Whether it’s films or books, what I love most is a good story so imagine my delight when, a couple of years ago, I discovered a chilling tale by the title of Skendleby from Cheshire-based author Nick Brown. The former Oldham sixth-form college principal and archaeologist, Nick captivated me with his gripping, slow-burn, atmospheric horror that went on to span a series. With the fourth and final book of this particular series complete, I decided to interview Nick to discuss the ideas behind the Skendleby series, his writing career and a little about the upcoming book itself, Greenman Resurrection.
What made you decide to venture into horror fiction?
Nick: A couple of things: I’d experienced some hard-to-explain things in my house including a disc that re-formatted itself like the one in Skendleby and I enjoy the type of book which scares you through atmosphere and a gradual build up of tension rather than gore and slashing. There didn’t seem to be many of those so I set out to write the type of book I wanted to read.
How did the idea for Skendleby come about and were there any particular influences?
I am an archaeologist through academic training and have worked on some quite strange sites. The idea of something buried to be hidden or kept down is not as unusual in archaeological excavations as you might think. One winter night driving home late the car cut out in a wood near Adlington. I got out to check what was wrong and looked out over the fields by the Hall. There was a light by the bend in the river and the word Skendleby came into my head, next day I began writing.
I really like how you use actual places and buildings that exist in real life for your Ancient Gramarye (Skendleby) series. What made you decide this over fictional locations?
Some places evoke a particular atmosphere and generate stories about themselves. I found this in urban as well as rural archaeology and I think using these real places gives substance to the stories. I’ve used a particularly haunted stretch of landscape for the Skendleby series, including Alderley, Lindow, where sacrifices from over two thousand years ago were found preserved in the peat moss, and the darker parts of Manchester. There are a couple of Skendleby walks that take in the key places. Real places give a real feel.
In the second book, The Dead Travel Fast, the horror shifts abroad to the Greek island of Samos. I’ve never been to Greece or its islands myself but I felt as though I was living and breathing your story as if I was there in Detective Theodrakis’ shoes myself. What was the thought behind the Greek setting?
I’ve spent a lot of time on Samos and done bits of archaeology there and there’s a feel of the past lurking just below the surface. Some sections of Dead Travel Fast, such as the fire, are based on personal experience. Get away from the tourist bits and Samos is a strange and fascinating island with a peculiar history. Scratch beneath the surface and you find a different world and older beliefs. I love the island.
In your novels, most of the horror is atmospheric which relies heavily on creating a visual environment for the reader. How do you prepare to bring the creation in your mind to life? Do you actively visit your locations in order to gain accurate notes or do you work off experience and memories?
In both series of books I take great pains to make sure the locations are accurate and to do this I always walk the ground I write about. This was particularly the case with my ‘Luck Bringer’ Greek series. Some places suggest themselves. I think there is a spirit or atmosphere to all places: some good, some bad and some lurking hidden beneath the surface. Spend time in those places and open yourself up and eventually it comes to you. The same with the archaeological detail in the Skendleby books, I use examples I have researched or worked on. The great thing about archaeology is that it changes and this gives scope for dynamic and speculation.
Did you always have a start, middle and end plan in mind for the narrative path that the Ancient Gramarye series would lead? Or have you approached the story for each book as and when you come to it?
It’s a strange series and although I started with a few fixed points and an outline once I sat down to write I never knew where it was going to take me. I think that is what made it so enjoyable to write. Sometimes after a long session of writing I would sit back and think “Where did that come from?” The books stay true to the original theme but, within that, write themselves. In my previous jobs I have been in some horrible and at times frightening situations and I sometimes wonder if my subconscious displaces memories of these into the books.
Are any of the characters in your books based on real individuals?
In the Luck Bringer series I was able to write about two of my real life heroes: the first war hero poet, Aeschylus, and Themistocles, the fairly dodgy character who created and saved democracy. Their stories are stranger and more exciting than any fiction. That series is based on my life’s academic research and attempts to fill in the gaps in ancient historical record. Mandrocles, the narrator, has elements of myself, as do Giles and Ed in the Ancient Gramarye series which in retrospect I think I’ve used to attempt to expiate how I might have acted better in various phases of life. Looking back across the books I think one of the themes is ‘How to put things right’ hence the resurrection in the next book.
