It was with a great honour that I bring to you an interview with one of bright new talents of British Supernatural Fiction, the author of the rather splendid The Ghost Hunters, Neil Spring. Set around the mysterious and haunted Borley Rectory, The Ghost Hunters is a strong contender for supernatural novel of the year. I highly recommend that you get a copy of this book. You won't be disappointed.
Neil Spring is novelist, entrepreneur and Senior Communications Manager for the John Lewis Partnership.
He has a lifelong interest in the paranormal and unexplained. During a visit to the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at Senate House, Bloomsbury, he discovered a wealth of material which provided the inspiration and basis for his first novel, The Ghost Hunters.
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.
Neil’s debut novel, The Ghost Hunters, was recently optioned for TV adaptation by Bentley Productions, part of All3Media, who produce Midsomer Murders.
Neil is currently writing his second novel, based on unexplained events during the Cold War.
Hello Neil, how are things with you?
Manic at the moment. Today I’m off to see my publishers to sign some Christmas copies of The Ghost Hunters. But I’m not complaining.
Could you give the readers a little bit of background information on your good self?
I was a child who liked reading fantasy and horror and science fiction, but if you lived in South Wales, there was little to do sometimes. The imagination ran riot with me, and somewhere in the back of my mind, stories like The Ghost Hunterswere born. I’ve always been fascinated by the unexplained and at Oxford University I wrote a thesis in Philosophy on the Paranormal. That raised a few eyebrows I can tell you.
You have had an almost lifelong interest in the paranormal; can you remember what first inspired this?
One day in school, one of my teachers told me about some old pupils she had taught who had witnessed what they thought was a UFO, on the ground. I was so intrigued by the tale that I tracked them down at their homes, and heard the story directly from them now, as adults. It was fascinating. They even showed me photographs which showed that something very large had left an unexplained burn mark on the ground. From that day I was in awe of the power of the unexplained.
Does your love of the paranormal translate into a love of the fictional world of the paranormal?
It depends on the author. Stephen King is someone I admire hugely, but I can just as easily think of paranormal writers I’d prefer to avoid. I find ghost stories written according to the conventional genre, quite beautiful. And rare.
If so who is your favourite author in the genre?
MR James, Dickens, Susan Hill of course. And H.P. Lovecraft, who, I adore.
Horror fiction is cyclical, with zombies, werewolves, vampires all rising and falling in popularity; however the ghost story always remains a popular subject matter. Why do you think ghosts and haunting remain so popular?
Ghost stories are important because they remind us to look back. Consider The Woman in Black, or The Turn of the Screw, after the chills and thrills and scares, in these tales there is always another story - about someone’s life - about how that person acted, how they lived, and how they loved. Ghost stories make us curious about regular people and daily life. Hauntings in literature are subtle… they are complex: the causes involved are not only spirits but memories, ideas, things. Places like Borley Rectory. And people like Harry Price.
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you and your writing?
I’m tempted to say Stephen King, if only because I would love to know how he can finish and publish his manuscripts so quickly. But I’m going to opt for H. P. Lovecraft. He’s a master of the genre, whose Shadow Over Insmouthremains, in my view, one of the best stories ever written. The story describes a young man's discovery of a strange race, that dwell in a remote coastal town.
Can you remember what first motivated you to start writing, and has your motivation changed over the years?
For me, it comes down to having a good story that you feel must be told. I’ve had The Ghost Hunters in my head for years. Same for my second book, which I am writing now. You can ignore good story for only so long before it screams at you; and that’s when you have to sit down and write it.
How would you describe your writing style?
Hopefully my style is thoughtful, fast paced and full of tension.
What aspects of your writing do you think are the strongest and what do you think are the weakest aspects of your writing?
I pay very close attention to detail, which I think is particularly important with a subject like the paranormal, because in order to be scary it needs to be credible. Believable.
Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of your writing. How do you go about the writing process? Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow?
