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