Over the summer I managed to visit the crumbling ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, which sits at the southern tip of the geographically modest but culturally significant Holy Island, a mile or so off the coast of Northumberland. This spit of marsh and rock can only be access via a tidal causeway – miscalculate your journey time and you’ll end up being towed out by the Coastguard – which added a sense of gothic drama to the island, its tiny village, and its ancient English monuments. In fact the journey was a kind of pilgrimage for me as Lindisfarne had played a key part in the novel I’d been working on most recently, The Green Man.
In the gift shop I moseyed over to the modest but excellently curated collection of books – mostly non-fiction relating to local history, some religious history, and some more generic English history – but there was also a small collection of fiction. There were a few novels – a handful of Bernard Cornwell novels, as one might expect – and then I spied two anthologies published by English heritage themselves: the first, Eight Ghosts, is a collection of eight ghost stories, and These Our Monsters, is an anthology of English monster and folk horror stories. The stories from both volumes are set in sites of historic significance under the care of English Heritage, from Audley End in Essex to Tintagel Castle in Cornwallby way of Stonehenge, Whitby Abbey, Castlerigg and more. The writers were spoiled for choice – there are more than 400 such sites in the care of EH, and each of them would have made excellent sites for such stories.
Ghost / horror stories and sites of historical interest seem to be a match made in heaven. Almost all ghost and horror stories by design must focus on the past. Fantasy stories also have a tendency to focus on the historical past, whether longing for a sort of Tolkienesque pastoral return, or as a way of recodifying or understanding aspects of social history, as in A Song Of Ice And Fire, or simply as a romantic, quasi-magical setting for feats of derring-do and reconstituted mythologies, such as David Gemmill’s novels, or the Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Horror stories are more concerned with the bad seeds sown throughout history, and the weeds which proliferate in our own gardens as a result of them.
This is why historical sites make such brilliant settings for such stories; all human history can be seen through the windows of these wonderful old places – the heroism, the philosophy, the romance, the betrayals, the plotting, and the downright brutality of people are encapsulated in the walls and grounds of such places, and when one visits them there’s a very palpable sense that the activities and behaviours that went on in those places still lives on, not only in the brickwork but in us.
In setting a small part of The Green Man in Lindisfarne I tried to tap into some of this. Lindisfarne may now be a crumbling pile, dilapidated by the sale of is assets after the Reformation and now washed slowly into nothingness by the salty moisture of the island air, but it has a rich and often bloody history, from the settling of St Aiden and the works of St Cuthbert to the devastating Viking raids of 793, and the glorious years of worship until its decommissioning in the Reformation and subsequent use as a garrison before falling into ruin. All these ghosts are there, in the remaining stones and bare earth, and in the telling of stories.
Choosing real world sites for the settings of stories (particularly ghost stories) doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily writing historical fiction – these settings and sites can be used to evoke feelings, themes and episodes, and don’t have to adhere to what might have exactly happened. A lot of the best fiction occurs on the boundaries of what has happened, or what does happen, and what might happen, or what might have have been. These old places are full of spaces, and that’s where the ghosts get in.