Thursday, 10 May 2018

History in the remaking

I’m generally listed as a crime writer – psychological crime, admittedly, so there’s no detailed police investigation, just people muddling through and falling apart – but my books have always been part historical novel. The first three, although following contemporary women, harked back to earlier eras. Not necessarily very distant eras. The Unravelling links back to 1965/6 and Motherlove only to 1990, but A Time For Silence delves into the 1930s and 40s, and that is now historical to most people. My fourth book, Shadows, is set solely in the present day, but with sinister echoes from the past and those were the inspiration for my new book, Long Shadows, which explores those forgotten mysteries in 3 novellas set in periods that are now way beyond the memory of anyone living.



I studied history at university. It was only when I started the course that I realised I was studying the wrong history. Why didn’t they tell me that Medieval history would be about quarrels over succession and land grabs, the battle of Tenchebrai or the terms of the treaty of Kingston? I’d assumed it would be about the effects of the Black Death, the development of fairs and markets or the decline in feudalism. Which you find most interesting, or boring, depends on personal taste, but it was only when I’d started at university that I fully appreciated I’d been brought up on economic and social history, rather than political history and the doings of Kings. I know Kings had a huge effect on history – you only have to look at Henry VIII’s decision to take us out of Europe – but I feel far more for the little people at the bottom of the social pile – my ancestors – dealing with the traumas of life in a world governed by others.



So when I write historical fiction, that’s why it’s about those little people and not the headline makers recorded in chronicles, braodsheets or newspapers. The fact that I don’t then have to research the exact details of a well-recorded life might be an added bonus, of course.

The central character in my latest book, Long Shadows, is the same one that occupies centre stage in Shadows, namely the house of Llys y Garn, and it offers a setting for me to disappear into the past without involving monarchs and their kin – though one or two do get a mention. The house and the rooks that haunt it have no notion of kings and queens, but they do take note of the lesser folk who live there, and who leave memories of their sins and tragedies enshrined in its stones.

So I have a story, The Good Servant, set in the late Victorian period, focussing on the unloved and unlovely housekeeper, Nelly Skeel, who fixes her lonely affection on the unwanted nephew of the house, another lost soul – but one determined to stay lost. It's a study of Victorian class and dependency as well as the corruption of desperation

Then I have a story, The Witch, set in the reign of Charles II, focussing on Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Devereux Powell a gentleman who has wealth and ambition but no ancestors of note - unless his mad mother is descended from the Devil. The old woman's accusations against her granddaughter lead Elizabeth to wonder whether the Devil, if not God, will answer her prayers. Never bargain with the Devil.

Lastly, I have The Dragon Slayer, the story of Angharad, set in the early years of the 14th century, in a conquered Wales whose sons are obsessed with petty quarrels and rights and whose daughters must choose whether to face the brutal fate of women with the pious resignation demanded by the church, or with  defiance.

  

At least it gave me a chance to squeeze six hundred years of history into one book.

Long Shadows 




Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Living in Interesting Times

There is nothing quite so interesting as being on the very brink of signing a contract with a publisher for a second book, only to discover that said publisher has just gone into liquidation.



Actually, there are probably quite a lot of things far more interesting, but this was sufficient for me.

Endeavour Press published my fourth novel, Shadows, last year. I was on the point of signing a contract for a second when word came through that Endeavour had gone into liquidation. Which was, I thought, a little bit of a nuisance.

Fortunately, it turned out that the liquidation was voluntary, which meant no one was going to lose their royalties and could keep their titles ticking over, if they so chose. The directors of Endeavour were going their separate ways and authors could choose which one to go with. I've gone with Endeavour Media, which will continue to publish Shadows as an e-book and I have now also signed a contract for the e-publication of its companion, Long Shadows.

However, I thought I would use the opportunity of total chaos, to rethink the paperback publication. Endeavour concentrates on e-books and deals brilliantly with them, but though they offer a paperback option, it is available solely through Amazon. I may be wrong, but I suspect that a lot of people who prefer paperbacks to Kindles would really like to buy from good old-fashioned book shops, while they still exist. So, heart in mouth, I have decided to bring out the paperbacks myself, through FeedARead.com.

