Readers of Sublime Horror will likely know novelist Michelle Paver best for her acclaimed ghost stories Dark Matter and Thin Air. Amongst her extensive oeuvre is also the bestselling Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, consisting of six historical fantasy novels for children, to which three more books were recently announced. I had the pleasure of speaking to Michelle Paver about her latest book, Wakenhyrst, which is very much in the Gothic ghost story tradition, even more overtly Gothic than the previous two she has published. We spoke about the novel, the unusual elements that inspired it, as well as her love of ghost stories and the Gothic.
For Paver, Wakenhyrst is a “quintessential Gothic novel…where unnatural and irrational elements of the past surface into an isolated and enclosed setting.” It contains many classic Gothic tropes says Paver, “it is set in an isolated manor house in the Fens, there’s an element of the past in that we’re in Edwardian England, my heroine (they are often heroines in Gothic novels) is a girl and she’s just growing up and then there’s an element of ‘well, it could be madness or it could be a true haunting’. She’s got this repressive father and he’s got a long-buried secret which, when he finds this medieval Last Judgement in the graveyard, starts to surface. And then the question for her as her life becomes a battle of wills with her father is ‘is he going mad or is there really something out there in the Fens?’ I don’t think you can get more Gothic than that really!”
Paver knew for a long time that she wanted to write a Gothic story in the Fens (“the Fens as they used to, not drained fields, the real marshes that used to drown East Anglia”) but she didn’t have a spark. And then, she says, three came along within a few weeks.
“One was just picking up a volume in a second-hand bookshop of a very strange medieval mystic called Margery Kempe. And another one was going to an exhibition of the Victorian murderer and painter Richard Dadd…that really gave me an otherworldly element. But then really what sparked it was reading about a doom, a medieval painting of the last judgment which was discovered in a churchyard in Suffolk. All of these things came together. None of them necessarily Gothic but they suggested the character of a man finding this thing and having the devil peering up at him from the grass of the churchyard making his guilt surface. Now that’s Gothic. It starts with the character – once I’ve got the character of the father who will be haunted that’s when I start thinking from his point of view. And then what happens is the Gothic tropes come after a while. I knew this was going to be a very watery story, so the haunting was going to be watery, and I tended in terms ‘what what would be scary in a watery environment?’”
These three fascinating and quite disparate elements – the strange medieval mystic, the Richard Dadd exhibition, and the medieval doom (the Wenhaston Doom) – came together to form Wakenhyrst. But I wanted to know more about what it was about them which Paver found so captivating, so I asked her to delve a bit deeper into each.
“I had never heard of Margery Kempe. She had had a pretty rough life. She was married at 14 and had 14 children. She committed a sin to which she never confessed. And somewhere along the way she had a sort of religious experience. And after that she would burst out crying and cry uncontrollably for hours. What interested me was I knew that I would have a female protagonist and themes about women and there was this poor woman who had had all these children and in the medieval times women had a pretty rough time. And that was her way out, was to feel that she was chosen by God. I didn’t know how I would use it but I just knew that there was something very vivid that I could produce. I then very quickly realised that the father figure is going to be a medieval historian and that’s how I could bring it in.”
What about the medieval doom?
“I think it’s such an amazing story. This was a painting, painted by probably local artists, of a great big last judgment to hang up above the arch in this little church – well, quite a beautiful medieval church in a small village called Wenhaston in Suffolk. And then the Puritans came along and whitewashed it because you didn’t want any images in church and it just hung there and was forgotten for 300 years. And then along came the Victorians who were renovating the church and chucked out what they thought were a load of mouldy old planks, which had this painting on but covered in whitewash, into the churchyard awaiting the bonfire. Overnight – and this I find amazing – it rained. There was a big rainstorm and some of the whitewash was rinsed away. And so a sharp-eyed parish clerk happened to notice some of the colour showing through. And it was restored and re-hung in the church where it’s been ever since. When I read that, instantly I just had this vision of the father of Maud (the heroine of Wakenhyrst) making that discovery and it could be quite frightening. Here you were in a churchyard and then you see something looking out at you from what you thought was just a plank. I went to see see the doom as part of my research and it was quite amazing. I do love this about England that you can go into a small village in Suffolk and there’s this amazing beautiful medieval church and go in – there was nobody there – and I sat down. I could have touched this five hundred-year-old painting and just spent this wonderful hour with it. It was painted probably by local artists and you can really see it because there’s this giant Satan quite crudely painted, sort of greenish black and he’s got raggedy knee breaches and you can practically smell the swamp. It’s like he comes from the fen. Tremendously vivid I found. And, of course, in those days they really believed in hell, that you’re going to burn forever in eternal torment. A great way of keeping the peasants in line.”
