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Alan Williams – Author of The Blackheath Seance Parlour

Following on from yesterday’s review of The Blackheath Seance Parlour, here is a Q&A session with Alan Williams, the author. Please note that the interview contains spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet (you should), please go to the review page instead.

Q: You obviously spent a great deal of time researching the local area, as mentioned in the appendix. Are there any historical leaps that you had to make for artistic purposes?

A: There are. One of the most iconic buildings in Blackheath is the Tea Hut and although it wasn’t standing there in the 1840s, I had to drag it back in time to be in the book. It’s too much a part of Blackheath to omit. I also had to play with the time frame of the Clarendon hotel. In the early 1900s it was three separate houses used by the ship builders of Deptford. One became a bed and breakfast but the rest of its history is at best vague. And then there is Montague John Druit.

Q: Why the decision to make Montague John Druitt the murderer? Did you spend much time reading about his association with the ripper murders, and his unfortunate demise? Do you have an opinion about what really happened at the school where he taught?

A: Initially, I wrote Druitt in because I wanted to give a nod to a different part of Blackheath’s history but the more I read into his background the more intriguing it became. His is a story in itself. He was a respected barrister who also took on a job in a school in Blackheath. There was an accusation that he had interfered with a boy there, though it was never proven, but the social shame of being homosexual during that age, the passing of his father, then his mother’s mental decline, incarceration and death six months earlier had to have played a huge part in his own mental state. And because there was a family history that increasingly revolved around mental illness, particularly in that unenlightened age, he would have been frightened for his own sanity or at least aware that it might also claim him and he hinted at this in the letter he left. So having been dismissed from the school and with the (supposed) severance cheques from the school still in his pockets, he wrote a note reading “Since Friday I felt I was going to be like mother, and the best thing for me was to die.” Then he filled his pockets with stones and threw himself to his death in the Thames.

On top of this came the accusations that he was, in fact, Jack The Ripper. There is much that isn’t known about Druitt, so drawing him back and placing him in The Blackheath Séance Parlour allowed me to use the switch of personality that was, I think, placed on a frightened and lonely man during a witch hunt. The more I think about Druitt, the more I want to write his novel.

Q: Were there any other local characters/places that you wanted to include but couldn’t?

A: The church was the biggest shock. The novel is set just before the building of it had begun and although this played out somewhat as a strength, my first reaction was ‘How can I write a novel set in Blackheath with the church missing?’ When people think of Blackheath they think of the church. If you Google it, you get the church. The church is the celebrated icon of Blackheath. In the novel, Blackheath was the only parish not to have a church of its own so I brought in the architect who originally built it and had a horrifyingly drunk Maggie attempt to seduce him in the Gypsy Moth.

I brought in a lot of the actual people who did run each shop in 1840s Blackheath. (Thank you Neil Rhind for your book Blackheath and Environs – in my eyes, the Blackheath Bible.) And there were many, many more people with staggering and globally important histories right down to the women on the convict ship, that I would like to have included but Blackheath, once you start digging, offers up such a history that you could write a dozen books about it so I had to put the brakes on fast or mention briefly them in passing.

Q: How long did it take to write? Your bio says that you work within the film and television industry. Did script editing bring out the frustrated novelist? How do the two processes differ?

A: It took a year to write, then six months to rewrite. The scenes with Maggie in them wrote themselves. She’d walk onto a page and I could almost just sit back and watch what happened. I spent many an enjoyable afternoon in the Hare and Billet writing her.

As for the difference between script editing and writing, they are intertwined to a degree but also poles apart. It’s much easier to go in and sharpen other people’s work but with your own, sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees. I let Séance Parlour sit for six months to gain some distance from it before I went back in with the red pen.

Q: If the reader accepts that Klaus Van Dyne is an evil genius, and can graft bodies together to form human wings (which is a fantastically creepy reveal incidentally), why would this gruesome but scientific process cause the children to become flesh eaters? I enjoyed them simply as flying demons – did they need to become vampires too? Do you think of them as vampires?

A: Thank you. I see them as people with an altered physiology and with that comes a whole new set of base instincts. Their nurse tries to stop their cat and mouse games with animals when they are children but it becomes clear to her that it’s a part of their primal instinct she can barely suppress. If anything, for them, it’s more about the thrill of hunting or a way of dealing with problems. They are set aside as a species with no peers or role models and they do still depend on injections of various solutions found only in birds and other animals to remain healthy and because of these factors they become a rule to themselves. I didn’t want to create a vampire that skulks about and has an evil plot, I wanted them to be more raw.

Q: Whilst reading the book, I had the strange sensation that the people who could contact the afterlife were the rationalists, and the men of the establishment (priests, scientists) were the mystics. Do you believe in contact with the afterlife? The book feels quite critical of organised religion at times – are you speaking through Maggie?

A: It was an age when science was beginning to challenge religion and women were beginning to take a stand. The women in Séance Parlour are very strong-minded, Maggie in particular and her dislike of Father Legge turned her against religion. I think it became a battle of wills between the two characters and in turn a battle over the church’s monopoly on faith. Like science, the séance parlour becomes a threat, chipping away the church’s power and influence.

Q: Where’s the spookiest place in Blackheath?

A: You have to go a long way to beat a good thick fog on the heath itself.

The Blackheath Seance Parlour is on sale now £10 from Amazon.


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The Blackheath Seance Parlour

The Blackheath Seance Parlour novel by Alan Williams
The Blackheath Seance Parlour is a new novel by Alan Williams, published tomorrow. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy, which I’ve just finished reading. Below are some thoughts on it.

