece of Scottish literature to my family every evening.

No such selection would be complete without a contribution from Robert Louis Stevenson, so this evening I read chapter one of Treasure Island. There are many exciting passages in this book but I decided to read from the very beginning because I'd hate to create any inadvertent spoilers - I'm hoping that listening to some of these excerpts and stories will encourage us all to read further.

The first chapter of the book mainly deals with the arrival at the "Admiral Benbow" inn of a highly disreputable old sailor, who drinks prodigious amounts of rum and terrorises the other customers with his uncertain temper and domineering ways. At the end of the chapter, he meets his match in the quietly-spoken Dr. Livesey, who is not only a doctor but the local magistrate. Enraged by the doctor's refusal to fall silent at his command, the old sailor threatens to stab him with his clasp-knife, but the doctor, unruffled, promises that unless he puts the knife away he will hang at the next assizes.

The doctor also tells the old sailor that, "if you keep on drinking rum, the world will soon be quit of a very dirty scoundrel!'
My daughter was thrilled by this. "Such sass," she remarked, happily.

If you wish to read the chapter we read tonight, Treasure Island is available here online: Project Gutenberg Treasure Island - however, I'd say it's well worth investing in your own copy.

Above: Long John Silver, the anti-hero of Treasure Island, is a favourite character of mine, 
as I recently explained to the Sunday Mail!


I'm rather late with this post about our reading for day 3 of Book Week Scotland, because we were out all evening yesterday. To recap for anyone who hasn't seen my previous two posts, one of my pledges for Book Week is to read a piece of Scots writing to my family every day, whether a story, poem or extract from a novel.

As with Tuesday's reading, I chose something brief for Wednesday evening because I knew we would be busy. In the event, all the rushing about meant that dinner was a hastily-snatched burger in McDonald's in Perth, so I did my reading there! I should apologise to the work and its creator for the unglamorous setting...

I felt that having read a poem by Scotland's most famous poet, Rabbie Burns, on Tuesday, it would be nice to follow it with a poem - or poems - by a modern poet living and working in Scotland. As it happens, I have two collections of poems by poet Kona MacPhee, who was born in London and grew up in Australia, but who now lives and writes in Crieff, Perthshire. I love Kona's work and have heard her read some of it at a joint event we did at Strathearn Community Library a while ago, along with fellow poet Patricia Ace (we called the event "Two poets and a novelist").

I selected two poems from Kona's collection Tails (pictured). One of them was Elegy for a climber, which was written in memory of Brendan Murphy, who died in an avalanche in India aged only 33. I don't think I am going to attempt to "review" this poem; it would need another poem to do it. Suffice to say that it is both moving and beautiful.
The other poem was Yode, which is one of my favourites. It is preceded by a quote from that great philosopher, Yoda out of Star Wars: Do, or do not. There is no try. The poem expounds upon this theme, which is one with which I heartily sympathise.

If you want to read these two poems, you'll have to lay hands on a copy of Tails, which is available on Amazon. Kona's website does offer another of her poems, The gift, which you can read online here:

Incidentally, the library I mentioned above, at which we held our joint event, is also my local library and the one to whom I addressed my "love letter to a library" for Book Week Scotland. You can read the letter here: Dear Strathearn Community Library

I'll be posting again soon with our reading selection for today, day 4 of Book Week Scotland!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

To a mouse!

It's day two of Book Week Scotland, and I'm continuing with my pledge to read one piece of Scottish writing to my family every day.

Yesterday we had The Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This evening it had to be something briefer because we had to go out and didn't get home until a little while ago (it is now 9.30pm). I thought it would be great to include a poem by Scotland's most famous and classic poet, Rabbie Burns, and the one I selected was To a mouse. 

The pledge I made was that I would read to my family, however, I thought that the poem would sound a lot better if my husband read it, because he has a proper Scots accent and I don't! I did wonder whether this meant that I was cheating, and debated on reading it out as well, but my husband sensibly pointed out that I was delegating the job to him, and still (cough) "taking overall responsibility for making sure it was read". I must say he made a very good job of it too, far better than I would have!

The poem is ostensibly about a mouse whose nest is destroyed by the plough in autumn, but Burns concludes with some far deeper observations about "the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men." The ending is rather melancholy, but there are phrases to make one smile too; we loved the charming descriptions of the mouse and its nest, for example:

That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!

