Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Night after Night with Phil Rickman

Today’s guest blog is by Phil Rickman who talks about his new book Night after Night and haunted houses.  Phil Rickman lives on the Welsh border where he writes novels and presents the book programme Phil the Shelf on BBC Radio Wales. He is the acclaimed author of The Heresy of Dr Dee, The Bones of Avalon and the Merrily Watkins series. 

So last year, my publisher asked me how I felt about doing a haunted house novel.

I said OK.  Warily.  Ghosts have not been kind to me.  Nor, in fact, to virtually anyone who purports to be some kind of crime writer.

It doesn’t matter how silly your murder-mystery novels are or how unlikely your detective, there’s a lobby inside crime-writing - and crime-reading and crime-reviewing - circles that will always respect you more than somebody who lets a ghost in.

This goes back at least to the 1920s when Dorothy L Sayers & co. set up the Detection Club and members were made to swear an oath.

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits, which it may please you to bestow upon them, and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God…  

Nowadays, very few people who have heard of this oath remember the actual wording, but they do recall the sense of it, which - as they see it - is that serious crime fiction and the paranormal not only do not mix but also must not mix.

This has always been a problem for me.  I always wanted to be a crime writer.  Or, to broaden it out a bit, I wanted to be a mystery writer. 

Now, mystery is a big, liberal word that was devalued in the 20th century, mainly by American publishers for whom a mystery was a whodunit.  All I wanted was to jog the parameters of the crime novel to include mystery in the original sense… which would mean allowing a crime to be solved but other areas of the story to remain inexplicable. 

Come on, that’s realistic, isn’t it?  Not everything in life gets solved, either by cops or scientists.

I try not to use words like ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’ because they’re all over the kiddie vampire genre.  But the thing is I have a completely open mind.  I think Richard Dawkins is, on one level, an extremely clever man and, on another, in the same bag as fundamentalist religious zealots. 

But in between the two there’s an ocean of things we don’t understand which, at some stage, to a variable extent, infiltrate all our lives.  And I’ve always loved the peripheral area where nothing is quite what it seems.  Where sometimes there’s a psychological explanation, but occasionally there isn’t. 

What really annoy me are those crime novels that struggle to provide a rational explanation, however ridiculous, for glimpsed phenomena.  Far from being Conan Doyle’s best Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles is, for me, an unconvincing tale of animal abuse.

However, if you try to deal with this stuff in a fairly serious way, even if you relegate it to the periphery, your books are almost certain to wind up in that literary abyss known as The Horror Shelves.

As a novelist, I squeezed in at the end of the great horror boom which began well with The Exorcist and went on to create valid superstars like Stephen King and Peter Straub before drowning itself in a sewer of bad fantasy. 

My idea was to allow the folklore connected with a particular area to leak into a fairly character-led story with crime-novel construction.  However, my publishers at the time didn’t want to mess around on the periphery.  They were looking for The New British Stephen King.  Which would, if I’d gone for it, have made me one of approximately seven New British Stephen King’s that year alone. 

I played along for a while, producing five books, all of which wound up on the horror shelves and sold respectably, one shifting nearly half a million in the States before the genre slid into what looked like terminal decline.  When I said I hated fantasy and wanted to do something more authentic, the words ‘just shut up and write another horror novel’ were never actually used, but you get the idea.  And when I wrote a carefully researched novel about a woman diocesan exorcist (yes, of course they exist), which was ninety-five per cent crime, it still wound up on the horror shelves.

This went on for several years.  Once, I even rang an executive of a bookshop chain and said, please, please file me under crime.  He got the point and he did… and then the chain got taken over.  Getting it right involved a change of publisher and eventually I did crawl on to the crime shelves in bookshops, even though Amazon (or its computer) still doesn’t get it.

But the thought of writing ‘a haunted house novel’ made me very uneasy.  Even as I agreed, I could smell foetid breath as the jaws of hell re-opened.  And it’s a lower chamber of hell now the horror shelves are full of teenage vampire and zombie novels.  As if to underline this, Amazon has been intermittently listing my haunted house story as Young Adult. 

Which it isn’t, of course, nor is it horror.  While it might have too many shivery bits for the purists, crime is still the category that fits it best, although the murder doesn’t happen until very near the end.

Anyway, it’s called Night after Night and it is, as ordered, a haunted house novel.  It’s about a British reality TV show entitled Big Other - satirical title masking serious intent.  A group of believers and an equal number of sceptics are paid to spend a week in an allegedly haunted Elizabethan country house with cameras behind the oak panelling to record the conflict.  To cut a long (528 pp, to be exact) story short, Night After Night is a mystery.  Yes, it has a certain amount of mumbo jumbo, jiggery-pokery, and even feminine intuition. 

But - and this is the crucial point - it does not rely on any of them for the resolution. 

Dorothy Sayers has no cause to haunt me.

Night after Night

Leo Defford doesn’t believe in ghosts. But, as the head of an independent production company, he does believe in high-impact TV.

Defford hires journalist Grayle Underhill to research the history of Knap Hall, a one-time Tudor farmhouse near the idyllic Costwold town of Winchcombe that became the ultimate luxury guest house, until tragedy put it back on the market. Its recent history isn’t conducive to a quick sale, but Defford isn’t interested in keeping Knap Hall for longer than it takes to make a reality television show that will run night after night...

A house isolated by its rural situation and its dark reputation. Seven people, nationally known, but strangers to one another, locked inside. But this time, Big Brother may not be in control.  
More information about Phil Rickman can be found on his website.  You can also follow him on Twitter @philrickman and on Facebook. 

Night after Night by Phil Rickman is out now (£18.99) Corvus.


Rebecca said...

Thanks for sharing the back story. I for one really have enjoyed each and every of your forays into horror, but equally Merrily the female exorcist has a place in my heart. Night After Night is brilliant, I can thoroughly recommend it (indeed, I already have several times over).

Anonymous said...

Great feature by a fantastic author :)