Wakenhyrst: the lure of the gothic

Michelle Paver
Opinion - Books Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The greatest feeling of all, writes Michelle Paver, is fear

I had the idea for Wakenhyrst when I was writing a totally different book, but it kept getting in the way. The last time that happened, the unexpected idea was Wolf Brother, which changed my life - so perhaps not surprisingly, I swiftly shelved the other book and sat down to write Wakenhyrst.

Oddly enough, it wasn't a single big idea that got my imagination fizzing, it was a bunch of weird things I'd stumbled across in a matter of weeks. A Victorian artist-cum-axe-murderer; a medieval painting of demons which narrowly escaped the bonfire in a Suffolk graveyard; a centuries-old book by a female mystic who was clearly barking mad... Throw in some salty family reminiscences from my 91-year-old aunt, and I had something quite personal that I couldn't ignore.

Wakenhyrst is a gothic thriller with classic ingredients: a lonely Edwardian girl in an isolated manor-house in the fens, a repressive father with a long-buried secret. When he finds a medieval Last Judgment in the churchyard, his guilt begins to surface and Maud's life becomes a battle of wills: is Father going mad? Or is there really something out there in the fens? I wrote Wakenhyrst to entertain and to frighten.

I'm told the uncanny is popular right now, but I've loved it all my life. It's one of the hardest things to write well, and I say that from experience after two ghost stories, Dark Matter and Thin Air. And yet when it works, boy does it hit home.

It's an odd thing, but in my experience, most people really do love being frightened. At signings they tell me with big grins how my books gave them a sleepless night. They post gleeful comments on my website: "I was too scared to open the curtains!" "I fell off the sofa and so did the dog!"

So what is the appeal of the ghostly, the demonic, the uncanny? Is it that the isolation and remoteness of the traditional gothic setting offers a welcome relief from today's 24/7 culture? Is it that the gothic sense of being trapped in a situation beyond one's control resonates strongly with modern lives? Maybe this explains why women are both avid readers and writers of gothic fiction; and perhaps also why an Edwardian heroine's savagely confined existence allows many of us to reflect on how far we've come.

In essence, though, I think it's much simpler than that. Readers crave strong emotions, and fear is the strongest of all. I say this for solid Darwinian reasons. Love, hatred, envy, loss: they can be immensely powerful, but you've got to be alive to feel them - and fear is what keeps you alive. Be afraid: what's at the back of the cave?

In real life we can't control what frightens us: the mugging, the redundancy, the terrorist attack - but when we pick up a scary story, we make a choice. The story offers us the release of intense emotion, albeit with the reassurance that we can stop whenever we like (although of course I do my damndest to make sure that the reader simply can't put it down!).

I'm often asked if I approach writing my children's books any differently from my adult ones, and in general the answer is no, it's the story that matters. The key is always to create characters about whom the reader cares passionately. If you can do that, she'll read the book in one night, whether she's 8 or 80. If you don't, she'll put it down and do something else.

But I have to admit that there's one difference, and that's in the level of darkness in the story. In my children's books there's more justice, more hope, than we actually find in real life. I think that's as it should be. I don't want to make any child feel worse about the world after reading one of my books. I want them to have a rich, vivid, immersive experience that takes them on a rollercoaster of emotions - but ultimately reassures.

The same goes for my books for adults - but with a little less reassurance. So it's only a question of degree. And although all my books are frightening at times, they're shot through with more positive qualities - friendship, loyalty, love.

It's this combination of darkness and light that gives readers of any age a satisfying experience and keeps them coming back for more. In other words, the feelings are paramount. But the greatest of them all is fear.

Photo of Michelle Paver by Anthony Upton

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver is published by Head of Zeus on 4 April (hb £14.99)

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