It does mean that my books are now both conventionally and self-published. I wait to see whether I've opted for the best or the worst of both worlds. Am I mad? Probably, but I am willing to play with fire, and since one of the bonuses of self-publishing is that I can choose my own covers, here are my brand new paperback covers.


  

and to compare and contrast, here are the Endeavour covers for the Kindle versions.


I shall not ask you to vote, but the books are available here.





Sunday, 29 April 2018

Sunny noir at Llandeilo


Just back from Llandeilo, where I spent a very enjoyable weekend being An Author, which is always an agreeable feeling. Thanks to Christoph Fischer and his team for organising the whole thing.

On Saturday, I moderated a discussion on Psychopaths in Literature. I’m probably more confident understanding what a psychopath is than precisely what a moderator is, but it was a very invigorating event with authors G B (Gail) Williams, John Nicholl  and John Thompson, who have all created some spectacularly sinister characters.



In the afternoon I had a chance to catch a session on the origins of the Eisteddfod, with novelist Jean Gill  and Luke Waterson, who have both written books set in the court of the Lord Rhys who held the first Eisteddfod in Cardigan(!!!) in 1176. Readings accompanied by music (harp, crwth and flute) with Elsa Davies, Ceri Owen Jones and Jason Lawday.

I love Medieval music, can’t resist it, but I don’t know why I like it, since it always raises the hair on the back of my neck and gives me a shiver of… I can’t quite place it. Tragedy, I think. Considering the talk was of the extremely raunchy songs of the period, I’m not sure where the tragedy comes from.

After that I gave a talk on Crime, History and Fiction which I realised, after choosing the title, was a bit like choosing to talk about Life, the Universe and Everything. I had to take a machete to my notes and cut the subject down to a 40 minute helter-skelter race through 1500 years and congratulations to all who listened to me without collapsing with shell shock. It did allow me to read a couple of extracts from my new book, LongShadows, which only popped up on Amazon the day before. Thanks to all who came to Fountain Fine Arts Gallery  to join me.

On Sunday I was at the book fair, with a chance to meet the public and also catch up with other Honno authors (Judith Barrow, Hilary Shepherd, Jan Newton and Carole Lovekin) and Crime Cymru authors (Gail Williams and Cheryl Rees-Price).



Now, alas, I have to return to my deep burrow and think about things like broken fridges and freezers. A less entertaining sort of domestic noir.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The Joys of Rediscovery

Last week I was listening to an interview with 100-year-old Diana Athill, editor and novelist (Woman’s Hour, I think), and she talked about the potential joy of losing her memory, forgetting she had read a book and being able to discover it all over again. It reminded me of books I have been able to discover twice, not as a result of failing memory but thanks to the word “Abridged.”

When I was a child, I was invariably given a book for Christmas. There were Puffins, of course, but a great many were red-cloth hardbacks of classics, published by Dean & Son, or Regency. They must have been going for some time, because my mother passed on some of hers (with titles like Phyllis of the Fourth Form and featuring a lot of hockey). They all had pages like blotting paper (the lingering results of wartime economy production, maybe), and they usually had one or two pictures. Just enough to intrigue. I particularly remember the picture in the Regency edition of Jane Eyre, which struck me, even at a very young age, as bearing no resemblance whatsoever to Rochester and Jane.

It was that edition of Jane Eyre that first opened my eyes to that word “Abridged.” Much of the story made no sense at all, but I put it down to me being young and the writer being Victorian and nothing in the adult world really making sense. Why did Jane get on a stage coach, get off it a few hours later and almost immediately be found starving by St John Rivers? I knew that I could get quite peckish in a couple of hours, but I’d never swooned with hunger after one coach journey. Years later, I read the Penguin classic version of Jane Eyre and discovered all the vast chunks that had been left out of the Regency edition, including the days Jane spends wandering on the moors, resorting to pig swill in her desperation. It read as a completely different book. After that, I was able to go back over all the books I’d read in my childhood and discover the full unabridged versions. Like coming across a book for the first time.

