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?"