I began writing short stories when I was 20. My favourite subjects at school were music and English but when our music teacher left, our music lessons ended. In English, I always enjoyed writing essays ~ or compositions, as they were then called ~ and I was often marked down for writing too much. I’d write six or eight pages instead of the required two and if I could find a way to interpret the given title into a story of some kind, then I would. Only afterwards, when I realised I could write whatever I liked for my own amusement and pleasure, did I decide to do precisely that.
I have always enjoyed a mystery ~ anything from conjuring tricks to ghosts ~ and so when I was growing up I was much drawn to writers of strange or ‘spooky’ tales. Inevitably, M.R. James was an early interest, then Saki (the pen-name of Hector Hugh Monro), whose stories, Srendni Vashtar, The Music on the Hill, Gabriel-Ernest and The Interlopers instantly caught my imagination. Saki also had a darkly humorous side, expressed in stories like The Open Window and Tobermory, and an even lighter and slightly cynical vein as in the Clovis Chronicles and the Reginald stories, of which Reginald’s Christmas Revel is a classic example.
A few of my school friends shared my interests and we were always on the lookout for new stories, which resulted in discovering Edgar Allan Poe (I also acquired two LP records of Poe’s poems and stories read by Basil Rathbone), and three other Amercan writers, H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories I found extremely menacing, Ray Bradbury and Frederic Brown. Brown’s gift for writing tales with a twist never failed to impress me in two paperbacks of short stories called, Nightmares and Geezenstacks and Angels and Spaceships, and his ability to write a compelling story in only one or two pages always inspired me to attempt the same.
We also discovered The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley, the works of William Hope Hodgson ~ The House on the Borderland and Carnacki the Ghost-Hunter ~ Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and the only book I ever found by A.N.L. Munby, entitled The Alabaster Hand, the author openly acknowledging the influence of M.R. James. As I mention in the Profile section of this website, all these volumes sat alongside the one author who had first introduced me to the notion of being able to enter another world, Lewis Carroll. The idea of being able to grow bigger or smaller, to enter through keyholes, to disappear like the Cheshire Cat, and to meet such zany and challenging characters as the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, seemed to suggest that anything is possible in fiction ~ in reality, too, perhaps! I think this is certainly true in writing fiction where, so long as the internal logic of a story is consistent, almost anything can be made believable.
The shorter prose works of Oscar Wilde have also held a special place in my affections with such timeless gems as The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince from this master of wit and wisdom. And then there is what I regard as the finest ghost story of all, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. Personally, I don’t find James easy to read and am grateful that William Archibald decided to adapt The Turn of the Screw into a play, which he called The Innocents, and which, in turn, gave rise to Jack Clayton’s superb film of the same name. I think what makes this story so compelling is that the ghosts are not just there to scare you ~ they have a purpose.
Within the past few years, thanks to the limited editions produced by Tartarus Press, I discovered the stories of Sarban [the pen-name of John William Wall] and regard them as some of the best I’ve ever read. The same publisher has also served the genre well by reprinting many works by Arthur Machen, alongside The Haunted Woman by William Lindsay, Uncle Stephen by Forrest Reid and a collection of stories by William Sansom.
I wrote four stories in quick succession when I was 21, the longest of which drew on my own strange preoccupation with ancient Rome from a very early age ~ which reminds me that another book on my shelves, sitting rather incongruously alongside all those ghost and horror stories, was a Penguin Classics paperback of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius.
Having written those four stories, it was three years before I wrote another one, and a further three years before I wrote a novel in 1970. That said, I’d been thinking about this novel for all three of those years and making copious notes for three months before going to Cornwall and writing it on my portable Adler typewriter in three weeks, working six days a week from nine in the morning until seven or eight at night. It was 57,000 words, so quite a short novel, but I later thought it so depressing that I destroyed the only three copies. Sometimes I’ve regretted it and at other times I haven’t at all. It was very dark but it was also an invaluable experience. While writing it, I remember becoming ‘stuck’ at one point but after a walk along the nearby beach at Crackington Haven, I realised that if I made my main character ‘stuck’, then suddenly I had something to write about and so I became ‘unstuck’ ~ it worked!
I find the whole process of writing can be quite unpredictable. A pattern for me is that I’ll write nothing for several months and then write two or three stories in quick succession. Some of my earlier stories I planned in great detail, faithfully writing them from my notes, scene by scene, until I reached the end. Then sometimes, as I was writing those endings, I would spontaneously have a new idea that was much better than the original. These new and better ideas always come ‘out of the blue’ and feel like a real bonus when they do.
Other stories seem to write themselves. I have two examples of this. When writing my early stories, on one occasion I reached the end of a story that I had meticulously planned, only to find that having built up a head of creative steam, I just wanted to keep on writing and so spontaneously wrote two more stories that I hadn’t planned at all. More recently, I found myself in a situation late one evening and as I looked around me, a story suggested itself. That night, with a notepad by the bed, as is my custom, in the small hours of the morning I jotted down the complete outline of the story. The next day I wrote it and everything just fell into place. The following day I went over it to revise small details and suddenly it was finished. It’s a wonderful feeling when a story comes like that and I often think those might be some of the better stories ~ or, if not ‘better’, they have an immediacy that creates a certain impact.