I have never understood the reasoning behind the abridging decisions. It had nothing to do with shielding children from naughtiness or nastiness. I think it was just an exercise in randomly saving paper. As well as the Dean and Regency classics, I also inherited a few Everyman’s Library little volumes from my grandfather. I learned to read far more effectively from struggling with Alexander Dumas’ Twenty Years After (because it featured the absolutely fascinating execution of Charles I) than I ever did ploughing through the tedious Janet and John series. As I discovered later, they too were abridged. Ironically, the Everyman versions (intended for adults) coyly left out the sex scenes, and the children’s version kept the sex but left out the most humorous scenes.

I have yet to tackle the unabridged version of Moby Dick. Maybe that’s because I never could bring myself to tackle the unabridged version. Sorry about that, Herman.


Sunday, 10 December 2017

Christmas at Castell Mawr 1938

As it's that time of year, and it's actually snowing, and they're already playing Christmas songs in supermarkets, and I am bored with adverts about carrots, here is an extract from A Time For Silence:
Christmas, 1938 at Castell Mawr.
© Thorne Moore 


Gwen has been busy because it’s second nature, she cannot be still. There are plates to carry, cups to wash and she must help, that is only right. But there are more than enough George daughters and George aunts and cousins to do all that is required, and Betty John has been firm with her. ‘Go and sit down, Gwen. Rest your feet. You deserve it.’

So she is doing what she has almost forgotten how to do: nothing at all. She sits, out of the way, soaking up the warmth and the exotic experience of being still, watching the scene with a sense of faintly wicked contentment. The children of Ted Absalom, one of the Georges' hands, are huddled nearby over the unspeakable luxury of an orange. Gwen leans down to help them with the peel, the small business helping to assuage the sinfulness of being idle.

The smell of orange. When did she last savour that? Christmases of long ago, happy faces that have vanished forever, her mother, her brother before the TB, her father still hale …All recaptured by the sweet sharp spicy warm smell of Christmas at Castell Mawr. The frosts have set in with a vengeance, but inside the old farmhouse, all is cheerful flickering warmth. A monstrous fire flames in the huge hearth, roaring up the massive open chimney. The oak beams are festooned with greenery and paper chains made by the children. Candles twinkle on the Christmas tree and the sideboard is groaning under the spread of hams and mince pies, cakes and cheeses and preserved fruit.

Rosie and Jack are red-faced with pleasure and overeating, romping among the other children with squeals of delight. Tom, smallest and slowest of the Absaloms, triumphantly bolts down the last of his orange and struggles over to join them.

Light and warmth and laughter. The resinous smell of greenery, flickering flames, a feast for the entire parish. The Georges are as careful with their money as their neighbours, but maybe that is why they can afford this annual prodigality.

It is all a far cry from the spartan Christmas chill of Cwmderwen, though Gwen has done what she can, saving up spare coppers from her housekeeping, and attempting rashly to roast a scrawny old hen, past laying, that should have had two days slow boiling in the stock pot to render it edible. They ate it regardless and the children had presents.

Not toys. John would never tolerate that sort of thing. Their gifts from the Chapel tree on Christmas Eve, dispensed by a Father Christmas looking strangely like William George, disappeared within hours of their return home. Jack’s tin trumpet was confiscated as he came through the door and Rosie’s bead necklace was gone by bed time. Toys have no place in the house. Rosie’s doll, Maggie May, survives only because she lives secretly in an old biscuit tin concealed just over the garden wall. But John permitted the mufflers, mittens and tam-o’-shanters that Gwen has knitted out of old wool and he accepted the new boots that Rosie must have for growing feet, with the old ones falling to pieces. He sniffed in disapproval at the sprigs of holly Gwen brought in from the woods to brighten the hearth. Christmas is a time for chapel and reverence, not for bawdy frolics and pagan merriment.
His disapproval, she notes, is reserved for the hallowed soil of Cwmderwen. No such censure for the celebrations here at Castell Mawr, but then who would dare criticise with Mrs. George presiding over the revelry from her rocking chair? One glance at her solemn bulk strapped into her best black satin will dispel any idea that there is anything ungodly about this gathering.

After all, they have spent most of the day at prayer, up at six, chapel at Beulah, then at Caersalem over at Felindre, then back to Beulah for the children to recite the pwnc and be catechised. And now the minister is come, to prove that all this feasting and laughter in a God-fearing house is perfectly righteous.

