For a small country, Scotland has a disproportionate share of coastline. This is due not only to the jagged geography of its mainland shores – all those sticky-in sea lochs and sticky-out peninsulas – but also its numerous islands, most of which lie off the west coast. Having dealt in my previous two Leo Moran detective novels with the mountains and lochs of Argyll, and the pastures and forests of Galloway, I wanted to sample another Scottish landscape, the island, and it got me thinking about island mysteries I have enjoyed.
My books feature elements of the supernatural, and the classic 1973 folk-horror movie The Wicker Man (see earlier blog!) draws its tension from being set on an island. It was based on a novel by David Pinner called Ritual, although the book is set in Cornwall. In the film, a policeman, Sergeant Howie – played by Edward Woodward, sets off from the mainland to investigate a disappearance on the fictional Hebridean island of Summerisle. All the inhabitants are in the thrall of a pagan cult, so there are no allies to be found for the sole force of law and order – and, because of a malfunctional (presumably sabotaged) seaplane engine, there is no escape from the islanders’ sinister designs. I recently watched a television thriller/horror series called The Third Day, starring Jude Law and Naomie Harris, which draws on The Wicker Man in that it is also set on an island whose inhabitants are immersed in a bizarre religion. Instead of a broken engine, a causeway which floods at high tide is its isolating device. Both works incorporate crime and detection, and both involve a missing child.
Turning to detective novels, I suppose Enid Blyton gave me my first taste of island mysteries in her Famous Five series, because a couple of the adventures feature Kirrin Island, owned by the character George’s family. Perhaps Agatha Christie’s darkest book is And Then There Were None. Eight people are invited to a small Devon island by hosts who refuse to reveal themselves. The bodies start piling up and the paranoia grows. It transpires that the guests are being found out by their past sins, and the enclosed geography adds to the sense of reckoning.
Tartan Noir has its fair share of island mysteries. The first in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, The Blackhouse, also describes characters’ pasts catching up with them, not least that of the protagonist Fin MacLeod, who travels from Edinburgh to his childhood home of Lewis to investigate a grisly murder. May is skilled at evoking a sense of place, a brooding, lonely landscape cut off from civilisation. Louise Welsh’s Naming the Bones involves a professor setting off for the island of Lismore to investigate the death of an obscure poet who died there, apparantely by suicide, decades ago. Welsh describes a wind-blasted place haunted by a hint of the occult, and portrays the ancient rivalries and secrets which plague the isolated community. Ann Cleeves’ Shetland books also evoke a bleak, lonesome backdrop in which the secrets of the past are buried as though in the very peat bogs of the terrain. They were made into an acclaimed BBC drama starring Douglas Henshall.
There is a particular ambience to the Scottish island as a setting. They are generally sparsely populated and often volcanic, with striking rocky features. If you walk to an obscure corner you can have an edge-of-the-world feeling. Yet Craig Robertson’s The Last Refuge takes us out of Scotland to the even more remote Faroe Islands, and tells of desolate places scourged by oppressive weather and populated by thuggish birds. The reader isn’t sure what the protagonist and narrator John Callum is escaping from, and is only given glimpses through nightmares and flashbacks. Alcohol adds to the feeling of paranoia.
Considering these films and books, and my own experiences of researching and writing an island detective novel, has enabled me to identify certain recurring elements. At the outset, there is the crossing of a threshold – a body of water – from one realm to another. Certain gothic ingredients crop up in island crime fiction, not least the protagonist departing the urban, ordered, ‘civilised’ world for the rural, ‘backward’, untamed, superstitious one. The gothic often features mysterious, reclusive figures living alone in an atmospheric abode, and an island ramps up that sense of withdrawal and isolation. In my island adventure, The Mystery of the Strange Piper, my P.I. Leo Moran goes to a fictional Scottish island called Sonna. Don’t bother looking for it on the map, because I made it up. It is, however, closely based on a well-known Firth of Clyde holiday isle (I am afraid there are no prizes for guessing which one!). At the start of the book, Leo muses upon the peculiar anticipation of an island sojourn:
Leo listened to the rapid throb of the diesel engines and the churn as the bow cut the waves, and felt the thrill that comes with crossing a body of water, the anticipation of stepping onto a different, confined, insular world.
He considered how an island is a singular entity. Its own kingdom within its sea-lapped confines with its particular history and politics and class divides and tragedies and rivalries. A country in miniature with its uniquely varied topography, its capital city merely a small town, every parish like a county, every farm like a parish. Its highlands loom as large in the circumscribed imagination as the Cairngorms, its freshwaters as mightily as Loch Lomond.
Leo is told more than once that islands can be places where people go to escape, perhaps from a tragic or shameful past, or perhaps from the law or justice. Often, they want to be left alone. He has been summoned to Sonna by an old university chum by the name of Marcus Troughton to investigate a series of deaths on the island, and it transpires that the man has never gotten over an ancient, doomed love affair, and lives out his days moping in his crumbling, eccentric house. Other characters are still haunted by the death of a teenager in 1989 after they took part in an occult ritual, and acrimony persists over that terrible night (this is the main plot driver). Everyone is as trapped by their history as they are by the island. The detective tries to not only bring light to bear on events, but also to compel people to face up to their past. And, of course, the hero can him or herself toil under the atmosphere of claustrophobia and the fear of being trapped. Islands are places where strangers can feel conspicuous, especially if they are poking their noses into painful or shameful episodes. In small rural communities – or at least in fictional ones, locals can be testy and may close ranks to outsiders in order to keep secrets safe, and on an island, where one is quite literally cut off from the main body of the population, these traits can be accentuated. Islands are also places where it is more difficult for a criminal to get away with something; unless you have your own boat, plane or helicopter, you are forced to funnel yourself onto the ferry service if you want to flee the scene.
So, there you have it: detectives and islands go together like fish and chips. Anyway, I must fly – there’s an old episode of Bergerac coming on the Freeview!
A version of this article appeared in the Crime Writers’ Association’s monthly magazine Red Herrings, November 2021 issue.
The third in the Leo Moran series, The Mystery of the Strange Piper, is out now! By it at The Mystery of the Strange Piper – Backpage Press
Pardon the cheesy blog title, but I couldn’t resist reviving a 1980s tourist board slogan. My family even had a ‘Bute is Beautiful’ bumper sticker on the rear of our Ford Cortina estate. I have five siblings and if, while on holiday, it was your turn to sit in the Cortina’s boot then you were prone to car sickness – and even gazing out at Bute’s beauty wouldn’t take your mind off it.