Stories come to me in pieces. I write everywhere and anywhere: on my ipad, on my phone, on the backs of envelopes. Dialogue comes to me in snippets. Some scenes are born whole, others fall out of preceding scenes and characters’ motivations, which constantly surprise me. It’s an iterative, imperfect process, but behind it all is a plan, a vision, an idea of the end result. That guides and informs the process, and with every re-write, the meaning is clarified. I re-wrote TheGhost Hunters three times before it felt right to me, except the climax, which was the first thing I wrote. Knowing how the story finishes, is one of the best planning methods an author can have.
To follow on what drives your writing, does the plot and narrative take precedence over the characters, or do your characters drive the plot?
I much prefer writing stories that are character driven.
Which brings us to your debut novel; it feels as though you appeared from nowhere. What where you doing before Ghost Hunters took over your life?
Running a networking events business and working full time in corporate communications for the John Lewis Partnership - which is still my day job.
The inspiration for the novel came from a visit to Harry Price’s Magical Library. What is this place and can anyone visit it?
The library is housed at Senate House in London and belongs to the University of London. It is the strangest and most unique collection of its kind anywhere in the world, complete with rare and ancient volumes on the arts of magic and summoning ghosts. And it was bequeathed to the university by Harry Price, when he died. For anyone interested in this subject it is well worth a visit!
You have mentioned in previous interviews that you initially wanted the book to be a screenplay, but you didn’t feel you had the talent to write it. Why did you feel that way?
Screen writing is a very specific skill I have yet to learn, but thinking about the novel as a screenplay did help me with plotting and pace. It might also have influenced the early option that we sold on the novel.
There seems to be a lot of interest in Borley Rectory this year, why do think this is?
It’s the 150th anniversary of the construction of the Rectory - which may have something to do with it. We also began promoting The Ghost Hunters very early. There was a buzz around it from the moment we unveiled the cover, with a lot of people posting photos of it online. I’m really grateful to everyone who did that, because it really helped promote the subject.
Harry Price is a bit of an enigma; do you think he was genuine? Or do you think if he was alive today he would be presenting Most Haunted Live?
I’m not sure anyone could claim to have known the true man behind the façade that Harry Price presented to the media, his followers and his critics. Harry was a businessman. But he was a skilled conjuror (and member of the Inner Magic Circle), a photographer, engineer and journalist. He was very defensive about his working-class origins constantly seeking academic recognition and validation, and craving fame and publicity! The perfect subject, I decided, for an historical novel complete with thrills and chills!
Did you uncover any new facts about the case?
I did. But I’d be giving away the twists in my novel if I told you what they were. Suffice it to say, the more I read, the more I discovered about Price's private life and his curious, contradictory beliefs, which oscillated between scepticism and belief. And the more intrigued I became.
You spent around three years researching the book, how did you filter out what elements you wanted you use?
I plundered the archives, re-discovered Harry Price’s investigations, his letters and articles. Then wove a story around those elements, exploring the many aspects of this fascinating character and discovering what set him on his path of investigation into the unknown.
How did you decide which characters to focus on?
This was a challenge - so many characters to choose from. Harry Price, a scientist, was a discoverer who was determined to prove the truth about life after death. To others he was a fierce sceptic, the scourge of every spiritualist medium in London with something to hide. I needed a character who was as intrigued by Harry Price as we are. Someone who knew him, perhaps even intimately. So I decided to tell his story through the eyes his fictional secretary a young woman called Sarah Grey, who finds purpose in Harry Price.
What was the writing process like? Did you want to stay true to Price's historical character?
Obviously, historical facts provide you with a base, but that base needs to be explored through an original narrative voice, with its own interpretation, as well as a complex cast of supporting characters. At the same time, when you stop to consider that you are writing about real events, the hand of history occasional forces you to go back, to reconsider, to ask yourself: "Have I been fair to this character? Is this how they should be remembered." You feel a duty to history and to them. But ultimately, as a writer, your first duty is to your reader and plot, and the integrity of the piece as a standalone work of art. In Harry Price's case, I wanted to know: why was he so determined to prove the truth about life after death? And why were so many eminent psychologists and scientists prepared to follow him on that quest?
