This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ghosts and Witches, Oh My!

            When I started writing mysteries, I certainly had no intention of getting into the realm of the paranormal. I saw myself as following in the footsteps of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, rather than H.P. Lovecraft, Oliver Onions, and Jack Mann. But once you start writing, stuff happens.
            The first Quill Gordon mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, was entirely rational and grounded in the everyday. The second, Wash Her Guilt Away, which will be out in a couple of weeks, started out that way, but at the beginning I threw in, almost as an aside, one brief supernatural reference — to a rumored witch placing a curse on the place where the action occurs.
            It turned out to be like taking one piece of candy from a box of chocolates, and the next thing you know, you’ve eaten the whole damn box. By the time the book was written, it had an entire coven of witches, a headless boatman, and a suspicious death with possibly supernatural overtones. How did it get out of hand like that?

Was it Carr’s Influence?

            The easy way out would be to blame John Dickson Carr. He was one of the great practitioners of the locked-room mystery (the murder is committed in a locked room, which the killer shouldn’t have been able to enter or leave), and a couple of his books, notably Below Suspicion and The Burning Court also had a strong witchcraft angle. Wash Her Guilt Away is dedicated in his spirit — which, come to think of it, is a loaded word.
            My second book is something of an English country-house mystery, in which a group of people are brought together for a short time, tension develops, and a crime is committed. But it also has a locked-room mystery in it, hence the dedication to Carr. That mystery has a natural explanation, as they all do, but I started to see how other supernatural elements might come into play.
            Because the setting of the book is a lodge in the remote forests of Northern California, it lent itself to an air of the supernatural. After all, there’s a reason that Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” were set in the woods. I stole from both of those, by the way. If you’re going to steal from an author, do it to a dead one whose copyright has expired.

Two Feet Firmly on Ground

            At the moment I’m trying to figure out how much to make of the paranormal angle in marketing Wash Her Guilt Away. A lot of people eat that stuff up, but the fact is that I’m a pretty rational man when it comes to such issues. My favorite ghost stories are the ones written by authors such as J.S. LeFanu and M.R. James, in which the supernatural elements are reflections of the emotional states and consciences of the characters. For a really good example of this, see LeFanu’s story, “The Familiar,” about a man driven mad by mysterious footsteps that follow him through the city at night.
            I’ll probably compromise by teasing to at least the witch element in the dust-jacket blurb, but otherwise not making too much of a deal about it. Any future books I write will appear in the mystery section of Amazon, not the paranormal, and that’s the way I prefer it. The third mystery, which I am now outlining in detail, should again be perfectly rational, and the general ideas I have for books beyond that are also paranormal-free. After all, the real world is scary enough.