Everyday Terror: thoughts on scary stories

I’m writing scary stories at the moment. (I was meant to have written one scary story, but the characters kind of ran away with me and now I feel a novel coming on.)

My stories are the tales of a Victorian ghost hunter. Now, if you’re writing Victorian ghost stories, the master is MR James. ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad’ and ‘Casting the Runes’ are probably two of the greatest ghost stories in the English language, and if you haven’t read them, you should. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is available on Gutenberg or as a free download on at the time of writing.  Go on, get it.

James is a master of classic Victorian sinister trappings – the ancient tomb, the crumbling manuscript, the faces in the yew trees. But an awful lot of his worst horror comes from very domestic details. The thing in ‘Oh Whistle’ has ‘a face like crumpled linen’. Effectively, it’s a haunted bedsheet. It’s terrifying. In ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ the haunting comes through the pattern of the curtains. (Laugh it up, till you read it, and then decide to replace all your curtains with blinds, just to be on the safe side.)

The most sinister line James ever wrote is in ‘Casting the Runes’, where the pursuing force finally catches up with its unfortunate victim. He puts his hand under the pillow in the dark, and finds

a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it

That’s all. No long bloody passages dripping with gore, no mutilation, no vampire spider death cults, just a mouth, with teeth, and hair, under your pillow. It’s one of the most frightening stories you’ll ever read.

Talking of terror, here’s a passage from E Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. This is a children’s book, but don’t let that stop you from feeling utterly unnerved by it. Statues walk the castle grounds at night, and there is a magic ring so sinister that you’ll be looking around hopefully for a giant eagle to fly you to Mount Doom. In the most memorable passage of this extremely memorable book, Gerald and his sisters have made a set of guys out of old clothes, broom handles, pillow cases, with painted paper bags for faces. Unfortunately, the creatures come alive (the ring again). And this happens:

. . . the hall was crowded with live things, strange things all horribly short as broom sticks and umbrellas are short. A limp hand gesticulated. A pointed white face with red cheeks looked up at him, and wide red lips said something, he could not tell what. The voice reminded him of the old beggar down by the bridge who had no roof to his mouth. These creatures had no roofs to their mouths, of course they had not. “Aa oo re o me me oo a oo ho el?” said the voice again. And it had said it four times before Gerald could collect himself sufficiently to understand that this horror, alive, and most likely quite uncontrollable, was saying, with a dreadful calm, polite persistence: “Can you recommend me to a good hotel?”

I read this thirty years ago. It terrified me then and it terrifies me now. And the reason it is so terrifying is that this creature, made of stuff lying around the house, behaves just like a normal person. If it was roaring and trying to rip Gerald’s head off, we could cope with that. The request for a hotel – a good hotel, mind you – is what makes the horror so dizzying.

Because, like so much else, fear begins at home.

I grew up in a house with a cellar. There was a door that I could see, out of the corner of my eye, from my seat at the kitchen table. The handle was a little loose. Sometimes, if my siblings were running down the stairs, it rattled, just a bit. There were eleven stone steps down to the hard-packed floor, and you had to turn round them to get to the far corner and the freezer. Which meant, in order to take anything from the freezer, you had to turn your back on the door. You could leave it wide, prop it open, but that didn’t alter the fact that you had to turn your back.

I knew that one day I would turn back and the door at the top would be shut. I knew, when that happened, it would not reopen. And if I ever return to that house, I can promise you I won’t be going into the cellar.

(There is a scene in The Magpie Lord where our heroes are thrown into a cellar to wait for death. I didn’t describe that cellar in the book, but believe me, I could draw you a picture.)

Not to say fear always has to come from the mundane. I like a good monster or a haunted-house tale with special effects as much as the next woman (my first ghostly story, The Caldwell Ghost, features a full-on haunting). But when I came to write my second ghost-hunter tale, I started with the most harmless thing in the world: a simple butterfly.  Because it’s the little, innocent, normal things that get you in the end.

