“When Michael Vyner goes to spend the Christmas holidays with his distant and aloof guardian, he finds himself in a dark and desolate East Anglian house – a house that harbours a terrible secret which it will fight to retain. Michael’s lonely task soon becomes clear as he is haunted not just by a solitary woman in the mists but by the terrible reason behind her death.”
Darkly sinister, Chris Priestley’s The Dead of Winter, is a shiveringly delicious tale of terror which will be thoroughly enjoyed by all children from 9 and older who love a good horror and mystery story. I’ve never been a fan of horror but I found the Dead of Winter, with its rich, gothic voice “unputdownable”
I’m delighted that Chris Priestley, who I “met” via Facebook, has agreed to be interviewed on Absolute Vanilla.
Facebook interactions with you are brimful of wicked humour and you are clearly a really nice guy – so what draws you to writing tales of terror and the horror genre specifically?
Thank you! But I have always been attracted to the darker side of things. Who really knows why? I think its something you have a predisposition for or you don’t. That’s not to say that I don’t like sunshine, chirping birds and the laughter of little children! I don’t sit in a black room scowling all day. Well, not every day.
The narrator’s voice in The Dead of Winter is unashamedly gothic and reminded me of novels like A Woman in White, Great Expectations and even Stoker’s Dracula. What is the appeal of the gothic voice and are there any particular gothic novels that have inspired you?
All of the above. The Woman in White was definitely in the mix and I reread Great Expectations and David Copperfield not long before I wrote it. My original pitch to Bloomsbury was that I wanted to write a kind of ‘Jane Eyre for boys’ (not suggesting that boys can’t enjoy Jane Eyre, of course!). But I was also inspired by the memory of watching The Haunting (the original Jack Clayton adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s wonderful novel, The Haunting of Hill House).
Marcus Sedgwick has said that place can also be a character in a novel and in The Dark of Winter, Hawton Mere and its mysterious marshland setting are so richly evoked as to make them palpably alive. Would you agree that place can be a character and is Hawton Mere based on a particular place and the effect it had on you?
Absolutley. Edgar Allan Poe said that he wanted the house in The Fall of the House of Usher to be a character in the story, and I definitely wanted that for The Dead of Winter. I imagined the house to be almost like a mind – a damaged mind.
What was the inspiration for The Dead of Winter and what came first – the concept of a place, the events, or the character of Michael?
I think I often start with location - that and a few scenes. I may have no idea at all about what these scenes signify at first. I have to write the book to find that out.
The Cambridgeshire fens in which The Dead of Winter is set
(images copyright Sean Crawford (1 & 2) and Martyn Fordham)
(images copyright Sean Crawford (1 & 2) and Martyn Fordham)
In writing The Dark of Winter what was your relationship with your protagonist and narrator of the story, Michael Vyner? How did he first “appear” to you and how do you feel about him as a character?
I like Michael. The first image I had of him was of the boy standing beside his mother’s grave, alone and forlorn. It is one of the really magical things about writing – when a character really starts to come alive. Suddenly you find yourself saying, ‘No – he wouldn’t do that’ and it forces the story into a place you might not have gone.
You make regular references to Michael’s love of reading and his discovery of the library at Hawton Mere. Given the current library controversy and library closures in the UK, how important do you believe books, reading and libraries are to young people?
Well they are indispensible of course. I don’t know of a single writer who did not start out with a love of books – as objects as much as anything else – and who did not use libraries as a child. If public libraries go, they will never come back and that will be a tragedy.
The Dark of Winter is a supernatural tale of terror - do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had any ghostly encounters?
No. And no.
You’ve recently gone through your own very scary health experience, do you think this will impact on the stories you write and how you write them?
Yes, absolutely. As you know, I had a mini-stroke earlier this year. I was lucky in that I am relatively unscathed – but it could have permanently affected both my speech and my right hand. Scary. It has changed me as a person. I know that, without quite knowing how yet. Inevitably it will also change me as a writer. The specifics of the events may also find their way into one of my books. There seems a kind of inevitability about that.
You have also written a collection of stories called Tales of Terror. Can you tell us a little about them and their inspiration?
I loved short stories as a teenager. I still do. Some people find them unsatisfying, I know. But for me, a good short story is a special thing and when I first started wondering if I might be a writer, it was short stories I experimented with.
Did you enjoy scary stories as a child, and if so, what was the particular appeal, and what do you think is the appeal of the horror genre to children?
Not as a young child, but certainly as a teenager. I read short creepy fiction in compilations like the Pan horror collections, but I also read short stories by people like Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham who are harder to classify. The appeal to young people is – I think – in its format. Horror short stories are structured rather like a joke, in that they have the satisfying pay-off at the end.
The advice always given to new writers is to “read, read, read” – what sort of books do you enjoy reading and which do you draw particular inspiration from?
Well I read less and less these days. It is something I am determined to do something about. I love reading – non-fiction or fiction. I tend to read little of what is going on in the YA market. I think that the books that inspired me to become a writer, I read in my teens and twenties. That’s not to say that I can’t still be inspired by a good book, it’s just that I think that period is so formative. You are so receptive at that age and your character is still in a state of flux. Books shaped my idea of what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to live. They – maybe more importantly – gave me an insight into the lives of others of a different age, culture, sex. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without books. They are far more than mere entertainment.
Aside from writing, you are also a cartoonist and artist – how do these different creative endeavours find balance in your life and do you find that one affects the other in any particular way, and if so, to what benefit to you as a creator?
I’m not sure that it isn’t a distraction most of the time. I just don’t have the time to do each of these things to the level I want to. Writing is my job now and the thing that pays the rent and I have contractual obligations. From being a full-time illustrator and painter, it’s hard to now fit it in around my writing. I would love to do something Shaun Tan-like that makes use of my writing and painting ability in one book.
What next for Chris Priestley? What are you currently working on and what other stories would you perhaps like to write?
I am currently editing the proofs for Mister Creecher, my new book, published by Bloomsbury in October. I am also writing a contemporary ghost story set in Amsterdam, called The Mask. But I am always – always – thinking of short stories. It seems to be in my DNA.
Many thanks to Chris for this interview!
My pleasure. Thanks for asking me.
You can find out more about Chris Priestley at his blog.
You can become a Chris Priestley fan on Facebook.
You can read Chris Priestley's biography at the British Cartoon Archive.
Want to know more about the Tales of Terror ?
Chris Priestley's books are available on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com
And here's what happened when I showed The Dead of Winter to a curious seagull...