|The Lion of Sole Bay|
Halloween has snuck up and jumped me from behind. Several months ago I was visiting my friends at Kessingland Primary School near Lowestoft when I received an invitation to call on the librarian (oh, okay, Resource Centre manager) at the nearby secondary school, Pakefield High. It's a newly-built school and I was keen to visit as I knew that most of the Year Six children I'd met at Kessingland would be moving on to Pakefield. The school is still in a state of construction but the Resource Centre was impressive and there was a lovely buzz from the some of the younger students who were off to a poetry competition in Norwich the following day.
I was therefore delighted when I was invited to take part in a 'Literary Leap Day' scheduled for the autumn term. “We're planning some sort of ghostly / Halloween theme” said the manager, Linda. “Oh fine,” I responded blithely. “I'll have my new book out by then and that's sort of Halloween-y ...” So we were both happy and away I went into the gorgeous never-never land that intervenes when you've promised to do something that is way the other side of the summer holidays …
|A. muscaria - POISONOUS!|
Now, the event is on Friday and I have the programme in front of me. It appears to be a massive, whole school event. There will be SPOOKY SLAM! performance poetry. There will be Nightmare News, Film Fright, Macabre Music, Devilish Drama, Wicked Websites, Demonic Dance. Somewhere in the science labs there will be students creating “a real-life Frankenstein, complete with blood and guts”. There will be Morbid Masks, Creepy Cakes and The Quiz from Hell. But far surpassing all of these in the scary-ometer stakes, is the activity headed “Grim Ghost-Writing”. Students are invited – 30 at a time – to “Join Julia Jones as she guides you through how to write a short, spooky story […] Then, in a workshop, she will inspire you to write your own spine-chilling tale! Can you send your readers to ruins?”
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH! Yes! I am in ruins! I am terrified!!!!
Serves me right of course. I've always loved my visits to Kessingland where we talk of books, boats and beaches and recently I've been contentedly running adventure story workshops in Essex primary schools. The Lion of Sole Bay is available as promised and, yes, it opens on the night of Halloween. It was a pragmatic choice, to some extent. I planned to write a story that had more than one point of view (there are three protagonists, Luke, Angel and Helen) and I wanted to hold them together in a reasonably short time-frame. That week which begins with Halloween runs through All Saints, All Souls, Bonfire Night and if it's just a little longer it extends to Remembrance Sunday. Usually it's also school half term which frees the kids to have Adventures. Either get rid of the parents (put one on a plane, drop a boat on another) or include them as manic, oppressive presences and you're away, you hope.
|"A small witch fled into the night"|
I've thoroughly enjoyed writing The Lion of Sole Bay. If it has any hidden agenda beyond providing young Luke with an adventure of his own, helping Angel make some friends and sending Helen back to the polder, it's an anti-violence, anti-superstition, learn-from-the-horrors-of-history novel. It isn't “a short spooky story” or “grim ghost-writing”. I hope my readers will feel tense, involved and excited – I don't anticipate sending them “to ruins”. I am beginning to wonder whether that the adventure story isn't the complete antithesis of the ghost story – and I wouldn't mind being talked out of this.
It feels that characteristic posture for a ghost story protagonist is terrified helplessness.Those awful nightmares where you can neither move nor scream. Luke has a bad few hours hiding in the stuffy darkness of his sleeping bag, convinced that he has seen a werewolf but, come the dawn when “them dark spirits” have gone back underground, he laces up his trainers and sets off along the muddy path than leads past the sluice and round the top of the creek. He – and I – are back on track.
- remembering the dead
I'm not a short story writer either. I read Kathleen Jones's recent blogpost "To Cut a Long Story Short" and all those knowledgeable comments had me nodding my head glumly. Yes, I believe short stories may very well be “the narrative equivalent of lyric poetry” (Lee) “a more difficult form than the novel” (Dennis) “virtuoso writing” (also Dennis) and conceived “in a different part of the brain” (Catherine). Unfortunately that's not what I do. I love plot and pace and spending weeks and months in the company of my characters. I like to think of them before I go to sleep each night and take them with me when I walk the dog in the mornings. I don't know Al, who made the comment that whenever she has a go at a short story it “threatens to turn into a novel”, but I suspect she may be a kindred spirit.
Okay, so writing a short story would be a challenge – a new adventure even. I'll make that the 2014 resolution. Meanwhile, with children and young adults in mind, I've read Sue Price's Overheard in a Graveyard :Nine Haunting Stories (truly chilling) Dennis Hamley's Out of the Deep: Stories of the Supernatural (wonderfully explanatory) and have just bought a collection called Twisted Winter: Chilling Tales from the Darkest Nights.
I wait for Friday in a state of terrified helplessness.Those awful nightmares where you can neither move nor scream …