Anyway, why am I wittering on about the Bute, the loveliest of islands in the Firth of Clyde? Because my latest Leo Moran psychic detective mystery The Mystery of the Strange Piper is set on the Isle of Sonna, which is a fictionalised version of Bute. In the first two Leo books I also adapted actual locations. In The Ghost of Helen Addison, Loch Awe in Argyll became Loch Dhonn, while in The Shadow of the Black Earl, the village of Laurieston in Galloway became Biggnarbriggs. The reason I do this is for convenience. Changing place names allows you latitude in rearranging, enlarging, adding or deleting physical features to suit the plot. For example, in The Ghost of Helen Addison the islands in Loch Dhonn are to the south of where they are in Loch Awe, in order to be nearer to the settlement where most of the drama takes place, and in The Shadow of the Black Earl I dropped an entire ruined medieval priory into the setting. If you do this, you must come up with alternative place names which ring authentically Scottish; you don’t want corny, made-up sounding names like Inversporran or Glenbogie (indeed in the first novel I stole place names from the Isle of Bute in order to avoid this). The trouble is, sometimes I get mixed up and think that a place’s actual name is that which I rechristened it! As it happens, in The Mystery of the Strange Piper I didn’t change all that much in terms of geography.
The McGarry clan, including most of my extended family, speak about Bute with great affection because we enjoyed countless childhood holidays there, and, in fact, two of my cousins loved it so much that they have recently moved there. Different branches of the family lay claim to its discovery, but I was recently shown photographic evidence from the 1960s which put that dispute to rest. Anyway, various family members have jokingly asked if I would ever set one of my novels on Bute, to which I replied I would, only half-jokingly because the germ of the idea was there. A mention of the island, and specifically the village where we had a room-and-kitchen flat, always evokes funny stories and reminiscences. It was a cold-water flat with an open fireplace and a chilly WC on the tenement stair landing, and we were somewhat crammed together, often for weeks at a time, but we adored it, even though it had probably last been decorated during the Attlee administration and was adorned with items of yesteryear such as a washboard and a pre-electric iron. A droll cousin of mine once remarked that he had been brought up in the 1970s AND the 1940s! Days were spent roaming the hills and fields, playing golf, sailing, swimming or swinging from a high rope like Tarzan. To my childhood mind, the journey from Glasgow to Bute seemed immense and thrilling; now you realise it is a mere jaunt down the coast. The size of our family put foreign trips beyond our budget, but we loved Bute and anticipated our holidays there for weeks and months. There were folk we would look forward to seeing, locals and other holidaymakers, some of whom were eccentrics who assumed legendary status. And everyone just seemed to get what a special and beautiful place it was, what a singular and peaceful atmosphere it had, and I tried to evoke this in the book.
This segment is from when Leo gets chatting to a fellow patron in the village pub:
The roadman had a poetic streak, and was the type of chap who would obtain a good Arts degree for its own sake, then be satisfied pursuing manual occupations for the extent of his working life. He had moved to the Bay years ago, having fallen in love with the place during childhood holidays, although he wasn’t a contemporary of the 1989 gang. Leo enjoyed listening to the roadman wax lyrical about this halcyon world, so secluded and peaceful, yet so within easy striking distance of the big city.
‘It has a draw all of its own, the Bay,’ he mused. ‘There may be more beautiful beaches in the Hebrides, but our idyll was always enough. When I was a kid, every family who came here staked a claim to this land, and appropriated a little portion of the heavens that ceilinged it. Everybody just understood it – folk of all stripes and ages. This was one of the last places in Britain where the farmer delivered your milk each morning, pouring it directly into a galvanised churn you would leave at your front door. I can still recall the taste of it on my cornflakes. I am also just old enough to remember the 1960s, when there were still sufficient numbers of holidaymakers to sustain several shops in the village, including a draper’s, a baker’s and a chippy. There were dances in the church hall every night during the summer, and a gala day and bowling greens and tennis courts. Lots of youngsters met their future spouses here. Many families possessed a boat, maybe just a sailing dinghy or a wee motor vessel, yet a craft still worthy of sentimental name, or even something grander from Greek or Gaelic mythology.’
This is from an after-dinner conversation Leo has with the lovely Amy Agumanu:
She turned her thoughts to Ardcaden Bay.
‘The thing about it was that everybody got it, everybody understood how special it was. Our schoolmates might have gone to some Spanish resort at summertime, but we all knew we had it better. And if such mutual love for a place can exist, then there’s something communal about the human experience after all. And wherever you go in the world and whatever happens you know that this peaceful spot is still there, unchanging, and that you can visit it in your imagination at any time.’
She then slipped into hazy reminiscence about the Bay, describing what it had been like back in those prelapsarian days. Leo listened, hypnotised by her voice and the wine, and gazed through the window. In the garden an apple tree caught the gentle light, its gnarled trunk so aged and crooked that it rested directly on the earth. The sweet fragrances of the summer evening had descended. In the surrounding countryside, hardwoods and clumps of flowering whin cast long shadows in the lateralising rays. The sun on the island’s hills and across the strait was a thin yellow, and a different, silvery luminance had descended in pools upon the low-lying fields and meadows, every object there about to turn to silhouette. Rabbits safely grazed the sloping lawn which led from Amy’s house to the dense verdant summer border, and martins wheeled and screeched for pure joy in the air above. To the west, above the ocean, the sunset was a swirling lambent fresco of Tyrian purple and jasper.
Amy’s monologue turned to Sonna’s gloomier side. Everything from the simple inconveniences of country life to the frightening electricity ironman in the back woods, the steep, thickly timbered Cathair darkening at night and the unnerving ambience which seemed to encompass that hill.
‘And when Andy died, it was like that darker side of the island had won out,’ she explained. ‘It was the end of Eden.’
An abridged version of this article appeared in the October 2021 Crime Readers’ Association Newsletter.
The third in the Leo Moran series, The Mystery of the Strange Piper, is out now! By it at The Mystery of the Strange Piper – Backpage Press
I recently looked through my earlier blogs on the gothic to consider what in my latest Leo Moran novel, The Mystery of the Strange Piper, fulfils to the genre. What sticks out most of all is the setting of the book; setting being perhaps the most important element to the gothic.
There are other relevant gothic elements in The Mystery of the Strange Piper: dalliances with the supernatural (or with people’s fears of the supernatural), creepy attics, glimpsed figures at windows and physically curiously ugly characters. The dalliance with the supernatural partly pertains to the eponymous Strange Piper legend. I must credit my late father (also Charles) for this inspiration. In fact, come to think of it, had it not been for a throwaway tale of his which stuck in my childhood consciousness, then I’m not all that sure that there would be this novel. The Mystery of the Strange Piper is set on the Isle of Sonna, which is a version of the Isle of Bute where we took our childhood holidays. Behind our little flat was a steep rise of thickly wooded ground, the start of a hill which overshadowed the village. It would look quite eerie as darkness fell, and one evening my dad told me (I hope I am remembering him correctly) that there was a piper who had been swallowed up by the hill, and that his ghost would sometimes walk the earth, while bagpiping, before disappearing again into the bowels of the hill. It was probably an off-the-cuff creation by Dad, made up to amuse himself, or perhaps he was basing it on a legend he had heard about some other place (I say this because no one else associated a ghostly piper with that hill on Bute), or maybe it was his riff on the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Anyway, in my book there are people who believe in the reality of this legend, and believe that the piper has been summoned to wreak havoc in recent times.
