I am delighted to welcome to Jaffareadstoo the best selling author
Peter's new novel The House on Cold Hill is out now and is the perfect creepy read for Halloween.
Where did you get the first flash of inspiration for The House on Cold Hill?
The House On Cold Hill is very much inspired by – and modelled on – an isolated historic house in Sussex that my former wife and I bought in 1989 – and which turned out to be seriously haunted.
It was a classically beautiful, rather melancholic looking Georgian manor house on the edge of a Sussex hamlet, with a long history. Before being a manor house in the middle ages it had been a monastery, and prior to that there had been a Roman villa on the site.
‘You'll like this house, with what you write,’ the owner told me, mischievously, on our first viewing. 'We have three ghosts.’
It turned out he was fibbing - the house, we were to discover later, actually had four… The first one manifested while we were in the process of moving in. I was standing in the front porch, on a beautiful spring morning, with my mother-in-law, a very down-to-earth lady, who was a senior magistrate. But she had a 'fey' side to her - in that she was very open minded about the paranormal, and always had a particular recurring, frightening dream whenever someone she knew was about to die.
From the front door where we were standing, there was a long, narrow corridor, which ran almost the width of the house, through to an oak-panelled atrium, with four Doric columns, which led through into the kitchen. This atrium was all that remained of the monastery, which had originally been on the site, and you could still see the arches where the altar had been.
As we stepped aside to let the removals men leave the house to fetch another item, I suddenly saw a shadow, like the flit of a bird across a fanlight, in the interior of the house.
'Did you see that?' She asked, with a knowing look.
Despite the warmth of the sunlight, I felt a sudden chill. I knew at that moment she had seen something uncanny. But I did not want to spook my wife on our very first day in this house. We were both townies, and this was our first move into the countryside. She was already apprehensive about the isolation of the property. The last thing I needed was for her to be unnecessarily scared by a ghost! So I shook my head and told her I had not seen anything. But in truth, I was feeling a little spooked by this.
Our first night was uneventful, and our Hungarian Puli dog had been very happy and calm. I’d been told that dogs would often pick up on any supernatural occurrence way before their owners, so I took this a good sign.
In the morning, my wife left for work at 8am. After breakfast I went to my study to resume work on my third supernatural novel, Sweet Heart. Around 10.30am I went downstairs to make a cup of coffee. As I entered the atrium, on my way through to the kitchen, I saw tiny pinpricks of white light floating in the air all around me – two or three dozen in all. My immediate reaction was that it was sunlight, coming through the window in the far wall, reflecting off my glasses. I took them off, put them back on, and the pinpricks of light had gone.
I returned to my study, but when I went downstairs to make myself some lunch, the same thing happened. And again after removing my glasses and putting them back on again, the pinpricks had gone. But I was left with a slightly uneasy feeling. In the afternoon, when I went downstairs to make a mug of tea, it happened again.
I said nothing to my wife when she arrived home that evening, and she did not see anything.
The next day around mid morning, when I was alone in the house, I saw the pinpricks again, and at lunchtime. After lunch I took the dog for a walk. We’d only gone a short distance along the lane when an elderly man came up to me, introducing himself as a neighbour in the hamlet. ‘You are Mr James, aren’t you?’ He asked.
‘Yes, I am,’ I replied.
‘You've just moved into the Manor?’
‘Two days ago.’
‘How are you getting on with your grey lady?’ He said, with a strange, quizzical look that immediately unsettled me.
‘What grey lady?’ I asked.
He then really spooked me. ‘I was the house sitter for the previous owners. In winter, they used the atrium as a ‘snug’ because, adjoining the kitchen, it was always warm from the Aga. Six years ago I was sitting in the snug, watching television, when a sinister looking woman, her face grey, and wearing a grey, silk crinoline dress, materialized out of the altar wall, swept across the room, gave me a malevolent stare, gave my face a flick with her dress, and vanished into the paneling behind me. I was out of there thirty seconds later, and went back in the morning to collect my things. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back in there again!’
I was struck both by the sincerity of the man, and his genuine fear, which I could see in his eyes as he told me the story. It truly made the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
I returned to the house after our walk, feeling very uncomfortable. I even wimped out of going through the atrium into the kitchen to make my afternoon cuppa! But when my wife came home in the evening, I said nothing – I suppose I did not want to believe it myself, and she was still extremely nervous about living in such an isolated house.
