Friday, August 14, 2015

This August, expose yourself to Art!

Not long ago, I blogged about the upcoming Crieff Arts Festival 2015, which takes place on 22nd and 23rd August. The Festival will include art exhibitions, live music, literary events, arts and crafts workshops, street theatre and a display of traditional weaving. Over the last few days, a top secret squad of artists whose identities I could not possibly reveal *cough* descended on the empty Drummond Hotel and created a colourful display of butterflies (see pic) to hint at the arty delights to come.

If you're within travelling distance of Crieff and fancy coming along to join the fun, you can find the Festival programme here: programme - it's still a work-in-progress with events being added and times being amended to fit in as much as possible, so if you are interested in a specific event, do check back for updates.

In my previous blog post about the Festival, I mentioned the author event at Strathearn Artspace, and I'm now able to give a few more details about this. The event title is Writers Live. It kicks off at 10am with John Bray and his children's book Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams. John will be followed by local authors Peggy Hewitt and Margaret Bennett. After a break for lunch, Hazel Buchan Cameron will read from her new book Just go in: from council estate to country estate. Hazel will be followed by poet Patricia Ace. I have attended one of Patricia's previous events and can say that it was excellent!
I am scheduled to appear at 1.45pm to read from my Forbidden Spaces trilogy of urbex thrillers set in Flanders.

The final item in the Writers Live event is the talk about publishing that I mentioned in my previous blog post about the Festival. This is the bit that should interest anyone who has an unpublished manuscript sitting in a drawer at home, and is wondering what to do with it. I was originally intending to do this talk myself, but the amazing Helen Lewis McPhee has offered to speak on the topic so I am very happy to be in the audience instead. Helen Lewis McPhee has worked with Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communications, and, currently, Canongate Books and Gonzalo Menez, so she has lots of professional experience and expertise to offer. This is your chance to come and ask questions, so don't miss it!!

You can drop in to hear specific authors at Writers Live, or you can stay for the whole event, which is expected to finish at 3.15pm. If you then fancy relaxing and listening to some live music, Writers Live is followed at 3.30pm by a concert by Crieff Community Band offering traditional Scots music and song, with support from Nigel's All-Stars.

Above: the Festival programme on display on the Drummond Arms, 
newly decorated with butterflies!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sinister Sweden

This summer, we went to Sweden for our holidays.

Before we went, I have to admit that I knew very little about Sweden, and what I did know was mostly gleaned from the books of John Ajvide Linqvist (Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead) and the TV series The Bridge, both of which tend to suggest that Sweden is a country littered with corpses as opposed to interesting tourist attractions. There was also M.R.James' fabulously scary story Count Magnus, about the unfortunate fate of unwary antiquarian traveller Mr. Wraxall.

Rosemary Pardoe, editor of Ghosts and Scholars, the M.R.James journal, wrote a very interesting article in 2001 titled Who was Count Magnus? which you can read online here. It includes some discussion of the possible location of the story, seemingly somewhere in southern Sweden, although M.R.James muddied the waters very much by naming his fictional estate Råbäck after a real-life one he had visited, and then saying that this was not the real name of the place! At any rate, my travels this time did not take me to Varnhem, Skara or Råbäck. I did however take an interest in the environment and landscape in general, and in Swedish churches in particular, hoping to soak up a bit of Jamesian atmosphere along the way.

Family holidays (especially for families who are weary from office work and exams) are not the ideal situation for antiquarian exploring. So I decided that I would have to be selective about the places I visited, to avoid trespassing on the patience and goodwill of everyone else too much. I wanted to see an older church - preferably mediaeval - and for preference, something a little like the church in M.R.James's story, which had white walls, a copper roof and an onion shaped dome on the mausoleum adjoining it. A little research on Google turned up Slättåkra church (pictured above) which has the white walls and copper roof and surrounding trees; there was no adjoining mausoleum but the tower had a vaguely dome-shaped apex!

In the ghost stories of M.R.James there is often a handy sacristan or other useful local person about to give directions or let the hero into the church. Luckily for me, this actually happened at Slättåkra. I did not realise until afterwards, when I read a friend's blog posts about her attempts to visit some churches in that same part of Sweden, that the majority are kept locked, so the most you can expect to get on a casual visit is photographs of the outside. When we rolled up at Slättåkra and tried the church door, it was indeed locked, but there was a gardener working in the graveyard, and she very kindly agreed to let us in.

