Shadows: what lurks behind the wainscot?

In the house where I was born, on what was then the rural fringe of Luton, we had gas brackets for lamps in the bedrooms. They were no longer connected to any gas supply (which didn’t stop me bunging mine up with plasticine, just in case), but I liked them being there, because they were a sign of the extreme old age of my house. I eventually discovered that it wasn’t particularly old after all, (built 1928) and it only had gas lamps because electricity didn’t reach the outer limits of the town until after World War II, but I still liked the illusion of a Victorian past.

I have always appreciated a sense of age, deep roots in time. It isn’t that I dream of a golden past when everything was wonderful. Far from it. As a woman, I shiver at the notion of living in any time or place other than this one, for all its problems. But every hint of age in things and in places, every worn step, every bakelite switch under the stairs, every iron nail dug up in the garden, is a tangible connection with all the famous, infamous and utterly forgotten who lived in the past and who, brick by brick and atom by atom, brought us to where we are now. Everywhere around us are footprints that let us touch what went before.

I find houses especially fascinating. A brand-new house would certainly have its appeal, especially if I could design it myself, but any house, whether twenty years old or two hundred, that has been lived in by someone else, must surely carry in its fabric an imprint of their existence. A whisper of all the emotions, hopes, arguments, griefs, shrieks of joy and gasps of passion that happened there. Houses don’t just contain ghosts. They are ghosts.

They have certainly been known to enshrine mysteries. When I first moved to Pembrokeshire, I lived in an old house that had once been a shoe-maker’s shop. When rummaging among the cobwebs of the loft, I was thrilled to discover a tiny child’s shoe, at least a hundred years old. An old man in the village told me it would have been placed there as a charm and I should leave it in place if I didn’t want bad luck. I did leave it there, thinking it was a touching symbol of a previous occupant’s profession. Years later, I learned that children’s shoes, hidden in a roof, were usually mementoes of infant deaths.

I don’t know what child died long ago in that house, but it is obvious that any old house pre-dating the NHS would have witnessed births and deaths, and everything in between. Someone will probably have died in the room where I am sitting to write this.

Not all those deaths will have been quiet ones. Do their ghosts linger? Sometimes, their bodies do. Murderers seem to like burying bodies in cellars – whether Fred West or Dr Crippen.

Ightham Mote in Kent is a house that dates back to the fourteenth century, and must have witnessed scores of deaths, timely and untimely. In the 1870s, the then owners were annoyed by a chill draught that emanated from a corner of one room, so they called in workmen, who discovered a hidden space behind panelling, in which the skeleton of a woman was found, sitting in a chair.

Theories have abounded. One is that she was Dame Dorothy Selby, a catholic who inadvertently gave away the gunpowder plot and was walled up by her family as punishment – delightfully gruesome but untrue, since Dame Dorothy died peacefully in her bed and her grave is marked at the church.

Another theory is that the skeleton belonged to a servant girl, seduced by the local priest, and walled up to prevent scandal. The truth is, no one knows, but it’s all very chilling and creepy. The other truth, unfortunately, is that there is no actual evidence of a skeleton being found, so the whole thing might just be a juicy myth. But if you ever visit Ightham Mote, you readily believe it should be true.

Mummified cats are apparently quite common, entombed in old masonry, along with occasional mummified babies. And bottles of urine, hair and nail-clippings, presumably to ward off witches.

There is a legend, which has been the subject of ballads and poems for at least 200 years, sometimes known as the mistletoe bride, of a young girl who vanishes on her wedding day, usually during a game of hide-and-seek. Her skeleton is only discovered, long after, when someone ventures into the attic and opens the ancient chest that had fatally slammed shut on her. Not the faintest evidence anywhere for this story, but it is claimed, as gospel, by Minster Lovell Hall, Marwell Hall, Bramshill House, Tiverton Castle and Exton Hall, amongst many others. It’s one of those stories that ought to be true, even if it isn’t.

If you accept that houses can hold physical evidence of past tragedies, how easy is it to believe that they can also hold less tangible relics, whether memories, vibrations, chill draughts or actual ghosts? After all, how could the most intense human feelings and experiences, the most burning desire for justice or revenge, simply vanish? They must still be there in the old bricks, the stained stone, the creaking timbers.

That was my premise when writing Shadows, which is a domestic noir mystery like my other novels, but with the paranormal twist of an old house that harbours all manner of ancient secrets. Secrets just waiting to be uncovered. It didn’t seem a massive leap, to me, to move from writing about the detection of the truth about murders to the detection of the emotions that accompanied them. What would it be like, I wondered, if, for a particularly sensitive soul, those emotions were still very much in evidence. Would she be intrigued, excited, eager to share her findings? Or would she be a quivering wreck?

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