Anyway, back to the subject of setting. There is a ruined early-medieval monastery in The Mystery of the Strange Piper and a creepy old house that seems to possess some secret. This chimes with what I earlier stated about the gothic: Gothic fiction is so named because its imaginative impulse was drawn from medieval buildings and ruins… Often the wing of an old house is empty or closed off. The setting, especially a building, can itself be considered as an actual character, a sense of it being alive, as having its own personality and secrets… Gothic settings can be a refuge of a malevolent, frightening or threatening character.
I also said: Often the buildings are old, dilapidated, decaying and might be set within gloomy, lifeless, fear-inducing landscapes… The gothic novel and indeed movie are now so embedded in our consciousness that this gloomy and frightening backdrop sets the scene for what the reader/audience comes to expect.
This brings me to the strange beauty of the volcanic landscape of southern Bute (or rather Sonna), and I’ve pasted some descriptive passages of it from the book below:
The fertile isthmus at the south-west of the island where the standing stones were located connected with the south end. The peninsula was igneous, the lava having coursed across the sandstone to create a strange ossified landscape of cliffs and crags and ridges and rocky hillocks and outcrops. Ardcaden Bay was on the eastern coast, while the Lagg Road penetrated part of its interior and had a spectacular outlook over the weird basalt formations by the western shoreline, then the glittering sound, then Erran.
He gazed down Glen Colm. It was a bleak place. He realised he was standing on a mighty terraced spine of land which rose to Torr Mòr, a desolate, wind-blasted peak at the bottom of the south end. The high land on the other side of the glen was bland in comparison to the crags and scree slopes of this side. The north presented a far pleasanter prospect, a fir grove and pastures and then the fertile isthmus and the azure sea beyond.
Leo now wanted to scope out the southernmost portion of the peninsula, and visit where Geoffrey Willett, the English rambler, had dropped dead. He left the hotel and strode to the end of the village, then past a wood of birch, willow and alder filled with chirruping birds to where the road terminated at a bus turning place. He went through a wooden gate and followed a marked walking route with steep slopes and cliffs to his right, and ridges of black and then grey volcanic rock jutting into the sea to his left. The hike became progressively more difficult, first over boards bound in chicken wire, then an earthen trail through ferns, then a pebbly path, then a precarious clamber over mighty stones beneath a near-vertical incline of sheer rock, at which point Leo abandoned his walking staff. He came across a raised beach adorned with tormentil, cat’s-ear, eyebright, bird’s-foot trefoil and thrift, then encountered a rocky landmark clasped by ash and elder known as Merlin’s Neb, and a cave littered with rusted lager tins. The landscape became more dramatic as spilled boulders clotted the scarp. It was like standing in some prog rock album cover from the 1970s and Leo had a peculiar sensation as though he was the only person alive in the world. An unearthly silver-gold radiance came to rest on the water, into which a cormorant plunged. The path – shingle now, and shining – climbed towards a cleft which cradled this light like a portal to heaven, and when Leo reached this crest, he saw the lighthouse. He walked across a boulder field past the red sandstone headland and approached the gigantic slabs upon which the manmade structure sat. To the south-west a schooner with black sails had rounded Grog Head, which is the very extremity of Sonna; to the south east were the monstrous cliffs on the elbow of Little Cunrae. Leo reached the proximity of the lighthouse and said a prayer for the two Ayrshire fishermen who had perished off the coast here and for Mr Willett, the doomed hiker, and for all the people who loved them. He sat down and rested for a few minutes, listening to seawater coughing in a cistern deep below as a languorous seal surfaced nearby and regarded him with curiosity. Suddenly it occurred to him that something other than the morning’s brush with the green Jaguar had been affecting his emotions. That the very fabric of the south end of the Isle of Sonna indeed vibrated with a sonorous energy as had been suggested to him. That this was a place rich with magic.
The last three sentences above refer to the fact that other characters have described a strange energy that affects the south of the island. This was based on a similar atmosphere I always detected in southern Bute, verified by certain people I know who felt the same thing. In the book, it is first mentioned by Leo’s host, Marcus Troughton:
‘There is a considerable peninsula which projects from the bottom of Sonna, which is known simply as “the south end”. A stretch of its inner coast is populated by a village called Ardcaden Bay. I should state at the outset that many folk, myself included, perceive a peculiar atmosphere to the south end, as though the very land emits a strange energy.’
The lovely Amy Agumanu then mentions it:
‘the south end resonates with some weird energy which I’ve never quite come to terms with, although I often feel it elsewhere on the island to a lesser extent.’
As does a fellow by the name of Gus Blessing:
At one point, Leo remarked upon the eerie energy which seemed to inhabit the south end and Blessing concurred with his observation, stating that it vibrated across the isthmus into his locality too, and to a lesser extent beyond and into the rest of the island. He then mentioned ‘the demon in the hill’ feeding off such vibes ‘to my fateful detriment’.
‘Isn’t that just a local legend?’ said Leo.
‘Put it this way: you wouldn’t catch me anywhere near that dark road at night. Or anywhere near Glen Colm, the crucible of evil.’
Blessing then related something about an archaeologist who had suddenly given up a dig in Glen Colm in 1982. He stood up and gazed out of a side pane of the bay window in the general direction of the Cathair. ‘He’ll walk forth again soon,’ he muttered obliquely.
Also, local brewer Vincent Comiskey speaks of it:
‘I don’t like going anywhere in the south end for deliveries.’
‘Because of all the personal strife you associate with the area?’
‘Not only that.’
Vincent hauled the barrel he had been working on across the concrete floor. ‘Let’s just say I don’t like the . . . psychic energy of the place. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do.’
And later Vincent says:
‘For most of that summer I’d been completely alone, an outcast. I amused myself by roaming the hills and coast of the south end. I loved the lie of the land and it became like my territory, my private world. The energy of the countryside down there kind of gripped me, although nowadays I don’t like it so much.’
The third in the Leo Moran series, The Mystery of the Strange Piper, is out now! By it at The Mystery of the Strange Piper – Backpage Press
Leo Moran Book 2 SPOILER ALERT! For Leo Moran enthusiasts, here’s a brief section that was cut from The Shadow of the Black Earl in which a baddie describes the feasting he and his cohort used to enjoy. The third in the Leo series The Mystery of the Strange Piper is released on September 16th!
