HALLOWEEN: How Suffolk inspired gothic thriller about witchcraft and demons
- Credit: Archant
Find out where the author set her story, and in which church she ‘spent this amazing four or five minutes with Satan!’
Michelle Paver remembers exactly where she was four years ago. She'd arrived at Walberswick, at Halloween, in "the thickest sea fog you've ever seen. I got a taxi from Darsham station and we were just crawling. I couldn't believe it. It was so thick… and brilliant! The sort of thing I absolutely love.
"I went out onto Walberswick Common, which is actually meant to be quite haunted. I am not 'a sensitive' - I did not experience anything actually ghostly - but you don't really need to be, with all the animals moving around in the reeds."
Her Suffolk visit proved an invaluable fact-finding and "atmosphere-bottling" trip. It provided material for what would become her gothic thriller, set in a dreamed-up corner of the county. (The paperback edition is out today.)
We won't find Wakenhyrst on a map of Suffolk, but we can feel its slightly-peculiar atmosphere. That unease permeates the pages of Michelle's story. Its heart is in Edwardian Suffolk, with manor house Wakes's End standing alone in a lost corner of the Fens.
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Maud Stearne, motherless, grows up a lonely child. Life is dominated by her repressive historian father - who, emotionally, is not there for his daughter.
An ancient evil is disturbed when Edmund Stearne discovers a painted medieval "doom" in a graveyard. Teenager Maud is thrown into a battle to survive, in a world beset by witchcraft and the demons of her father's past.
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Michelle is known for her dark tales, and you can see how it happened.
"I grew up near Wimbledon village. On the other side of the road was a Victorian church, and a churchyard that had been in use since Saxon times.
"I remember reading, as a nine-year-old, about why the churchyard was three feet higher than the surrounding roads - because of all the bodies. I thought that was pretty cool.
"That led to me starting to read ghost stories. I remember the first time, I think I was nine or 10, when I lay awake in a cold sweat. 'Oh gosh, I've read about cold sweats… and this is real!'
"Although I was scared at the time - because I'd just read a ghost story - I was actually quite pleased that it was evoking such a strong feeling. Some people don't like being scared when they read a book. I do!
"I wrote Wakenhyrst to entertain, and I hope people don't want to put it down, but it's also to frighten them."
Does she scare herself when writing creepy tales? Mostly not. "However, what I found with Wakenhyrst was when I was getting ready for bed - I live in an old Victorian house on the (Wimbledon) common - there were times when the stairwell felt very dark and I didn't really want to look down it in case I saw something creeping up the stairs.
"So writing Wakenhyrst did create a sense of unease that stayed with me every night after I'd finished, though at the time I'd been quite objective, going about my craft.
"It certainly fed into dreams, and general disturbed sleep. I never actually dreamt about the book, but you're generally feeling unease. That's what you're trying to create, in any case. It starts off with a slow burn and gradually gets worse and worse, as Edmund is either being more and more haunted or he's unravelling, depending on how you read the story."
The author had long wanted to write a gothic tale set in the Fens, but never had a strong enough idea to carry it. Then, a few weeks before her Halloween 2015 trip to our neck of the woods, three moments of inspiration came at once.
One was picking up a battered copy in an Oxfam shop of The Book of Margery Kempe - Margery being an alleged 15th Century mystic (with, it seems, a not-altogether-happy life).
Then, in Carl Watkins' book The Undiscovered Country, she read about the Wenhaston Doom, at St Peter's Church in the village near Halesworth.
This is an acclaimed medieval painting (on oak panels) of the Last Judgement, featuring Jesus on a rainbow, nasty imps, and St Peter with a golden key to the gates of Heaven.
It depicts the time the dead have their souls weighed. The results see them moving on to Heaven or Hell.
The story goes that the doom was covered in limewash by the Puritans because of its ostentation. Towards the tail end of the 1800s, unwitting Victorians renovating the church moved it out to the churchyard - perhaps almost threw it on a bonfire.
We have overnight rain to thank for washing off the limewash and showing the images so long hidden from view.
Finally, by chance, Michelle and her mother saw an exhibition of paintings by Victorian artist Richard Dadd. He had murdered his father with an axe and spent the rest of his life in Broadmoor. There, Michelle explains, he painted "obsessively-detailed canvases of tiny, otherworldly creatures". Perhaps he was propelled by fear: terrified of what he was creating but unable to stop.
The elements were coming together.
Michelle already had the idea in her head of a girl in a manor house. "I just knew it had to be surrounded by fen and I knew it had to be Suffolk. But when I really started concentrating on Suffolk was when I read the story of the Wenhaston Doom. I thought 'I've got to see it'. Hence that late-autumn visit to the county.
