This is the cover of the audiobook version of my Colony Trilogy closer, like its two predecessors narrated by David Rintoul and due to be published on March 28. Personally I can’t wait to hear what David does with the voice of Seamus Ballantyne – more accurately the voice of the ghost of Seamus Ballantyne – my slave-ship master and Colony founder and self-styled monarch of the New Hope Kingdom of Belief he established early in the 19th century on a granite rock in the Outer Hebrides.
It seemed fitting as I wrote this one for the spectre of Ballantyne to make an appearance in the present-day on New Hope Island. There seemed to me to be a nice symmetry about it. Without giving too much away, his raised ghost confronts someone whose antics on the island have antagonised him. And he calls that person to account. As it says of his manifestation in the book: ‘His voice, when it emerged from him, had the weight about it of a sledgehammer blow.’ It will be interesting to hear what the gifted actor I’ve been lucky enough to have narrate the majority of my novels will make of that. Quite a lot, I imagine, since David, like Seamus, is a Scot. He seems to be the master of every dialect, but with this one he has home advantage.
Periodically I have email conversations with the author Phil Rickman, most recently when I was reading his brilliant stand-alone, Night After Night. He confessed discussing that one that he’s never sure about how much paranormal stuff to put in. His Merrily Watkins series is classed as crime fiction (though it’s a great deal more than that) and I think he gets the balance exactly right. His ghosts are subtle and ambiguous and you’re never really sure whether they’re real or imagined. They’re frightening, though. And they stay with you.
My spectres are much more corporeal and communicative. Not exactly garrulous – and certainly not comfortable to be around – but usually there because they have something to say or someone to scare in a way that’s anything but ambiguous. In my novels, the haunting tends to be if not the whole point then a major part of it. My characters aren’t imagining things (though they might wish they were). The phenomena confronting them are as real as the peat they’re standing on or the wind whipping spindrift into their cold-numbed faces. I think there’s room for different approaches to this sort of subject matter. If ghosts are real, I doubt they obey rules or follow conventions. They’re antic and troubled and mine have the smell of decay about them.
It might seem a bit strange to you that I listen to my own fiction. After all, I’m familiar with the story before I ever click on the ‘play’ icon. But I can be much more objective about the qualities and flaws of what I’m listening to when the familiar words are interpreted in someone else’s voice. I can judge it better, see where I think I went wrong or struck a false note and actually learn from it. That this isn’t a masochistic process is entirely down to the talent of the reader. I find the stories far more pleasurable than painful to listen to. And I must make honourable mention of another reader here, because Sean Barrett’s rendering of The Lazarus Prophecy is absolutely masterful. These vocal magicians enhance the text and make me understand why audiobooks are a booming area of publishing.
That’s pretty much it for today. Except to say that in the period between my laptop expiring before Christmas and replacing it a couple of weeks ago, I had an idea for a story that made me put everything else aside. Not being able to start it actually evolved from a frustration into an advantage, creatively, because I was able to clarify the story in my mind rather than revise it on the page. It will feature some familiar characters, but I’m taking them to some unfamiliar places. Out of their comfort zone, if you like, though there’s scant comfort to be had anywhere in any of my novels really. Except perhaps at Ruthie Gillespie’s cottage in Ventnor. That’s a safe refuge, so far at least.
I’d like to wish everyone reading this a happy, healthy, prosperous and peaceful New Year. It’s customary to do that today. It’s also surrendering to a very human impulse. The beginning of something is for most of us instinctively a time of hope. I’m well aware that the line between optimism and self-delusion can sometimes seem a very thin one. The year just passed seemed at times determined to prove that. But life is surely brighter for all of us for having ambitions to try to fulfil and dreams to try to realise. Of course striving for anything inevitably brings the risk of failure and no one likes to fail. But the great Canadian ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky had the best retort to that when he said, ‘You miss 100 per cent of the shots you never take.’ Anyway, there endeth the lesson. I’ll stop preaching and clamber down from the pulpit, with all the agility and grace of someone who emphatically overdid the festive cheer.
My personal challenge for 2017 is to write the best novel I’ve yet completed. There are those who’d say that’s not much of a challenge at all, but I’ll press on despite the waggish barbs. Having said that though, some of the criticism of my past output is totally valid and I’d rather learn from than ignore it. Persistent criticism is discouraging but consistent criticism is usually pointing out that there’s a real flaw or weakness. I’m not deaf to it. It’s instructive. I believe I can write a better book than any of those I’ve so far written and that’s an ambition I find inspiring. Unusually, this one already has a title. And it’s a cracking title, so I feel I’m out of the blocks rather than off to a tentative or uncertain start.
In other news my Colony trilogy will soon be coming out as a single package, both for download and as actual, physical books. The novel that completes the trilogy, Harvest of Scorn, is published in physical form on January 13 and I’m pleased about that. It means I’ll be responsible for a box-set. It’s a modestly sized box-set as these things go, but the idea of being binge-read is quite an appealing one.
The picture above is one taken at dusk from the top of Richmond Hill on the shortest day of the year about a fortnight ago. The evenings are getting lighter now. Things are looking up…
This is me aboard the ocean-going tugboat on which my dad served as first-mate in Liverpool Harbour in the early 1960s. This was before the Mersey silted up, when the big liners were towed into their berths by any number of tugs, depending on tonnage, with a pilot boat leading the path through the deep water channels. This is how I spent many a weekend back then. The water was cold in that improvised bathtub but it wasn’t drawn from the Mersey (I don’t think). Not much thought for health and safety regulations back in those days though. I don’t remember complaining. But my dad wasn’t really the sort of bloke you complained to. Certainly not at the age of four, you didn’t.
My memories of the harbour and the industry surrounding it – like the huge Tate & Lyle sugar refinery near the docks – are vivid reminders of a world that’s gone. I put some of it into my novel Dark Echo seen through the eyes of my character Jane Boyte in scenes depicting the Liverpool waterfront more than thirty years before this picture was taken. And of course Dark Echo herself is a far fancier vessel than anything my father ever crewed. But I do have some nautical credentials and they go back to when I was very young. Probably why I’ve never in my life suffered from sea sickness.
In other news, the early reader reviews for Harvest of Scorn both on Amazon’s UK site and the Goodreads site are the best I’ve had for anything I’ve written. The last book in the Colony trilogy is going down really well and I’m both relieved about that and genuinely gratified. As an author you just never know whether anything’s actually any good until your readers deliver their verdict. That’s the acid test, the only opinion that counts. And when the reception is as positive as it’s been so far, it makes all the effort seem worthwhile.
My relationship with my father ended abruptly when I was eleven and he chose to close the chapter in his life involving me. I’ve a few strong recollections of him. One of the most enduring is of him weeping silently when we passed the radio mast sticking up above the surface that was all left visible of a tug sunken by collision in a fog. Those Mersey fogs were sometimes lethal and my dad had known the men who perished aboard her.
Some episodes from childhood we remember. Others are just impossible ever to forget.