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The Ultimate Ending

I’ve been thinking recently, how often does the ending of a film, book or TV series exceed your expectations? How many times have you been blown away – either devastated or thrilled – in those closing moments?

Sixth Sense - the ultimate ending

(Alert – there are plenty of spoilers in this post, so proceed with caution…)

For me, there tend to be two, linked things that lift a story above and beyond the norm. Sadly, one of them is the death of the main character. As a young boy, I was forever imprinted by watching The Alamo with John Wayne, filled with feelings of horror, loss, admiration, and above all disbelief as Davy Crockett pitched himself into the magazine store with a torch in one last act of defiance. I felt similarly about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Saving Private Ryan (such a horrifyingly impersonal but cinematically astute way to pick off a character we’ve come to cherish), The Green Mile, Million Dollar Baby, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The ending of Night of the Living Dead is horrific, on both an intimate and a broader, social level. (Incidentally, that film was released a month before the US MPAA film rating system came into place, so was first watched by stunned kids and teenagers in a Saturday matinee in Pittsburgh). Everyone remembers the final episode of the First World War series of Blackadder, in which the sharp-as-a-tack Captain Blackadder is sent over the trenches with his hapless brothers-in-arms to certain death.

Wicker Man - ultimate ending

I think the ultimate story ending can also be linked to death, but doesn’t need to be. It’s more to do with a surprise twist that transforms or reframes all that’s gone before. The Wicker Man is one of these – what, no, it can’t all have been… and what’s going on now… surely he’s going to get out of there… Other films with great twists include The Others, The Usual Suspects, Get Out. But I think the best of all, and thus without doubt my favourite film, is The Sixth Sense. How many stories require you to retrace the whole course of an already gripping narrative right from the start?

I was thinking about all this because I’ve strived for those big twists that turn the whole story around in some of my own books. Particularly The Boy in the Burgundy Hood, The Girl in the Ivory Dress, Black Beacon and, probably most dramatically, The Man in the Woods. Because I love it. And want to do more of it. And most of all, because I want to make sure it works for you, the reader!

Tell me a book, film or TV show that’s made you sit up in your seat or burst out into tears. Endings that were devastating or breathtakingly thrilling, that took you somewhere above and beyond all the rest. I’m looking out for my next watch, and my next read.

2023 – A Year in Writing

As it’s that time for reflection, I thought I’d give an overview of my year from a writing perspective. First of all, the good. As most of you will know, I’ve been concentrating on my supernatural thrillers for the past five years. I’ve written three books in The Ghosts of Alice series, but this year I wanted to publish two standalone horror books that I’ve had in the pipeline for a while  and which I’m glad to say I managed to do.

The first, The Man in the Woods, I started several years ago but was interrupted by life and never finished. I realised when I re-read it earlier this year that I really liked it, it felt very different to my other writing and I loved the final twist.

Thanks to reader Linda Oliphant for this great photo!


Why was it so different to my other supernatural books? Well, several reasons.

  1. it’s the only one told in the first person
  2. it’s a novella
  3. it’s the only one of my supernatural thrillers not to feature ghosts (hope that’s not a spoiler… 😉)
  4. it’s about a teenage boy
  5. some people would even argue it’s not a supernatural thriller at all but… you’ll have to read it to decide whether it is or isn’t yourself!

I love this story. I thought it might well get mixed reviews – and possibly some negative reviews – but they’ve been (almost all!) positive so far.

The second book I published this year I actually finished as a first draft last Christmas – but decided to leave until November before I brought it out, for obvious reasons. It’s Black Beacon, a festive ghost story set on the snow-swept South Downs. I’ve loved writing this book as it’s by far the most personal of my stories, inspired by my grandparents, who met when my grandad was a German Prisoner of War and my grandma a young woman in Eastbourne. All my books tend to have a significant element or two inspired by real life incidents – but this is by far the most personal.

Black Beacon ghost story

What about the bad? Well, whilst life outside of writing has had its ups and downs this year (with a few more downs than usual, including my mum breaking her hip in the summer) the writing has been pretty steady. I miss the excellent independent bookshop we had near us in Leatherhead: Barton’s Bookshop, where I used to go for signing sessions at least once a year, usually during the festive season. I miss the owner, Peter Snell, with his penchant for dressing up as Santa Claus, and I miss the staff – I’ve done signings at other events over the years, but nothing is as satisfying as going to a local bookstore, where everyone has a passion for books and reading.