Mrs. George’s eldest daughter, Annie Lloyd and her sister-in-law Evelyn are organising the children into a choir. Hymns and carols around the Christmas tree, while Annie plays, thumping on the piano with joyously inaccurate goodwill. Rosie’s little voice rings out clear and pure above the others. Mrs. George looks across to Gwen, with a nod as if to say, ‘I told you so.’

The gesture of approval is dear to Gwen, but she does not need to be told that Rosie has musical talent. Of course she would have, with a singer like John for her father. It is his turn now. He is standing solemnly in the background, hands clasped behind his back, aloof even here, but they are having none of that, summoning him forward.
The Reverend Harries claps his hands. ‘Yes, come now, Owen. Let us have some sacred music worthy of the season.’

John demurs and then complies, standing dignified by the piano as Annie anxiously leafs through the music. Should Gwen offer to help? There is no need. John’s repertoire, which she knows by heart, consists mostly of hymns that Annie mastered years ago, and a few pieces from the great religious oratorios.

Calon Lân to start with, because Annie can play it with her eyes shut. John begins and his audience joins in, a quiet accompaniment at first and then a rising crescendo of hwyl. Then The Messiah. Every valley shall be exalted. The roof timbers are ringing, threatening to exalt themselves into the night sky. John is in truly wonderful voice, his breast swelling, the liberated spirit within him finding its wings and soaring as only music allows. He finishes amidst a roar of applause. The Reverend Harries beams round proudly as if this prodigy of Beulah Chapel were his very own creation.

A pause. They are debating. Some Bach? Annie is not sure she can do it justice.

The Reverend looks up suddenly, in Gwen’s direction. ‘But of course, we mustn’t forget Mrs. Owen. Quite a reputation in her youth, so I’ve been told. Is that not so, Mrs. Owen?’

Gwen smiles and shakes her head, eager to divert their attention. The smile is a mask concealing a sudden flutter of pain. In her youth. When was that? She is scarcely into her thirties and her youth is already something barely remembered, a dream of long ago from which she has woken with a vengeance. ‘Oh no, don't think of me, I haven’t played for years.’ When was the last time she had been permitted time to play, on her fleeting visits to Penbryn? She cannot remember.

They are not listening to her objections. Evelyn and Annie and her sister Betty have gathered round, cooing and twittering and insisting that Gwen must perform too. She can accompany John. What could be more appropriate than that?

‘I really don’t think—’
‘Play us one of your father’s hymns,’ suggests Mrs. George, and no one dares to argue, least of all Gwen.

Tentatively she seats herself at the piano stool. Perhaps she can no longer play. Her fingers ache from scrubbing and boiling and mending and milking and the onset of rheumatism. They cannot possibly move smoothly enough.

But they do. They awake, at her command, as if they had been waiting. She plays, one of her father’s best compositions, and it all comes back as if she were practising still at her old instrument in her room over the grocer’s shop.

She is the focus of all attention. It is not right; she feels a guilty twinge. They should not be minding her. That had not been her intention when she had agreed to play. She had expected John to sing the words, but he has not understood her intent and is silent, so she plays while the others gather round in earnest admiration, humming along, the Reverend and Sidney Lloyd finally adding the words.

It is such a pleasure, to be playing again. She had forgotten how overwhelmingly pleasurable it was. Annie has her hands clasped in ridiculous admiration and William applauds loudly, though Gwen realises, with an inner smile, that he is not just complimenting her, but currying favour with Evelyn Lloyd, whose enthusiasm is gushing.

‘Why, Gwen! I didn’t know you could play. Play some more. Here, let me see.’ While Evelyn is rustling through the papers, others crowd round in ungrudging admiration, but Gwen barely notices them. It is Rosie she sees, Rosie sitting still with the other children but suddenly apart in spirit, thumb dropped from her mouth, eyes wide with astonishment that her mother can do this thing. It is Rosie’s poised expectant eagerness that persuades Gwen to go on, quickly, into a silly little song that instantly has the children jigging and dancing. Rosie laughs with delight.

‘You are going to play the Bach accompaniment for John,’ the minister reminds her.
Of course. The Bach. She looks at John.

He is standing, stony faced, waiting, and her innards freeze. Has she done something wrong? She senses his petrifying displeasure, but his audience is impatient, the minister is nodding and she must play and he must sing.

