There’s an image in my latest book – Nightrise: The Return of Philip Dryden – which provides the central scene of the book. My sleuth is out in a small boat on Adventurer’s Mere, a vast lake east of Ely in the Black Fens of Cambridgeshire. It doesn’t exist – this lake – but what lies beneath it does. Dryden approaches the drowned village of River Bank, where the surface of the water is broken by the remains of the church: the apex of the nave, the upper parts of the now empty windows, and a bell tower. He navigates to the drowned church and glides through the opening left by the West window. Slipping down the nave, lit by the light through the half-submerged windows, he looks down and sees the white marble font, black eels entwined in a knot in the bowl.
It’s not all he uncovers in the green water of the mere. I’ll leave it to the reader to unravel its exact nature but I can say that what he finds sets him on a path to undercovering a very unusual crime. At first – when I was researching whether this crime could work in a credible way – I didn’t think it actually existed. I thought I’d invented a crime – in which men and women conspire to steal the lives of the dead. I was amazed to discover, much later in my research, that not only does this crime exist, but Interpol has a permanent unit dedicated to trying to track down the criminals who have turned it into an international crime. In a way the idea for this sprang from that image too – of the half-drowned church.
So I’ve been asking myself where this odd picture-thought came from. It has several forebears – in books and in art – but I think the reason I had it in mind when plotting Nightrise was because of something which happened on the night of July 9, 1984. I was a reporter on the York Evening Press and I was fast asleep when the phone rang at about four o’clock. It was the chief reporter and he simply told me that York Minster was on fire and the editor wanted me on the scene. I got on my bike and cycled to the end of the street which was on the crest of a hill so that I could look down on the city. I’d been praying it was a false alarm. I didn’t fancy being the sole reporter on the scene of the biggest story in the city’s history since the proclamation of the Roman Emperor Constantine on July 25, 306. But from the hill I could see the roof of the south transept of the cathedral and it was ablaze. The roof beams glowed like the bars on an electric fire.
When I got down to the cathedral’s west front the blazing roof had been pulled down to the floor of the church by the fire brigade to save the great central tower and the rest of the building. I milled about trying to collect quotes, and piece together a timeline of what might have happened. I appeared to be completely surrounded by bishops. The synod was meeting in the city and they’d all been got out of bed. The Archbishop of Canterbury – Robert Runcie – was among them. Eventually the fire chief on the scene offered to take the bishops inside to see the damage. I tagged along – in heavy-duty boots and hard hat. We approached the cathedral façade and the great West Doors, but it was only when they were pushed back that I realised how the fire brigade had saved the building. They’d pumped millions of gallons of water in through the roof – virtually none of which had got out. The nave was a lake – I don’t recall any pews or seats – just a mirror of water. The hoses had played water on blazing wood and sizzling lead with the result that steam filled the upper reaches of the building and the chamber under the great tower. We walked down this extraordinary building – between two layers – water beneath, steam above – until we came to the south transept where we could see the sky above, and the blazing remnants of the roof on the stone floor. It was a sight that burned itself into my memory.
So that’s why Dryden drifts down the aisle of the drowned church. He’s following in my watery footsteps. But where did the exterior image of the church come from – the half-drowned Gothic building ? I had it in my head that the seeds of this lay in the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake. This was one of my teenage obssessions. In fact I read the first volume – Titus Groan – standing up in W H Smith on Barnet High Street. This was not an uncommon tactic with ‘Smugs’ as the shops were so busy you could easily escape detection while reading the entire works of Dickens. I was so hooked I actually ordered the second book in the series – Gormenghast – and paid for it on collection. Even I thought it was cheeky asking them to get it so I could read it off the shelf !
The Gormenghast books form a Gothic tale of the grotesque. It is set in a limitless castle. One of the servants – Steerpike – is trying to wrest control of the castle from its rightful heir – Titus Groan. Towards the end of Gormenghast the two are forced closer and closer together as freak rains – a deluge – flood the world around the castle, and then the castle’s lower floors, forcing them upwards. A village outside the castle is evacuated and the villagers – known as the Bright Carvers – take refuge inside. They give Titus a present – a carved canoe with a short Viking-style figurehead. He sets off paddling through his half-flooded kingdom. He ends up in a long dark corridor at the end of which – at the ‘hinge of perspective’ – is daylight. He paddles towards the distant window, gaining speed, until he shoots out into the flooded world.
He’s on an inland sea. When he turns the canoe back to see his home – the castle – he sees a world transformed by the flood. "Great islands of sheer rock weather-pock’d with countless windows, like caves or the eyries of sea-eagles. Archipelagos of towers, gaunt-fisted things with knuckled summits…" No church – there’s no formal religion in the books, but this is, I think, the origin of the half-drowned Gothic church in Nightrise – with Dryden paddling down the little nave, as Titus paddled down that long corridor.
It’s a revelation sometimes to work out where ideas come from. Last year I was trying to trace the origins of the central theme in my book Death’s Door – which is set on an island off the coast of Norfolk. The hunt led me to one of my favourite choldhood – The Magus, by John Fowles – set on a Greek island. In his introduction to The Magus Fowles writes that writers are often made by the books they read as children and teenagers. They let the ‘deep pattern and mood’ of such books enter their brains – not the plots, not the characters, just the fundamental form. This year the hunt has led to that long corridor in Gormenghast. And the way it leads us towards the ‘hinge of perspective’ – light, literally, at the end of the tunnel.
But despite that light there is a dark, nightmarish, evil hanging over Gormenghast. Peake was a war photogrpaher who witnessed the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. That cast a pall over his work, a sense of evil. I hope this finds an echo in Nightrise as the book slowly unfolds for the reader the true nature of the crime at the heart of the story. I was intrigued to discover that at Interpol they have a name for the criminals I thought I had imagined – they call them Ghosters. Their crime is Ghosting. I hope, that if you read Nightrise – you’ll enjoy tracking them down. They richly deserve their final punishment.
Nightrise: Severn House. Hardback at £19.99p
Death’s Door: now in paperback at £11.99p