When my father left the air force at the end of World War II with a bit of money in his pocket, he spent some of it on a complete set of the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I still have it, well worn, with some of the 24 spines barely legible any more. It was my introduction to the idea of research in my early youth. Just to prove its date, one interesting entry reads “Hitler, Adolf (1889 — )”
So, seeming to change the subject entirely…
My novel Shadows, while being a domestic noir novel like all my others, also contains an element of the supernatural. A very small element: I was not writing “Occult Horror”, as it was listed on Amazon at first. I grew up with Dennis Wheatley as well as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but I don’t really want to mimic him with tales of Satanic terror. With Shadows I wasn’t even writing a ghost story.
Supernatural themes in novels often have what might be called a religious function. They unleash some demonic force on the world, in order to illustrate the great cosmic battle of Good and Evil. That is not my field. I stick with the belief that evil is a purely human thing and it is our responsibility to sort it out. I do believe that guilt is a seriously powerful driving force, for good or ill, and I do love the idea of using fiction to impose a form of justice, but I am not concerned with cosmic powers using us as pawns.
Paranormal fiction also frequently focuses on the idea of lost souls, ghosts who cannot let go of life. I understand the appeal of that perfectly. Few of us do want to let go, unless things get desperate, so the notion of hanging around after death is vaguely reassuring, even in a state of damnation. I find the idea of ghosts very satisfying, which is why I have written many ghost stories myself, but I don’t actually believe in them. I stick with my faith that everything ultimately will be found to have a scientific explanation.
So since Shadows is not really intended to be a paranormal novel, I made the paranormal ‘gift’ of my protagonist Kate something that might sound almost scientifically plausible. She feels the shadows, the sensation of violent deaths locked up in stone and mortar.
Why scientifically plausible? Well, we are electric beings. Our cells communicate electrically. Electricity drives our hearts, our nervous systems, our brains, whizzing across our synapses. Would it be so fanciful for a major traumatic event like violent death to trigger a sort of high-voltage discharge that would earth itself in the surrounding inanimate materials? (If you’re going to say yes, way too fanciful, don’t be a spoilsport). I don’t see why it might not be possible. It just hasn’t been scientifically confirmed, or even investigated yet.
What has this to do with my father’s set of encyclopaedias? Well, published in 1944, they have an extensive article on earthquakes, how they are measured, what the effects are, where they are to be found – along fault lines in distinct zones often connected with volcanoes – but the article makes no mention of the cause of earthquakes being the collision of tectonic plates. I discovered this when I tried to refer to volume 7 while doing geography homework in the early 1970s and found not a single mention. I was affronted, as Mrs Tabitha Twitchit would say. How could such a prestigious work miss out something so fundamental to our understanding of the planet? Then I realised that plate tectonics had not been scientifically established in 1944. It came later, like the double helix of DNA, or quarks or the Higgs Boson. Science keeps moving on.
I may not believe in ghosts, but I do believe there are things not yet understood because science hasn’t yet got to the bottom of them. There has been scientific research of telepathy. It hasn’t been proven, but who knows, it might be one day. Kate’s unfortunate gift in Shadows might also prove to have a scientific basis.
Anyway, in the context of Shadows it doesn’t actually matter because the book is really about the crippling isolation someone might feel who has, or thinks she has, a psychic gift that others don’t share. The eerie feelings she experiences turn out to have a foundation in facts. They are bewildering facts that remain a puzzle in Shadows, but they are explained in full in my companion novel Long Shadows. Her feelings could be down to nothing more than Kate’s instinct, as another character, a scientist, suggests, acting as Devil’s advocate on my behalf. Or they could be a genuine psychic ability that science has not yet explored. I say nothing. I leave it to the reader to decide whether it’s real or mere fancy.