And then the third, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd.
“He killed his father with an axe, so he was put in Broadmoor. He was quite a good artist before then but in Broadmoor, where he was incarcerated for the rest of his life, he spent years painting several very strange paintings. I think one’s in either the Tate or the National Gallery and there’s these tiny little otherworldly creatures, very thickly painted. I’m just standing in front of one – I was with my mum at the time – and I said to her, ‘I wonder what he was feeling when he painted this?’ And she just looked at it and said in this steely way, ‘fear.’ Which was a surprising reaction but that got me thinking. It made me think ‘what if you were mad and you felt compelled to paint something, but you were scared of what you were painting.’ And it sounds twisted to say but I liked the idea! Quite a powerful and arresting idea and so on the train back I jotted a few notes and wrote ‘any link with the Wenhaston Doom?’ Because I’d read about the Wenhaston Doom about a week before but I hadn’t yet gone to see it. I didn’t know what the link was at that time.”
These three elements all seem so different and, initially, unconnected. How does Paver know that these will be combined into the same novel?
“This is a very good question because there was also an Anglo-Saxon saint, Saint Guthlac of Crowland, who actually comes into the story quite a lot and I’d always wanted to do something with him. At some point you’ve got to say, ‘okay, I’ve got these disparate elements, let’s sit down and do a little bit of thinking’. It’s like leapfrogging. I do some research and look at Margery Kempe and/or Richard Dadd, get a few books on him and read up about the Wenhaston Doom and then actually say, ‘okay, now let’s sit down and actually do a little bit of thinking and try to plot a bit.’ I do like to plan even though a plan isn’t a blueprint and it’s always going to change. And the great danger if you do a lot of research, which I do like to do, is that you end up shoehorning stuff into the story. I did have a few false starts with the book because even if you’ve got a plot, how do you tell the story? I think I massively overcomplicated it to begin with and had to ditch the first 40,000 words but that’s part of the fun. In a twisted kind of way.”
Doing a lot of research is nothing new to Paver. For Wolf Brother, she rode 300 miles in the forests of north-eastern Finland and northern Lapland. For Thin Air she trekked the Himalayas. For Dark Matter she based the protagonist’s experiences on her own and travelled to Spitsbergen in the winter, climbed a glacier, and looked after huskies. Did Paver’s research process change at all for Wakenhyrst?
“Certain things are the same. If it’s historical research I’ll do a lot in the British Library and if there’s location research I will go to the location. So squelching around marshes because a lot of it is going to take place in the Fens, experiencing a starling murmuration which becomes a vision of freedom for Maud, visiting the Wenhaston Doom. The waterproof notebooks get used in all weathers. Suffolk’s quite a haunted place as well and going out into the haunted commons at night and trying to experience something spooky – that is what I do. I always do that because you can’t make up atmosphere completely from books. It’s so much more vivid if you’ve experienced it yourself. I found that for Dark Matter and Thin Air. I went to the Himalayas. I went to the Arctic. I do the very detailed research not just to be accurate but it gives you ideas because sometimes you can’t make this stuff up, it’s so weird. The medieval mind was a pretty dark place and as was the Edwardian mind. So that sort of thing hasn’t changed that. But every book is different. And this one was particularly difficult because it’s a two-hander – it’s Maud’s point of view that we’re in most of the time but then we have Edmund who’s the father, and his journals. Just as a sheer matter of storytelling that was quite difficult because you have to weave in when Maud would read bits and what she would learn and the reader has to be able to follow this without having to keep checking what date it was that Edmund writes his journal because nobody is going to do that. That was technically quite a challenge, which I hadn’t had before. But great fun.”
All of this speaks to the importance that the environment plays in Paver’s writing – the environments are almost characters themselves. Is there a particular reason for this?
“It’s an interesting one isn’t it because some brilliant books are all pure dialogue, practically, and you’ve got no sense of place. With me, I think the natural world is always present in my books…probably because I grew up in London. I think with ghost stories, particularly, atmosphere is incredibly important. It’s an element of the story and you use it to create the sense of creeping unease and dread. One of the hardest things to do is to create atmosphere without long boring descriptions. The Wolf Brother books were very good training because you’re trying to create this numinous Stone Age forest but you’re writing for 10 and 12-year-olds and you can’t have too much description.”
