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Living in a house with several ghosts inspired my latest novel, says the crime writer Peter James
My latest novel, The House on Cold Hill, was inspired by my experience of living in a haunted house; a beautiful Georgian manor on the edge of a hamlet in Sussex. There had been a monastery on the site in the Middle Ages, and prior to that a Roman villa.
The day we moved in, in late 1989, I was standing in the porch with my then mother-in-law, guiding the removals men. A narrow corridor ran from the front door to an oak-panelled atrium leading into the kitchen. Suddenly I saw a shadow, like the flit of a bird across a fanlight, in the atrium. "Did you see that?" my mother-in-law asked with a knowing look.
Despite the warmth of the sunlight, I felt a sudden chill, I realised we'd both seen something, but didn't want to spook my wife on our first day in the house. We were both townies, and this was our first move into the countryside. She was already aprehensive about the location of the property, and I'd played down the vendor's comments about it being haunted. So I told her mother I hadn't seen anything. I'd always been intrigued by the idea of ghosts, but never frightened by them. I'm much more scared of the living.
Just like Cold Hill House in my novel, our new home was a wreck. It needed rewiring and replumbing, and much of the wallpaper had been there since Victorian days. There was dry rot, the foundations were crumbling and the entire front facade was perilously supported by the beams. For five years, the place was to become a vast, draining, scary, but often exhilarating, money pit.
Our first night was uneventful, but the following day, I went downstairs for a mid-morning coffee. Entering the atrium, I saw tiny pinpricks of white light floating in the air. I thought it was rays of sunlight reflecting off my glasses. I took them off, put them back on, and the lights had gone. I returned to my study, but when I went downstairs for lunch, the lights were there. Again, after removing my glasses, they had gone. But I was left with an eerie feeling.
The next day, I took the dog for a walk. In the lane, an elderly man came up to me "You've just moved into the manor, haven't you?" he said. "How are you getting on with the grey lady?" He explained how he used to house-sit for the previous owners. "Six years ago, I was sitting in the atrium when a woman in a grey silk crinoline dress materialised out of the wall. She swept across the room, gave me a malevolent stare, flicked my face with her dress and vanished into the panelling behind me. Wild horses wouldn't drag me back there again."
I was struck by the sincerity of the man and his genuine fear, so the following Sunday, I took my mother-in-law aside and asked her exactly what she had seen when we were moving in. She described a woman with a grey face, in grey silk. I was chilled to the marrow and decided I had to tell my wife. To my surprise, she'd been seeing the same thing and hadn't wanted to spook me.
A few days later, a medium who had helped me during the writing of my novel Possession came to the house. I took her into the atrium and left her on her own, as she requested. An hour later, she came up to my study and described exactly this woman in grey silk. She said the tiny lights I kept seeing were the apparition's energy.
The medium said the figure was a deeply disturbed former resident of the house - her marriage had turned her into a man-hater - and that it needed a clergyman to deal with it. There was someone I knew who I thought could help.
Dominic Walker, vicar of Brighton, was also an advisor on deliverance ministry for the Church of England. A psychology scholar and the son of two medics, he was dismissive of much of the alleged supernatural. So I was a little surprised when he cheerfully entered the atrium, then loudly and firmly enunciated, into thin air: "You may go now." He turned to me and said: "You should be fine."
We were, for five years. Until a June day in 1994. My recently published novel, Host, lay on display on an oak chest in the atrium - all of a sudden, it was on fire. There was, of course, an explanation: close to the book, on the chest, was a round glass paperweight. The sun's rays had been refracted through it. Yet the fact that this happened in the room in which the grey lady had appeared added a sinister dimension.
There were many other uncanny occurences. Our nearest neighbours would regularly hear a baby crying; we later learnt that in the 1920s, the drawing-room floor had been dug up, revealing the skeleton of a baby. Other people in the houses built on land that used to belong to the manor had seen a monk in a cowled hood. "I wish you would keep your bloody ghosts under control," one of them said to me.
