How did your interest in the paranormal and the unexplained begin?
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 Hunters were born. Then, 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.
What was it about the Borley Rectory story that attracted you?
The Borley Rectory haunting has it all. "The Most Haunted House in England?" 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... It's the perfect ghost story: a cast of complex, competing characters and a dark, terrifying legend. And amazingly, no one has ever dramatised the tale! I wanted to change that. Harry Price was the nation’s first paranormal investigator, a professional ghost hunter. He dedicated his life to investigating unusual phenomena, and lengthy investigation of Borley rectory seemed a logical way in to the story. I soon realised that he, perhaps more than Borley, was the most interesting aspect of the case: the more I discovered about Price’s private life and his curious, contradictory beliefs, which oscillated between scepticism and belief, the more I was fascinated by this historical character and its dramatic potential. I wanted to know what set Price on his path of investigation into the unknown? And, perhaps more intriguingly, why did other intelligent people - many of them academics and scientists - follow him on that path?
The problem was the many phenomena reported at Borley down the years: so many fantastic events, spanning a period in excess of twenty years, with no connecting thread… I struggled, at first, to see how any coherent and consistent tale could be woven around the subject. But I did my research and discovered that Harry Price had employed a young secretary with whom he was very close. That was it! The inspiration for my narrator, Sarah Grey. In The Ghost Hunters, we see the investigation of Borley Rectory through her eyes, as it might have happened. And it’s terrifying.
In 1948, three members of the English Society for Psychical Research investigated Harry Price's claims regarding the haunting of Borley Rectory. Do you think Harry was genuine or do you think natural causes were a factor in the hauntings?
Harry Price was an enigma, no doubt about that. I’m not sure anyone could claim to have known the true man behind the façade he presented to the media, his followers and his critics. But he was brilliant and ambitious; selfish and unreliable; elusive but charming. An entrepreneur. It’s easy to see how a young woman would be drawn to such a man.
In my story, when we meet Sarah, she’s a drifter, lost in many ways. In Harry Price she recognises an opportunity to be useful - part of a greater picture - and as their friendship grows, her feelings of gratitude and esteem, assume a romantic aspect.
This seemed to me an entirely appropriate way to illustrate the complexities and duplicities of a man regarded by so many as a controller. Did he fake phenomena? The answer is to that is in the novel…. But in many ways, Harry Price is the real ghost of Borley Rectory.
Has your thesis helped you when planning your novel?
Yes, actually it helped a lot! The novel isn’t just about a haunting, it’s about the interpretation of hauntings and the nature of belief. The thesis I wrote during my time at Oxford posed the question: can it ever be reasonable to conclude that a genuine paranormal event has occurred. If so, what does that mean for our materialism world view?
If I could prove to you for example, that levitation was possible, or that poltergeists really do exist, our understanding of the basic principles which underpin our science would be turned on their head. I explore this theme at length in The Ghost Hunters.
What are your favourite settings in the novel?
Aside from Borley itself, Senate House in Bloomsbury plays a huge. It’s here where Harry Price’slibrary is now stored and home to a haunted lift I’ve woven into my story.
We are planning many events around the launch of the novel at Senate House, so watch this space for details on that. The other location, which is fascinating, is 16 Queenesberry Place - where Price kept his Laboratory. We see a lot of this in ‘The Ghost Hunters.’ It’s now home to the College for Psychic Studies in South Kensington, London, and I urge anyone interested in the history of the subject to go and have a look.
Will there be a sequel?
Possibly yes. In the meantime I am writing a novel about demonology and UFO sightings during the Cold War. It’s a story I’ve wanted to write since I was young; and it’s coming along marvelously.
Have you had an experience that couldn’t be explained?
Yes. When I was in college I saw something in the sky in South Wales which was very unusual - two bright fast moving lights that were being pursued by a Sea King helicopter. The sightings were reported all over South Wales but with no explanation. The local MP even raised the matter in Parliament. And this unusual experience has partly inspired my second novel, which I am writing now.
What scares you?
The power of religion, its capacity to change people, sometimes for the worse. The idea of losing control is also unnerving. The paranormal taps into that fear very well indeed, because losing control is directly implied in any circumstance that one cannot understand - like seeing a ghost.
Who would you like to play the lead role in a dramatic adaptation of your novel?
I’m a writer, not a casting director, and we’ll have to see whether a dramatic representation of the novel will ever happen. I hope it does! If so, Johnny Depp would make a very fine Harry Price.
And will there be a film or a TV series?
We are in talks with a few people on this now - no official announcement to make yet though!
What was the most exciting experience in the writing process?
Finising making final ammends to the proofs. The final result looked like this!
If you could invite any horror writer to dinner, past or present, who would you choose and why?
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 Insmouth remains, 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.
What would be on the menu?
Home made burgers or macaroni cheese. The best comfort food, which would be surely needed during a suspenseful dinner with a horror writer of Lovecraft’s calibre.
Do you have a writing ritual?
I turn up at my keyboard every day, like paying a visit to the gym. Sometimes you feel like exercising, sometimes you don’t, but it’s good discipline, and usually produces something. I write scenes as they come to me, a snatch of dialogue that evolves until I re-write it six or seven times. 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 The Ghost 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.