Apple-bobbing and ghosts, a comfy, well-lit room and catching sight of something not quite right out of the corner of your eye; spookiness is so closely linked to cosiness that we couldn’t really have one without the other.
When a writer expertly evokes the normal world but ramps that cosiness and comfort up to ten, it’s an essential backdrop for creepiness to work against – for something to shift away from our normal, safe world just far enough to make our senses prick. Once we completely leave the real world behind in a story, it may get truly disturbing, but we can never really recapture the quietly chilling horror that we get when something just a tiny bit wrong first pokes a toe into our safe and sensible world.
Me and my siblings grew up in a ramshackle Victorian house with oddities that we took for granted – a meat mincer hung from the bathroom light fitting for ages because the pull had fallen off and that’s what my parents thought to replace it with, the landings creaked at night as if someone was standing outside your bedroom door, shifting their weight from side to side. I was once convinced I saw the pale face of a strange young man in Victorian clothes in the landing mirror; everyone accepted that this was probably the case. It’s only looking back you realise quite how odd your childhood might have been.
For a while, our family tradition was that my parents would read us The Lord of the Rings on a Sunday afternoon while we all ate home-made scones. I’m not a big fantasy reader these days, but I do think that there are some truly horrifyingly creepy moments in The Lord of the Rings. (Though a twelve-year-old recently described the trilogy, disdainfully, as ‘just a really long walk’, which made me smile.) In the scene I’m thinking of, the hobbits (who have probably just done something cosy, like eat mushrooms on toast, or sit in a flickering, woodfire-lit inn) are crouching in a ditch in the dark, while the Ringwraiths go past on the road above, stopping, sinking to the ground and sniffing in the silent air. This scene has stuck with me ever since – I wonder if there’s a primal part of us that remembers what it’s like to be prey, crouching in terror as our predator tries to sniff us out of the undergrowth?
My parents were also big on Alan Garner and all of his books combine the comfortable and familiar with the unsettling and out of place. I love all of them, but The Owl Service is probably the creepiest, the lead female character obsessively tracing the pattern from some old crockery and folding it to make owls during a long, hot, tension-fraught summer. As the patterns inexplicably disappear from the plates, the paper owls disappear too, and the lead characters start to lose their identities and shift into playing out other people’s lives, ones long dead… or maybe never alive. But the most chilling element is the noises – strange scratchings in the roof, bird sounds, noises coming from behind locked doors.
I recently read The Yellow Wallpaper (a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman) when I was researching psychosis for something I was writing. Suffering from post-natal depression or post-partum psychosis, shut in a room with strange yellow wallpaper and a bolted-down bed, the main characters starts to think she sees a woman on all fours creeping through the wallpaper’s pattern, in a way that made me think of those owls in Alan Garner’s plates. She starts to pull the paper off to free the trapped woman, and eventually her husband finds her in that yellow room, crawling around its edges on all fours, saying that she’s finally escaped the wallpaper. The creepiest touch is the fact that, when he faints, she continues to crawl around the edges of the room, creeping over his unconscious body on each circuit. We leave her there with him, everyday life going on around them in a sunny old house in the country, while they are trapped, just metres away, in mundane, unsettling and mindlessly repetitive horror.
If these walls could talk . . .
'Intricate murder mystery... gripping.' WOMAN
'A compelling who, how and why dunnit.' THE SUN
'A gripping murder mystery.' WOMAN'S WEEKLY
'A novel that has the deliciously febrile atmosphere of a silent film.' THE SUNDAY TIMES
'Spookily atmospheric, a page-turner murder mystery.' CHOICE MAGAZINE
'The Thirty-One Doors is a novel for those who miss the Golden Age crossword-puzzle-type crime fiction.' LITERARY REVIEW
Scarpside House is famed for its beauty, its isolation, and its legendary parties.
Tonight, it hosts the Penny Club soiree. An annual gathering of lucky men and women from all walks of life, coming together to celebrate their survival against the odds.
But this year their luck is running thin.
Accidents do happen, after all . . .
And some are long overdue . . .