Books that have really scared you do tend to stick in the mind. When I was nine or ten I got hold of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ gave me pause for thought, but ‘The Speckled Band’ frightened me so much that I couldn’t finish the book. I have read them many times since. But I’ve never been able to track down a short story that I read in my twenties that gave me such a real visceral shock that I remember it to this day. I really wanted to read it again and see how the writer did it. Trouble was I couldn’t remember either the name of the author or the name of the story. I remembered the central idea and I thought that the writer was American. I had an idea that it was in an anthology edited by Hugh Greene in the 1970s, The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, but though there are some splendid stories in there, this wasn’t one of them. I concluded that I wasn’t going to be able to track it down. It went on being a niggling little question.
And then, earlier today I was browsing Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by Sue Grafton and came across this in an article about endings by John Lutz: ‘In my short story “The Real Shape of the Coast” written for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the detective, an inmate of an insane asylum, eventually reaches the inescapable conclusion that he himself is the murderer.’ Bingo! It didn’t take long to track down an anthology that contains it, and a copy of A Century of Noir: 32 Classic Stories is winging its way to me from Motor City Books in Detroit.
So I’ll soon find out: will the story still be scary and how did he pulled it off? I’ll let you know.
Is there a story in your past that makes you shiver at the very thought of it?
I’m I’m in Birmingham again at the wonderful Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. It’s the time of year that makes me think of new terms and new beginnings and I remembered arriving in Birmingham as a postgrad all those years ago. I had a couple of hours to spare so this afternoon I decided to hop on a bus and visit the Barber Institute where I had worked on my MA.
It was a beautiful autumn day, the campus is attractively leafy (pictured above) and as I walked along I heard a piano and a fine male voice singing what might have been a song by Schubert through an open window. I found the building that had been the Shakespeare Institute, where I had been based. It’s a nineteenth century redbrick villa in its own grounds and is empty now (the Institute moved to Stratford long ago). I peered through the window at dusty floorboards and remembered gruelling tutorials and parties on the lawn. Looking at the garden with its weed-covered pond and statue, I felt like someone in a poem by Hardy, musing on the vagaries of life.
The Barber Institute cheered me up. It truly is a hidden gem. It has a small but breath-taking collection of paintings, prints and bronzes: Degas, Monet, Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, Gainsborough, Reynolds and many more. For most of the time I was the only person there. I guess there are more people around in term-term.
But what about the book that had me crying in the library? On the ground floor is the Art Library where I spent many a day doing research for both my MA and later my Ph.d and where I worked my way through two long volumes of Georgiana Burne-Jones’s Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. It is the only book she wrote and it’s a masterpiece. I was so deeply immersed in their lives and so deeply moved when I reached her account of her husband’s death that tears began to plop on to the polished mahogany table. The librarian – a friend, luckily – came in and wanted to know what on earth was the matter. ‘It’s so sad,’ I managed to tell him. He couldn’t help but be amused. It was the first – and very likely the last – time that he’d found someone sobbing over a book.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Daniella, tagged me on Facebook. “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. It is not about the ‘right’ book or great work of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Does not have to be in order.’
I should then have nominated 10 friends to be tagged in turn. I am hopeless at this. By the time I have got round to it, all my friends have already been tagged by someone and there is no-one left to choose. But I did write my list – pretty much off the top of my head and here it is:
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith
Lawrence Block, Out on the Cutting Edge
Taichi Yamada, Strangers
Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did at School
Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon
Susan Varley, Badger’s Parting Gifts
Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War
Note that I am not saying these are the best or even my favourite books, just a few that have stayed with me. This list is all fiction. Maybe I’ll do non-fiction another time.
I first met Sally a number of years ago when we did an event together at Heffers in Cambridge. She writes stories that are very, very creepy. Her most recent novel, Malediction, is a noir thriller set in France. Her new book, How to Write a Chiller Thriller, explains some of the secrets of writing supernatural thrillers. I began by asking her about it. Over to Sally:
I was commissioned to write it by Suzanne Ruthven, formerly co-editor of The New Writer (now of Compass Books) because she’d heard about my writing workshops and liked my work. I was fired up by the need to see more brave, original themes within the genre.
