Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tea, love & murder in Crieff!

Last weekend (23-24 August) saw the second ever Crieff Arts Festival, which is why I have been doing very little blogging recently - I've been too busy!

Fellow author Susy McPhee and I teamed up once again to offer a writing masterclass under the alluring title of Tea, Love & Murder! Seemingly these three things are enough to pull the punters in - or perhaps it was just the tea they were after? At any rate, we had a good sized audience and lots of great questions to answer. We talked about plot development, setting and characters.

Master (or should that be Mistress?) of Ceremonies Helen Lewis-McPhee kept things moving at a brisk pace and also asked a very interesting question: did Susy and I think that we could have written each other's books? As a matter of fact, Susy's latest book Back to you features a woman whose partner has vanished whilst mountaineering, and I have in the past toyed with a very similar idea, although I've never got down to writing it. Susy's book is an absorbing mystery in which human relationships are very much to the fore; my story would have been peppered with nasty deaths, creepy remote locations and grisly local folklore. So I think it is fair to say that I couldn't have written Susy's book! It was an interesting question though - and do check out Back to you. It's my personal favourite of Susy's books.

As well as our literary event, this year's Crieff Arts Festival included live music, poetry, art workshops, street theatre and exhibitions in both the newly established Strathearn Artspace and many local shops. The festival is pretty much run on a shoestring and its success is down to the energy and enthusiasm of organisers June McEwan and Nigel Gatherer, and their team of volunteers, plus the participation of local businesses.

The festival will be back next year. In the meantime, if you'd like to help support this brilliant local initiative (and you don't need to live in Crieff to do this!) please do follow us on Twitter at @CrieffArtsFest, and be sure to retweet our news and photos! Thank you.

* Photograph by Catrina Petrie of Vivace Lichtman, who kindly donated the use of the venue. *

Casting the Runes: see it!

I've been very busy recently with the Crieff Arts Festival, so I am horrified to say that I very nearly missed an experience that no M.R.James fan should forgo: a new adaptation of Casting the Runes!

This production by Box Tale Soup was at the Edinburgh Fringe and nearing the end of its run (eek!) when a Facebook post about it by fellow author Roy Gill caught my eye. I dropped everything and went!

I'm not going to post a full review of the show here because I am going to write one for the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, which is the go-to place for all things Jamesian. However, speaking as a lifelong fan of M.R.James, I think it is a really excellent production, and if you have a chance to see it, I urge you to go! It is genuinely creepy and I did actually jump in places!

I see from Box Tale Soup's calendar, which you can see by clicking on the linked version of their name above, that they have performances scheduled for October in Cheltenham. I hope very much that there will be others in due course.

In the meantime, the brilliant M.R.James-inspired Podcast to the Curious has a new podcast out, featuring a Jamesian double bill. The second part features an interview with Antonia and Noel from Box Tale Soup, so that is well worth listening to for all the background info about Casting the Runes. 
The first part of the show is all about MRJ's unfinished story The Game of Bear - it analyses the story fragment and examines the various endings created by myself and fellow authors Clive Ward and Jacqueline Simpson. All in all, a Jamesian treat!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tea, love and murder

If you're in Scotland, and especially if you're anywhere near Crieff, here are some dates for your diary: 23rd and 24th August 2014 see the second ever Crieff Arts Festival, a combination of live music and literary events and exhibitions of work by local artists. If you live within striking distance of Crieff and have ever fancied coming over to explore the town, have lunch or high tea and enjoy the beautiful Perthshire countryside, here's an excuse for coming. You can have tea, nature and culture. 

For details of the programme, venues, etc see the Arts Festival website, which is being updated as more events are confirmed. 

Once again, I'm going to be teaming up with another Crieff-based author, novelist Susy McPhee, whose latest book is Back to you (see below), which could either be described as a mystery with a love story at its heart, or a love story with a mystery at its heart! Either way, it's a touching and enthralling read which kept me guessing right up to the end. 

My latest book is, of course, my Flanders-based thriller Demons of Ghent, which also has its fair share of mystery and love interest, but a much higher body count...

Last year Susy and I did an evening event with wine at the Drill Hall in Crieff - the venue was kindly supplied by Vivace Lichtman lighting, who have supported the Arts Festival brilliantly by hosting several events. This year we plan to hold an afternoon event on Sunday 24th, with tea and cakes. The event will be at the Drill Hall again, with a start time of 3pm. 

I'll post more information about our event when all the details are confirmed, but it's safe to say that those who attend can expect an afternoon of tea, cake, love and murder!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Ghosts of things past...and of things yet to be

A while ago, I blogged about the first Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows, published in 2012 by Sarob Press, as a beautiful limited edition hardback. The book was a collection of prequels and sequels to the classic ghost stories of M.R.James, including my own story Alberic de MaulĂ©on, a prequel to Canon Alberic's Scrap-book.

I am thrilled to say that the book was so well received that Sarob are bringing out a second volume, which is scheduled for publication in September 2014. You can see the gorgeous cover art by Paul Lowe on the left. Anyone who is familiar with M.R.James' stories will recognise it as being from Count Magnus! 

Volume 2 of the Book of Shadows again includes one of my own stories, The Third Time, a sequel to James' A Neighbour's Landmark. If you haven't read the original story, you can find it here: A Neighbour's Landmark on A Thin Ghost. Incidentally, if you want to know more about this particular tale, there is a super episode about it on the M.R.James-themed Podcast to the Curious. You can listen to it here: Podcast episode 26.