Unlike my characters in The House on Cold Hill, my wife and I were fascinated by what occured, not scared. It wasn't the ghosts that drove us to sell in the end, but the break-up of our marriage. Might the grey lady have been behind that? We'll never know.
How to make a killing: Hannibal Lecter or Tom Ripley? Britain's top crime writers pick their favourite villain (Daily Mail)
Moriarty or Corleone? Christie or Chandler? Who IS the ultimate villain? And who’s the master of murder fiction? As the world’s biggest crime-writing festival opens in Yorkshire, Event hauls in eight top thriller writers for a grilling...
A smuggling village in the middle ages, Brighton evolved into a racy spa town patronised by King George IV. He commissioned its most spectacular building, the Royal Pavilion, to impress his mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert. It must surely be the world’s grandest bespoke venue for illicit liaisons.
Brighton has a long criminal history, dating back far before 1932 when, following the discovery of a series of dismembered bodies in railway lockers, it was dubbed the murder capital of Europe.
Three past chief constables of Sussex police each confirmed to me that Brighton is one of the favoured places in the UK for first-division criminals to live. It has a major seaport on either side, and at the western edge of the city lies Shoreham airport; there are miles of unguarded coastline. Plus there are lots of escape routes: all the Channel ports, and Eurotunnel. Gatwick airport is just 25 minutes away. London is 50 mins by train. It also has the largest number of antiques shops in the UK – perfect for fencing stolen goods and laundering cash.
The city has an affluent young middle-class population, two universities, and a huge number of nightclubs, providing a big market for recreational drugs. It has a large transient population, making it hard for police to keep tabs on villains and easy for drug overlords to replace any of their dealer minions who get arrested. And of course it is a fabulous city to live in – and to write about.
It is surprising therefore that so few people have written about it over the centuries – something I’m now trying hard to redress! But here is a selection of books wholly or partially set in and around this amazing, beautiful, vibrant place.
1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Although Brighton is not directly described in the novel, it plays a key role in the plot. Austen herself clearly had a poor view of the place, as shown in a 1799 letter to her sister Cassandra: “Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted.” And here, from the book: “In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp – its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.”
2. The Clayhanger family novels by Arnold Bennett
Bennett has long been one of my favourite writers – and the book of his I love best is The Card, set mostly in the Potteries. Bennett lived for a time in Rottingdean, a village immediately adjoining Brighton, and began writing this trilogy in Brighton’s Royal Albion hotel in 1910. In the second part of the trilogy, Hilda runs a boarding house in Preston Street.
3. The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton
Born just outside the city and educated in it, Hamilton wrote a great deal about Brighton. Many agree his finest work was in his last novels, written in the 1920s – The West Pier, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse and Unknown Assailant, all featuring the memorable psychopath Ernest Ralph Gorse. Graham Greene hailed The West Pier as “the best book written about Brighton”, with JB Priestley describing his fictional landscape as “a kind of No Man’s Land of shabby hotels, dingy boarding-houses and all those saloon bars where the homeless can meet”.
4. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
This book, written in 1937, is hands down not just the best book ever written about Brighton, but in my view one of the top five crime novels of all time. It has surely one of the most arresting opening sentences ever: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.” The detective is no longer the key character, it’s the villain himself – Pinky, a 17-year-old killer in charge of a bunch of middle-aged misfits, and a devout Catholic terrified of eternal damnation. There is no cosy puzzle to be solved, no happy ending. You put the book down with your emotions floored, your imagination soaring.
5. Murder on the Brighton Express by Edward Marston
Marston is a wonderful writer of historical detective fiction, and this investigation of a rail crash, set in 1854, is a gem of period detail. The opening of the London-Brighton railway line in 1846 transformed Brighton and Hove – in both good and bad ways. It has been a symbol of the place ever since.