How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
A notebook/tablet on the bedside table is useful to re-connect with the work in progress if the day won’t allow time to actually be in my study. Otherwise, I’m in there from midday and re-surface when cabin fever sets in!
What comes first for you: theme, plot, characters, setting?
Setting, always. If a particular place ‘hits me in the chest,’ I have no choice but to deal with it, and then ask ‘who goes there?’
The supernatural is a recurring element in your stories. Have you ever seen a ghost or had a similar experience?
Yes, many times, otherwise I couldn’t use this not-so hidden aspect of life in my work. On one occasion, in a brand new-build house, an overpowering ‘presence’ tried to suffocate me. I later discovered the development was built on a mediaeval graveyard!
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
Pierre Magnan (The Murdered House) Philippe Claudel (Grey Souls) Christophe Dufosse (School’s Out) and the late Friedrich Durrenmatt (The Pledge) Recently loved Nele Neuhaus’ Snow White Must Die.
A favourite bookshop?
The Hours Café in Brecon.
What are you writing now?
Am finishing Footfall (working title) in longhand (so I can draw the characters in the margins!) First in a series with young, wannabe cop, Delphine Rougier, set in a rural backwater near Le Mans. It’s grim…
I’m looking forward to it. You can find out more about Sally and her novels at www.sallyspedding.com
The summer holidays are nearly over and it’s time to plan a visit to the London Library. Looking at my pile of library books, I realised that I hadn’t got very far into Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them. I’d got distracted and had forgotten about it. I decided it was worth trying again. It’s a favourite book of a very good friend, and anyway, I’m an admirer of Townsend Warner’s short stories..
I don’t usually care much for historical novels. They are so often anachronistic in the way they present their characters’ thoughts. But The Corner That Held Them is an historical novel like no other. It is the story of a Fenlands convent between 1345 and 1382, the time of the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt. The landscape, the weather, the characters of the nuns and their habits of thought are all so vividly realised. It is full of strange, yet convincing details and similes. Dame Isabel on her deathbed is ‘mute as a candle, visibly consuming away and still not extinguished.’ Of another nun: ‘Her apple-blossom beauty had not been substantiated by the slightest carnal intellect, she was as chaste as a parsnip.’ There isn’t really a plot, and yet one is drawn on and on by her descriptive power.
Sylvia Townsend Warner is one of those writers who seems to come in and out of fashion. I think she is one of great short story writers of the twentieth century. She is clever and funny and so original. I’ve just got her Selected Stories down from the shelf and, dipping in, want to read them all again. For anyone coming new to her, I think that would be the place to start.
. . . when you discover a new writer – and find that they have written a whole series of books. This is what’s happened to me with Laurie R. King and her novels featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice while I was on holiday, and I’ve read the second, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and the third, A Letter of Mary, since I got home. The next, The Moor, is waiting on the shelf. There are twelve books in all and the temptation is just to gobble them down like a box of chocolates. I’m resisting that – and not only on grounds of expense (the local library has only one on the shelves). They are best saved up as treats for when the comfort of reading about old friends is required.
There is something so reassuring about a series and I am always on the lookout for a good one that I haven’t yet read. I’ve just ordered a copy of Gail Bowen’s first novel, after seeing her recommended by Moira over at ClothesinBooks. (For some reason I am not being allowed to paste a link, but she is easily found via Google.) I’m pretty sure that if Moira likes a writer, I will too. I hadn’t heard of Gail Bowen, perhaps because she is Canadian, but she sounds right up my street.
Other suggestions would be very welcome. Is there a writer you like who might have slipped under my radar?