The Caldwell Ghost (a short, spooky m/m romance featuring ghost hunter Simon Feximal) is out from Torquere Press now. The sequel, Butterflies, is available as a free read from Smashwords.

The ego has landed: Musing on reviews

This week I learned that The Magpie Lord would be coming out in print. I am not a print snob – it’s a real book if people read it – but there is still something entirely delicious about the idea of putting a copy of my book on my shelves, and knowing that in years to come, the kids will pick it up and scream, “Ew! Mum, you wrote sex! That’s disgusting!”

Anyway, along with checking my print galleys, I’m required to put together a selection of review quotes. I’ll be honest, putting a bunch of nice reviews together into a single document is a whacking great ego boost, of the kind that causes you to wonder if it would really be that bad to get them printed up on, like, a mug, or maybe a T-shirt. But as I went on, it began to feel rather odd.

People have read this book and thought about it and applied serious consideration. People have embraced the characters, burrowed into their backstories, got in touch with me to ask about them. People have recommended it to their friends, sometimes with amazing enthusiasm, or even bought it for them. (! !!! Just … !)

Not to say that everyone loved it. Some people wanted to convey that there were very few spelling mistakes and the file was well formatted. Some people wrote really thoughtful reviews that analysed exactly why it didn’t work for them. Some people put a surprising amount of energy into explaining why they hated it.

I sat there, bewildered that so many people I’ve never met have found the time in their life to discuss my book. To tell the world, “here is a good book, read it”. Or “a bad book, avoid it”. Or “a book with no spelling errors, react accordingly”. I thought: That is one hell of a lot of work that people have put in on my book.

And then I realised that I was completely wrong to think that.

People have written about The Magpie Lord. Not “my book”. It stopped being “my book” when it was published, ie made available to the public. Once the book is out there, the interaction is reader/book, not reader/author. Robert Jackson Bennett wrote interestingly on this.

I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not – and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.

… I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.

There has been a lot of discussion, since the recent Goodreads kerfuffles, of negative reviews. What’s appropriate for reviewers to say, and how should writers respond? How much should you engage with reviews? Is that good social media behaviour, or unpleasant heavy breathing down the reader’s neck?

Well, it seems to me, if a review is part of an interaction between the book and the reader, then for the author to force her way in to that is like joining in someone else’s conversation on the tube. (I’m a Londoner. Having strangers speak to me on public transport is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.) Anyone who’s read a published book, is entitled to comment on it as they choose (within the confines of the law) – positive, negative, overwhelming joy, seething hatred, total indifference. And unless they actively invite me in to their conversation with the book by bringing it to my attention/talking directly to me, I think I should keep out of it. Much as I want to leave grateful comments on every positive review or send round black-clad chocolate delivery ninjas to everyone who said something nice; tempting as it might be to respond to someone who said something that wasn’t. I think I just have to put it out there, let people get on with it, and concentrate on writing the next one.

What do you think? Should authors interact with reviews or keep a distance?

But That’s What He’s Called! Late-stage changes to a character name

When The Magpie Lord was in edits, my editor asked me (very carefully, and giving the impression of typing while positioned behind a protective surface) to change the name of one of the heroes.

This was a perfectly reasonable request. I’d made a schoolgirl error in giving the two main characters names beginning with the same phoneme.  Sounds trivial; is not. At a normal reading pace you chunk* text, rather than taking in each letter, so that you don’t so much read the name ‘Crane’ as see ‘Cr—’ and fill in the rest. Therefore, if Hero 1 is Crane and Hero 2 is Crispin (which he was), readers may actually get confused – not because they’re idiots but because that’s how reading works.

So, fair play to my editor, she was quite right. Nevertheless, being asked to change my hero’s name was unbelievably hard.

I know it’s absurd. I know these are imaginary people I made up. I know it’s a story. The fact remains that when I got that email, I stared at the screen for about five minutes, with a hollow feeling in my stomach. I actually felt sick. I went for a very long walk on my own, and spent the first half of it getting my head round the very idea of changing the name. I described the request on my book group as ‘the most invasive thing that’s happened to me since my son’s suction-assisted birth’, and I stand by that as a not-at-all-overdramatic statement. (Ahem.)

