Wednesday, 14 March 2012

To Lay a Ghost, by Dennis Hamley


          If you're not careful, one of the troubles with preparing books for Kindle is being so preoccupied by making sure the formatting is right, worrying about judging the price, hoping the books look like something you intended when they are published, even sorting out which books you'll subsequently allow to rise from the dead, that you forget about the new writing you should be doing.  And when you remember, the awful thought comes that you may have forgotten how to.  I'll be talking later about which of my o/p books are slated for resurrection: now I want to mention something which came directly from my musings about them and suddenly jerked me into a completely different frame of mind.
          I was looking through an old file in which I'd stored reviews dating from the 70s.  And one of them pulled me up sharply.  It was written in 1984 by one of the great names in children's books  whose opinions I - and everybody else - respected and usually accepted, Margery Fisher.  She regularly and singlehandedly  produced her own magazine Growing Point, which was then pretty well required reading.  She aimed to review every children's book published.  After so very long I reread this particular review of some ghost stories and felt a retrospective glow with every word.
          Dennis Hamley's purpose ... is not to shrivel the blood but to use the supernatural and the supernormal as a way of imaging some of the deepest and most enigmatic processes of the human heart and will.
          Gosh, I thought.  Was it really?  Well, she said so, so it must have been, though I admit I did want to shrivel the blood just a bit.  But it brought back to me the fact that I became known first for writing ghost stories, both short and long  (that review, by the way, was of a book of ghost stories, The Shirt off a Hanged Man's Back, first published by the long defunct and still much lamented, by me anyway, Andre Deutsch).  From 1974 to 1995 every book I wrote, with just three exceptions, used either time slips, the supernatural or ghosts (these two are not the same) and sometimes, all three.  My mind seemed naturally to slip into supernatural mode the moment I started to think about a new story.  And why not?  I loved reading ghost stories and then I loved writing them.  Ghosts became almost essential to my narrative purposes.  Yes, I tried (not consciously: we don't decide beforehand, we let stories evolve) to do what Margery Fisher said.  Ghosts aren't arbitrary, they externalise psychological, emotional, moral problems.  And to me, their most important function is to bring messages from the past, secret knowledge, things we cannot know but can feel on our pulses, which help us decide our own conduct and motivate our own actions.
          Children in schools sometimes ask me if, because I write about them, I believe in ghosts.  And I say no, I don't.  (Except that ... but no, I'll tell that definitely true story later).   But then I say there's one ghost I really do believe in and every time I see him he scares me.  It's the ghost of Hamlet's father and he scares me because not only is he strong and terrifying, as well as being dead, but I know what he's going to tell Hamlet and as a result, tragedy worse than anyone could comprehend will follow.  And each time I see, hear or read him, part of me says 'Please let Hamlet get it right this time and avert the slaughter.'  But of course he never does.  And when the play is over I look back at Hamlet's father and think; that's what a ghost should do: that's what they're there for.
          And now another thought follows; and that's what I should be doing.  I should go back to the genres of my early writing career, unvisited for many years.  A nineteenth-century composer once said of another one (I forget both their names), 'Oh dear, I think he's sickening for another oratorio.'  I'm beginning to feel a bit like that.  I'm sickening for some more ghost stories.  I hope the disease breaks out properly soon and I get writing again..
          There are four books in the Joslin de Lay sequence still to appear but they are nearly ready to go.  And when they're done I shall turn to something completely different to epublish.  It's a book for which I've always had a great fondness, Spirit of the Place.  It was first published in 1995,  the last novel I wrote which contained time slips and the supernatural.  Steve Rosson in Books for Keeps started his review with 'Shades of the Ackroyds in this time slip novel', while the Times Educational Supplement not only called it 'exhilarating' but also that it read almost like 'a starter pack for Possession,' that marvellous Booker-winning novel by Antonia Byatt.  Even though there are hints in these reviews of its being an inferior version of the work of two really fine writers, I was pleased because that's exactly what I was aiming for, not to be inferior of course but, because I admired them so much, to emulate them.  Possession and also Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton, Hawksmoor and Milton in America were my inspiration.
          Spirit of the Place involves a connection over three centuries between an eighteenth-century poet, Nicholas Fowler (don't look him up: he never existed), and a present-day university student, Lindsey Lovelock, who is writing a long study of him as part of her degree course.  Not only was Fowler a poet, he was turning his estate into an ideal artificial landscape, the sort that the great landscape gardener Capability Brown (Mr Landskip Peters in the book, though we never meet him directly) constructed all over England (think Blenheim and Stowe).  As well as that, Fowler was among those eighteenth-century amateur scientists trying to capture the marvellous power which they all knew was there somewhere but which was too elusive to catch and control - electricity.  For Fowler, so near yet so far.  Like so many of his kind, he thought Man was at last on the point of being Master of Nature.
          The modern half of the story is set in 1994.  The world was on a similar brink.  The Human Genome Project hadn't finished but the prospects such knowledge would open up seemed limitless.  The Internet was just starting but few had any idea what it would do to our lives.  Another age when humanity seemed to be on the point of mastery.  Lindsey and her scientist boyfriend Rod stumble into its epicentre.