The following Sunday, we had invited her parents to lunch. Whilst she was occupied putting the finishing touches to the meal, I took her mother aside and asked her what exactly she had seen that day we were moving in.
She described a woman, with a grey face, dressed in grey silk crinoline, moving across the atrium – exactly what the old man had described to me.
I was stunned – and very spooked. Later, after her parents had left, I decided I had to tell my wife. She took it in the pragmatic way she had of dealing with most difficult issues in life. ‘You’ve met several mediums in your research – why don’t you ask one of them to come in and see what they find?’
A few days later, a medium who had helped me a lot during my writing of Possession came to the house, and I took her into the atrium, and left her on her own, as she had requested.
An hour later she came up to my study, and yet again, described exactly this woman in grey silk crinoline. She explained the pinpricks of light I kept seeing by telling me I was slightly psychic, so while I was not actually seeing the entire apparition, I was picking up some of its energy – hence the pinpricks of light.
I asked her if there was anything I could do about this, and she told me that the apparition was of a deeply disturbed former resident of the house, and that it needed a clergyman to deal with it.
I felt a tad cynical about her response – but at the same time, I was now feeling deeply uncomfortable in what should have been the sanctuary of my own home. But there was a vicar I knew who I thought would be able to help, and with whom I had become good friends.
At the time he was officially the Vicar of Brighton – but with another hat, he was also officially, the Chief Exorcist of the Church Of England. That wasn’t his actual title, which was the less flaky-sounding Minister Of Deliverance. A former monk, the son of two medics, a university double first in Psychology, he was as far from Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin in The Exorcist as you could get. He is delightful human being, with whom I had become good friends, and still am to this day. He is a modern thinker, a clergyman who has a problem with the biblical concepts of God, yet still retains an infectious faith. His views, for instance, on the Ouija board are that far from putting its participants in touch with the spiritual world, it actually opens up a Pandora’s Box of their own inner demons.
Even so, I was a little surprised when he cheerfully entered the atrium, stood still for a couple of minutes, and then loudly and very firmly enunciated, into thin air, ‘You may go now!’
He turned to me and said, ‘You should be fine now.’
Well, we were, until a mid June day in 1994. My novel, Host, which had been published the previous year, by Penguin, in hardback, had just been published both on two floppy discs, billed as, The World’s First Electronic Novel, and in paperback. The thick paperback lay on a beautiful antique wooden chest, which we kept in the atrium. I always put my latest book there, for visitors to see. On this particular sunny morning, I was having breakfast, around 7.45 am, while my wife was upstairs getting ready for work. Suddenly she called down, ‘I can smell burning!’
I suddenly realized that I could, too. I turned around, and to my amazement, the copy of Host, on top of the wooden chest, was on fire!
I rushed over, grabbed the book, ran to the kitchen sink and threw it in, then turned the taps on, to extinguish the flames.
There was, of course, a perfectly prosaic explanation: Close to the book, on the chest, was a round glass paperweight. The hot June morning sun rays had been refracted through it, much the same way that as kids, we used to set fire to things by letting the sun’s rays refract though a magnifying glass. But… the fact this had happened in this room which had had the apparition in added a very sinister dimension.
The above story was only one of the spooky occurrences we had in this otherwise glorious house.
Without revealing too much, can you tell us anything about the story?
Following on from the last answer you’ll not be surprised to read that it is about a couple of townies who move from the heart of the city of Brighton and Hove to the Sussex countryside! The couple in the story, Caro and Ollie, have a twelve-year old daughter, Jade, who is stroppy and unhappy about leaving Brighton where all her friends are. But Caro and Ollie both love the idea of living in a grand country pile, and despite the huge financial strain, and a number of warnings in the surveyors report, they buy Cold Hill House - a huge, dilapidated, Georgian mansion. Within days of moving in with, it soon becomes apparent that the Harcourt family aren't the only residents in the house….. The first thing that happens is that jade is up in her room a couple of days later, on Facetime, to her best friend in Brighton, when her friend suddenly says, ‘Jade, who is that lady standing behind you?’