‘Oh delights of Epicurus! I have sampled baked womb of vixen flavoured with angelica and stuffed with chestnuts, black Périgord truffles and pheasant brains. Swan gilded with saffron and dressed in chaudon, accompanied by a water vole and mole meat pâté. Young breast of peacock served cold with chopped jelly and cold sauce poivrade. The medieval gamebird roast: Capercaillie stuffed with a goose, then a pheasant, then a black grouse, then a ptarmigan, then a partridge, then a wigeon, then a poussin, then a guinea fowl, then a mallard, then a pigeon squab, then a woodcock and then a quail. Braised ox cheek, devilled wild boar kidneys, veal scallopini with lemon and capers. Hedgehogs roasted with fragrant herbs and served with badger blood pudding and wild mushrooms. Red deer testicles enclosed in haggis, grilled filet mignon stuffed with foie gras and morel sauce, oysters cooked in champagne. Roast suckling pig stuffed with coriander-spiced snails and songbirds which had been marinated in liquorice, molasses and garlic. Golden pheasant and bee eater egg omelettes containing frog liver, sea urchin roe and Caesar’s mushrooms. Bird’s nest soup, black chicken soup, plover eggs, turtle eggs, lark’s tongues, seared weasel rissoles, grilled fruit bats, owl meat, viper, black caviar, octopus stuffed with calves brains, giant squid eyes, goat eyes, flambéed orca blubber, puffin hearts, guga, lamb kale pache, svið. Honey bee larvae in cream, fried silk worm pupae, glazed wood ants, shallow-fried grasshoppers. Yellowhammer in a sheep’s brain custard, crystallised fruits sprinkled with cocaine, Afghan pomegranates, Lebanese red figs, absinthe jellies, crème tangerine, apricot soufflé drizzled with caramel. Cheeses: Lanark Blue with crickets, maggoty casu marzu, montebore and donkey’s milk pule.’
For Leo Moran enthusiasts, here’s a section that was cut from The Shadow of the Black Earl which describes the library at Biggnarbriggs Hall. The third in the Leo series The Mystery of the Strange Piper is released on September 16th!
It included Gray’s Anatomy (second edition) and a couple of obscure engineering texts, reams of Mozart and Chopin sheet music for piano, JN Jarvie’s Lallans Dictionary and some musty old language readers – Russian, German and French. There were sixteen volumes of John Curtis’ British Entomology, WH Kirby’s Hand-book to the order Lepidoptera, Gould’s The Birds of Asia, Australia, Great Britain and New Guinea, The Romance of Bird Life by John Lea, and Beverley Morris’ British Game Birds and Wildfowl. Certain anonymous folios contained beautiful colour pencil illustrations of local botany and zoology, with notes in the same precision script as on the reference cards. There were birds, insects, including a particularly extensive section on butterflies, such as the large skipper, common blue, the pearl-bordered and the silver-washed fritillaries, the peacock and the small tortoiseshell. There were pictures of the brown hare, the rabbit, different families of shrew, vole and mouse, the badger, the red fox, the mole, the weasel, the pine marten and several bat species. There was the slow worm, the adder, various classifications of newt, and the common varieties of frog, toad and lizard. The wildflower section included superb renderings of bloody crane’s-bill, ragwort, tansy, herb Robert, herb Bennet, valerian and yellow pimpernel, and every tree of the locale was drawn and annotated, from the blackthorn to the mighty Scots pine.
Also on the shelves were Theodore Roosevelt’s African Game Trails, Joseph Adams’ Salmon and Trout Angling, Its Theory and Practice, Wright’s Poultry, HBM Buchannan’s A Country Reader, various flower-arranging books by Constance Spry, several late-Victorian volumes of the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, Practical Husbandry by R Crowther, Benjamin Maund’s The Botanic Garden, Sydenham Edwards’ Botanical Register and his New Botanic Garden, and Shirley Hibberd’s The Amateurs’ Rose Book 1874.
There was Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Locke’s Collected Writings, Carlyle’s Works, writings by Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, Thoreau, Marcus Aurelius, Schiller, Kierkegaard, de Quincey, Milton and Burns. There was Lamb’s Essays, MacAuley’s Essays and Lays of Ancient Rome, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and his Hebridean Journal, Johnson’s collected works and his Dictionary, The Greville Memoirs, Pepys’ Diary and the first edition of Capell’s Shakespeare.
There were first Edinburgh editions of SE Ferrier’s Destiny and Marriage, library sets of Trollope, Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, Scott, Margaret Oliphant, SR Crockett, Hugo, Maupassant, Balzac, Tolstoy and Cervantes. There was Bunyan, Samuel Rutherford’s Sermons, Andrew Bonar’s Scots Worthies, The Holy Bible (Adam Clark 1859), Nelson’s Encyclopaedia, Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia and HE Marshall’s popular national histories for children. Oddly, there was also a section of distinctly Catholic works: Thomas à Kempis, Ignatius of Loyola, Duns Scotus, Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Aquinas, The Roman Hymnal, various ecclesiastical documents including Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum, and the collected encyclicals of Pope Pius IX.
Larger volumes occupied the lower shelf: local road and Ordinance Survey maps, Reynolds’ Geological Atlas of Great Britain, Philips’ Atlas of the Counties of Scotland, William Beattie’s Scotland Illustrated, Asprey’s Atlas of the World & Gazetteer of the World, J and Edward Scott’s The Glasgow Geography, Ruskin’s Poetry of Architecture and Pre-Raphaelitism, J Burckhardt’s Treasures of the Uffizi, a few ancient editions of Whitaker’s Almanack and a compendium of other almanacs from 1804-26 (Celestial Atlas, Ephemeris, Vox Stellarum, Mathematics and the Seasons). There was Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, Aeschylus’ Tragedies (1806, Glasgow), and early editions of Virgil and Homer with Heyne’s commentaries. There was Pope’s translation of The Iliad and Odyssey, and also Petronius, Apuleius, Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Tacitus’ Annals and Histories, and Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphics by Bin Wahshih Al-Ani. There was the inevitable Gibbon (a handsome 1802-07 edition), a few volumes of The Scottish Antiquary, G Maspero’s History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia and Assyria, and his History of England, Napier’s History of the Peninsular War (inscribed by the author to one Rev Thomas Lindsay of Buittle Parish), W James’ Naval History of Great Britain, William Robertson’s History of Scotland and Wars of Scottish Independence, four volumes by FJ Sheridan: Gordon and the Siege of Khartoum, the Battle of Omdurman, the First Anglo-Afghan War, and the Second Anglo-Afghan War. There was JD Buckley’s History of Freemasonry, Ezra Sproule A History of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Burke’s Peerage (1949), Nisbet’s Heraldry, Arthur Charles Fox-Davies’ Complete Guide to Heraldry, Scottish Feudal Baronies by R MacPherson, C Hannay’s Galloway and its People, The 1902 Army List, EM Haddow’s Scotland’s Great Houses, various transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society from the turn of the twentieth century, and three solander boxes with, in gold leaf, the inscription: ‘Greatorix Archive’. Leo opened one of them to find that it contained letters, genealogy, sketches, photographs, bills of sale and cuttings from journals in different hands, all chronologically pasted onto the pages of large exercise books, with explanatory notes in the same precise handwriting he had seen before.