If you would like to read the poem, you can find it online here: To a mouse 

If you haven't made a reading pledge, there's still time! Book Week Scotland runs until Sunday 30th. Make your pledge here.

If you'd like to read the pledges other people have made, check out the Pledge Wall. 

I'll be blogging again over the next few days and I hope to include some modern Scottish writing too.

PS The mouse in the picture is from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

"And where, pray, is Myrtle's head?"

At last, it's Book Week Scotland 2014! Book Week Scotland, as the Scottish Book Trust's website says, is a week-long celebration of books and reading that takes place every November.
During Book Week, people of all ages and walks of life will come together in libraries, schools, community venues and workplaces to share and enjoy books and reading. They will be joined in this celebration by Scotland’s authors, poets, playwrights, storytellers and illustrators to bring a packed programme of events and projects to life.

As well as events, you can write a love letter to your favourite library, or vote for your favourite character from a book by a Scottish author. You can also make a reading pledge or read other people's pledges if you need a few ideas!

I'm pleased to say that I spent this morning at Morrison's Academy, where I talked to the upper school about Book Week Scotland, and read them my love letter to Strathearn Community Library. I also told them about my one of my pledges, which was to read Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. I blogged about reading Ivanhoe a few days ago.

I made another pledge for Book Week Scotland, and that is to read one short story, poem or novel excerpt by a Scottish author to my family every day in Book Week Scotland. You can make as many pledges as you like, and I felt that it was a nice idea to have one that challenged me to read something new, and one that would help introduce my family to some great Scottish literature. As today is the first day of Book Week, I'll be reading the first piece this evening. I'm going to try to blog about each of the things I read, and where the work is old enough to be out of copyright I'll post a link so you can read it too if you like!

This evening I am going to kick off with The Horror of the Heights, a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You can read the story here: The quote I've used for the title of this post is from this story by the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger.

I am a great fan of the "Conan Doyle Stories", particularly the creepy ones. I think my personal favourite is Lot 249 (I love ancient Egyptian shenanigans), so I might read that one later in the week, but my daughter's favourite is The Horror of the Heights; in fact, she did make an attempt to persuade me to read that every night during Book Week!! It's an unusual tale about early aviators exploring the skies, who run into some native fauna they weren't expecting, with gruesome results. In the story, "Myrtle" was a flier who was attempting a height record, and fell from an altitude of over thirty thousand feet. "Horrible to narrate," writes Conan Doyle, "his head was entirely obliterated, though his body and limbs preserved their configuration." Ah, that Edwardian ability to describe the unutterably gruesome in elegant language! Perhaps I'd better not read that one directly before bedtime...

The sky: dangerous. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

10 ways in which Ivanhoe is like The Hunger Games trilogy

Just recently I've been reading the great classic novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, and one of the things that struck me is that although it is titled Ivanhoe, the hero, who bears that name, is out of action for large chunks of the book. He appears early on, gets injured, and then spends a long time lying about in a tent, being carried through the forest in a litter, and then languishing in a castle being tended by a beautiful girl. Although he does finally recover so that he can gallop to the rescue at the end of the book, he misses one of the best fights because he is still lying in bed. This scenario seemed strangely familiar somehow. Aha, I thought, this is just like Peeta in The Hunger Games. But when I thought about it, there were a whole bunch of other similarities. 
Therefore, I bring you: 10 ways in which Ivanhoe is like The Hunger Games trilogy. You're welcome. 
  1. There are the haves (the Norman nobility, the residents of the Capitol) and the have-nots (the dispossessed Saxons, the residents of the Districts). The have-nots tend to supplement their diet by poaching deer.
  2. There is an evil ruler who is skin-crawlingly horrible: Prince John in Ivanhoe, and President Snow in The Hunger Games
  3. There is a whole lot of fighting with different weapons, quite a lot of it in the woods. Bows and arrows feature heavily.
  4. There’s a special signal of a short series of notes. Rue has her four-note mockingjay call, and in Ivanhoe the outlaws have a three note bugle signal to summon help. Three notes, four notes, practically the same really.
  5. The arena gets wrecked in both. In Catching Fire, Katniss shoots a hole in the force field and destroys it. Meanwhile, in 12th century England, Torquilstone castle, scene of a climactic battle, is stormed and burnt down to the ground. 
  6. There’s a hot love triangle with one blonde and one brunette. In Ivanhoe, the hero has to decide between blonde Saxon princess Rowena and dark haired Jewish beauty Rebecca. In The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss has to decide between blond Peeta and dark haired Gale. At the end, the reader is still sucking their teeth over the choice.
  7. The hero spends most of the book injured and out of action, being tended by the heroine. In The Hunger Games, Peeta lies around in a cave having his brow mopped by Katniss; meanwhile Ivanhoe lies around in a tent, a litter and later a castle, having his brow mopped by Rebecca.
  8. There is an older, unfit bloke who drinks too much. Haymitch, meet Friar Tuck.
  9. There is one character who dresses in bizarre colourful clothes and says things which would probably provoke the other characters if they didn’t have a certain amount of affection for them. I’m thinking Wamba the jester here, and Effie Trinket.
  10. There are three volumes in each. Aha, you may be thinking, The Hunger Games is a trilogy, but Ivanhoe is just one book, available as a handy Penguin paperback. This is true, but actually the first edition came in three volumes. I win.   