6. The Brighton Trilogy by Peter Guttridge
An on-off resident of the area, Guttridge is best known for his comic crime fiction. But this lovingly written trilogy explores Brighton’s criminal past and present through serious, engaging fiction.
7. The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
Cave lives in Brighton and this dark and gripping novel has some wonderful depictions of the city’s seamy side. Bunny Munro makes a living selling beauty products door-to-door to lonely housewives – and bedding them. In between he cruises Brighton in a bright yellow Punto, leering out of his window or fantasising about Kylie Minogue’s hotpants.
8. Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi
A clever, seamy and savage story of revenge by Bella, a former sex-worker living in Brighton, who begins murdering abusers. Her death toll is seven by the end of the story. Yet another strong and well written novel on Brighton’s dark side.
9. Sugar Rush by Julie Burchill
And now for something almost completely different. Burchill is almost Brighton royalty, so strong are her ties with the city. Sugar Rush was her first YA novel, and charts the journey of Kim Lewis, forced to leave her posh high school and move to a Brighton comprehensive. It is a no holds barred, but beautifully written, account of teenage trials and tribulations.
10. Brighton Rock Picture Book: The making of the Boulting Brothers film 1946-8 by Maire McQueeney
Few have done more for literature in Brighton in recent decades than McQueeney – who began by holding literature classes for commuters on the London-Brighton railway line. I think this film of Brighton Rock (not to be confused with the dreadful 2010 version) is one of the very best screen adaptations ever. McQueeney has created a wonderful tribute to it – and to Brighton.
'How I came face to face with evil': Crime writer Peter James on what it's like to meet a serial killer (Mail Online)
There’s a very good reason why stories by hit thriller writer Peter James chill the blood so effectively. He bases them on the REAL killers he meets in prison. Here he describes his most disturbing encounters... and explains why his latest monstrous creation is drawn from four of the most sinister serial killers in history.
Giving a talk in a women’s prison recently, there was one bright inmate asking me very informed questions about literature.
I was curious to know what crime she had committed.
At the end I approached her and broke the ice by asking how much longer she had to serve. ‘Nine-and-a-half more years – and it’s just not fair!’ she replied indignantly.
‘A woman did exactly the same as me in London and she’s only got six more years!’
I asked her what had brought her in here and she replied, ‘I poisoned my mother-in-law, the old bag.’
She continued: ‘She went in to hospital to die, and I embezzled her bank account. But the bloody woman didn’t die and was sent home.
'I realised she’d find out so I had to poison her, and then I realised my husband would find out and I had to poison him too.
'It’s just not fair, how long I got!’ she ranted.
Her mother-in-law had died and her husband had permanent brain damage. Yet all she cared about was the length of her sentence…
I recently met another murderer, as part of the research for my latest novel, You Are Dead, this time in a pub. His family ran a social club near Brighton.
One night, in 1985, he bludgeoned his father, stepmother and ten-year-old stepbrother to death with a baseball bat, making it look like a burglary gone wrong, so that he would inherit.
He served 23 years in prison, has found God and is now writing and painting. Did he regret what he’d done?
He told me: ‘What happened is between me, my dad, stepmum, stepbrother and God.’
The impression I got was all he regretted was being caught.
Creating credible villains is vital to me, and I learn so much from meeting people like this.
The absence of empathy and guilt is one very common denominator – and I frequently portray just how relaxed my own fictitious murderers are.
When someone kills another human, they cross a moral Rubicon. Those who are capable of living with that are the truly dangerous ones, because they may strike again at any time, without losing a night’s sleep.
For that reason, I always find it strange and discomforting to be in the presence of a killer, yet at the same time, utterly intriguing.
I’m wondering what the similarities are between us, and the differences. Are there any circumstances in which I could do what they have done?
Why is it we are we so fascinated by murder? I believe for two reasons.
First, murder is the ultimate crime – because there is no possible restitution.