The next Leo Moran adventure, The Mystery of the Strange Piper, is out September 16th 2021!
Many people are suggesting good books to read during these difficult locked-down times, so I thought I’d chip in my tuppence worth and briefly describe two humdingers which I have recently enjoyed. As I get older, I seem to read more and more primarily novels, but both of the books I’d like to recommend are non-fiction, and both, in different ways, overlap with my Leo Moran series of detective stories. By the way, the third in the Leo series, The Mystery of the Strange Piper, is due out this year!
First up is The Empress of Ireland, an account by the late screenwriter and Fleet Street journalist Christopher Robbins of his friendship with the film director Brian Desmond Hurst. Brian was a colossus of London life in the middle twentieth century. He directed my favourite version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Scrooge, 1951; the one that starred Alastair Sim). Anyway, Christopher was introduced to Brian in the early 1970s when the director would hold court to a bevy of friends and acolytes at his Belgravia apartment. Christopher was enrolled to write a movie script about the events which led up to the birth of Christ. The project, one feels, was destined never to get off the ground. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to. Perhaps it was conceived by Brian merely for his own amusement, but at least it allowed a friendship to blossom and adventures to unfold. This funny book takes us from London to Tangier to Ireland to Malta. People were evidently drawn to Brian, and there wasn’t anyone worth knowing who he didn’t know, everyone from Noel Coward to Louis Mountbatten to Russian émigré and suspected double agent Baroness Moura Budberg. John Ford counted him as a close personal friend. I like to incorporate cultivated, good-living, larger-than-life characters in the Leo Moran books and I loved this ultimately tender rendering of this largely forgotten, eccentric, magnificent man and indeed a lost version of London. Brian was a singular person of complexity and contradictions, oscillating between magnanimity and freeloading, warm-heartedness and brusqueness, vanity and deep religious devotion. He was an unashamed homosexual – in the days when to be such was hazardous, yet a devout Catholic. Brian’s existence might seem sumptuous and rarified – trite, even – until you read of his humble Belfast beginnings and the loss of his younger brother, let alone until you read about his experiences at the killing ground of Gallipoli.
The second tome I’d like to humbly commend is JA Baker’s The Peregrine (1967). It is regarded as one of the greatest nature books of the twentieth century, although I admit I had never heard of it until I was gifted it. It is beyond nature writing; it reads almost like a novel as it relates the eternal deadly drama of the wild world. Yet it does so in prose so rich and vivid and inventive and lyrical as to resemble poetry. It details one person’s obsession, the peregrine falcon, yet it also includes many other birds and animals of that predator’s universe. The stage is a modest valley in rural Essex, yet Baker transfigures this landscape and even the drabbest of its feral inhabitants with his extraordinary descriptions. Even details such as the particular flight pattern of an individual hawk are worthy of pause, yet the text never feels verbose, nothing is wasted. In fact, the narrative is always compelling so you have to consciously slow your reading because you don’t want to rush it, you want to savour every delicious morsel. Baker was evidently a man confident in his mastery of the craft, able to push the boundaries of observational writing. And his expertise on the behaviours and instincts of these remarkable creatures is deeply impressive. I like to incorporate scenes of nature in my Leo Moran novels, but I can only doff my cap to Baker’s genius. The book is presented as a journal spanning a single winter, although in fact, for impact, Baker distilled several winters’ worth of observations into one. Memorable passages include the description of the death of a partridge from the perspective of both hawk and prey, and a sudden woodland encounter between author and tawny owl (the helmeted face was pale white, ascetic, half-human, bitter and withdrawn). If writing can be transcendental, then try this telling of a peregrine’s aerial duel with a skylark for size:
Their rapid, shifting, dancing motion had been so deft and graceful that it was difficult to believe that hunger was the cause of it and death the end. The killing that follows the hunting flight of hawks comes with a shocking force, as though the hawk had suddenly gone mad and killed the thing it loved. The striving of birds to kill, or to save themselves from death, is beautiful to see. The greater the beauty the more terrible the death.
Baker, who passed away in 1987, was writing at a time when persecution but especially chemical pollutants were destroying this species in Britain. He thought he was witnessing the end of its days, but happily the peregrine was saved. His masterpiece should be a torch handed down to future generations.
I sometimes wonder if Robin Hardy’s cult movie The Wicker Man holds a magical allure for me because I was born at the same time as it was being filmed. This is probably vanity, as the film, the granddaddy of all cult flicks, has a strange magnetism which has drawn in many acolytes.
I first saw The Wicker Man in the late 1980s, introduced by cinema buff Alex Cox on BBC2’s Moviedrome series, and I was immediately smitten by the weirdness of the work’s tone and aesthetic – surely quintessential to late-1960s/early-1970s Britain, its sheer uniqueness and its bleakness. The film (spoiler alert) is set on Summerisle, a fictional Hebridean island whose inhabitants are in the thrall of ancient pagan religion. In reality, the filming largely took place in Galloway, in pretty settings such as Kirkcudbright, Gatehouse of Fleet, Creetown, Anwoth, Castle Kennedy and in and around Isle of Whithorn. The film had a big effect on my second crime novel, The Shadow of the Black Earl – a country house murder mystery with a dose of the occult – not least because it influenced its location.
My first crime book in a series starring Leo Moran – connoisseur, private investigator and seer of visions – The Ghost of Helen Addison was released by Polygon last year. It was set in a relatively northern clime (upper-Argyll) during the grip of an icy winter. I wanted its follow-up to provide a contrast by being set in the softer countryside of southern Scotland and during a hot, dry summer (such a Scottish summer seems less fanciful after the sultry one we have just enjoyed). The trouble was, I was shamefully unfamiliar with the lower reaches of my own country. The Borders, and even more so Dumfries and Galloway, are generally circumvented at high speed by travellers heading south to England or north to the glories of the Highlands. You might ask why I had to set the novel in a real place at all. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to create my own setting as the fact that I wanted to confirm that the types of scenery I had in mind for The Shadow of the Black Earl approximately existed in southern Scotland, for the sake of authenticity. My love for The Wicker Man persuaded me to first scope out Galloway, and I wasn’t to be disappointed. I found the perfect location in the countryside around the village of Laurieston, and I barely had to alter anything for the purposes of the narrative, although I did change the place names. There was even a stately home (now a commune) which fitted the bill perfectly. My story also takes place in the wider Kirkcudbrightshire area, including some of the locations where The Wicker Man was filmed. I’m not sure if it was chance or destiny, but a key scene in my novel takes place in exactly the same Kirkcudbright street as several iconic shots from the movie.