Then I got over it and renamed the character ‘Stephen’, which is a far better name for him –still with the cadence and that slightly Old England ring to it, which was what I needed, but more solid, less fragile – and now I can’t remember why I ever imagined anything else. Listen to your editor, kids, she’s always right.

Of course it’s easy for writers now. David Copperfield started life as ‘Thomas Mag’, which is so glaringly wrong it’s almost impossible to imagine. Dickens’ notes show he went through Trotfield (horsey), Trotbury (clerky), Copperboy (weirdly metal) and Copperstone (too hard) before finally hitting on Copperfield. (Victorian nerd klaxon: Dickens readers may recognize that Trot– and –stone were important sounds for the book that made their way into other major character names.)

But Dickens couldn’t write the book with Thomas Mag and change it in edits. No search and replace for him.  You had to get it right at the start, or live with it. My husband has a theory that Thomas Hardy named his characters as a shorthand reminder of their plot role — “Hmm, this guy needs to be angelic, sturdy and very English. I’ll remember that if I call him Gabriel Oak.” — and then found himself stuck with them. (Thomas Hardy fans, please address critiques of this theory to my husband. It’s nothing to do with me.)

There’s a lot to be said for doing it the old-fashioned way and getting it right at the start. Not least that I never want to change a main character’s name again.

* this is a real technical term, honest.


Ever changed a character name? Can you imagine your favourite characters called anything else?

Teasers and backstory: Holmes vs Harry Potter

“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”

Conan Doyle was the master of the teaser. The Holmes tales are packed with little throwaway references to past cases, hinting at a world of untold stories, and spawning a healthy publishing industry of pastiche writers who are only too happy to speculate about ‘Merridew of abominable memory’, ‘the repulsive story of the red leech’ or the madness of Isadora Persano, involving ‘a remarkable worm unknown to science’. (Although the one about ‘the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant’ is taking the mickey, if you ask me.)

These little references give us a hinterland. A confirmation that the character exists outside the page, a sketch of landscape to populate with our own imaginations. If there were no untold stories, some of the magic would be lost.

And then there’s Harry Potter. A massively realised, detailed world, where the author knows everything down to preferred brands of cereal and the parentage of characters who appear once on p.312 – and where the reader hears about it. If JK Rowling had come up with the giant rat of Sumatra, we’d know what part of Sumatra it came from, how giant it was, and that the captain of the Matilda Briggs was a Hufflepuff who once dated Ron Weasley’s aunt.

Remember the fuss when Rowling announced that a ‘major character’ in HP4 was going to die? It turned out to be – I had to look this up – Cedric Diggory, and a lot of people felt very cheated, because he was not a major character by any definition. But in Rowling’s head, he was a major character, because in this massively realised world in her head, everyone was major. There was no Basil Exposition or Jimmy Plotfunction, just there to do a job in the service of the story. Everyone had a fully developed existence. Which, when that information is in the author’s head, informs the text on the page, creating a huge richness and reality.

I tend to think some of it ought to stay in the author’s head.

Many will disagree. A large part of the pleasure in Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter / The Kingkiller Chronicles is the fact that the author puts every possible bit of worldbuilding on the page, and the reader can wallow for hours and know all there is to know.

Me, I don’t want to know all there is to know. I want the author to know it, sure, but I like the sense of a story existing in a larger world. I love China Miéville’s books because of the joyful wastage of invention: he’ll casually toss out a two-sentence mention of some brilliant abomination that anyone else would use as the basis for a trilogy, and then never use it again. (But now we know it’s out there…)

This isn’t an ‘I’m right/you’re wrong’. HP/LoTR etc are vastly popular with good reason. The immersive experience of reading a mammothly detailed series is an incredible one. But the untold story has pleasures too.

I’m thinking about this because there’s a point in The Magpie Lord,  where our hero, Crane, is asked why he has seven magpie tattoos.

