As published in The Times of India [24th September 2013]
The realm of the 'unknown' and the 'unexplained' has always aroused a sense of curiosity often mixed with fear. We feel scared because we do not know, but nonetheless, want to uncover what's hidden.
Borley Rectory, a Victorian mansion situated near the east coast of England (near the Suffolkborder) had an unpleasant history waiting to be known. From the time it was built by Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull in 1862-63 to 1939 when the building was destroyed by fire and finally demolished in 1944; a series ofparanormal events and alleged hauntings surfaced that affected generations of residents in Borley. Things worsened in 1929 when Alexander Campbell, the editor of the Daily Mirror received a letter from The Smiths (the then occupants) asking for 'help' from the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). It was around this time that Harry Price, a paranormal researcher and an expert conjuror was asked to assist Mirror's reporter, Vernon Wall to investigate the mysteries of Borley. All sightings, detailed reports, research studies and literary works by Price slowly accredited this dilapidated building the status of 'The Most Haunted House in England'.
It's 2013 and another writer promises to revive not only the memories of the haunted mansion but also resurrect truths about Harry Price, the man responsible for creating a legend out of the Borley Rectory. Neil Spring's debut novel 'The Ghost Hunters' scheduled to release October end is going to open the mansion gates that have been closed for a while now. A visit to the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at Senate House, Bloomsbury, became a source of inspiration for Neil to dig deeper into the history of the Borley Rectory.
In an email interaction with us, Neil Spring talks about his upcoming novel, his love for the paranormal and his admiration for Harry Price among other things.
Borley Rectory: Britain's most haunted house
According to the legend of a Benedictine monastery built in 1362, a monk was in a relationship with a nun from a nearby convent. Once their affair becomes public news, the monk is executed and the nun bricked up alive in the convent walls. Soon, stories about the spectral nun walking near the rectory started doing the rounds. Even the rector's daughters reported seeing the apparition of a nun at twilight. Reverend Guy Eric Smith and his wife moved into the home after the death of Henry Bull in 1928. Later, Reverend Lionel Algernon Foyster, a first cousin of the Bulls, and his wife Marianne moved in. With Marianne in the house, there was a rise in ghostly activities. Scrawled messages on the walls and phrases like "Marianne, please help get" and "Marianne light mass prayers" written by an unknown hand were visible. There was an incident that reported Marianne Foyster being thrown from her bed.
Where's the ghost in The Ghost Hunters?
Harry Price's involvement with Borley Rectory began in 1929 and his investigation continued well into the mid 1940s during which he wrote two books. He was working on the third when he died in March 1948. We ask Neil how different will his novel 'The Ghost Hunters' be from Price's literary works and he informs us, "My novel is about Price's curious life, and his death, which in some ways was bizarre in itself, and tantalisingly connected with the haunting at Borley Rectory. Price, obviously, wrote his books from the point of view of the Rectory. Whose point of view was I to use? The structure of the story, given the spread of the narrative over a number of decades, and several visits to the Rectory - brought certain challenges. I knew there was a story here but which one to tell? Marianne Foyster's- the rector's wife, devious, intelligent and feisty; The Smiths - an unsuspecting couple from India, new to the rectory and quite mystified by its phenomena or Vernon Wall - the reporter from the Daily Mirror who first broke the story? These figures burst with life from the pages of history, but they weren't right for the narrative structure of my book. The obvious choice was the enigmatic Harry Price," adds Neil.
Was Harry Price a liar?
It is assumed that Price was a liar who falsified evidence to capitalise on the Borley rectory story and be famous. Is 'The Ghost Hunters' an attempt to absolve Price of all allegations? "'Absolve' might be putting it a bit strongly, but yes, I did want to explore the different aspects of Price's fascinating character. I'm not sure anyone could claim to have known the true man behind the facade that Harry Price presented to the world. He was also a conjuror (and member of the Inner Magic Circle), photographer, engineer, writer, journalist and bibliophile. The more I discovered about Price's private life and his curious, contradictory beliefs, the more I wanted to know what set him on his path of investigation into the unknown. I researched and discovered that Harry Price had employed a young secretary with whom he was very close. And this is how my novel's narrator became Sarah Grey. In the novel, we see the investigation of Borley Rectory through her eyes, as it might have happened," explains Neil.
Borley Rectory: Reminder of a war-torn nation
Neil's novel begins in 1977 in the Harry Price Library and it is from here that readers enter into a past much talked about but little understood. It took Neil three to four years of research, four drafts and a rewriting of the last chapter twelve times to come up with his novel. "I wanted to know: why hasn't anyone dramatized Borley - the house and the village - where strange noises and events have been reported since the turn of the century: a phantom coach and horses, inexplicable footsteps, voices, touching, smells, fires, movement of objects, written messages and other activities. What is it about this case that still keeps us talking about it 150 years after Borley Rectory was built? I was determined to find out," adds Neil.
For Neil, the characters at Borley, the people who interacted with Harry Price at his Laboratory were part of a grieving nation, "a nation that needed something to believe in after the atrocities of the First World War. It was an era choked with grief and longing for hope," avers Neil.
About the Author
Neil Spring is novelist, entrepreneur and Senior Communications Manager for the John LewisPartnership. Neil holds a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Somerville College,Oxford University, where he wrote a thesis on the significance of paranormal events. He is Welsh and lives in London. He is currently working on his second novel, which is again based on true events. This one tackles a series of unexplained UFO sightings during the Cold War.