The Wicker Man contains elements of paganism and the occult, and so does The Shadow of the Black Earl. In my book, the reader wonders if the pagan imagery that Leo Moran comes across is innocent, or related to the disappearance of a teenage girl, which has chilling echoes of a similar disappearance thirty years previously. The disapproval Leo expresses towards local pagans is redolent of that of police Sergeant Howie, played by Edward Woodward, in the movie (both men are searching for missing girls). I rechristened Laurieston’s only pub (sadly now defunct) as the Green Man Inn, in homage to the establishment in the film in which Howie is dismayed by bawdy community singing, almost seduced by Britt Ekland’s ‘landlord’s daughter’ Willow, and offended when (in the director’s cut) Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) offers a fresh-faced local boy for deflowering by Miss Ekland. In the Green Man in The Shadow of the Black Earl, Leo is faced with less jovial regulars – surly fellows so distant as to make the detective wonder if they are part of a conspiracy behind the kidnapping of the missing girl.
On my research trips from Glasgow to Galloway, I came to fall in love with the region, and I’ve been back several times on holiday. Just recently, I visited with two dear friends, Stuart and Jason, who are fellow Wicker Man devotees. We stayed at the Ellangowan Hotel in Creetown, the bar of which was used for the interior shots of the Green Man. Aided by several good internet sites (http://www.british-film-locations.com is the best), we motored around visiting various locations, and discovered that the film has deep roots in the area. We met one man whose lasting regret was that his father had insisted that he work while his friends took up roles as extras. We also chatted with a local artist whose dad had a supporting role in the movie; she now creates artworks based on the film.
The highlight of our trip was probably Burrowhead, where the movie’s climax – the burning of the giant wicker effigy – takes place. We regarded the waves crashing upon the cliffs beneath a perfect sky, and found the actual stumps of the prop, ‘1972’ marked on the concrete base. Rumours that my friends and I set fire to a Blue Peter-style mini wicker man are strenuously denied!
Author's note: Detective Inspector Lang is the chief investigating officer in The Ghost of Helen Addison. Towards the end of the novel he considers a rational rather than a supernatural explanation for what has unfolded. This was derived from notes Lang had written in preparation for his police report, but which don't appear in the novel.
Rattray was extremely narcissistic. He [as outlined in sect.1] had become fascinated by his grandfather, the thirteenth Baron of Caradyne. Rattray, like his hero, sought to self-justify his deviancy by expressing it through quite complex occult melodrama. Rattray was indeed delusional, yet although he had convinced himself of the authenticity of his pseudo-religious rituals I contend his confidence in their power was not absolute, and he used an entirely practical means by which to draw his victims from their beds during the night. He was a highly manipulative individual, skilled at synthesising rapport, and volumes discovered in his attic show he had a keen interest in covert hypnosis techniques.
Helen Addison: Rattray – the ‘Tark’ from victim’s diary [see sect.1] – had some psychological hold over her [Speculation: could this have gone back to her childhood? He would have known her all her life, and Mr Stuart Addison informed me yesterday that Rattray babysat for his daughter when she was a child]. She was drawn by some subconscious seed planted by Rattray via said hypnosis. This, combined with the effects of antihistamines (proven to make some people susceptible to somnambulism – and she had been known to sleepwalk, albeit only during childhood [Rattray may have witnessed this]) taken by the victim for an allergy, was sufficient to coax her from her bed.
Robert McKee: Easiest to explain. He was doped on ketamine hydrochloride (spiked by Rattray, who often cooked meals for him), benzodiazepine (which he had been prescribed by his GP Dr JA Fitzpatrick for anxiety), and, countering these, the stimulating effects of the anxiety itself and possibly a natural psychoactive (some traces of fungi found in Rattray’s bin have been sent for analysis) as well as the psychoactive side-effects of the ketamine. Combined, these induced a profoundly altered state; there would have been no need to use any psychological programming upon McKee. [Speculation: Rattray performed some terrifying piece of theatre on the night of the attack upon Ms Whitton to drive McKee into the woods]. Unfortunately, have been unable to interview McKee due to ongoing mental distress.
Eva Whitton: On the night she was attacked, Ms Whitton admitted to registrar at Oban A&E to having taken an illegally procured substance, probably some form of ersatz barbiturate, before going to bed. This was probably purchased from one Alexander Dreghorn, a suspected drug dealer from whom Whitton also bought scrap metals. Tranquilisers are a known cause of somnambulism and upon questioning Ms Whitton stated she was known to sleepwalk from time to time – Rattray was therefore doubly fortuitous. [Speculation: could Rattray, having babysat for Ms Addison during childhood, and through some historical conversation with Ms Whitton, have known that both women had a predilection to somnambulism which could be exploited through subtle psychological manipulation?] Also, Rattray had a friendly business relationship with Ms Whitton and had opportunity to perform the same auto-suggestive technique he had used on Ms Addison. Ms Whitton has confirmed that she was indeed engaged in conversation by the perpetrator during the day prior to the attack upon her person. Furthermore, she recalls that Rattray steered that conversation to the subject of Ms Addison’s murder, which was the cause of great disturbance in Ms Whitton’s mind, as she knew and admired the victim. Upon my probing Ms Whitton said Rattray may have dwelled upon the subject of Ms Addison’s unexplained night walk, which preceded her murder. I propose that at this point in the conversation Rattray, using carefully pre-constructed linguistic data, obliquely planted in Ms Whitton’s unconscious the desire that she too should sleepwalk that very night. [Speculation: He may have subtly suggested that in doing so Ms Whitton could somehow retrospectively save Ms Addison. It is impossible to incite someone into acting self-destructively, therefore the post-hypnotic suggestions seeded in both women’s minds would have been associated with something benign and/or mundane].
Leo Griffin: Griffin did not speak with Rattray the day before his night walk and therefore could not have been manipulated by him. Anyway, he was entirely conscious before and during his encounter with Rattray on the island of Innisdubh. However: heavy drinker, suffers from night terrors; may have gone for early walk and been drawn to island out of sheer curiosity [Speculation: saw candle lights? Saw boat over there? (check if such objects would be visible from mainland). Just nosey? A nosey bastard who got lucky? But he rang me and told me it was Rattray over there before he had gone over himself!!!??? Perhaps he just had a sharp instinct for falsehood e.g. Rattray’s body language or choice of words gave him away. But what about other, accurate info he had passed to me earlier in investigation?!]
Addendum: As for the cooperation of Mr Leomaris Griffin, I can only commend his perceptiveness. I cannot reasonably account for all of the information he brought to bear on the case and I would recommend his utilisation in future operations.
