Chilling suspense thrillers seem to be increasingly popular among readers of crime fiction. They move in a world that is a far cry from the novels that introduced me to murder mysteries many years ago, the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, with her genteel detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.
A straw in the wind: I recently read in the Harrowgate International Festival blog that chilling suspense thrillers lead the way in the 2012 Shortlist just announced for Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award: “One of the most prestigious crime writing prizes in the country [UK], the 2012 short list reflects the ever increasing popularity of psychological and suspense-driven thrillers.”
I have often in this blog raised the question of why people read quite horrific thrillers for pleasure, but have not managed to provide answers to the question. After reviewing the sixth chiller thriller of the British author, Sally Spedding, I asked her some questions about this novel, Cold Remains, a novel as chilling as its title. Her answers give us some insight into her motives and methods.
These questions and answers were first published as Interview: Sally Spedding, Author of Cold Remains on Blogcritics.
Cold Remains is one of your most chilling thrillers. You have said in the past about your books, “I want to give people a fright.” Certainly you frightened me with this one! But I cannot believe that this is your only motive as a writer. You write extremely well, you plot brilliantly, you conjure up scenes with great skill—why, really, do you put your talents as a writer in the service of what some might call “horror?”
An interesting question which I usually shirk , not because to answer it honestly might lead some readers to think I carry too much ‘baggage,’ but because I have always possessed a heightened sense of the darkness in those people surrounding me and in the world at large, past, present and future.
I totally agree with the statement by one of Anne Enright’s characters in The Gathering, that ’people don’t change, they just reveal themselves.’ And it’s these revelations which have incrementally shifted the tectonic plates of trust and naivety that once—optimistically—underpinned my existence. So my characters, such as Jason and Helen in Cold Remains will also have had their perceptions altered for ever.
Tennyson’s ‘little lacerations of the spirit’ are, to me, just as lasting as more obvious aberrations. They are the destroyers of dreams.
So I hope the ‘horror’ element in my work is rather more subtle than bloodied slash-fests.
One aspect of the ‘horror’ element in your work is the presence of ghosts. There are certainly ghosts in Cold Remains. One in particular might be called a main character, a mainspring of the plot. Heron House, the setting of the novel, is haunted in a terrifying and ugly way. This is perhaps a naïve question, but do you actually believe in ghosts? And if not, isn’t it in a way cheating to let a ghost so strongly affect the action of what is in many ways a realistic novel?
I do absolutely believe in ghosts—or energies from those no longer with us—because I have experienced at first hand, the most extraordinary and inexplicable events. Even as I type this, the lounge door has just suddenly opened with a sharp ‘click,’ and I’m ‘alone’ in the house. It’s our dog who died two years’ ago, who always did that. That’s fine, but other incidents have put me in fear for my life.
I have seen the ghost of a man dressed in black leathers and huge black gloves with his rifle on his shoulder, when I went out on a bright dawn in Aldeburgh to watch the sea. The wind pulled his red hair pulled back from a face that was white, almost Cubist in its construction. One moment he was there, and beginning to point the weapon at me; the next, he’d vanished.
Then came our deeply haunted, brand new house in the Midlands, where men’s shouts could be heard on the landing which was always cold and where the dog’s hairs would stand up on his back. One morning, this led to my being almost suffocated in my bed by an invisible force. We discovered later that this development of new homes was built on a mediaeval graveyard, that we weren’t alone in experiencing bizarre happenings.
And there’s more . . .
I suggested however in my review of this novel that the real world of present-day Britain is as important to your narrative as any of the paranormal manifestations. Is this so?
Yes. The realities of life in present-day Britain have left their mark on me, my family, friends and everyone else in different ways. Expectations wither. Unfairness and injustice seem unchanged despite numerous Government ‘sticking plasters.’ And for the young especially, such as Jason and Helen, the going is tough, with so many chasing too few jobs, and many employers paying as little as they can get away with. My parents were well-off, but I had to make my own way, with a succession of holiday jobs which later gave me plenty of material for my writing, but at the time, were degrading and exhausting.
