I am delighted to have as my guest, writer and novelist S.C. Skillman, whose latest book Paranormal Warwickshire looks certain to raise curiosity and a few tingles. This is not just one for those living in Warwickshire, but for anybody interested in the historical culture and lore which surrounds these tales. This is a fascinating book, S.C. Skillman, tell me more.
Paranormal Warwickshire (https://www.amberley-books.com/coming-soon/paranormal-warwickshire.html involves real incidents. How do you find the balance between reporting fact and delivering an interesting and entertaining read?
The key to this is to find the most engaging information with a high level of human interest, and to present it in a light, accessible style. I blended historical details of each location – whether grand or everyday – with the strange stories and curious anecdotes that present day visitors, custodians and staff have told about them. For some of my chapters I listened to those willing to share stories, and in my book I present their words in direct speech, alongside the historical details, only bringing in information which I think will answer questions in the mind of the reader.
- Why do you think that people continue to be fascinated by tales of ghosts and ghouls?
I believe this is the same appeal of “who knows what’s lurking behind… or under… or beyond…?” that can apply in so many areas of life, and in several media and literary genres. It’s an essential element in the gothic horror genre and is closely allied to psychology and the unknown of our own minds. A key feature of the gothic genre is the idea of so-called “madness”, and the interplay of paranormal events and unusual states of mind. Ghost stories are often linked to places and overlap with folklore.
Some of the greatest of novels include elements of the paranormal to heighten the sense of tragedy, fate or destiny, or to raise the emotional stakes. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for instance and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and of course Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Even George Eliot, renowned for her critical independent thought, ventured into this territory with her 1859 novella The Lifted Veil. This concerns itself with such subjects as extra sensory perception, gifts of precognition and the supernatural.
- How did you find and develop the idea for Paranormal Warwickshire?
I began by frequently visiting several places in Warwickshire, feeling their spiritual resonance, and discovering new things about them each time I visited. I wrote blog posts about them in my series Places of Inspiration. Then a writer friend suggested I put them in a book. She suggested I confine myself to Warwickshire and include photos. I decided to call it Spirit of Warwickshire. When I read out a chapter in my local writing group, a member of that group said she wanted more history.
So I researched further and included more history in my chapters. Then I approached a few history publishers with the book. Amberley were interested and said they wanted it for their paranormal series. I thought, ‘OK. I can do that. I’ve always loved ghost stories, and all the places I’ve written about do have several such stories attached to them.’
- Is there any particular incident in Paranormal Warwickshire that stands out for you and why?
I think it’s an incident in the library at Stoneleigh Abbey, Kenilworth. I have been on a number of history tours there; and also on the Jane Austen tour. The Abbey is strongly associated with Jane Austen, who visited it in 1806 with her mother and sister when her mother’s cousin the Revd. Thomas Leigh of Adlestrop inherited the estate. On each occasion I have found the library to be my favourite room. I love its proportions, its ambience, the inviting shelves packed with books, the lovely furniture (including an original Thomas Chippendale chair). The room is strongly associated with Chandos Leigh, 1st Baron Leigh of the 2nd creation, who was a poet and friend of Lord Byron. I feel a sense of empathy with him because he poured out a lot of intense, worthy poetry which was well received at the time, but he has never been regarded as a great poet and his poetry was ignored after his death. He was eclipsed by his own friend Lord Byron.
Chandos spent a lot of time in the library. The history guide describes many strange occurrences in this room; one of the events relates to the handle on the door which is now blocked up on the other side. The handle moves up and down violently at times, as if someone on the other side is keen to get in. The history guide told a very amusing story of how it interrupted one of his first tours, when he was speaking to a party of twenty visitors.
He reports that it was so loud, he said, ‘Stop!’ And it stopped. He then said to the manager, ‘somebody’s trying to get through that door, and you need to have a word with them, as it really put me off my tour.’ The manager replied, ‘that’s impossible.’ The guide said, ‘I know it’s impossible, the grandfather clock’s standing in front of it, so they can’t come in.’ He said, ‘no, no, no: the other side of that door’s a wall, the handle is only on your side. It really needs to be moved because it’s stiff.’
- As a novelist, you write across genres. What made you choose these areas?
I have written a psychological thriller, a paranormal thriller, and non-fiction. My two new novels (one completed, one WIP) are gothic magical realist novels. My first two completed novels, written years ago, and unpublished, were comic novels. I love trying different genres. I believe that genre chooses you rather than the other way round.
It’s all about the books you most love to read. When I think of my top all-time favourites (mostly classic) – Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment; Emile Zola: Therese Raquin. Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White. Oscar Wilde: The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca. Iris Murdoch: The Bell. Barbara Erskine: Midnight is a Lonely Place. Susan Howatch: The St Benet’s Trilogy. Phil Rickman: The Merrily Watkins series, a theme emerges: psychological, paranormal, gothic, spiritual. These are the things I love. The strange byways of human nature… this all feeds into psychology and the paranormal, mystery and the unexplained.
- How do you believe that your experiences have influenced you as a writer?
My experiences with numerous groups of people throughout my life have influenced me in the writing of all my fiction, including my first two unpublished works, and my two published novels, Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit. One of the things I love exploring in fiction is dangerous group dynamics in an enclosed setting. I have poured into these two novels a lot of my personal experience in many settings; not only a variety of spiritual groups, but also numerous everyday settings like offices, parties, and family gatherings, along with retreats, conferences and courses I’ve attended. Everywhere there is raw material in the form of people and their interacting personalities.
I have long loved observing people, and then writing down their words and behaviour in my own journals. Also, I am inspired by books, films, TV drama, art and psychology. This can be seen from my non-fiction book Perilous Path: a writer’s journey which is an encouraging, motivational book full of short chapters about the writer’s life, and how inspiration can come from great writers, artists, psychologists and the Bible. The book also serves as a friendly how-to guide to writing fiction.
- What writing projects do you have lined up?
I plan to write, and have started researching, another non-fiction book called Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire which is about folklore and strange events. I have completed a gothic magical realist novel called Director’s Cut and am halfway through the sequel Standing Ovation. The first novel is set in south London where I was born and brought up, and the second novel is set in Stratford-upon-Avon, close to where I live now.
I hope you will enjoy reading the stories as much as I enjoyed researching them!
S.C. Skillman, very many thanks for your intriguing insights and for taking the time to introduce us to Paranormal Warwickshire, which will be published on 15th November 2020 and can be bought through the links, below.
Social Media Links:
Website and blog: https://scskillman.com/
Amazon Author Profile: http://bitly.ws/9SK9