Gwen turns back to the keys with a shiver. Beautiful sacred music that must be treated with respect, and she plays with greater care, giving it its due, waiting for John to share with her.
But something is wrong. Is it her playing? He sings, but they cannot keep time together. He has to keep correcting, missing, slipping, and it all goes awry. He stops in mid-phrase, hand to his throat, coughing, and immediately they are all consternation. He should not have exerted himself, not after so much singing in the chapel. He must rest his voice.

Quietly, Gwen rises from the stool and accompanies Betty into the kitchen to fetch tea and a spoonful of honey for the cracking voice. It is enough. Nothing they say will persuade her to return to the piano. Besides, their idle hour is done, they must be going. No help on the farm tiding things over in their absence, and they have chores to do, the cows to see to. Everyone understands when John abruptly announces that they must leave.

Gwen gathers up the children, bundling them into coats and scarves and gloves against the biting winter chill. Jack is a sturdy little boy, thank God. He’ll manage most of the walk back to Cwmderwen on his own now, although she’ll have to carry him if he is too slow. She has just time to smile at the company, her arm patted in benediction by Mrs. George as she follows John out into the frost. The little Absalom faces, glowing with food and excitement, peer round the matriarch's bulk at her, a picture of warmth in contrast to the needle-sharp bite of the night air. In contrast to the beds the Owens are returning to. No roaring fire awaiting them at Cwmderwen. Gwen will have to heat the stone bottles as soon as they get in, or the children will be all night shivering.

Too dark to cross the fields on a December night, the mired footpath too treacherous with ice. They must climb to the road. Their breath clouds in the cold air, their boots ring out on the cobbles of Castell Mawr yard. She hurries the children along because John is striding ahead, not waiting, and he will not have them dawdle. They must keep up. The track up to the road leaves them panting, and Gwen has to carry Jack in the end. Rosie trots along, gripping her hand.

At the gate, John stops, turns, waiting for them impatiently. She can see the anger still simmering in him. Why? All she did was play the piano.

‘Are you content, then, woman?’
‘Content, John?’
‘Putting yourself forward like that.’
‘I did not mean to put myself forward, John.’
‘Flaunting yourself!’ He turned away. ‘Showing me up in front of my neighbours.’
‘I’m sorry that I played badly.’

He does not hear her apology. He has already gone on.
Resigned, she follows. What has she done that was wrong?

Out in the open on the road, out from under the trees and the shelter of the valley, the sky arches over them, ink black, and strewn with a billion diamonds. A lid lifts off her world and her understanding. The stars twinkle with piercing clarity in the frost, so bright they cast dim shadows. A different light. A new comprehension. Revelation.

John is jealous.

The ice-cold knowledge washes over her. John Owen, her John, walking tall, upright and proud along the road, is a small man. Small and mean.

Immediately she pushes the thought to one side. It is not permissible, she must block it out, too humiliating for words. She cannot allow for the futility of it all, if that terrible thought is true. But for a moment it has touched, settling, searing onto her brain, a black treacherous scar that will not fade. He is not worthy of her.

Put it out of your head, Gwen, before it destroys you.

A Time For Silence. published by Honno 2012

and Moments of Consequence for a prequel story, 'A Time To Cast Away.'

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A short story - too short.

My blog is supposed to be about writing, and this one isn't, so I'll get round by saying it's a short story that I have written. Unlike any of my other short stories though, it's true.

Meet William Thomas Marshall, my great uncle.

Actually, I’m not absolutely positive this is William. It might be one of his brothers, but it’s generally assumed it’s him. I can describe him. He was 5’4”, weighed 10 stone, with a fresh complexion, brown eyes and black hair, a scar on his right forehead and a butterfly tattoo on his left forearm.

He grew up in a family of ostlers and cab drivers in Walworth, South London. In 1911, he was 22 years old, living at home, working as a messenger, although he also served for four years in the Territorials.

A year later, the firm he worked for went out of business and he decided to emigrate to Australia, where the boy done good. He became a farmer. I’m not sure where, but I’m guessing it was in the vicinity of Geelong, about 50 miles south west of Melbourne.