As for many elderly people, their future too, seems grim. And don’t get me started on the sinister Liverpool Care Pathway for the terminally ill . . .
I think the writer has a duty to be realistic, because the saying that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ is often right.
You and I both know Wales, and so know that the story you tell in this novel is set firmly in Carmarthenshire, in and around the real village of Rhandirmwyn. The language of the characters and your language as a narrator is very much flavored by the Anglo-Welsh language, and the setting of this novel is not that of Celtic myth but of a recognizably contemporary Wales. How do local readers react to your placing horrific happenings in this setting?
Rhandirmwyn’s pub landlord happily came to the launch of Cold Remains and, like other residents, had previously been very helpful. To date, neither I nor Sparkling Books, my publisher, have had to field any criticisms on my fictional portrayal of this small village. I know several crime writers who are reluctant to use real places in their work. However, the very rural situation of Rhandirmwyn and the history and influence of its creepy, disused lead mines were pivotal to the story.
The real-world characters of Jason and Helen are very likable, and their developing relationship is important to the novel. The end of the novel does leave us with question marks about them. Have you ever thought of writing a sequel? Or are sequels not something that interest you? Having finished a novel, do you put it and its characters firmly behind you?
Another interesting question, and yes, the ending of Cold Remains does leave several possibilities open. Not least Helen and Jason’s future relationship in the context of both her shocking inheritances and his dogged belief in the power of his pen. Several readers have suggested I consider a sequel, and yes, I have already made tentative notes!
I can never put my characters firmly behind me, so they constantly lurk on the periphery of my sub-conscious. They have also appeared in dreams . . .
The plot of this novel is very intricate. You have very cleverly interwoven events of the post-war period with events of the present, and so have gradually unraveled the secrets behind the story. Did you plot the novel carefully ahead of time or did it develop in such a way that it surprised and shocked you as much as it did me?
Thank you for these generous comments. Once I had the setting and the house, and the more I began to research the area (which brought a particularly gruesome discovery to light), I knew what the theme would be: A shameful past impinging upon the present. And, as in the film, The Whicker Man which lures the viewer into a false narrative, so my two unsuspecting incomers are reeled in. I’d also been mesmerized some years ago by the frank, shocking but exquisitely-written autobiography, The Kiss, by the U.S. writer, Kathryn Harrison.
In Cold Remains my characters also carry the story forwards by their desires and mistakes. And people are full of surprises. Plot ‘cages’ are not for me, and a brief outline is all I have when I begin. Like life itself, the novel is a journey.
I said in my review that we find a resolution to the plot, but no comforting restoration of order at the end of your novel. This has seemed to me to be so in your other novels too, and in a recent interview you implied that as far as you were concerned there was no “order” to be restored. Would you like to comment more fully on this?
You are right. I don’t do the ‘comforting restoration of order,’ because I don’t think human beings – including the restless undead – are remotely capable of sustaining it, and because so often the official forces of law and order get it wrong. Experience and observation has shown me that lies, corruption and cronyism are everywhere in the world. Law enforcers are as flawed as the rest of us. We are too trusting, too afraid of disturbing our comfortable thoughts. Which is why good, investigative journalism is so vital to us all. Writers or not.
The late Gitta Sereny remains my heroine.
Where are you going with your writing after Cold Remains?
It took me some time to recover from writing Cold Remains, but I’d already finished The Nighthawk, the first of a trilogy set in the Languedoc region of France, featuring an ex-DI from Nottingham who has retired too early and regrets it. After Cold Remains, I began and finished Carcass, the second in the series, and am currently working in longhand on the third, The Leper House.
Malediction, which I wrote six years ago and never dared showed my agent, is to be published by Sparkling Books on 17th September 2012, and to them I shall always be grateful.
Thanks, Sally. Shall we dare to read this book? I hope your remarks may give rise to some discussion about the why, the wherefore–and the current popularity–of chiller thrillers.
Cold Remains was published by Sparkling Books in 2012, reviewed in this blog a few days ago. You can find more information on the work of Sally Spedding in her website and on the Sparkling Books website. A review article of three of her earlier works appeared on this blog in October 2011.