For me the most moving moment in Middlemarch is not the climax of the novel, when Dorothea and Will are united. To tell the truth, I am not terribly interested in this romance, and find Will rather tiresome – all that shaking his ringlets and what about that flirting with Rosamund Vincy? I am far more touched by this: Harriet Bulstrode has learned from her brother what her female friends have been unable to tell her: her husband is disgraced. She goes home and shuts herself in her room. She is a woman proud of her position in town, fond of fripperies and finery, but also, George Eliot tells us, her ‘honest ostentatious nature made the sharing of a merited dishonour as bitter as it could be to any mortal.
‘But this imperfectly-taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through half a life, and who had unvaringly cherished her – now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him . . . She took off all her ornments and put on a plain black gown, and instead of wearing her much-adorned cap and two bows of hair, she brushed her hair down and put on a plain bonnet cap . . .
Meanwhile her husband, guessing what she has discovered, waits in anguish for her reaction. ‘He sat with his eyes bent down, and as she went towards him she thought he looked smaller – he seemed so withered and shrunken. A movement of new compassion and old tenderness went through her like a great wave, and putting one hand on his which rested on the arm of the chair, and other on his shoulder, she said, solemnly but kindly. “Look up, Nicholas.”‘
Wonderful . . . Did I admire this as much when I was twenty as I do now? I can’t remember.
This is my last post about Middlemarch. I’ll write about something else next time.
Mr Casaubon’s Key to all Mythologies must be the most famous unpublished (indeed, unfinished) book in all of literature. In previous rereadings of Middlemarch, I’ve tended to skip over details of this work, but this time I was determined to read the novel from cover to cover. I was fascinated to discover that there is a kind of overlap between Casaubon’s subject and my own Ph.D on Arthurian legend in fine and applied art 1840-1920.
There was a theory current in the late eighteenth century that all pagan religion could be explained in terms of sun worship and that King Arthur symbolised the sun. There seemed to be an element of this in some paintings of Arthurian subjects and so it was that I found myself in the British Library (the old one) calling up dusty tomes from the early nineteenth century with titles like The Origins of Pagan Idolatry and Mythology and Rites of the British Druids. These were not gripping reads and there was something soporific about the old Reading Room. I recall afternoons of struggling to stay awake. There were times when completing my thesis seemed as remote as Casaubon finishing his book. But eventually I did and even had a offer of publication from Cambridge University Press. There was a hiccup when CUP ditched me: my editor left and the new one thought the subject did not have global appeal. Manchester University Press took it and produced a very attractive book (CUP’s used to be pretty drab), so it was all for the best. And there was a certain satisfaction when it was short-listed for an American award and was reviewed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. So much for lack of global appeal.
But during those afternoons in the British Library, that was all in the future. Reading Middlemarch brought back vivid memories of days when I feared I was destined for the same fate as Casaubon with piles of unsorted notes and a piece of work that took so long to finish that it was out of date long before it was ended.
I am not really one for the beach, but when one is on holiday en famille, it’s sometimes necessary and I prepare for an expedition. So: sun block, yes, beach towels, yes, beach umbrella, yes, book . . . ah, that’s not so easy.
I won’t be taking my e-reader as it’s too likely to get sand in it. Books do tend to get bashed about a bit on the beach, so I won’t be taking anything I mind about. I’ll keep my pristine new paperbacks for reading elsewhere. It’ll be one of the books from the Oxfam shop, then, but which one? It should be entertaining – that goes without saying – but not too demanding. I will be interrupted by requests that I assist with castle-building, or go paddling, or buy ice-creams, or, who knows, I might even be tempted to have a dip myself, so it needs to be something I won’t mind putting aside for a while.
On this particular day, the book that went into the bag was Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first in her series featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I had dismissed it as something that wasn’t for me. Sherlock Holmes falling in love and getting married? No! But then I saw it in Oxfam, and thought, well, maybe . . . After all, I do like a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche.
And, of course, I loved it. The tone is exactly right, the plot threw up a breath-taking surprise, and towards the end, I minded very much putting it down. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels. And I won’t be waiting for them to turn up in the Oxfam shop.