The interior of the church was very charming. It did indeed have a "handsome old organ, gaily painted, and with silver pipes" (although not as old as the one in the story would have been; this is only about sixty years old in its current format!):

The ceiling was painted, although not with a "strange and hideous ‘Last Judgement'" as in the story; instead there were more peaceful scenes such as this one of the Ascension, a rather droll depiction showing only the legs of Jesus vanishing into the clouds:

The story also says that "the pulpit was like a doll’s-house covered with little painted wooden cherubs and saints" and the one in Slättåkra church was certainly very much like that:

There was no mausoleum adjoining the church, although there was this strange little building near the churchyard gate:

I had a peep through one of those side windows, although I wasn't expecting to see "fine marble effigies and sarcophagi of copper, and a wealth of armorial ornament" in anything so modern. Inside there was a bier, clearly for the storage of coffins prior to burial. The bier was not in use(!) but all the same I didn't wait around to see if there would be any mysterious clangs, nor did I chant “Are you awake, Count Magnus? Are you asleep, Count Magnus?” under my breath...

As a codicil to this church visit, a day or two later we went to the open air museum in nearby Halmstad. The museum is located on the Galgberget or "gallows hill" and comprises a number of very old buildings including a windmill and a nineteenth century schoolhouse. We toured these, and inside the schoolhouse we saw this, a monk's costume:

I was irresistibly reminded of the cloaked figure who haunts poor Mr. Wraxall in Count Magnus, sometimes appearing as a traveller in a dark cloak, sometimes taken for a Catholic priest in a cassock.  Perhaps Count Magnus was pursuing me after all...

With kind thanks to Ing-Marie Abrahamsson and Ann Giles. 

Ghosts in an Oxford college

I was ferreting about amongst some of my papers today (yes, I do still have papers, even in this digital world) and realised that I have just passed the tenth anniversary of the publication of my very first piece of fiction. It wasn't a novel (the first of those wasn't published until 2009); it was a ghost story, Nathair Dhubh, and it appeared in the 39th issue of the now defunct All Hallows magazine.

Nathair Dhubh means "black serpent" in Gaelic, and the story is about a notorious mountain crag of the same name. Shortly before World War Two, a couple of friends decide to ascend the "serpent" in spite of its having such an evil reputation that locals will not even look directly at it. Of course, this is not setting things up to end well...

That story is still in print, in my collection The Sea Change & Other Stories, published in 2013 by Dublin-based Swan River Press. Although the majority of my published work takes the form of YA novels, I've continued to write ghost stories over the years. Seven of them appeared in The Sea Change and I have written at least as many others. Most recently, my story The Dove, inspired by the real-life history of Kinkell Bridge, was published in Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands from Gray Friar Press, and my Jamesian sequel The Third Time appeared in Salt Publishing's Best British Horror 2015

I'm pleased to say that the new issue of the long-running Supernatural Tales also features a story of mine. It's a special issue, because it's the thirtieth, and it is a testament to the dedication and hard work of editor David Longhorn that the magazine continues to flourish. As thirty is a significant number, David invited a number of authors whose work had previously appeared in Supernatural Tales to contribute something. So there are stories by Lynda E. Rucker, Michael Kelly, Steve Duffy and Adam Golaski as well as myself. In addition, there is a tale by Mark Valentine which is a tribute to the late Joel Lane. All in all, a very fine line-up, and although I wouldn't dare comment on my own story, I can say that the other contributions are all very good indeed.

Because I had a bit of advance warning, I decided that I would write a story on the theme of "thirty". So I spent quite a lot of time toying with ideas involving people who expected something particularly nasty to happen to them on their thirtieth birthday, etc. Eventually I came up with a room number 30, which has a pernicious effect on anyone who spends the night in it. I'm not wedded to the idea of the "traditional" ghost story - one of my others was set in the modern world of sub-aqua diving, for example - so as the story developed, I was surprised at how very traditional the setting of 30 ended up!

The action takes place in an Oxford College, which I gave the fictitious name of Old College. I could of course have used a real college name, but I hit upon Old's as a tribute to one of my favourite creepy stories, the brilliant Lot 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, set in "what we will call Old College in Oxford". I had a bit of fun with some of the other names in my story, too: Drummond is a local name here in Perthshire, where I now live; Longhorn is, of course, the surname of Supernatural Tales' editor, Duffy is the surname of one of the other contributors, and Bond is the surname of a whole host of my relatives.

Supernatural Tales 30 (and its predecessors) can be purchased online from the Supernatural Tales website or if you prefer, it is available in a kindle edition, which can be purchased here. The kindle price is a very modest 99p for nearly 80 pages of thrills, creeps and scares!

Above: Supernatural Tales 30 - I dare you to read it by candlelight!