We are placed in the 1840s and into the lives of two sisters who are running a chocolate shop in Blackheath. The business is going very badly, and so they decide to open a seance parlour instead.

To say that the novel is set in Blackheath is an understatement. Almost every important scene takes place in the village. All the pubs, churches, and other key buildings in Greenwich, Lewisham and Lee appear throughout the novel. But what really makes it interesting is the way in which the author has woven the fictional characters around real historical figures from the area. I found myself rushing over to Wikipedia several times, to try and decide whether the new guest at a dinner party really was the “father of meteorology” or not (he was), or whether the architect really did build All Saints church (he did).

Although set in the 1840s, the dialogue between the characters feels fresh and alive. It’s a funny blend of genres – at times it felt as though I was reading Cranford, at other times gothic novels such as Vathek sprang to mind. The level of consternation within the village at changes to the high street felt as though they had stepped from the comments pages of this blog at times!

Page 63:

“A new shop in the village was big news. A suitable addition could uplift everyone and give their lives renewed inspiration and purpose, whereas the wrong shop could lead to depression and a sense that the village was sliding into ruin. On the rare occasions that this occurred, the owners were ostracised, there was an unspoken boycott and soon, through ruin or social pressure, the shop was gone and everyone was happy again. Blackheath was a very fussy village.”

I particularly enjoyed the proprietress of the Blackheath Tea Hut. Whether it really existed before the 1920s isn’t clear but it’s great fun either way. As she explains:

‘They are trying to close us down again. It’s always the same people. They said because we are a wooden building and every so many decades we need to rebuild, that each time we should apply as if we are a brand new business. It is so they can say no to us. This is, and always has been, our part of the heath. But every time they refuse to acknowledge the previous hut so they shorten our history. Well we’ve built it strong this time. This hut will be here well into the 1920s. Let them stick that in their pipes.They say that we attract the wrong sort but everyone knows it is because we draw the crowds that refuse to pay the scandalous prices of the tea room in the park.’

It doesn’t matter that there is some artistic license. I don’t mind whether Princess Sophia really used to look up into the sky from the Ranger’s House with her telescope – it’s still a lovely image.

We’re in a world where spiritualism is real. Although there are many charlatans, some people really can contact the afterlife, and this is key to the plot. The church takes a dim view of this, and many of the arguments in the book (mostly after several glasses of strong port or oily gin at the Hare and Billet) are between the main characters and the local vicar. Even if you find fortune-tellers and mysticism irritating in the real world, you are gradually sucked into the excitement and mystery of the story, and probably end up siding with them before the book has finished with you.

This is a book containing a novel within a novel, and the internal novel is a little tiresome for the first few pages, perhaps because it is written in such a hyper-gothic penny-dreadful style (even though this is historically accurate). But I soon found myself caught up in the adventures of the mysterious count, with glimmers of The Count of Monte Cristo.

One of the most discouraging things I read about the book before actually attempting it was that this was a vampire novel. It isn’t. If you are sick of the sight of True Blood, if Twilight has you reaching for the sick bag, do not be dissuaded from reading this book! It doesn’t have any of the vampires-as-metaphors-for-chastity and it’s much more like “Cranford with teeth”. Indeed the sections dealing with these matters are some of the most enjoyable by the end.

For anyone living in Blackheath, it’s a great read – funny, thought provoking, and lively. Not to mention a great way to be taken back in time as you walk across the heath. Just take a lantern with you…

The Blackheath Seance Parlour is published by Cutting Edge Press, and is released tomorrow (Thursday) 1st August. It’s available to pre-order now on Amazon, and from Waterstones.


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Blackheath – playground and breathing place for Londoners

Nathaniel Hawthorne between 1860 and 1864

Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American novelist and short story writer who lived in Blackheath in 1856. There’s a blue plaque dedicated to him on Pond Road, and Gloria emailed me (ages ago) to suggest a post about him. I’d intended to read his novel “The Scarlet Letter”, as it was recommended, and is available for free at Project Gutenburg… But as usual, I haven’t managed to get around to it.. I will one day, (and read The Blackheath Poisonings too).

Here is his description of Blackheath from the Squashed Writers website:

One summer we found a particularly delightful abode in one of the oases that have grown up on the wide waste of Blackheath. A friend had given us pilgrims and dusty wayfarers his suburban residence, with all its conveniences, elegances, and snuggeries, its lawn and its cosy garden-nooks. I already knew London well, and I found the quiet of my temporary haven more attractive than anything that the great town could offer. Our domain was shut in by a brick wall, softened by shrubbery, and beyond our immediate precincts there was an abundance of foliage. The effect was wonderfully sylvan and rural; only we could hear the discordant screech of a railway-train as it reached Blackheath. It gave a deeper delight to my luxurious idleness that we could contrast it with the turmoil which I escaped.

Beyond our own gate I often went astray on the great, bare, dreary common, with a strange and unexpected sense of desert freedom. Once, about sunset, I had a view of immense London, four or five miles off, with the vast dome in the midst, and the towers of the Houses of Parliament rising up into the smoky canopy–a glorious and sombre picture, but irresistibly attractive.

The frequent trains and steamers to Greenwich have made Blackheath a playground and breathing-place for Londoners. Passing among these holiday people, we come to one of the gateways of Greenwich Park; it admits us from the bare heath into a scene of antique cultivation, traversed by avenues of trees. On the loftiest of the gentle hills which diversify the surface of the park is Greenwich Observatory. I used to regulate my watch by the broad dial-plate against the Observatory wall, and felt it pleasant to be standing at the very centre of time and space.

Lovely scratchy photo from wikipedia, or even more spectacular 20MB original scan can be found here.

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