Have you ever experienced anything supernatural in your lifetime?
I’ve certainly experienced a number of things I can’t explain, for which there is plenty of evidence, such as the disk in Skendleby, which changed itself in my house and which I still possess although in real life it’s an audio cassette. Are they supernatural experiences? I’m open minded about that, things in the house used to happen which all of us living there experienced but maybe the answer lies in quantum physics as much as in magic. What I can say is that whatever the cause, the experiences themselves when they first occurred where very unsettling, including a couple of very strange co-incidences during the writing of Skendleby.
Greenman Resurrection is your final book of the Ancient Gramarye series. Will this still be set in Skendleby?
Yes, apart from a brief but necessary quest in France, ‘Greenman Resurrection’ is rooted in the landscape of Skendleby.
Also, will this be the last time we see certain characters or might they pop up in other projects down the line?
When I first conceived the series I thought that it would finish with the fourth book. However a new character in ‘Greenman’, which was a joy to write, engendered ideas that made me think otherwise. Strangely, this was at the same time as conversations with the publisher opened up the possibility of another series. I’m certainly thinking about it seriously and I know how the first book would start. Also I’d miss Giles, Theodrakis, Suzzie-Jade etc.
You recently announced that there’s interest in bringing Skendleby to screen. Can you tell us more about this?
I don’t want to say too much and tempt fate, but Skendleby was recommended as ideal for a film or maybe TV series and I was approached, which was nice. It had been suggested before that it would make a good film but this is a commercial proposition. So I’m currently very busy writing a film script, helped by one of my sons who is in the business and by a professional screenwriter who works for the company and is credited with some very well known and successful films. It is a very different skill and I’m having to look at how Skendleby can shift from one genre to another without losing its integrity. It seems to be going ok and I think there will be more to say after Easter and the publication of ‘Greenman’.
Which horror novels and movies scare you?
Ones that make you think, that linger in the mind and bit by bit unsettle you. In terms of movies: Don’t Look Now, The Blair Witch Project, and The Witch conformed to these principles but I also liked Poltergeist and The Wicker Man. The most frightening film I ever saw was a treatment of a Russian short story in a film that came out in the seventies called, I think, Black Sabbath. It comprised three short stories, two of which I can’t remember but the third was about a woman who had stolen a ring from the body of a dead medium. It was terrifying. In books, the stories of MR James and Algernon Blackwood and I also enjoy the novels of Phil Rickman, Robert Holdstock and Alan Garner.
When can we expect Greenman Resurrection to hit the bookshelves?
It should be out around the end of April. It goes to the publishers in its final version for formatting in a couple of weeks. I’ve seen the cover design which I’m delighted with.
You’ve mentioned Luck Bringer, can you tell us a bit about that?
Luck Bringer follows the experience of a young man called Mandrocles through the dramatic birth pains of democracy in Athens and the Persian Wars of the 5th century BC. It is a period I began to study and work in at University. I’ve always been surprised more novels haven’t been set in this period compared to the amount written about Rome. It was a time of great change and uncertainty where the ideas that frame our society were born. The novels are a mix of action, politics, love and sex but carefully researched to give a picture of what it might have felt like to be there. Mandrocles is the Luck Bringer of the title but in his personal life isn’t so lucky and on looking back I’ve saddled him with a reaction to some of my own worst experiences. The third in the series, ‘sacrifice of Athena’ is currently being written.
Which has been your favourite book to write so far?
Difficult to say. Dead Travel Fast was great fun, and Greenman was a dream to write and I was pleased with the ideas and form of Thermopylae and Dark Coven but it would probably be down to either Skendleby, which took the longest, or Luck Bringer. They are not the best of my books in terms of writing but they were the first two and are emotionally important. I wasn’t able to get a publisher for either but it was their success that won me a publishing contract for the later books.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Quite a few. As I’ve mentioned, I’m currently working on the film script of Skendleby and writing the third in the Luck Bringer series. I’m planning the Ancient Gramarye series follow up and I’ve always wanted to write a novel based on my difficult experiences dealing with the social and political aftermath of the racial tension and murders that I had to deal with before I became a writer. I think that project needs a great deal of thought.
Many thanks for your time, Nick.