brought to book
Haunting words… Kim Newman offers his take on the English spook tale
Kim Newman talks bad behaviour in Somerset.
The English ghost story has a proud tradition, but it’s a tradition largely associated with authors long dead, such as MR James, and disturbing scenes played out in Victorian and Edwardian drawing rooms. So can it be resuscitated? Or, at the very least, can we commune with its spirit? Novelist Kim Newman thinks so, which in great part explains why his new book is called, well, An English Ghost Story.
“Somehow the best [ spooky] stories are English,” Newman says. “England is a haunted country.” Certainly, that’s true of the isolated Somerset home, the Hollows, which provides the setting for Newman’s atmospheric novel. It’s here a dysfunctional family (“the classic English story is the unhappy family”) makes a new start after leaving London. Initially, it seems like an idyllic spot, a place of healing, but gradually it becomes clear the house, previously the home of children’s author Louise Teazle, is turning on its inhabitants.
It’s a novel Newman initially wrote as a contemporary piece in the 1990s, but never sold to a publisher and put aside after it was optioned for a film version that got lost in pre- production. He’s resisted the temptation to set the novel in the 21st century. Instead, An English Ghost Story is set at an unspecified point in those pre- 9/ 11 years “after Tony Blair got elected, but before everybody got fed up with him, that cool Britannia period”, a time that was also “the era of dial- up internet” where “people are online but it’s kind of creaky”.
There were good reasons for this choice. Partly, Newman says, the advent of broadband, smartphones and social media meant that while the book “worked dramatically, it just wouldn’t play in terms of a story happening now” if he’d simply altered the dates and cultural references. Besides, he adds, “One of the curses of contemporary horror fiction is the scene where somebody goes on the internet and finds out the history of the crimes in the area or haunted house. It’s one of the most boring things imaginable in dramatic terms and yet it happens all the time.”
But none of this means the novel is a period piece lazily dug out from a dusty drawer. It’s too well written for a start, plus one of its main themes is what it means to be English. This is, of course, a subject brought to the fore both by the referendum on Scottish independence and the rise of UKIP. Whether by accident or design, Newman’s book catches the zeitgeist in 2014. So what’s Newman’s take here?
“The best ghost stories are English. England is a haunted country”
“Englishness has always been kind of nebulous because English people have been kind of embarrassed to define it,” he says. “And there’s also this awful thing where the kind of people who most paint themselves with Saint George flags and go around calling themselves English are utter scum. It’s kind of like being represented by the worst part of your country.”
In contrast, Newman identifies with “an English mystic strain” that “manifests in authors like Dennis Potter”. This in itself is an intriguing name to mention. Britain’s most famous TV scriptwriter returned again and again to the Forest of Dean, where he grew up, as a setting for his work, notably Blue Remembered Hills ( 1979). Similarly, childhood haunt Somerset – specifically Sutton Mallet – recurs in Newman’s work; it’s the setting for An English Ghost Story, and played into a scene in Newman’s autobiographical novel Quorum, where the devil shows up in the village. Newman first stumbled on the location – but not Satan, he cheerily stresses – as a teenager.
“It’s [ a story] involving bad driving and being an idiot to be honest,” he remembers. “One night, myself and a friend of mine drove around Somerset taking down Tory election posters in the dead of night. There were blue posters everywhere and we were going through a kind of obnoxious radical phase.” Things started to go awry when the duo got lost and Newman thought he spotted a sign for the town of Shepton Mallet ( population circa 10,000): “We followed the signposts, and the road got smaller and smaller until we got to a big sign that said, ‘ Welcome to Sutton Mallet.’” It proved to be a fortunate misreading in terms of Newman’s career: “In the middle of the night it had a weird, strange, ghostly feeling to it. In my work, I have returned to it as a magical, strange location.”
As for the wider work of writing, it began when Newman was still a teenager, as he scribbled stories and film reviews. In 1980, he graduated, only to find Thatcherism in full swing. Unable to get a fulltime job, he wrote for fanzines and did some theatre work. By 1982, he’d begun to sell film journalism and stories to Interzone. Ten years later, Anno Dracula, the first book in his ongoing alternate history vampire series, made his name. He has subsequently become a familiar figure on TV too.
He refuses to see his apprenticeship as especially burdensome. “Many of the things that enabled me to get started as a writer no longer exist, like a benefits system that enabled me to leave home and move to London,” he says. “That would now be impossible for somebody in my position.”
An English Ghost Story is out now from Titan Books.