Whenever I have ideas for stories, I invariably see them in my mind’s eye as if they were scenes in a film and when I’m engaged in the writing process this is still the case. Whether a scene is set in a garden or a dining room, I simply describe the mental image I have, insofar as it is relevant to the story or simply to create an atmosphere. Several people have commented that my stories would make good TV films and for one of them I have written a screenplay. This is Stars and Crystals, which appears in my first book, Strange Tales in Fiction and Fact, and is a story about a small boy who receives an unexpected gift from Santa Claus, but Santa Claus isn’t who he thinks.
My interest in music and fine art has sometimes prompted ideas for stories, or has sown seeds that I can trace back to certain paintings or symphonies. A good example is the Symphony No.6 by the contemporary French composer, Jacques Charpentier, entitled Already the sun had reached the horizon... [which is the second line of the second canto of Dante’s Purgatorio]. This brooding symphony and its title captured my imagination and was directly influential in the way I concluded my story, The Kiss, in which I used the same line from Dante.
While writing Flora’s Return, I found myself frequently listening to Music for a Scene from Shelley by the American composer, Samuel Barber. This is my favourite work by Barber, a miniature masterpiece with all the ingredients of a symphony condensed into nine minutes. The opening of the piece always conjures in my mind a scene from Jack Clayton’s film, The Innocents ~ which was the inspiration for Flora’s Return ~ where we see white curtains, disturbed by a gentle breeze, billowing into the room where Flora is restlessly sleeping on a hot summer night. The music written for the film by Georges Auric captures that moment perfectly and has a very similar feel to the opening of Samuel Barber’s piece. Such influences have often coloured my writing. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy was constantly in my mind while I was writing The Encounter, and the music of Alan Hovhaness is inextricably interwoven throughout the story, Tower Song.
Similarly with paintings. One of my favourite artists is the Swiss Symbolist painter, Arnold Böcklin, who is probably most famous for his imaginary scene, The Isle of the Dead. He painted five versions of this powerful, dreamlike scene, of which only four remain. [The fifth was appropriated by Adolf Hitler and destroyed during the second world war.] The Russian composer, Serge Rachmaninov, saw a black and white reproduction of Böcklin’s painting, which resulted in Rachmaninov writing his tone poem of the same name. Böcklin also painted various representations of the nature god, Pan, some quite humorous, others more serious, but always portraying him in his original Pagan context as a benign entity in harmony with the natural world, which is how he was until the Christian church, presumably unsettled by his priapic nature, demonised him by turning him into Satan.
Another artist whose works have always inspired me is the 19th century English landscape painter, Samuel Palmer. Palmer was impressed and influenced by the poet and painter, William Blake, who saw angels in the trees in his garden and painted some remarkable works, such as The Ghost of a Flea. Palmer’s landscapes are mystical in the sense that they merge humanity with the natural world and glow with an intense numinous light. Like Böcklin, Palmer pays homage to the significance of the natural world and both, in very different ways, seem to be saying that God is to be found, not in churches or religious dogma, but in the beauty of nature and the life force that animates everything around us.
This emphasis on a particular kind of light in Samuel Palmer’s paintings is also to be found in the 17th century French painter, Claude Lorrain, in the works of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), and in the 20th century painter, Harold Hitchcock, whose extraordinary works share that same mystical luminescence. In a similar way to symphonic music ~ having explored atonal paths, inspired by Arnold Schoenberg and his twelve-tone system, which ultimately led back to tonality and harmony ~ I believe the visual arts will one day come to appreciate again the more representational and mystical works of contemporary painters like Hitchcock.
I was privileged to meet Harold Hitchcock for the first time in 1996, in the village of Ugborough, in Devonshire, having been entranced by reproductions of his paintings in a book I discovered in a second-hand shop in Hay-on-Wye. The more I communed with his visionary world of light, imbued with its mystical benevolence, the more I wanted to meet this extraordinary and unassuming artist whose works have been inspirational to me ever since.
With Harold Hitchcock and his wife, Rose, in 1996
Here are five paintings by Harold Hitchcock that exemplify different aspects of his extraordinary gifts, reproduced by kind permission of the artist’s family:
Portrait of the artist’s grandfather, painted when Hitchcock was 15 years old
A landscape painted in 1929, also at the age of 15, entitled Thundersley, where Hitchcock had what the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, would have described as a ‘peak experience’ that determined his resolve to be a painter
And three paintings from his mature period demonstrating different aspects of Hitchcock’s style
Arthur and Guinevere
Castle on a Riverbank
A Legendary Seaport
The largest of Hitchcock’s paintings, created in 2006, three years before the artist’s death
Usually I make notes of ideas that come to me but often they are incomplete and so they remain in a file until I can add to them. Then I might realise that the notes I have for one story fit together with notes I thought were for a different story and suddenly I have a new completed story. On one occasion I couldn’t decide which one of four different ideas I wanted to focus on, so I went for a walk by the river with the intention that by the time I returned, I would know which one it was to be. But during that walk, I had a completely new idea, which I then wrote, and never did return to the other four! It can be a funny process and often takes me by surprise. Neither do I think there is, nor should be, a set length for a story, any more than there is when a composer writes a symphony ~ each one is simply as long as it takes to tell.
I’ve noticed that the stories in my second book, Tales of the Lost, are generally much darker than those in my first book, Strange Tales in Fiction and Fact. I’m not sure why this is but I have a feeling that, having passed through those darker places, something lighter is due to emerge. I can only wait and see. Meanwhile, I see these two collections as two sides of a coin ~ a magical coin, of course!
At the time of writing my early stories
At the time of writing my later stories
Thank you for visiting my website. I hope you enjoy the stories.