So why did I choose to write a sequel to this particular tale? When the idea of the first Book of Shadows came up, writing something about Canon Alberic's Scrap-book was a no-brainer for me, really. It's one of MRJ's best known stories (with good reason) and I have spent a lot of my own time researching it: I visited St. Bertrand de Comminges, where it is set, and I also wrote an article about the demonology of the story. You can read that online, here: The Nature of the Beast. For the first volume, I chose to write a prequel, set in France in the late 1600s. I aimed for a rather old-fashioned, perhaps Edwardian tone to the prose.

When it came to the story for Volume 2, I wanted to do something completely different. I decided to write a sequel set in the present day, in all its modern grubbiness. I also chose as the starting-point a story of MRJ's that I have enjoyed many times, but that I have never particularly researched nor pored over.

I've always found A Neighbour's Landmark particularly creepy, although it is not one you hear many people mention when asked which of James' tales is their favourite. Perhaps the shrieking ghost is a little too subtle? However, I must say for me it is one of his most frightening stories. The idea of hearing that terrible scream when you are not expecting it, and then the suspense of waiting to hear it a second time, is just appalling! Even if you are not interested in modern sequels, do read the original story; it's fabulous and chilling.

Other contributors to this new volume include David Longhorn, better known perhaps as the editor of Supernatural Tales, and Reggie Oliver, who is a playwright, biographer and writer of many excellent ghost stories. I have not yet read any of the contributions other than my own, so I can't wait to get my contributor's copy so that I can devour them!

Details of how to order the Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows Volume 2 are here, on the Sarob Press website.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Throwback Thursday: past loves

It's Thursday so it's Throwback day!  I posted this pic (left) on Twitter but there's a limit to what you can say in only 140 characters so I thought I'd fill in the rest of the story on my blog.

I think this photograph is from 1989 or 1990. That's me sitting in "Iris" my Mark 4 Triumph Spitfire convertible. Iris rolled off the assembly line in 1973, so in 1989 she wasn't all that old, but by now she'd be a very old lady indeed. She was British Leyland Magenta, which is a kind of violet colour.

Some people buy a sports car because they are having a midlife crisis. I bought Iris after a particularly grisly romantic disaster. She was the ultimate impractical car. She didn't even go that fast!  Admittedly she could, as they say, turn on a sixpence, so she was ideal for rolling English country lanes, where you can't go that fast anyway unless you want to end up in a ditch. You could also park Iris anywhere, because she had such a tight turning circle and was so narrow.

The left-hand catch that was supposed to secure Iris' convertible hood was very worn so the hood didn't close properly. This meant that the wind could get in, and on occasion the hood was even known to open whilst I was driving along. Once or twice the rain got in too, and soaked the passenger seat, seeping right into the foam padding. The seat took a very long time to dry out, so passengers were likely to find themselves sitting in a puddle. What with the vibrations from the engine, it must have been like sitting in a very cold jacuzzi!

Actually, the list of things that weren't working quite as they should have was pretty endless. Sadly, my income wasn't, so I had to live with some of these things for a while before I could get them repaired.

The very first time I took Iris out for a long journey, my youngest sister and I drove from Chesham to Oxford for the evening. On the way home, Iris broke down on the edge of town, and flatly refused to roll another metre forward. By this time it was dark, and this being around 1989, neither of us had a mobile phone. I went to a nearby house, knocked on the door and asked to use their phone so that we could call the AA. Then I went back and sat in the car and waited. And waited. No sign of the AA. The lights in the house where I had knocked went out, so I didn't feel I could ask them again. Eventually, a police car drew up behind us and two policemen came to ask us what the trouble was. After I'd told them the car was new and I didn't know what was wrong with it, one them walked all around it, tapping the bodywork. Then he came back grinning his head off and said, "It's full o' pudding."
I'm still smarting about that remark over two decades later. It's like having someone tell you your gorgeous new boyfriend is an asshole. However, I'm grateful to the police for calling the AA (who hadn't been able to find us) and telling them where we were. We got towed home, ignominiously. The next day I incurred the first of a series of large car repair bills.

Iris and I eventually came to an understanding about her various foibles. For example, if the engine was left idling in hot weather she would overheat and break down. To avoid this, I could put the heating on full blast and let the heat wash through the interior of the car instead of building to a volcanic temperature under the bonnet. I am not sure if there is any mechanical basis for thinking that this would work, but it did seem to. I recall one particularly hot summer's day when I drove into London and got stuck in a traffic jam on the way home. I saw the temperature gauge rising so I put the heating on. Even with the hood down, I was soon being baked. Very unpleasant. The things we put up with for love...

And then there was the starter motor which didn't. Start, I mean. That issue was relatively simply resolved by keeping a geology hammer in the car. If the motor wouldn't start, I'd put the bonnet up, deliver a sharp blow to the starter motor with the hammer, and then it would generally work perfectly - until the next time it jammed up.

In spite of all this, I really loved Iris. There was nothing finer than travelling through the countryside on a sunny day with the hood down and music unravelling scratchily from the cassette player. I used to do up my hair in a silk scarf the exact same colour as the bodywork, and drive along with the ends blowing in the breeze behind me. It was a sure cure for woe and heartache.

Of course, all such improbable and impractical love affairs have to come to an end one day. I met my future husband; he subsequently moved to Merseyside and I used to drive up and down to see him most weekends, which wasn't practical in a very temperamental old sports car. Aside from the risk of breaking down, Iris wasn't fast enough and she didn't have a roll bar, so if I'd had an accident on the motorway the results would not have been pretty. We parted company and I got a much more practical car, who didn't have a name.

I didn't have any trouble finding a good home for Iris: the mechanic who had been patching her up for the previous year or two was very keen to take her off my hands. So keen was he, that I suspect the two of them had been flirting together for a long time before he made his move. I guess he was in a much better position to do all the maintenance she needed, so for all I know they may still be together. I hope so; she deserved to find everlasting love.