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