Somewhere on the web I found a definition of the characters required for a gothic novel: the maiden, the hero, the villain, and an older, foolish woman. In my book The Ghost of Helen Addison, these would be, respectively: Helen Addison (and Eva Whitton), Leo Moran, the killer, and the hotelier Shona Minto.
I have myself identified other sub-elements to the gothic, some of which appear in my forthcoming Leo novel, The Shadow of the Black Earl (out September 2018). Sometimes there is a portrait of a deceased individual (used, for example, in the short story The Lost Stradivarius by J Meade Falkner, The Hound of The Baskervilles, and the movie The Innocents based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), which is usually seen before or after the protagonist has seen the ghost of that individual. Also common are framing devices – stories within stories, often told through lost and found old manuscripts telling of some ancient evil. For example, the Hound of the Baskervilles features such a document, and James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is partly comprised of the presentation of a found document from the previous century. Other sub-elements I have identified are musical boxes, haunted attics, glimpsed figures at windows or on battlements, stormy weather, and physically deformed or curiously ugly characters. There are also thrawn (RL Stevenson used this wonderful Scots adjective in Thrawn Janet, a gothic short story), canny and disdainful or even hostile locals. The hero is usually a visitor, the innocent abroad or perhaps the noble idiot. The locals close off secrets to him, and he doesn’t understand rural ways and might unwittingly give offence.
Gothic is currently enjoying a renaissance in Scotland. For example, there is the excellent sequel to the most iconic of all Scottish Gothic novels, RL Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, entitled Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek. It was written by the talented Anthony O’Neill and brilliantly evokes the tone of the original. The grandfather of all Scottish Gothic, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is clearly an inspiration behind Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016.
The Ghost of Helen Addison is an accidental successor to Margaret Oliphant’s gothic tome The Wizard’s Son . It was spooky to realise how many similar elements there are within both books, despite my never having heard of it, let alone read it, prior to writing Helen Addison. First of all, both novels are set at a fictionalised version of Loch Awe (which she renamed Loch Houran, I renamed Loch Dhonn). Both of us were inspired by Kilchurn Castle at the top of Loch Awe, which became the keep on my island of Innisdubh, and the Castle of Kinloch Houran in Mrs Oliphant’s tale. In both books, a flawed protagonist (Leo Moran in my book, Walter Methven in Mrs Oliphant’s) arrives from outside, and by similar means, by train and then coach/taxi, and both books record the protagonist’s first impressions of the place. The protagonist then leaves only to return again. In both books there was the element of a wicked ancestor (in my book the thirteenth Baron Caradyne, in Mrs Oliphant’s the Warlock Lord of Erradeen), a magician who seeks to bring riches and/or power to his line. The gothic often encompasses religious themes, and in both books there is a female object of the hero’s romantic affection; Eva in my novel and Oona in Mrs Oliphant’s. Both women’s names were chosen consciously to evoke a religion theme: Eva evokes the Edenic theme of my book, whereby idyll of Loch Dhonn is shattered by terrible sin. Meanwhile Walter is redeemed by Oona Forrester; Una means lamb, evoking the Christ sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
Another novel which contributes to this revival of the Scottish Gothic is Jane Harris’ superb Gillespie and I , featuring the unreliable narrator Harriet Baxter, and set at the time when a neo-gothic Glasgow was under construction. Unreliable narrators are common in the Scottish Gothic, as are changes in the narrative voice, for example the story being told through different statements and letters, by people with different motivations or biases. These novels therefore reflect on the nature of truth, and ask whether objective truth can exist, and we often don’t know for certain what happened or why, or are left to project our own interpretations onto the text. I myself indulge in this by having two possible explanations for events in my Leo Moran novels: a supernatural one and an entirely ‘rational’ one.
This notion of projecting different interpretations on the same text brings me to the classic feature of the Scottish Gothic novel: it is marked by duality, tension or conflict between opposing ideas. This is the ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’ coined by Professor George Gregory Smith and expounded in an essay by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. In my experience, the Caledonian Antisyzygy can refer to many tensions or conflicts lurking within the Scottish nation or consciousness.
The duality can be expressed within character (most famously Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or setting. Perhaps the structure of Confessions of a Justified Sinner reflects this too; the rational ‘editor’ and the superstitious Robert Wringham representing the rational and superstitious components in the Scottish consciousness. In The Ghost of Helen Addison, my detective Leo accepts a metaphysical explanation for events, while the policeman DI Lang, a typically pragmatic, logical, Lowland Scot, prefers the rational.
Confessions of a Justified Sinner demonstrated the influence of hard-line Calvinism on the ‘wild’, ‘romantic’ or ‘passionate’ Scottish psyche, but I’d contend that the most significant mover behind this Scottish dualism is the troubled relationship Scotland has with England. Professor David Punter of Bristol University, an expert on the genre, pinpoints the idée fixe of the gothic as a concern with history, especially the myths and fabrications upon which a nation is based. The Scottish Gothic is therefore haunted by Scotland past. In many ways, Scottish national identity was crystallised by opposition to England, and even though the Act of Union brought peace between the countries, there remains an uneasiness to this arrangement in the Scottish mind.
The Scots are often referred to a Jekyll and Hyde people. It is a country influenced by the light of reason – quite literally Enlightened – which produced much of the philosophy, science and engineering that shaped the modern world. Conversely, the Scottish soul is also romantic, superstitious and subject to often self-destructive passions. This split could once have been considered roughly geographic; the gentler country of the south inhabited by the staid, better-educated, English-speaking (inasmuch as Scots is a dialect of English), Presbyterian population who typified the values of the Enlightenment, the Union and the Industrial Revolution. While the rugged, forested Highland country of the west and north was inhabited by the Gaels, the people of poetry and song and doomed causes and ancient honour codes and blood loyalties and uisge-beatha. I reckon the Highlands reflect a further dualism. It is an uncommonly beautiful realm, an inspiration to artists and a backdrop for tales of heroism, romance and adventure. When the sun shines on a Highland landscape it lifts the spirits. Yet in the winter’s dark, in the rain or beneath a scowling sky, the very same terrain can – often very quickly – take on a melancholy and even sinister aspect. Within such shadow it is not hard to comprehend why ours is a country rich in a darker romance, in tales of ghosts and witchcraft. Loch Awe – or in my case Loch Dhonn – typifies this alternation, and the novel takes place at the hinterland between winter and the beginning of spring. Therefore both versions of Scotland are present in the novel, the pretty and romantic/the dark and foreboding.
The journey north is another gothic trope, and the Ghost of Helen Addison begins with Leo travelling north by train from Glasgow to Loch Dhonn. Night journeys are common in the gothic, and Leo’s second trip northwards when he returns from his banishment is on a wild night. The Highland/Lowland divide is enshrined by these journeys as the protagonist moves from the urban, ordered, civilised cradles of Scottish Enlightenment (Glasgow in Helen Addison and Edinburgh in The Wizard’s Son) to the rural, backward, untamed and superstitious northern realm. I like setting my books (largely) within the countryside as I feel it is a timeless place, where getting by is still more trying and where business still proceeds according to seasonal rhythms. In a sense the country is therefore an anachronism, a trip back in time from the modern, hi-tech city of convenience and easy conveyance.