I remarked that writing in the Gothic tradition must also be very good training for this, too.
“Well, it is… [there’s] a sort of enclosed world, whether it’s a lonely haunted house or a train station, and it has to have an atmosphere. At some point, I must try a sort of modern Gothic [where] it doesn’t always have to have an old setting but there has to be a sense of the past surfacing, something rearing its head up from the past. It’s often been said that you try to create a quotidian atmosphere, a normal everyday atmosphere to begin with, and – I can’t quite quote what M.R. James said but it’s something like – ‘then the unseen thing rears its head’. You have to lay the foundation by making things seem normal in whatever world you’ve chosen and for that you need atmosphere. But you can’t lay it on too thick. The suggestion is always more powerful than in-your-face horror. So it’s a balancing act.”
At this point in the conversation, we had begun to stray beyond Wakenhyrst and into the craft of writing ghost and Gothic horror stories. So, of course, I pressed a bit further. Like a few other authors I have spoken to, Paver has jumped between a few different genres and therefore is known to different audiences for different books. In my own ignorance, I wasn’t aware until I began researching beyond Dark Matter and Thin Air just how popular Chronicles of Ancient Darkness is. That she has had two recent horror hits in the last nine years, does she feel any pressure to stay within that mode instead of, say, returning to children’s fiction? (It’s worth noting that at the time I asked this question, Paver hadn’t announced the three new books for the aforementioned series.)
“I see it as more of a continuum because what I was doing particularly with the Stone Age books [Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series], I had to be in the stone age mind, I had to create a whole belief system of how these people justified their experiences and the seasons and what the moon is and the forest and how they killed their prey and all the rest of it. That, to me, is really the same sort of thing as a ghost story or a book about demonic possession and/or madness. It’s all about – again, sorry to sound pompous – but the possibilities of the human mind. You’ve probably gathered, I’m not a religious person. I tend to believe strongly in the power of the human mind to hallucinate or create things that can feel very real. And so I will continue to deal with that and write about that. And naturally, that brings in the natural world because it’s how we interact with the natural world which causes us to see ghosts in mountains or when we’re up in the Arctic or in a strange spooky place like the Fens. What form the next story will take, well, that will be revealed within the next few weeks. But so whether it’s another Gothic one or whether it’s something a little bit further back in the past it will still be dealing with aspects of the supernatural in some shape or form.”
This interest in psychology and the power of the mind to create and amplify terrifying experiences certainly chimes with my own (and I too have something of a science background). I remarked to Paver that it seems to me that those who are superstitious seem less inclined to horror than others, something I’ve noticed only anecdotally.
“I’m not superstitious, and I’ve got a science background. Belief and knowledge are different things. I can’t say for certain that ghosts don’t exist because some weird things happen to some very level-headed people. But in terms of belief, I don’t believe in ghosts, ‘belief’ being a sort of gut instinct not susceptible of rational explanation. I tend to think that there usually is a rational explanation, which is why the only kinds of stories I can write are ones where it could either be a ghost or it could be a hallucination. It’s the only kind that I find scary, actually. I think one of the most frightening things must be if you have an experience that you can’t explain that really seems very real to you. In other words like a hallucination. I’ve had one or two. Most of us dream and they can feel very real, well I’ve woken up and thought, ‘oh my God, I’m awake and there’s a man standing looking out of my bedroom window, this is actually happening!’ and then I’ve woken up but for the space of those few seconds when I’ve been convinced I’ve been awake it’s been absolutely terrifying. And we know from clinical studies that this can happen, people can have very real waking dreams. And so all of that fascinates me. It doesn’t completely disprove the possibility of spirits, I just don’t believe in them myself.”
My final question to Paver during our conversation was, “When did you start writing books intended to frighten your readers?”
“Oh, that is interesting. I think Wolf Brother, that I knew would be frightening because I was trying to create a feeling of darkness and there’s a demon bear in there which kills the hero’s father when he’s twelve. So that’s quite frightening. But having said, I was writing for children so I was also trying to be reassuring as well, so I wasn’t trying to terrify. I think the first one would have to be Dark Matter – that was the first time and I was actually quite scared about doing it because I’d read all the greats and so to be writing a full-length ghost story of my own – it felt almost arrogant to be trying but that was very much the aim. The aim is to terrify – I wanted to make people afraid to look out of the window at night. Whether I succeeded or not that’s another matter, but that was the aim.”
Anyone who has read any of Michelle Paver’s work can testify that yes, she certainly did succeed.
Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver is published by Head of Zeus. Buy the book.