When a killer takes someone’s life, that life can never be returned. Victims are destroyed, and the lives of their loved ones blighted for ever.
One such victim who deeply moved me was Trish Bernal, whose beautiful daughter, Claire, was shot dead in the London department store Harvey Nichols, in 2009, by her former boyfriend, Michael Pech, a security guard at the store.
They had only dated for a short while, but Pech simply could not accept the relationship was over.
Trish wanted to help prevent other vulnerable people enduring the hell and ultimate fate Claire suffered, by giving me details about the personality of Pech, the background and traits of obsession that he showed, though she made no stipulations about how the material was to be used.
Her insights helped me to create one of my most convincing and scary villains, Bryce Laurent in Want You Dead.
Second, each of us is actually capable of murder – and many of us have at some moment in our lives contemplated it – but fortunately, most of us not too seriously.
We all have the requisite tools – our bare hands, kitchen knives, wire, hammers, cabinets full of drugs. And for disposal of a body, we possess saws, bin-liners, shovels and vehicles.
Yet for all of that, the murder rate in the UK is a relatively small 650 a year, when compared to over 12,000 in the U.S. Why is it so low here?
I believe it’s because most of us have a conscience, and could not live with the knowledge of having killed. We can understand the motives of many murderers.
A ruthless armed robber who shoots out of greed; the terrorist who kills out of warped ideology; the professional hit man who kills for a fee; the husband who buries his wife beneath the kitchen floor because it’s quicker and cheaper than a divorce. The lover who kills in a fit of jealous rage. But what about the serial killer?
These are the ones who intrigue and chill us all the most.
The person who kills for sheer pleasure or satisfaction, the gratification derived from the act, driven by a mindset that is sometimes beyond comprehension, sometimes alien – and always repugnant to decent human beings.
As part of my research for You Are Dead, I studied a wide number of serial killers around the world, trying to establish what common denominators, if any, there were.
One who has long fascinated me, was Dennis Rader, self-styled BTK – Bind Torture Kill - who between 1974 and 1991 killed ten people in and around Wichita, Kansas. He liked to stalk, tie up and torture his victims before eventually despatching them.
Outwardly Rader was a seemingly ordinary family man – he was a church warden, scout leader and local government compliance officer. I saw the police videos of his interviews. In one, after he had confessed, the officer asked him why he did it?
‘It was erotic,’ he replied, chillingly. ‘It turned me on to tie them up.’
The officer asked him if he couldn’t simply have tied his wife up.
‘Oh sure, I used to do that but it got boring,’ he answered, totally matter-of-factly.
Our cultural fascination with serial killers is in part because so many of them are smart, cunning, personable and absolute chameleons – blending in to their environment, killing and escaping undetected for years and sometimes decades.
They both terrify and intrigue us because they could be living next door to any of us – or even be a close friend.
Ted Bundy, one of the true household names among serial killers, fits exactly that mould.
Good-looking, charming, highly intelligent and charismatic, he studied law and worked for the Republican party.
Born in 1946, he was executed in 1989, having confessed to murdering more than 35 young women.
After a troubled middle-class upbringing, he was dumped by his first love, a teenager with long brown hair and a centre parting.
Some months later he saw a similar-looking girl hitch-hiking, gave her a lift, then raped and strangled her.
‘That made me feel good,’ he confessed years later on Death Row.
He then went on a spree that was to last over a decade before his capture in 1975 and subsequent escape, and a further spree, before being recaptured in 1978.
There were occasions when he raped and killed two different women on the same day.
As with Rader, I saw tapes of the police interviews with Bundy.
One of the most chilling moments, and which I have used elements of in You Are Dead, was Bundy explaining to an FBI agent what he liked to do to his victims: ‘I would put my lips over hers and suck out her very last breath. That way she would never leave me, and I would possess her for ever.’