Gothic reflects a more general duality of human nature, usually expressed as an inner struggle between good and evil, with variations such as human versus animal, and civilization versus barbarism. The gothic allows for a conflicted, complex character such as Leo Moran. He is a conservative Catholic but has left-wing politics, a proud Scot but of Irish descent, a genteel, polite man but a heavy drinker, a socialist who lives in opulence and idleness, a kind-hearted and principled man but also a sharp-tongued and unforgiving person, a sociable and overtly confident man but also an individual who is emotionally wounded and who too often craves isolation.
When I sat down to write The Ghost of Helen Addison, my intention was simply to create a crime novel. However, after it was published I found it was often being described as ‘gothic’, and indeed I was recently invited to speak at three ‘gothic’ literary events, so I feel as though I inadvertently have a foot inside two literary camps. I think we all have a sense of what ‘gothic’ is, but I wanted to investigate more precise academic definitions of the term to measure the extent to which Helen Addison was a gothic novel.
I realised that there were several gothic literary influences on the book. Prior to writing it, I had read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (which I have discussed in a previous blog), which belongs to the Southern Gothic sub-genre. Furthermore, its antihero IJ Reilly (who helped inspire my detective Leo Moran) yearns for a medieval ideal, which chimes with the way that the gothic novel evokes the medieval. I had also read the entire collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, again an influence on Leo, and apparently Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s little masterpieces are also considered to be gothic in terms of atmosphere, setting, suspense and dalliances with the supernatural (or rather with people’s fears of the supernatural, because of course Holmes is a man of the Enlightenment, of science and method). I had also read several collections of classic gothic ghost stories, by Sheridan Le Fanu, MR James and Rhoda Broughton. Setting is perhaps the most important element to the gothic, and the final influence I’d like to mention wasn’t literary, it was an actual location: Loch Awe in Argyll (see previous blog), which the Loch Dhonn of my book is based on. I first visited this place in the late autumn, a landscape brooding in the shortening days, summer’s greenery withered and brown beneath louring skies and looming mountains.
Anyway, so much for influences – what about definitions? The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of gothic is: ‘redolent of the Dark Ages; portentously gloomy or horrifying.’ The literary vogue was initiated in England in 1765 by Horace Walpole’s immensely successful Castle of Otranto (I haven’t read it, but an audience member at one of my gothic events informed me that it isn’t worth the effort!). The gothic novel incorporates a prevailing atmosphere of mystery, terror, horror, fear, death, and gloom. There are also romantic ingredients such as nature, individuality, high emotion, and (often unreturned) love. To relate this to The Ghost of Helen Addison, there is obviously a death – the murder of a young woman. As for horror, there is a ghost – as the title suggests; that of the victim’s restless spirit. While she is a benign ghost, the encounters between her and Leo are nonetheless chilling. There is an occult (also horror) element to crime, and there are suspenseful and frightening passages (terror, fear), some taking place at night. There is a romantic focus of Leo’s affections – the artist Eva Whitton – and it is an unreturned love.
The writer Lyn Pykett said gothic novels ‘share a preoccupation with the monstrous and supernatural, and make frequent use of dreams, visions, hallucinations, metamorphoses of various kinds.’ Well, my detective Leo Moran experiences visions which pertain to certain crimes, and which inform his investigations.
Gothic fiction is so named because its imaginative impulse was drawn from medieval buildings and ruins, which by the Renaissance were being described as being of gothic architecture (presumably because by then people considered it primitive, and used a barbarian pejorative). Gothic literature started at the same time as the revival in the appreciation of gothic architecture (mid-18th century, notably the highpoint of the Enlightenment and therefore perhaps a reaction against its raw materialist impulses) and indeed its replication in neo-gothic buildings. Many artists were soon longing for a lost past, for example the great polymath William Morris and the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, while certain High Anglican churchmen and theologians at Oxford pined for a pre-Reformation religion. Gothic novels commonly use settings such as castles or monasteries or ancient houses equipped with subterranean passages, dark battlements, hidden panels, and trapdoors. Often the wing of an old house is empty or closed off. The setting, especially a building, can itself be considered as an actual character, a sense of it being alive, as having its own personality and secrets. Examples would be the house in Conan Doyle’s Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Baskerville Hall in his Hound of the Baskervilles, Wuthering Heights in Emily Bronte’s classic, Satis House in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Incidentally, these novels suggest a broader definition of Gothic as a tone and style encompassing works that don’t necessarily have a mystery at their heart, or at least, the mystery is more a secret or an ancient malevolence than a crime. Often the buildings are old, dilapidated, decaying and might be set within gloomy, lifeless, fear-inducing landscapes. The gothic novel and indeed movie are now so embedded in our consciousness that this gloomy and frightening backdrop sets the scene for what the reader/audience comes to expect. The surrounding Highland landscape in The Ghost of Helen Addison is beautiful and grand but morose and at times oppressive in the winter gloom, which embodies the legends and foul deeds which abound in the locale.
Gothic settings can be inhabited by supernatural evil or a building might conceal secrets or be a refuge of a malevolent, frightening or threatening character. Examples are Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, the influence of du Maurier’s Rebecca at Manderley, the tyrannical Dr Grimesby Roylott who lives at Stoke Moran in Conan Doyle’s the Adventure of the Speckled Band, and, classically, Bram Stoker’s Dracula in his castle. In The Ghost of Helen Addison there is a strange person, The Grey Lady, who lives in a lonely old mansion, Fallasky House. She doesn’t socialise with the villagers and holds with the old faith. Her butler/lover Bosco is also a mysterious character. Initially, we only hear tell of him and his reputation as a peculiar fellow of immense physical strength. There is also the dastardly baron of Caradyne and his henchman Kemp, although they are less enigmatic as we meet them quickly and in full view during daylight. We never visit their house, although we do glimpse a creepy former Caradyne residence, Ardchreggan House, on the opposite bank of the loch. Further gothic settings in The Ghost of Helen Addison would be an eerie church, St Fillan’s, where a terrifying moonlit episode takes place. The island of Innisdubh is the main locus of evil in the book. It has a dark past. There are strange druid stones and it is suspected that human sacrifice took place here in ancient times. There is a ruined tower where a medieval tyrant the Green Lord was hanged and disembowelled. There are various graves, including that of the Green Lord and the thirteenth Baron of Caradyne. The latter incorporates weird occult symbolism –allegedly he did dire deeds in Edwardian times.
In my next gothic outpouring, I’m going to consider sub-elements of the genre, and also the Scottish Gothic.