“Every time he went there, Tom had the same thought: anything could be happening here and no-one would know.”
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Where would get your vote for the greatest horror novel setting of all time? Castle Dracula? The Overlook Hotel? There are many possibilities, but there’s a good chance your answer would fall into the category of ‘old, scary building’. Buildings, as containers for fear, are absolutely crucial to the darker side of literature.
Recently, I read the book that started it all. And it’s not Frankenstein or Dracula. It was written more than 80 years before Bram Stoker was born. And its author was, of all people, a Member of Parliament. Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto gave us the prototype for every old, scary building that came after.
From page one, its inhabitants are terrified by surreal goings on in its shadowy chambers. The dark corridors and echoing crypts are full of whispers and shrieks of alarm. The castle is not only a setting for inexplicable and disturbing events but almost seems to be an accomplice to them.
The Castle of Otranto caused a sensation and this one short book launched an entire genre – the gothic novel, the forerunner of all horror and paranormal fiction. The gothic castle would remain the preferred setting for this kind of macabre entertainment well into the 19th century. And it’s still a powerful archetype today, even if sometimes in a tamer, friendlier form; isn’t Hogwarts just the Castle of Otranto echoing to the shouts of a rowdy school party?
Over time, the action moved into more modest, domestic surroundings. Which was lucky for writers in countries like America, where the only castles are the concrete and fibreglass ones belonging to Mr Disney. The vampires, spectres and monsters deigned to slum it in houses – as long as they were large, old and rambling. In Salem’s Lot, Stephen King places the Marsten House at the absolute heart of his narrative. It becomes almost a character in its own right, influencing events. This “beacon of evil” is not just the place where the vampire Barlow happens to end up – he has been drawn there, attracted by this powerful magnet of darkness.
So by the late 20th century horror had largely move out of the castle. Terror had down-sized. That’s perhaps because while the writers (and many of the readers) of 18th and 19th century gothic novels had occupied the upper echelons of society, modern writers tended to be ordinary people, living in ordinary houses, in ordinary towns.
This democratising of dark fiction had one very important and powerful side-effect: it brought it closer to us all; it brought it to streets and houses like our own, to our doorstep. And any psychologist will tell you that fictional narratives have a much greater impact on audiences if they happen against familiar backdrops.
Ancient battlements and secret passageways are all very well but they are not part of everyday experience for most of us. The horror that dwells in that empty house on the edge of your town is much more potent, relevant and harder to forget.
I’ve become fascinated with a particular kind of place. The kind of place no-one goes. It’s not far from town and it’s close enough to major roads to hear the distant rush of traffic…but it might as well be on the moon.
You probably know a place like this, if, like me, you live in quite a densely populated part of the world. An ex-industrial hinterland, a long dis-used quarry, a cluster of abandoned buildings. Maybe you went there once and, even though nothing in particular happened, you came away thinking, I’m never going back there.
I’ve become fascinated with the idea of places that are remote despite being in busy, well-populated areas, and are in fact all the more isolated for that.
Let me give you an example. When I’m not a writer, I’m a conservationist. I was asked to survey an area that had been impacted upon by the building of a high speed railway line. My job was to look at how the habitats the railway had cut through might be replaced – straightforward enough. But I was more struck by the way the new line had also cut through several country lanes, which were not important enough to make a bridge or underpass economically viable. All these winding little roads had become dead ends. No-one used them anymore. So the abiding impression I took away from that place was of a whole area that, because of the new railway, had thousands of people passing through it on a daily basis, yet had been rendered isolated by its very presence.
I’ve become fascinated by the idea that anything could be happening in these abandoned corners, and no-one would know. What a beautiful twist in the story of our civilisation, that the worst things, the most terrifying things might be found not in a remote castle or a lonely wilderness, but it that forgotten place, not so far from town, that you promised yourself you would never go back to.
All fiction has its roots in real life. Even fiction that deals with the supernatural.
One of the most common questions I get asked about ‘Elsham’s End’ is whether it’s based on a real place. Well the answer is yes – so here is the story of the real ‘Elsham’s End’.
‘Elsham’s End’ is based on the house I grew up in, in the Kent countryside. I was very fortunate to live there – it was a beautiful place with a large, rambling garden. But my family’s relationship with the house was ambiguous – we all loved it and yet I think we all knew there was something not quite right about it.
It was fairly isolated and I suppose that contributed to this feeling, a vague sense of unease. It was very quiet there, particularly at night. Many of the events in the book came from dreams that I and other members of my family had. Visitors who stayed in the house often reported strange and unsettling dreams too, some refusing to sleep there again.
My mother particularly never really felt at ease in the house, and I later discovered that she hated living there. She had many dreams that centred around the boxroom, a small attic space above the garage, which features very strongly in the novel.
In looking for an explanation, she always put the peculiar atmosphere in the place down to its history. Two sisters had lived there before us. Essentially they had run a private hospice there – a place where people went to die.
My own experience of living there is hard to pin down. I really only became aware of how strange the house felt when we left. My older brother and sister had flown the nest, so we moved to a smaller place in a busy little village further up the valley. I was ten years old, yet I was acutely aware of how different the atmosphere was in the new house. And I realised I’d just stepped out of the shadow of the old place, which had been cast over me from such an early age I was not even aware of it.