My life as a fan of Hammer, the supernatural, and general horror can be neatly divided into two parts. I spent my childhood and early teens loving being terrified even as I hated it. I used to read ghost fiction and stories of real-life hauntings and then literally hide under the blankets until uneasy sleep took over. I loved vampire movies, anything ghostly, and Hammer House of Horror. And then, of course, Kate Bush sang Hammer Horror and how we howled along to it.
Then I pretty much forgot about ghosts and the paranormal. I didn’t watch horror films, read no ghost stories except The Turn of the Screw, and didn’t count myself as a horror fan. But it must all have been brewing away there somewhere in my mind.
I didn’t think about it, that is, until the moment, many years later, when Selina Walker at Arrow emailed my agent.
Why would she want me to write a supernatural novel, I wondered? Though I knew that the Hammer Books imprint was extremely classy – they look beautiful, and have some amazing, successful authors writing for them – it hadn’t ever occurred to me to write about ghosts. But the moment I began thinking about it, an idea occurred to me….
I had spent my first four years in the Village of the Damned. That was Letchmore Heath, the small and perfectly formed village just outside London, near the Elstree Film Studios, where John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos had been filmed as Village of the Damned, a 1960 horror classic. I hadn’t been back until about a couple of years ago when I was passing nearby and took a detour to look at it.
It was so eerily like the village of my memory, details unfurling with startling clarity just as I’d recalled them. I found it spooky that a four year old could retain such a strong memory of a place. On that perfect village Green, so bright, I put a girl dressed in shabby Victorian clothes, and then I was off. I imagined a sweltering summer in 1963, with this ghostly looking girl, and then all sorts of disturbances suggested themselves against that backdrop of perfection.
At the same time, I realised that I realised I loved the literary gothic – Mervyn Peake, Patrick McGrath, Sarah Waters – and that this dark, throbbing almost film noir area of writing, where not is all that it seems, strongly appeals to me. I also came to understand that in fact all my novels had been haunted, but I just hadn’t realised it. It was staring me in the face, but it took Selina Walker to nudge it all to life.
Another author, on reading my novel Sleep with Me, thought that the interloper of the piece, Sylvie, actually WAS a ghost. The first line, ingrained in my memory because of its use on the ads, is, ‘The day our child was conceived, someone else arrived. She was there as the cells fused, like a ghost.’ Even Annamaria Marinca, the actress in Andrew Davies’ ITV adaptation of Sleep with Me, had a pallor and ethereal feel that was entirely haunting. As the drama progressed and she became more vivid, the make up artists used more make up on her. They showed me how they built up the colour on her as her seductive influence on others increased.
So I started to realise that my novels were haunted by desire, lust, and the ghosts of the past, as well as by darkness, and it was only a small step to make those hauntings more manifest. I enjoyed writing this novel more than any other, in that there was big time pressure, but that meant I couldn’t procrastinate, couldn’t agonise in the usual fashion, and I also felt gripped by a fever of creativity, and wrote far into the night. I wanted to know – would my lovely but troubled character Rowena be all right? Would Eva come back? And what did I myself really think of that face at the window, those sudden sensations of a hand being held? It drew me in and on, as I hope it is drawing readers. I was addicted, even haunted myself by it. I wanted to find out the answers, and I wanted to write and write.
That delicate balance between the psychology of the characters and what’s actually happening with the restless dead is what fascinates me. So when a face is spotted at a window, or when an objective outsider reports a sighting of someone we know they couldn’t possibly have seen, the intrigue and tension work in a way that gets us wondering, in that we’re just never sure….
I’m proud of my Hammer novella. It looks stunning – I knew it was the right jacket the moment they showed it to me – and it joins such a great stable of books by other authors I admire. I’m happy I wrote something that I stand by as one of my novels, but which, underneath such a bright visual surface, taps into the real horror, the darkness and intrigue lurking there in the depths of the mind….
Pick up a copy of Joanna’s new book here