Where do you get your inspiration for a story from – are you inspired by people, places or do you draw purely from your imagination?
Aside from my imagination and own experiences, I regularly spend time out with the police and gain a huge amount of inspiration from things I see over and hear over that time. But I also think one of the best resources is in shops all over every town and city in the land, and refreshed daily – newspapers! They contain so much of human life, and so many true crime stories. In particular, I often think that local provincial papers contain more in-depth coverage and lurid details than the nationals.
Your writing is very atmospheric – how do you ‘set the scene’ in your novels and how much research did you do in order to bring The House on Cold Hill to life?
I began my career by making low budget horror movies, and I think I’ve seen just about every scary movie ever made and read every significantly scary book. I was the radio presenter on and off for two years on a late night radio phone-in show about the paranormal in Sussex and Hampshire, and I got more than a few stories then! In 1994 the BBC gave me carte blanche to make a documentary on ghosts in Scotland. I’ve lived in two haunted houses and lived with a medium for thirteen years. I’m also the only fiction author who’s been invited to lecture at the Society of Psychical Research, so I guess you could say I’d done over thirty years of research for this book!
Whilst researching the novel, did you discover anything which surprised you?
Yes! There is a chilling postscript to my writing THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL: A key element of the story is a mysterious window in the mansion that my couple buy. A window that, they one day realize, is for a room that does not appear to exist. A room that has no door… In addition to my home in Sussex, I have an apartment on two floors in Notting Hill. A month after finishing the book my wife, Lara and I were walking along the street beneath, looking up, and talking about his particular part of the book. Suddenly Lara asked, pointing up, ‘Which room is that window in?’
We stood there frozen for some moments, as it began to dawn on us that the window did not make sense. We could not work out which room it was. We ran in, raced up the six flights of stairs and into each of the two rooms which the “mystery” window seem to straddle. But there was no window!
We finally did solve the mystery – the builders who had put a fitted wardrobe in the master bedroom had, for whatever reason, decided to lose the window in the process and, leaving the glass on the outside, had timbered over the inside.
Who says truth is not stranger than fiction???!
When do you find the time to write, and do you have a favourite place to do your writing?
I try to ensure that whatever I’m doing I leave myself time to write 1000 words 6 days a week. I have offices in my Sussex and Notting Hill homes, but I can write anywhere. Thanks to laptops, my office has long ceased to be a concrete space and I can write on the move. I actually write really well on airplanes, in the back of a car and in hotel rooms! But my favourite writing time is 6 - 9:30 in the evening. I got used to that when I was working full time in film and TV, and made this my ‘me’ time. I have a stiff drink – often a vodka martini, with four olives, put on music and get in a zone. I really love this time of the day.
Can you tell us if you have another novel planned?
I am currently writing my 12th Roy Grace Novel called “Love You Dead’ which will be published May 2016. I’ve also started work on another standalone novel – on the theme of what might happen if someone claimed to have absolute proof of the existence of God. It is a subject that has long intrigued me, and I have been working on the research planning of this book for nearly two decades.
Peter was educated at Charterhouse then at film school. Before becoming a full time novelist he has produced numerous films, including The Merchant Of Venice, starring Al Pacino. Both a film and a TV adaptation of the Roy Grace series is currently in development, with Peter overseeing all aspects. He has an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Brighton in recognition of his services to literature and the community, An Honorary Mastership of the Open University, is Patron of Neighbourhood Watch nationwide, Patron of Crimestoppers in Sussex, Patron of Brighton & Hove Samaritans, and Patron of Relate in Sussex, among many other charities he is involved with. Peter has been two-times Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association and has won many literary awards, including the publicly voted ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards People’s Bestseller Dagger and he was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize. As popular internationally as in the UK, he won the US Barry Award, for Best British Crime Novel in 2012. In 2015 in a poll run by WH Smith, Peter was publicly voted, The Best Crime Author Of All Time.
You can find Peter on his website
Follow on Twitter @peterjamesuk
Find him on Facebook
Huge thanks to Peter for giving his time so generously and for sharing his thoughts about
My thanks also to Julia at Midas PR for her help with this interview and to Pan Macmillan for my review copy of this book.