It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! This month, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best mysteries and thrillers. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.
They say that writers write about the things that preoccupy them. Our personal interests, our politics, our take on the individuals in our lives. It all has a way of sliding into the story we are writing whether or not that is what we intend. And isn’t that a good and necessary thing? How boring novels would be if there wasn’t some mystery to the making of them. Some alchemy that takes place inside the author’s head that even the author isn’t fully privy to.
So what is the recipe? What proportion of the whole is intellectual effort, and what proportion organic? How much of the leavening energy comes with that first seed? I don’t know. I doubt if even the most analytical writer has that degree of insight – so much of writing comes from instinct, from the love of the story as it is spun through your fingers. But it is always possible to point to certain specific elements, to a scene or a character that we have drawn from life.
Much of The Ruin is inspired by real life, and I’d like to tell you about one experience in particular. About something odd that happened when I was very young.
I was born in Ireland in 1976. It was pre-Celtic Tiger era, there wasn’t a lot of money, and if there had ever been an Irish upper class it had largely retreated, leaving behind little more than remnants of ruined country houses, traces of formal gardens gone to seed. My brothers and sisters and I (there were seven of us) had a happy, ragamuffin childhood. Our parents were loving and hard-working and much too busy to worry about how we entertained ourselves. Every day after school we would dump our schoolbags in the hall and make for the front door, the only limit placed on us that we should return by the time it got dark.
Our parents’ lack of vigilance was largely rewarded. Our games were innocent—hours spent playing rounders in the small park at the top of the street. We played using a steel baseball bat someone’s brother had brought back from America, and tennis balls when we could find them. We played tip-the-can and 40-40-all-free. Our home was one of many in a housing estate located at the edges of suburbia. We were surrounded on three sides by agricultural land, and the fields were a popular playground for the more adventurous among us. The land was a patchwork quilt of small fields, hedgerows, copses and ruined houses. Heaven for a child with an overly active imagination. A narrow river ran through the farmland about four fields down from the edge of our estate. We swam in it once or twice—more for the dare of it than anything else. The river could be crossed easily by walking over the rocks at the top of a small waterfall, but we stayed on our side of the river. Until the day the odd thing happened.
It was sunny the day we crossed the river, though it was a pallid sort of sun that left a chill in the air. We were aimless explorers, making for whatever landmark caught our eye. We found an abandoned farmyard. It had a cobblestone courtyard, some outbuildings with intact walls and roofs. There was something a little bit creepy about the quietness of the place, but we were explorers, so we pressed on. We fell silent as we made our way out into a driveway long gone to seed. Tree branches met and twined overhead, blocking the meagre sun. Halfway down the drive there was a left turn and we took it. It brought us to a house, and the house was in ruins. Part of the roof had collapsed. There were no windows, not even broken glass, as someone had removed the window frames. The doorway gaped dark and open.
We stood stock-still. No one took a step further, there was no teasing, no daring. There was something about that house. Something dangerous, as if it had the power to reach out and grab us, pull us into its depths. We were frozen in place, immobilised by a creeping sense of dread, a sense that we had stumbled into something adult, something dark and perhaps, just perhaps, the door was about to close behind us. The silence was broken by a sudden, loud bang, like a single beat on a base drum, though the reverberations were less perfect, less sonorous. The noise worked like a starter’s pistol on our feet. Every one of us turned and ran back the way we came.
The odd thing was waiting for us in the courtyard. The gateway to the fields beyond, which had been empty when we passed through minutes before, now held a single, rusting barrel. The barrel was upside down, dropped there probably, the sound of it falling into place almost certainly that loud drumming bang we had heard. Running down the left-hand side of the barrel was a fist-sized drop of flesh-coloured, gloopy fluid, as if someone had put five kilos of steak into a smoothie-maker, then upended it on the barrel before the smoothie was quite ready. A fleshy, glistening globule. There was no one there that we could see. We were caught, the four of us, in the middle of the cobbled courtyard. Beyond the barrel lay green fields, the river and home. Behind us lay the dark driveway and the ruined house. The bravest of us made her decision. She ran for the barrel and we ran with her. With every step I took I could feel a phantom hand reach for my shoulder. Surely whoever put the barrel there had plans for four trespassing children.
We ran until our chests burned and our legs stumbled. We splashed our way across the river, and into the safe, familiar fields beyond, but we kept running until we made it up and over the final fence and onto the tarmacadam roads of the estate.
That evening, at our usual noisy family dinner, I told everyone what had happened. My sisters were fighting over a borrowed and broken set of colouring pencils. My brother didn’t look up from his book. I tried again, tried to put weight on my words. I saw my parents glance at each other across the kitchen, a crease of amusement about my father’s eyes, and I knew then that the same thing was happening at three other dinner tables that evening. No one would believe us. Maybe that was understandable. It was an odd sort of story, after all. The kind of thing a child might make up. A story without an ending. The kind of story that sounds exaggerated, built it up with a bit of colour, a bit of extra bite. A fleshy globule.
I’ve thought about what parts of that experience fed the writing of The Ruin. It might be the scary old house. That dark and lonely driveway. Certainly, all of those elements are found in the book. And one more thing, perhaps. The part where the children tried to tell, and no one listened.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Ruin.
Photo credit Julia Dunin