Clearly the moral codes of Bundy, Rader, Fred West, Harold Shipman and the rest are way outside the boundaries all decent people exist within. But are these people evil, or can excuses for their behaviour be found and explained through mental illness?
A while ago I was invited to spend a day at Broadmoor.
The criterion to be an inmate is to be violently, criminally insane. Few things have remained with me more indelibly than that visit.
There were a number of very scary moments, and much of the day filled with incredible darkness yet there were some surprising moments of light, too.
I asked the chaplain if he believed evil existed.
He said: ‘Every inmate fits into one of two categories – schizophrenics or psychopaths.
'Schizophrenics are born with a chemical imbalance in the brain, leading to delusions.
'Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, is one. He heard voices from God telling him to go and kill prostitutes.
‘Schizophrenia can be treated with medication, and a percentage of schizophrenics can, in time, be released and live normal lives, provided they remain on their medication permanently.
'But psychopaths are very different.’
Much research has been done on psychopathy.
Essentially, a psychopath is born hard-wired different to the majority of us – they have a lack of empathy.
Evidence of this can present at a very early age – such as stealing his or her best friend’s favourite toy, with no guilt.
How that child develops is going to be in some considerable part down to the parenting. Brought up in a kind, loving, nurturing family, that child can grow up to become a captain of industry, a top politician and often, as we have seen, the leader of a nation.
Many psychopaths are highly intelligent and personable people.
In his book, Our Own Worst Enemy, psychologist Norman F Dixon wrote: ‘To be born a psychopath is the best possible qualification to get you to the top in life.
'Unfortunately it is the worst qualification to then keep you there.’
Robert Maxwell, Richard Nixon, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, are just a few among the vast A-list of utterly ruthless people who used their cunning to get to the top, but then through their hubris, were unable to sustain it.
The psychopathic child brought up in a dysfunctional family or by an abusive parent is a potentially dangerous person.
One classic example is Adolf Hitler – his bullying father forbidding him to become a painter may have been a trigger for the warped path his life then took.
There is a long list of multiple or serial killers who have a dark childhood history, but equally there are many serial killers who just don’t fit this mould.
In order to create my central villain for You Are Dead, I eventually singled out four names who had the character traits I needed – including having operated for many years without being caught.
They just blended into society discreetly, quietly, keeping beneath the radar.
What particularly fascinated me about these four was how, outwardly, they seemed very respectable men. Ted Bundy. Dennis Rader. Harold Shipman. Dennis Nilsen. These men came from a catalogue, hundreds of pages long, of murderers who have taken three or more lives at different times – the definition of a serial killer.
Shipman, a well-loved family doctor, from a caring family, is believed to have murdered over 215 people, making him our nation’s worst-ever serial killer. I used elements of his charm, his meekness and the trust he instilled in people.
Nilsen was in the Army, then a police officer, then executive officer for a job centre. He had a massive ego and deep insecurity, exactly as my killer does.
Just like Bundy, my villain is attracted to women in a certain age range and with a specific hairstyle.
Like Rader, my villain has a sadistic streak.
And like my villain, all four got away with their killings over many years. Each nearly got away with it completely.
Serial killers are smart, that’s how they avoid detection for so long. It never surprises me after one is finally arrested, to see the neighbour being interviewed on TV.
‘He was such a nice man...’
Peter James’s latest novel, ‘You Are Dead,’ is published by Pan Macmillan on May 21 and the paperback of ‘A Twist of the Knife’ on June 4.
- Peter James Newsletter October 2015
- My real-life haunted house horror, by Peter James ...
- My Old Haunt (The Sunday Times)
- Interview with bestselling crime author, Peter Jam...
- How to make a killing: Hannibal Lecter or Tom Ripl...
- Peter James Newsletter July 2015
- Peter James's top 10 books about Brighton (The Gua...
- 'How I came face to face with evil': Crime writer ...
- Peter James Newsletter April 2015
- More funerals and a wedding (The Argus)