This is the opening page of my debut novel, written in 1984 and subsequently forgotten about for at least the last 30 years. Allison & Busby were going to publish it. Then Duckworth were going to publish it, but in the event neither of them did. I decided after that disappointment to concentrate on my career in journalism and wouldn’t actually have any fiction published until 17 years after completing this manuscript. Reality intervened. As John Lennon said, Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans. Mine included launching magazines and becoming a father. Then one day in 1998 I was in Archbishop’s Park in Lambeth playing with my infant son and the plot of a novel slipped into my mind. It was like getting a postcard from someone I’d forgotten I knew. I waited until Gabriel had tired of the swing and roundabout and lifted him onto my shoulders for the short journey home and while he had his nap, began it.
When I exhumed this the other day, two things struck me about it. The first was that it’s written in the first-person. Well, most first novels are autobiographical, so that’s really no surprise. And there’s a typo 14 lines in, where ‘resident’ singular should be ‘residents’ plural. Very careless. My Royal upright typewriter was already antique when I bought it from a mate for £20. I can still recall the staccato rhythm of its keys. I can’t really recall this story at all, and though it might prove a masochistic exercise, think I’ll give it a read. Whitstable would be a very swish setting for a story these days. It wasn’t in the 1970s when I lived there as a student. Though I did used to pass Wavecrest resident and Hammer Studios film star Peter Cushing, taking his constitutional, most days on my morning run. That was always slightly surreal. Whitstable and film stars definitely didn’t mix. Don’t remember him appearing in this, probably for that reason.
On the subject of present rather than past projects, I’m currently working on both a stand-alone novel and a fourth Jericho Society themed novella. There’s a slight change of tone with the novel that I hope increases the ambient level of menace quite substantially. Without going into technical detail, it’s going to be a case of less is more. If you don’t think you’re continuously evolving as a novelist I don’t think there’s really any point. With paranormal fiction, a writer can go from the faintest whiff of something, to the most corrupt stench. There’s plenty of leeway but to my mind, the half-imagined hint is always more disturbing. Going forward, there’s going to be considerably more ambiguity and uncertainty. The ground won’t feel quite so solid under your feet. That’s the intention, anyway.
The technically-minded among you might be interested to know that by 1998 the Royal upright had gone, replaced by an AppleMac LC 475 desktop computer I was only ever capable of using as a ludicrously expensive word processor. But it did the job.
I’ve spent this week doing a final edit on a Jericho Society novella set 18 months after the events that occurred in The Going and the Rise. Two central characters from that story are present in this one in Goth author Ruthie Gillespie and lovelorn architect Michael Aldridge. Chronologically, the story takes place after the events involving Ruthie in the closing chapter of my Colony trilogy, but that’s only referenced in passing. Ruthie’s a resilient woman, as this new tale gives her ample cause to be.
The Boston Artefact of the story’s title is a goblet or chalice of dubious provenance acquired by a distinguished London based auction house. It’s fashioned from pewter and gold, heavily bejewelled and exquisitely engraved. It bears no hallmarks or maker’s name, but carbon dating puts its manufacture at the end of the 18th century. Stylistically, it appears to be French. Despite its rarity, aesthetic qualities and potential value under the hammer, house antiquities expert Veronica Slade finds it loathsome to look at and almost unendurable to touch.
So she researches its strange engravings and finds an unexpected match, her probing hampered, though, by contact from someone claiming to be the rightful owner of the chalice and rather badly wanting it back.
My plan is to complete four Jericho Society themed novellas, starting with The Going, given a faithful chronology and featuring a consistent line-up of characters who come and go through each. Well, those that survive, at least. This story also involves two characters from my novel Dark Echo, where I originated the Jericho Society. But it makes perfect sense whether you’ve read that book or you haven’t. The idea is that all the JS novellas work as stand-alones, though it will be tempting to bundle them together in one volume when I’ve completed all four.
A word about today’s picture, taken on Corfu in the summer of 1983. The sunglasses – tortoiseshell frames, green lenses – were bought from one of those independent King’s Road boutiques internet shopping has since made extinct. Looking at this photo, my son would probably say that’s a good thing. But the significant detail is the tombstone of a book I’ve got between my hands. It’s Stephen King’s The Stand. And all these years later, if there’s a better dystopian novel out there, I’ve yet to find it.
Working on a story about a pub. It could be argued that I’ve been researching this one for more than 40 years. When I was 14 or 15 growing up in Southport teens didn’t carry I.D. and the landlord/bar-staff just estimated the age of a young would-be customer. There were a couple of pubs that were notoriously lax when doing this (and a child could have successfully been served a pint at the bar at the end of the pier back then). Anyway, at the age of 15 I could drink unchallenged in the Cheshire Lines.
My story concerns a country pub with a young landlord new to his arcane trade but genuinely keen on tradition. He wants to restore his pub – a bit run down, slightly off the beaten track – to how it was in the days of its early 20th century pomp. But he has trouble recruiting staff. The place has an atmosphere that seems more potent than would be fostered by mere neglect. When he’s alone in these unfamiliar premises, he doesn’t feel as though he is, entirely. Things haven’t the patience to wait to go bump in the night. Night impends before it comes and when it comes, delivers more than its share of darkness.
There’s a meeting room upstairs. There’s a malaise about it, a taint of corruption in its stale air. This room was used for regular monthly meetings by a group or association everyone our landlord meets seems reluctant to discuss. It was years ago, they blithely say. It’s ancient history. It’s almost as if there’s something shameful or compromising about this coven or cabal having been entertained in the locality at all. They were shadowy and secretive and seem to be regarded in the community as its dirty little secret. So the pub landlord enlists help in discovering why the locals are so evasive, why there were never any minutes kept or roster taken at these meetings, who attended them in such strict anonymity and what it was they were intended to accomplish.
Like every story, this one is really about the people who populate its pages. There’s no tension when an author puts their characters in jeopardy if the reader hasn’t by that point come to care about those characters. It’s my job to encourage you to like them (or some of them – they won’t all be wholesome and nice). I just want to have you rooting for a few of them, turning the pages hoping that they solve the mystery in time to avoid the fate it threatens them with. This time, you’ll be aware of what that fate is before they are. That might add to the excitement, or it might fill you with gloomy forebodings. I’m just hoping to entertain you, with a bit of uncertainty and a few scares thrown in along the way.
That’s Southport Pier above as painted by my brother Haydn who had the dream job of Pier Head Attendant in the summer holidays as a student. It features in a couple of my books and is a location close to my heart. That’s where it crosses the Marine Lake (Pleasureland in the background).