Being a farmer didn’t stop him enlisting with the Australian imperial forces and returning to England, on the Orsova, which arrived in Plymouth on 14th September 2016. He joined the Anzac forces at Hurdcott camp, where Australian troops certainly left their mark on the landscape, and spent a merry few months hopscotching between battalions and camps on Salisbury plain.

 Maybe because of his experience in the Territorials, he was rapidly promoted to corporal and then Sergeant, and, ominously, attended a course at the grenade school in Lyndhurst, where he qualified as an instructor, He wasn’t just a goody two-shoes though. In April, 1917, he was demoted to Corporal again, for allowing a prisoner, Private Phillips, to escape. I think this is my favourite detail of his life.

Finally, on the 25th August 1917, he was sent to Southampton to reinforce the 59th Battalion, preparing to cross over to France. On 6th September, he arrived at Le Havre and marched on to join the 59th Battalion. You can guess what’s coming. Just over a month later, on the 19th October, he was killed in action.

Considering how very complete his army records are, in every other respect, you’d think there’d be more about the when and where and how, but no, it’s simply ‘killed in action.’
He is commemorated on the Menin Gate, where names of those without graves are recorded. I thought this puzzling, because, below that last ‘killed in action’ mention on his army record is a line in scribbled pencil “buried 25th November, 28 NE J5 b 30 65.

I asked the Commonwealth Graves commission if this made sense and was told that 28 NE J5 b 30 65 is a trench reference, It shows that William was buried near the village of Molenaarelst in Belgium – i.e. bang in the middle of the Passchendaele mud/blood bath. Maybe he was shot, or blown up, or maybe he was one of those who simply drowned in mud. It took more than a month to bury him, so I doubt if there was much still identifiable apart from his disc. At the end of the war, 200 bodies were recovered from Molenaaretst and re-interred in military cemeteries, but many others, including William Marshall’s, were destroyed in later shelling. Hence the Menin Gate memorial.

Which would be the end of his story, except that the Australian records go on. There are two sad letters from a Miss Gay Fanning in Geelong, Australia, the first pleading for information about William, to which she receive a bald notification of his death, and a second asking for the address of his parents so that she could contact them. Some army blimp sent her an officious reply stating that it was not current practice to pass on details of next of kin, I don’t know if she ever managed to contact them or if they ever knew she existed.

I hope, too, that she didn’t have any urgent personal need to contact his family, because there’s another army record which might take some explaining for her. In 1916, while stationed on Salisbury Plain, William made an army will, simply leaving all his worldly goods to be divided equally between his mother, Mrs E Marshall, and a Miss Mabel Westlake of 121 Oswell Road, Ipswich. Who? How did an Australian soldier, in Wiltshire, come to be forming a brief but obviously serious attachment to a young lady from Ipswich? Maybe she was a volunteer nurse, serving in one of the army hospitals. I will never know. There are records of several Mabel Westlakes marrying in the 1920s, so I hope she moved on.

The last record in William Marshall’s file is a letter from his mother, asking the whereabouts of his watch and chain that should have been forwarded to her. It never arrived, which is a sad waste, as is this story. So this is for you, Great Uncle Bill, and for Gay and Mabel and everyone else who missed you.



Monday, 30 October 2017

What lurks behind the wainscot?

In the house where I was born, on what was then the rural fringe of Luton, we had gas brackets for lamps in the bedrooms. They were no longer connected to any gas supply (which didn’t stop me bunging mine up with plasticine, just in case), but I liked them being there, because they were a sign of the extreme old age of my house. I eventually discovered that it wasn’t particularly old after all, (built 1928) and it only had gas lamps because electricity didn’t reach the outer limits of the town until after World War II, but I still liked the illusion of a Victorian past.

I lived in a town where, despite a history dating back at least to 1086, everything seemed to be depressingly new and anything with a bit of antiquity was being knocked down to make way for the modern age.

I have always liked a sense of age (I was evidently born with historian genes). It isn’t that I have any fantasies about a golden past when everything was wonderful. Far from it. There have been moments of excitement and exploration in history as well as moments of misery and tedium, but I am happy to look back on it all from the present day. As a woman, I shiver at the notion of living in any time or place other than this one. But every hint of age in things and in places, every worn step, every bakelite switch under the stairs, every iron nail dug up in the garden,  is a tangible connection with all the famous, infamous and utterly forgotten, who lived in the past and who, brick by brick and atom by atom, brought us to where we are now. Everywhere around us are footprints that let us touch what went before.

