The Total Freak Out of Gideon Mack
(Or “Yes, sometimes I scare myself.”)
I had written six Dandy Gilver mysteries – 1920s, fabulous clothes, a butler, you know the world we’re in – and while they have their creepy moments, the words that cropped up again and again in reviews were words like “witty” and “delightful” and even “charming”. (I’m not complaining: “witless”, “disgusting” and “charmless” could have cropped up. Then where would I be?)
But then I wrote something a bit different. As She Left It has no butlers, the characters wear Tesco leggings (think Target brand) and there’s no nostalgia to cast a sepia glow.
It was when I started going to events to talk about As She Left it, and even more so the follow-up - The Day She Died, that I first started to get the question “Do you ever scare yourself when you’re writing?”
And the answer is that I do. Sometimes I can be writing a scene and my cat brushes against my legs then bolts from the room because I’ve shrieked and jumped out of my chair. It’s pretty funny when a cat is perfectly balanced between a. wanting to nag you for her dinner and b. still being annoyed with you for making her look uncool. (Cat “owners” will understand. Dog owners will be reminded why they prefer dogs.)
But the truest answer to the question is “Yes, I sometimes scare myself writing, but the worst scare I ever gave myself was signing.”
Let me explain: I happened to be reading a wonderful book by James Robertson called The Testament of Gideon Mack, about a Scottish minister (of the church not the parliament) who meets the devil. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who wants to understand Scotland. **So long as you don’t mind being creeped out seven ways to goosebumps.**
Early on in the story, Gideon is out for his daily run in the woods near his home, when he finds a standing stone – an ancient, lichened, weathered, enormous standing stone . . . that wasn’t there the day before. For some reason I found that one of the most unsettling things I had ever read. No one else runs in these woods and there’s no one to tell, who would believe him. From that moment Gideon is on his own.
I was on my own too, alone in my house on the hillside in Galloway while my husband was travelling. We had no neighbours, no other houses in sight across the valley. I loved it there, in the peace and solitude, and had never been frightened to be alone. With no mobile phone reception. And no one in screaming distance.
I had watched The Sixth Sense alone in this house; I had read the end of Stephen King’s Dumas Key, alone in this house in a power cut, by the light of a guttering candle. This was not a creepy house.
So, this particular time, when I was reading Gideon Mack, I was also signing stock for Goldsboro Books in London. They’re a wonderful bookshop who sell signed first editions at cover price and have always been good friends to me. (You might know them as the bookshop who got boxes and boxes of first editions of The Cuckoo’s Calling signed by “Robert Galbraith” and didn’t put their prices up even when the truth came out. They just sold those millions of pounds worth of books to their regular customers for the price on the jacket and got priceless great publicity for themselves, as part of the deal.)
Anyway they had sent me three big boxes of hardbacks, lots of bubble wrap but also quite a lot of books, to sign and return. I had finished with them and the FedEx guy was coming to pick them up the next day. I needed to remember to take them downstairs. But it was late and I was tired. So I left them in my study doorway, one on top of the other, where I would see them when I came out of my bedroom at the other end of the landing in the morning.
Get it? I made a tower of three big boxes in an open doorway where I would see them and remember about the FedEx guy.
Well, it half-worked. I went to bed, read another few hair-raising chapters of Gideon Mack and nodded off. About four o’clock in the morning I woke up and set out to go to the loo (it was an inconvenient house, with no upstairs bathroom). The moonlight was shining in the landing window. I stepped out of my bedroom door . . .
. . . and saw a stranding stone in my house! A great hulking monolith of an ancient standing stone growing right out of my carpet! Gideon’s stone! In my house! A harbinger of the devil!
It took me a long time to reach out and turn on a light, eyes squeezed tight shut. I opened them a tiny crack. It was still there, but it was made of cardboard, not stone. And it was three boxes and I needed to scamper to the bathroom pretty urgently.
And that, dear readers, is the worst fright I have ever given myself in my career so far as a writer. I still loved the house – Fintloch – and it was a wrench to leave it. I’ve used it as the setting of the book that’s coming out in September 2015 – The Child Garden – and I’ve put a standing stone in there too.
Catriona McPherson will be at the February Meeting of San Joaquin Sisters in Crime.