The entrance to Scott's Grotto
          At the heart of the novel is the Place of the title.  It's based on somewhere very real.  When I lived in Hertford I used to visit Scott's grotto, two miles away in Ware (www.scotts-grotto.org).   Nicholas Scott, another minor eighteenth-century poet, also wanted to tame Nature on his own estate in Amwell.  Grottoes were very attractive to ambitious eighteenth-century landowners.  They improved on nature, they hinted at the sublime, they exuded mystery and shady darkness and were the first stirrings of the new Gothic. 
          Scott's Grotto is still there, though his estate is not, swallowed up by streets of modern houses.  The grotto consist of a system of tunnels burrowing into a hill and connecting six underground chambers.  The walls are lined with stones, flints and shells.  Lovingly restored by the Ware Civic Society, it is now virtually as it was first built.  Go there; it's great.  Other grottoes, like Alexander Pope's at Twickenham, have long since disappeared.  But Scott's was the biggest in the land and it's there that the first stirrings of Spirit of the Place came to me.  And what is this Spirit of the title?  You'll have to wait for the book.  But it's menacing, dangerous - for Fowler at least - and supernatural.  Once again I tried to do what Margery Fisher kindly said I did.


Nature and Man together made this scene.
What order now?  What barb'rousness has been?


So writes Fowler the minor poet, surveying his vision of an altered world.  Only it doesn't work like that.
          I said earlier that I didn't believe in ghosts - Except that ...  Well, there is a story to tell but I've probably outstayed my welcome so I'll keep it for next time.

6 comments:

Susan Price said...

Can't wait for your next post and the ghost story, Dennis - and get cracking on writing those new ones!

julia jones said...

I could have carried on reading your post for the rest of the morning - except for the little matter of writing to be done. The editor has set a simple task - change some first person passages into third person and integrate with main narrative. My head says he's right but heck can I find the words - Anyway thanks for an interesting and ELOQUENT post. Maybe I'll be allowed back to read it again this evening

Dan Holloway said...

Spirit of the Place sounds wonderful.

On teh question of Hamlet, have you been to Creation's current production in the Norrington Room at Blackwell's?

Dennis Hamley said...

Dan,not yet. We're stupid: we keep on saying we're going but never get round to getting tickets. Now I expect it's sold out. Still, they extended the Faustus run last year so who knows?

Julia, thanks for the ELOQUENT. You've made an old man very happy. I've been told to do things like changing first person to hird but I always managed to argue them down. My experience indicated that if you fight your corner you'll usually win. And it works in othere ways too. When Candlewick were going to publsh Ellen's People, the US editor sent over a whole list of demands, all of which I objected to but I was conscious that I'd be daft if I jeopardised US publication. But the wonderful Caroline Royds at Walker said 'Do just one. That will please her.' So I selected something really little and lo and behold it did.

madwippitt said...

Sorry to drag the tone of your post down Dennis, but what's happened to your deliciously macabre new covers for Joslin? It popped up fine on my Kindle but when I looked at the Amazon website (and on here) it's one of those horrid green and black jobbies that get slapped on the coverless books!

Dennis Hamley said...

I wish to God I knew. I had trouble, through incompetence, over these. First up, the Dooms cover failed to load. But two days later I tried again and this time it did. There it was, on Amazon, Anastasia's superb cover, both display and Look Inside. That's all right then, I thought and tried to upload Pact with Death. I was told it had uploaded successfully. But when I looked - nothing. I tried again. Still nothing. So I gave it up for the night and vowed that next morning I'd keep trying till it worked. But then - nothing, nothing, nothing. So I said what I always seem to be saying to my computer, 'Sod you then,' and went on to something else. I had no idea that the Dooms cover had mysteriously changed into something silly and insipid until I noticed it passing through on the blog home page. Mystery. Does someone at Amazon not like me? That would be terribly unfair. I've been a bloody good customer over the years. I'll have to find someone who knows what she/he is doing.