It’s houses that I find especially fascinating. A brand-new house would certainly have its appeal to me, especially if I could design it myself, but any house, whether twenty years old or two hundred, that has been lived in before, by someone else, must surely carry in its fabric an imprint of their existence. A whisper of all the emotions, hopes, arguments, griefs, shrieks of joy and gasps of passion that happened there. Houses don’t just contain ghosts. They are ghosts.

They have certainly been known to enshrine mysteries. When I first moved to Pembrokeshire, I lived in an old house that had once been a shoe-maker’s shop. When rummaging among the cobwebs of the loft, I was thrilled to discover a tiny child’s shoe, evidently at least a hundred years old. An old man in the village told me it would have been placed there as a charm and I should leave it in place if I didn’t want bad luck. I did leave it there, thinking it was a touching symbol of a previous occupant’s profession. Years later, I learned that children’s shoes, hidden in a roof, were mementoes of infant deaths.

I don’t know what child died, a century ago, in that house, but it is pretty obvious that any old house, dating back to pre NHS days, would have witnessed births and deaths, and everything in between. Someone will probably have died in the room I am sitting in to write this. 

Not all those deaths will have been quiet ones. Do their ghosts linger? Sometimes, their bodies do. Murderers seem to like burying bodies in cellars – whether Fred West or Dr Crippen.

Ightham Mote
 Ightham Mote in Kent is a house that dates back to the fourteenth century, and must have witnessed scores of deaths, timely and untimely. In the 1870s, the then owners were annoyed by a chill draught that emanated from a corner of one room, so they called in workmen, who discovered a hidden space behind panelling, in which the skeleton of a woman was found, sitting in a chair.

Theories have abounded. One is that she was Dame Dorothy Selby, a catholic who inadvertently gave away the gunpowder plot and was walled up by her family as punishment – delightfully gruesome but untrue, since Dame Dorothy died peacefully in her bed and her grave is marked at the church.

Another theory is that the skeleton belonged to a servant girl, seduced by the local priest, and walled up to prevent scandal. The truth is, no one knows, but it’s all very chilling and creepy. The other truth, unfortunately, is that there is no actual evidence of a skeleton being found, so the whole thing might just be a juicy myth. But if you ever visit Ightham Mote, you readily believe it should be true. 

Mummified cats are apparently quite common, entombed in old masonry, along with occasional mummified babies. And bottles of urine, hair and nail-clippings, presumably to ward off witches.


There is a legend, which has been the subject of ballads and poems for at least 200 years, sometimes known as the mistletoe bride, of a young girl who vanishes on her wedding day, usually during a game of hide-and-seek. Her skeleton is only discovered, long after, when someone opens an ancient chest, up in the attic, that had fatally slammed shut on her. Not the faintest evidence anywhere for this story, but it is claimed, as gospel, by Minster Lovell Hall, Marwell Hall, Bramshill House, Tiverton Castle and Exton Hall, amongst many others. It’s one of those stories that ought to be true, even if it isn’t.
If you accept that houses can hold physical evidence of past tragedies, how easy is it to believe that they can also hold less tangible relics, whether memories, vibrations, chill draughts or actual ghosts? After all, how could the most intense human feelings and experiences, the most burning desire for justice or revenge, simply vanish? They must still be there in the old bricks, the stained stone, the creaking timbers.

That was my premise when writing Shadows, which is a domestic noir mystery like my other novels, but with the paranormal twist of an old house that harbours all manner of ancient secrets. Secrets just waiting to be uncovered. It didn’t seem a massive leap, to me, to move from writing about the detection of the truth about murders to the detection of the emotions that accompanied them. Halloween is the day when the world of the dead and the world of the living collide. What would it be like, I wondered, if, for a particularly sensitive soul, it was Halloween every day?




Fellow author Alex Martin has also begun to explore similar themes in her new book, The Rose Trail. Over to Alex.


Thank you, Thorne, for allowing me to join in with this delicious exploration into the world of the paranormal. It's a fascinating one. I've loved all of your books, particularly 'Time for Silence' and 'Shadows', which demonstrate your understanding of this genre so cleverly.