"I didn't know my heroine's name; I didn't know it was going to be a father-daughter relationship. As I was walking through the marshes, I was trying to work it out."
In Wenhaston she found St Peter's open and empty, and sat on a plastic chair in front of the doom.
"I spent this amazing four or five minutes with Satan! It was wonderful." The writer, sitting "unnervingly close" to the green devil, noted his "enormous bat wings and ragged knee-breeches".
She says of the doom's visual impact: "I hadn't expected it, because it doesn't show up as well in photographs as it should do. It's completely different when you see it in a beautiful old church. I'd never heard about it; and the more you read, the weirder it is."
A notice in the church suggests it was probably painted by a monk from Blythburgh priory in about 1490. The doom has a reputation as one of the greatest medieval paintings in the country.
It once hung above the church's chancel arch (where the congregation could heed its warning!) and is believed to have been covered over with the limewash in the 16th Century. The panels were forgotten about until that rain did its work in the 1890s.
While those east Suffolk marshes did much to fuel Michelle's sense of otherworldiness, fictional Wakenhyrst is at the opposite side of the county.
The writer placed the hamlet "west of Mildenhall and before you get to the River Lark". Once, when she explained where it was, some people said "Oh, you've 'built' on our friend's farm!"
Eels and angels
Her novel is laced with Suffolk influences. Michelle loves the county's old churches - "Any excuse to go into those with a copy of (architectural historian) Nikolaus Pevsner (guides) in my hand is just wonderful" - so it's not surprising.
She borrowed the famous ceiling angels from Holy Trinity, Blythburgh, for her fictional church, for instance. "I think I got the bench-ends from St Edmund, in Southwold."
The author has known Suffolk since early adulthood, having spent a week at Flatford Mill, doing a field study for her A-levels. "It was very cold. I remember sleeping in Willy Lott's cottage and pulling the carpet over me to keep warm! But we had a lovely time, and that was really when I engaged with the Suffolk countryside."
One thing that makes me a bit queasy is the author's inclusion of eels in her story! I'm not quite sure why, but they always seem more disconcerting than snakes. In the book, eels play a big part in Edmund Stearne's childhood horrors.
Wakenhyrst is also inspired partly by women's quests for independence, including some sad details from Michelle's own family history.
Her maternal great-grandfather was apparently a man who didn't like children but liked making them. He was also violent. His abused wife, too poor to buy proper dolls for her daughter, would "rescue" porcelain angels from neglected graves in an Antwerp cemetery and knock off their wings with a hammer.
The write stuff
Michelle was five years old when she wrote her first story - on her mum's typewriter. But she didn't think about being "a writer" until she was studying biochemistry at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. In the late 1970s "I rather arrogantly thought 'Right, I'm going to make some money. I shall write a Mills & Boon in three weeks!'
"Well, I wrote 'a story' in three weeks, sent it off and they sent it straight back. 'OK… writing is a bit harder than I thought'."
From that point, as well as getting her degree and becoming a lawyer, she strove to learn how to write. "Always at night, and at weekends - if I got weekends - I was trying to write novels, and sending them off and getting them rejected. That was a very long road."
In 1999, after 13 years in the legal world and having been a partner in a City of London firm, Michelle realised she'd had enough of law. It was time to give writing her best shot.
Does she miss working in science or the legal sector? It's a "no" to biochemistry, "because although I was good at the theory, I was hopeless in the laboratory.
"I do not miss the law at all! I was never a natural lawyer - I was quite successful, earning a lot of money - but it wasn't really what I'd intended to do.
"I was stupid to have done it. I did it to pay the bills. The best thing I ever did was take a deep breath and resign - which was quite scary. I went from earning six figures to earning nothing, and hoping to be published. I had savings to last about two years, and then it would be back living with my mum."
Leaving proved to be the right decision. The author has sold more than three-million copies of her books, in 37 countries - for both adults and children. The list includes ghost stories Dark Matter and Thin Air, and children's series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.
The midnight hour
Is Michelle doing anything tonight, as it's Halloween? Nothing in particular, it seems. "This time last year I got away to Dunwich, which was lovely - walking up and down the beach, and into Dunwich Forest, getting thoroughly lost.
"If push comes to shove I could go wandering on the (Wimbledon) common, because I do like to do something, but it will be a new moon, so it will be pretty dark."
Does she believe in spirits? Not really, "even though I did my damndest to see a ghost by going out on the common (at Walberswick) at Halloween!"
Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus at £8.99.
Visitors are welcome to visit St Peter's to view the Wenhaston Doom, and enjoy the church. It's open daily, though check with the churchwarden for opening hours (01502 478855). Address: Church Lane, Wenhaston, IP19 9BJ.