“Whim. I was being forced to have a very large and expensive tattoo, and it seemed a change from the usual dragons and carp. I rather liked it, as it turned out, so I added more.”

“…forced to have a tattoo?”

“It’s a long story.”

It’s a long story I didn’t tell the reader (Crane tells it off-page), and quite a few people have commented on this in reviews, wanting to know what happened. I’m delighted to the point of embarrassing public dancing that anyone cares enough to mention it. And yet…

For me, the throwaway line conveys that Crane’s life has been so extraordinary that he regards being forced to have a huge tattoo as, meh, just one of those things. By leaving it as an untold story, the reader can fill in the gap with her own speculations and ideas. As a told story it’s a little piece of his past nailed down, a little mystery revealed. And I wonder if a single truth (about the tattoos, the giant rat, or even that stupid trained cormorant) can be as pleasurable as the imaginative vistas opened up for the reader by not knowing. After all, seven is for a secret never to be told…

Then again, it’s a pretty good story.


Should authors tell all? What do you think?

The First-Book Feeling (a view from both sides)

I’ve been a commissioning editor for fifteen years or so, and in that time I’ve taken on a lot of new authors, mostly out of the slush pile. That means I’ve made ‘The Call’ (the offer to publish someone’s first book) many times, and I can say with certainty that it’s far and away the best bit of the job. After all, to make someone else that happy normally takes a lot of money, several hours in the kitchen, or a level of sexual favours I’m just not prepared to offer authors. (Maybe the really good ones.)

The Call

Me: Hi, it’s KJ Charles from Publishers, I think you did a great job on the revisions, so I’d like to offer you a contract to publish the book.

Author, calmly: I see. Excuse me a moment.

[places phone on table]

Author [in distance]: AAAAAAIIIEIEIEIEIEIEEIEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAH!!! OH MY GOD!!!!!

[picks up phone]

Author, calmly: Right, yes, that’s great, thanks.

I once made The Call in person. I had an opportunity to meet the author, so what the hell, I thought I’d tell her face to face that I’d like to publish her book. It’s one of my lifetime favourite memories. I have never seen an adult cry so much, so hard, for so long. People were clustering around us asking if she’d just been bereaved. It was brilliant.

I even have a record of how I felt when I got the email offering to publish The Magpie Lord, because I was straight on to my online book group. Bearing in mind that I’m a highly experienced editor, have a degree in English Literature and am attempting to build a career as a writer, how did I make this announcement?

F*** me, I’m going to be published!

Master of her craft, right there.

So yeah, it’s great when someone offers to publish your book…

And then you wait.

And then there’s edits. Some complete git telling you to change stuff! In your book! Ack!

And then you wait.

And then there’s the terrifying prospect of the cover. Which if you’re lucky (like me) is a thing of beauty, and if you’re not is the subjImageect of this conversation.

And then you wait.

And you join Goodreads as an author, and get yourself an Amazon author page, and blog, and guest blog, and tweet, and join groups, and do all those things that everyone says you have to do, and in between those things, you wait more.

And you check Twitter maybe 400 times a day in case someone’s reviewed it, and it’s not clear which is worse, getting a bad review or not being reviewed at all, but either way you kind of feel like throwing up.

Also, more waiting.

And then publication day dawns, and with it the following realisations:

  • The rest of the world is basically indifferent to this life-exploding development. Just because people can now buy it does not mean they will.
  • I cannot prevent my boss or my friends or my mother from reading it. I hope you guys like sex and weird magic horror. Let’s not do a book group.
  • My book is published. Today is the birthday-and-Christmas I’ve been waiting for all my life. Tomorrow will be… Wednesday.
  • If I want this dizzy, heady, ‘oh sweet lord I’m going to be published’ feeling again, I’m going to have to write another book. Another one!

But all of that is for tomorrow. Today, I’m going to enjoy having my first book published. And, also, drink.

The Magpie Lord is out from Samhain. KJ Charles is in the pub.