(oh shucks)


I can't prove it, but sometimes I can see into the past. Every time it happens, and that is all too rarely, I have a physical sensation of cold - enough to make me shiver. And I see things. Images so crystal clear they create an indelible memory in my brain and can be remembered with clarity years later. Sharper than real life, as good as a film, these pictures are fleeting but all-encompassing and very vivid. They always take me back in time, sometimes hundreds of years.

The first time it happened I was four years old. We were on a family holiday in Wales, I'm not sure exactly where. Apparently I said, as we arrived on a deserted hill top, "I know this place, I've been here before with the Black Prince." Made Prince of Wales at the age of 12 in 1343, the Black Prince, eldest son of King Edward III, spent most of his life in France warmongering but took many Welshmen with him on an early campaign so presumably visited his principality at least once. My announcement that I knew him has gone down in personal family legend amidst much derision. Although that is an old memory, I can easily recall the moment and my confident certainty of recognising the place, although I had never visited it before - in this lifetime.



It happened again in Wales, when I was older with children of my own. We were on holiday in Snowdonia, which I love, and were visiting Caernarfon for the first time. I looked across the Menai Straits and that frisson of cold crept up my spine. I heard and saw the Druids desperately crying for help as the Romans approached before they slaughtered them. I felt their acute distress and their fierce anger. I knew nothing of their history but subsequently learned of the Roman's conquest of Mona, as Anglesey was called then, in around 57AD. My flesh crawled as I learned that the line of women and men keening and shrieking that I'd seen in my mind's eye had really stood on those shores as the Roman soldiers swam and waded across to wreak havoc in their spiritual haven. Reading about that diabolical massacre explained the horror of their distress as conveyed to me that day as I stood, ice-cream in hand, in the warm sunshine of an ordinary 20th century day.


In my work as an aromatherapist and Reiki practitioner I have received pictures second-hand on behalf of my clients. Unbidden, these images were also tremendously clear and crisp. Often I would not understand their meaning but would recount them in detail to my client. Without fail, they would have profound importance for them and help them make decisions or resolve personal issues.

Over the last few years I have realised a personal dream of publishing several novels. Having written historical fiction up till now I wanted to explore this interweaving between past and present time in my most recent book. I used a spooky experience in Wiltshire, where I lived for many years, to provide the inspiration for The Rose Trail. Most of the book is fictional (although the historical sections are based on a real battle that took place on Roundway Hill in Devizes) but the seed was sown when I was working as a secretary in a legal firm and had to deliver a will to a house on the Wiltshire downs. With the errand achieved, I looked around the tiny village and felt drawn to one particular dwelling. It was a beautiful old house, larger than a cottage, but nothing grand. It stood, square and sturdy, basking in the sunshine and smiling across to the other houses skirting the village green.

As I approached its whitewashed walls, I noticed it was empty. I peered in through the warped glass windows, tucked deep under the thatched roof. Inside, a large room with a massive fireplace at one end had an uneven floor made of wide limestone flagstones, glossy from the hundreds of feet that had worn them smooth over time. I could see straight through into the walled garden through the window opposite.

Although the house was much humbler than the Meadowsweet Manor featured in The Rose Trail, it spoke to me of the era in which half the book is set, the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. I sensed a family at war with each other; conflicted and arguing, heard the clash of swords and the clang of armour. I remember vividly the chilling sensation that crept up my arms, making them spring goosepumps all the way up to my thumping heart. It took many years for the seed to germinate into The Rose Trail. The story took root as I delved into the past from where three ghosts emerged, one particularly vicious one bent on revenge. Fay Armstrong, the troubled narrator, is loosely based on my experiences.

With any historical novel much research needs to be done but for me that initial spark comes out of nowhere - or at least nowhere tangible. But that's where the fascination lies. How can the spirits of those long past communicate through time?

All I know is I love uncovering these ancient mysteries and weaving them into stories.

Alex Martin writes about her craft on her blog In the Plotting Shed

   

Her other books include The Twisted Vine and The Katherine Wheel trilogy - Daffodils, Peace Lily and Speedwell (a fourth part, Ivy and Woodbine, is on its way).
A small compilation of three short stories, called Trio, can be yours for free on her website.
Alex's Amazon Page