My reading pledge for Book Week Scotland 2014

Book Week Scotland begins on 24th November, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm delighted to be one of the Author Ambassadors for 2014.

As part of my ambassadorial role, I had to make a reading pledge, which you can do too, here: Make a reading pledge.

My pledge was to read a short story, poem or novel extract by a Scottish author to my family every day during Book Week Scotland (whether they like it or not). My daughter, who is a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories, has been trying to persuade me to read The Horror of the Heights every single day...

Anyway, as well as reading to my family, I thought it would be great to make a second reading pledge, and make it a bit more personal: something that would challenge me and expand my knowledge of Scottish fiction.

Several weeks ago, I passed through Waverley station in Edinburgh and saw a display of free paperbacks about the classic Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832, as I can now quote with confidence, having read this small volume). The books were issued as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Scott's novel Waverley. 

I decided that in honour of this anniversary, I would pledge to read one of Scott's novels for Book Week Scotland. I suppose perhaps I should have gone for Waverley itself, but it is set during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, a period of Scottish history I am pretty hazy about, because I did my long-ago History O'level down in England. I was afraid that without a grip on the history behind the book, I might not fully appreciate it. So instead I thought I would tackle Ivanhoe, which is set in 12th century England.

I have to put my hand up here and admit that I tried to read Ivanhoe once before, so long ago that when I found my battered Penguin Classics copy of the book, I discovered my maiden name was written inside it! I seem to recall that I got as far as the joust at Ashby-la-Zouche before running aground. I felt, though, that now was the time for another go, and I monitored my reading progress publicly on Goodreads to prevent myself from wimping out again.

So, how did I get on? Well, perhaps time has worked some miracle on me, because I didn't have any trouble finishing the book this time! I would freely admit that this isn't a book for everyone, though I wouldn't be as harsh as the person on Twitter who told me "life's too short" to read it! It does require an investment of time and concentration. It was published in 1819, after all, and it's a historical novel, so as well as 19th century literary flourishes there is some obscure vocabulary to contend with ("alembic", anyone?!). It is also a fabulously exciting, swashbuckling and romantic story, with some moments of high drama and deep pathos, and peppered with flashes of Scott's dry wit. It's hard not to love a book that encompasses an evil, passionate Knight Templar, a handsome young hero travelling incognito, not one but two beautiful heroines, and cameo appearances from Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. Antique humour does not always stand the test of years, but I thought the scenes with Friar Tuck were really hilarious. I also loved the archaic language, which was very elegantly done (I shall probably be addressing members of my family as "thou" for weeks after reading this book). Ivanhoe has definitely whetted my appetite for more of Scott's works.

I started reading the book on 3rd November, because I thought (rightly, as it turns out) that it would be no good trying to read the entire thing in the space of Book Week Scotland. I've finished it a few days short of the beginning of Book Week, and I'll be choosing an excerpt from it as one of the pieces I read to my family next week.

Do make a reading pledge of your own! I'm thrilled that Book Week Scotland has encouraged me to discover something I might otherwise not have read.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Metropolis - what I thought, where and when to see!

