Despite appearances, this isn’t a photograph of my son being subjected to his first stern telling-off. This snap was taken in the house where Gabriel was born a few weeks earlier. It’s on Hercules Road in North Lambeth, a location that features in The House of Lost Souls and The Lazarus Prophecy and also more prominently in The Lucifer Chord, which is the novel I’m currently writing.
This might not be the oldest house I’ve lived in. The cottage I lived in for a few productive months in Shaftesbury in 2011 probably predates it. But it is an old house, as that fireplace suggests. It’s Grade 11 listed and was built in about 1820 and English Heritage were very keen for the front door to be regularly painted; a big, wooden, Georgian door and a daunting task for anyone as consistently hopeless at DIY as I am.
Personal experience of old dwellings is my point, here. When my daughter Avalon, then 6, saw the Shaftesbury cottage for the first time, she asked me. ‘Have people died here?’ On balance the answer was probably yes – as it would surely be too for the Lambeth house. But neither address was remotely atmospheric in a sinister or disquieting way.
I like to write about haunted houses. It’s a classic horror trope and one I think pretty much inexhaustible. I did it in THOLS and in Dark Echo and I think probably most successfully so far in my novella An Absence of Natural Light. And of course the crofter’s cottage on New Hope Island is a place of shifting mood and character and malevolence throughout my Colony trilogy. I’m doing it again in The Lucifer Chord, where Ruthie Gillespie has just endured a very unsettling experience in a flat at Proctor Court in Shadwell close to London’s old Victorian docks. On paper it’s a coveted address, close to the river, at the heart of things. But as the estate agent trying to sell it implies to Ruthie later, there’s a reason it’s always vacant.
This is one of those occasions when I’m very glad to be making the story up rather than writing from personal experience. On a lighter note, the baby in that picture has just completed Feshers’ Week at Sussex University. Please don’t anyone tell me time flies. I’m painfully aware of the fact.
Not much of my fiction is autobiographical. After 10 novels and three novellas (and counting), it would be awfully repetitious if it was. Probably the story truest to my own life is the Paul Seaton flashback section of The House of Lost Souls. Outside a Blackfriars pub in the summer of 2005 I was reminiscing with the painter Peter Doig about our little group’s antics in the early 1980s and he suggested I write a novel about it. I didn’t quite do that. What I did instead was give Paul my idyllic early ’80s London life and then snatch it away from him in THOLS. Peter features in that story as the character Greg Foyle; there on the flat roof of the old Charing Cross Road St. Martin’s building with his battered beat-box and his Hank Williams tapes.
It was a decade later before I’d write autobiographically again. Probably because I wrote it in the first-person, I decided to give my character Michael Aldridge of The Going and the Rise a concern with which I’m personally familiar. His daughter Molly is the same age in the story as my own. In common with Avalon, she suffers from Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. The disease has prevented her lower jaw from developing since Molly’s infancy. It’s done the same in real life with my daughter. This photo of her is probably the last taken before the symptoms began to show. I felt that I could communicate Michael’s distress and worry because they’re feelings I’ve had myself ever since Avalon’s diagnosis in the Spring of 2014. It wasn’t in any way therapeutic to write about this, but it was authentic. And I was pleased when a surveyor wrote to me on facebook to say how convincing an architect he thought Michael Aldridge was, if only because tech drawing was easily my worst subject at school; beating off stiff competition from maths and French. My character Ruthie Gillespie debuts in that story. Michael is a total invention, but for those of you interested, Ruthie by contrast was inspired by someone delightfully real.
Avalon has her third and most serious operation, a genioplasty, at Great Ormond Street Hospital in Bloomsbury on Thursday. She is under the care of someone widely regarded as among the world’s leading maxillofacial surgeons. He invented the particular procedure she is about to have. I await Thursday with conflicting feelings of anxiety and hope so intense and of such enormity that I could never adequately put them into words. It’s a profound and humbling lesson to me in the distance between fiction and fact. It might sound trite to say this, but it’s nevertheless true to say that right now, I’m just praying for a happy ending.
Self-explanatory really; the cover of my novella published by Bloomsbury Reader on December 10 and the first of four I plan thematically linked by the Jericho Society, a sinister organisation some of you with long memories might recall from my novel Dark Echo.
I thought that this secret body had the potential for further exploits, reaching its tentacles into the modern world. This story is set in present-day London and the second (which I competed in the summer) is set on present day Wight.
The third and fourth stories in this projected series have had to wait their turn because the idea for the Colony sequels came up and I’ve been busy with them. The finished manuscript of book two of the Colony trilogy was delivered on Tuesday.
An Absence is 25, 000 words or about 100 pages and I’m hopeful will satisfy those of you looking to be chilled by a ghost story as the Christmas season approaches. With long nights, short days and shivery weather, that’s the classic moment for huddling down with a ghoulish tale.
The phantom in this story is endowed with a seductive and deadly sort of glamour. She was always someone difficult to resist. But I’m not about to provide a spoiler for my own fiction, so if you want to know more you’ll have to lavish 99p on downloading it and experience a personal encounter with Rachel Gaunt. I hope you do and I hope you enjoy it.