What do you want people to take away from the tale?
That ghost stories are about the living as much as the dead. That old loves return to haunt us. And that not everything is as it appears to be.
The novel isn’t just about a haunting, it’s about the interpretation of haunting and the nature of belief, was it important to you that the book was more than just a ghost story?
Absolutely. Essential in fact. What's interesting to me, isn't what the story tells us about spirituality and life after death, but rather, what it tells us about the living and the era they inhabited. The characters at Borley, the people who interacted with Harry Price at his Laboratory, were part of grieving nation – in some ways a desperate 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. And for me, there is no case that better highlights the essence of the age than Borley Rectory.
Now that the book is out, have you managed to get any semblance of a personal life back, or is it just as full on with promotional work?
It’s all about promotion now. It doesn’t stop. It’s exhausting but great fun, and I have been very lucky that the book has been so well received. I am also busy at work on book 2, which I’m enormously excited about.
How does it feel seeing your book in shops? Have you ever quietly stood in book shop and said to random customers, “you should read that, it’s a good book”?
The strangest moment was when I saw someone reading the novel on the tube. I stood right next to them and wanted so badly to ask, ‘are you enjoying that?’ Then I realised I’d probably just freak them out - so I loved away and said nothing.
The book has been getting a lot of great reviews, especially in some of the broadsheets. Do reviews from these sources mean more to you than from the more genre friendly sources?
I wanted this novel to have wide relevance. This is this is your average, run of the mill tale about a spooky old house. The novel is a commentary on a bygone age - a war torn nation, beside itself with grief, longing for purpose and hope. I’m delighted that reviewers have picked up on this.
Can you tell us about any future projects?
I’m currently hard at work on my second novel, which is set in 1977 and might -or might not be connected to The Ghost Hunters. Can’t say too much at the moment. Also we are waiting to see whether The Ghost Hunters is going to make it on to the small screen. Hopefully we will have some good news on that to announce soon…
Thank you for taking part in the interview Neil, do you have any parting words for the readers?
Yes, thank you for so much wonderful support. And please support your local book shops. It’s so important to keep them alive and well.
Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring
Welcome to Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England.
The year is 1926 and Sarah Grey has landed herself an unlikely new job - personal assistant to Harry Price, London's most infamous ghost hunter. Equal parts brilliant and charming, neurotic and manipulative, Harry has devoted his life to exposing the truth behind England's many 'false hauntings', and never has he left a case unsolved, nor a fraud unexposed.
So when Harry and Sarah are invited to Borley Rectory - a house so haunted that objects frequently fly through the air unbidden, and locals avoid the grounds for fear of facing the spectral nun that walks there - they're sure that this case will be just like any other. But when night falls and still no artifice can be found, the ghost hunters are forced to confront an uncomfortable possibility: the ghost of Borley Rectory may be real. And, if so, they're about to make its most intimate acquaintance.
'Surprising, serpentine and clever' The Sunday Times.
'A deft, spooky psychological drama based on a true story' Eithne Farry, The Daily Mail.
Equally serpentine and surprising in its plotting, Neil Spring's The Ghost Hunters resurrects the real-life figure of Harry Price, a psychic investigator from the inter-war years, who made Borley Rectory in Essex briefly famous as "the most haunted house in England" . Spring tells his clever tale in the voice of the fictional Sarah Grey, Price's assistant, who is obsessed by the charismatic ghost-hunter and slowly unearths the truth lurking beneath the lies he has told about his life and work, before learning to her cost that, as the books epigraph states, "Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst."
- Culture Magazine, The Sunday Times, 20th October 2013.