As I think I've said before, I'm not really a reviewer but I like to let people know about things I've enjoyed, so here is one of them: Fritz Lang's stunning Metropolis with live musical score by Dmytro Morykit, which I saw (and heard) yesterday evening at Strathearn Artspace in Crieff.

I've been having a personal "mini season" of very old films just recently - my daughter and I went to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Glasgow Film Theatre and followed it up with Fritz Lang's M at Dundee Contemporary Arts. So when I found out that Metropolis was actually being screened in my home town, I was naturally very keen to go!

This was the second time that Dmytro Morykit has performed his live piano score to Metropolis here in Crieff, but unfortunately I was unable to attend the first time because I was away in Belgium. Dmytro has since taken his performance to various other venues including Wilton's Music Hall in London, but I had been hoping that he would return to Crieff. When I heard that a repeat performance was in fact planned, I was absolutely thrilled, and having attended I can say that I was definitely not disappointed. It was a superb evening. Such was my enthusiasm for the whole idea that I bought tickets for my husband and teenage son as well as for myself and my film fan daughter, and it is a testament to the power of the performance that they were both enthralled. I accept that classic silent films are not everyone's cup of tea, but this one is a masterpiece, and the live music absolutely completed the experience. At the end of the evening, having played for over two hours and entirely from memory, Dmytro Morykit got a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.

I think the thing that particularly impressed me about Dmytro's Metropolis score is that it is very sensitive to the style and age of the film, whilst being contemporary enough to engage a modern audience. It is dramatic, and conveys the mood of the different scenes very well, and yet it would also stand alone as a gorgeous piece of music. I thoroughly recommend this performance - do go, if you have a chance to experience it.

Dmytro Morykit is planning a tour in Northern Ireland in early 2015, and as he has already taken Metropolis to various locations around the UK, I am hopeful that further performances will be planned in due course. You can find details on his website, here:

Fangirly: me with Dmytro Morykit at Strathearn Artspace!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A grisly gift for Hallowe'en!

Last year, I made an audio version of one of my ghost stories (Lilith's Story) available free on Soundcloud.

I wrote that particular story in the place where it is set, Innerpeffray Library here in Perthshire, Scotland. It was actually written on Hallowe'en itself, as I was "writer in residence" at the library that day. That experience led to an unexpected Hallowe'en adventure, as I have described in a previous blog post!

As last year's story seemed to be quite well received, I thought I'd make another one available for Hallowe'en 2014. You can find it on Soundcloud, here: Grauer Hans  - it can be listened to, shared or downloaded for a limited period (probably until November 7th, one week after Hallowe'en, unless there is a lot of demand for it!).

Grauer Hans ("Grey Hans" - and don't worry, although the title is German, the story is in English!) first appeared in Shades of Darkness, an Ash Tree Press anthology edited by Barbara and Christopher Roden. It has since been reprinted in The Sea Change & Other Stories, a collection of my stories published by Swan River Press in Dublin. The collection contains seven stories together with story notes, and if you are interested in reading all of them, copies are available to buy from Swan River's website.

This is what I said about the story in the story notes:

'The setting of Grauer Hans is never explicitly identified, but I had Bad Münstereifel in mind. I lived in the town, which is not far from Cologne, for seven years, and it inspired my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, as well as providing the location. Bad Münstereifel is a place with a long and colourful history (plague, floods, war, witch trials) and a great many local legends. The figure of Grauer Hans himself was inspired by a tradition that a friend in Münstereifel related to me. In Germany, as well as other European countries such as Holland and Belgium, Saint Nicholas brings presents to good little children on the eve of 6th December. He is sometimes accompanied by a less amiable figure, personified as Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus, who punishes badly-behaved children. Allegedly this character was known locally as Hans and was supposed to abduct naughty children; the friend told me that in the past when someone dressed as Saint Nicholas visited the children of the town, he would be accompanied by someone called Hans who would put the naughty ones in a sack and shake them around to give them a fright. I have not been able to verify this story but over the border in Alsace, Saint Nicholas' companion is known as Hans Trapp, so who knows? At any rate, this folk tale made an evil impression on me and largely inspired my own "Grey Hans".'