When Stroud Times contributor Simon Hacker set out to conjure a haunted-house thriller, he found plenty of inspiration in creepy corners of the Cotswolds. We checked out his co-ordinates for a tale of terror.
Don’t you write enough horror in your coverage of Forest Green Rovers?
Yes, my masochistic interest in FGR has definitely been keeping the keyboard busy, but aside freelance journalism, I’ve spent a lot of midnight oil on this. The Underbrothers is my second novel and it’s just gone live in digital and print.
So give us a killer hook in two sentences.
Just in time for Halloween, The Underbrothers is a classic haunted-house drama with a modern twist. It charts the hopes and nightmares of 15-year-old Scarlett Wycherley, who lands in 17th century Whitecross Hall, a remote Cotswold mansion, after her father makes a bad career decision.
She’s forced to live in a mansion? Oh the misery.
Well, she certainly finds it hard to adjust from city life, especially when a detached voice makes contact though her pillow. And before she can draw breath, there’s the small matter of her brother being dragged behind the walls for what appears to be an amateur skin graft. She soon realises life in the Cotswolds isn’t as sweet as those Sunday supplements suggest.
Right, and mayhem ensues?
Absolutely! No spoilers here, but her brand new friend gets possessed, apparitions loom from every corner and there’s Nan Tow, an all-shrieking, all-dancing witch, though beyond the tragedy of the eponymous underbrothers (who Scarlett must eventually confront) Nan Tow’s story is what drives the whole plot towards its final shebang.
So on a dark-ometer, how bleak is this?
For the sake of contrast, I think crisis always breeds comedy, so there is that, plus a good dollop of comeuppance, which I think we all enjoy. If this was a Halloween drink, I’d call it a dark brew of first love, death before life, disastrous DIY haircuts and a grim travelling wart. A rivetting read, I hope, both for young adults and adult youngsters.
Right… but where on earth did such a spooky idea come from?
It’s an idea that found me: my childhood, in an old cottage near Wotton-under-Edge, was punctuated by several inexplicable happenings – whisperings behind furniture, self-propelling shoes, even curtains being sucked out of windows. What I gradually learned was an unhappy story to our home’s past, and I think the result of all that was a seed that kept growing.
And what about locations – did you get inspired locally?
Gloucestershire is a Gothic paradise, crammed with tales of witches, ghosts and tragedy. Whitecross, Scarlett’s new home, is a collage, not least Woodchester Park for its naked structure, the National Trust’s Newark Park, at Ozleworth, for its forlorn isolation and, for raw goosebumps, Wotton’s Ancient Ram Inn.
Oh, and I pinched North Nibley’s Tyndale Monument to create the north tower in Scarlett’s home. I’d challenge anyone to sample Tyndale Monument’s 120 steps up on a windy, dark evening and not anticipate a brush with some malevolent force. The most important location in the plot, though, is one I think most of us will never recognise and a place I only stumbled on by chance…
Could this be the witch’s grave?
That’s spookily accurate! It’s an overgrown tumulus, a burial mound alongside the A46, about three miles south of Nailsworth. Whether the story of ‘Nan Tow’s Tump’, and that it was the uneasy resting place of a ‘witch’ killed and buried upright by a local duke, is true or not, I was drawn to the truth behind the legend – and what it reveals about the way church and state worked together to build a mythology of witches. The truth about the real Nan Tow became the core of this.
Upright burial? Sounds grim.
Yes, but this is also, amid the chaos, a love story, and pivotal to that is a character called Moreton Valance. On the whole, I think anyone who lives there will not feel their postcode’s been taken in vain.
● For a signed paperback copy of The Underbrothers, Cotswold Book Room in Long Street, Wotton-under-Edge, will host a meet-the-author event next Saturday (October 21st) from 11am until 2pm.
The Underbrothers is available to order through Amazon as a hardback, paperback or Kindle ebook.