Barton's Bookshop

That’s it for me – next up for my writing is the fourth Ghosts of Alice story, which has a completely different feel and setting – but more of that later in the year!

I wish you a Happy New Year, and hope it brings you what you want – or at least what you need!

Steve

The Haunted House

haunted house

What image comes to mind for you when you think of a haunted house?

I’ve been writing ghost stories for 5 years now and I’ve realised that the houses I have haunted have become progressively more ‘everyday’ with each successive story. As if you don’t need heightened melodrama of a setting to chill – fear can come to you in the most mundane of places.

In The Boy in the Burgundy Hood, the red-hooded boy and the wounded woman haunt an old medieval manor with sprawling grounds and a creepy stumpery. Bramley Manor is a stately medieval hall with a grand fireplace and a Tudor section.

The haunting in The Girl in the Ivory Dress takes place in a Victorian guest house in a remote spot on the Welsh coast. The house is quite old, but it’s been completely renovated and has all modcons.

Alice and the Devil focuses on a rundown Victorian rectory on the moors in the Peak District, although much of the action takes place on a curious set of giant, wooded rocks nearby that are filled with caves and strange features.

My latest ghost story Black Beacon, however, is set in an ordinary 1930s house – although it is isolated from civilisation up on the Sussex Downs. And even more so, after a rare Christmas snowfall.

Do you prefer your ghost stories set in a classic, decaying country house – or do you think the spook can happen anywhere?

You can check out all my books on my Amazon page – perfect for the festive season!

Black Beacon Setting: Beachy Head & the South Downs

Black Beacon inspiration: Beachy Head

Here’s some photos of the South Downs including the stunning Beachy Head, where the hills crumble in a mass of pulverised chalk to the English Channel. A lonely red-and-white lighthouse prevents ships crashing into the cliffs. This spot features in my latest ghost story, Black Beacon, which is set on the sometimes radiant, often bleak, always beautiful landscape of the downs. Like several of the other elements in the story, it draws on my own personal experience.

Black Beacon inspiration: Seven Sisters

The character of Theo in Black Beacon is loosely based on my real German grandfather, Egon Korn, who arrived in England as a Prisoner of War. He met my grandma in Eastbourne and they were soon married. The story of his capture was extraordinary, and something I knew had to write in a story one day. I just never realised it was going to be one of my ghost stories! You can find out more about his experience here.

Black Beacon inspiration: South Downs

My grandfather, who I called Da, used to collect me from the Cavendish Hotel on the seafront in his cream VW Beetle. I was living in the hotel because my dad worked there, we were in the staff accommodation. Da used to drive me up to Beachy Head and we would go and look out on this fabulous panorama. Enjoy!

Black Beacon inspiration: South Downs National Landscape

Black Beacon Inspiration: Cuckmere, South Downs
Black Beacon inspiration: South Downs, looking to Eastbourne

Black Beacon – Tragedy to Hope

My latest book, Black Beacon: A Christmas Ghost Story, is inspired by the story of my German grandfather, Egon Korn, who was captured in the Second World War and who met and married my grandmother whilst a Prisoner of War in Eastbourne. I adored both my grandparents, so in this post you’ll find a few photos of them (including a baby Steve and his young mum!)

Egon and Pam Korn, 1970s

I’ve been fascinated with the experience of being a Prisoner of War ever since I began the research for the novel. There’s an excellent (albeit harrowing) film – Life of Mine – about German PoWs in Denmark, where Hitler thought the allies would launch their invasion. You can read my blog post about it here.

My grandfather was captured at the Battle of Caen. He was aiming his anti-tank gun at a British tank but was seen by the tank commander, who fired his machine gun at him. A bullet hit a stick grenade on my grandfather’s back, which exploded, killing his loader and seriously wounding him. He was saved by the Red Cross, sent to Canada, Scotland, and finally Eastbourne, where he met my grandma.

Wedding of Pam and Egon Korn

Like most Germans, my grandfather was not generally treated badly in England. From what I’ve read, many locals began to feel sorry for the PoWs who, whilst treated well and ‘rehabilitated’ from Nazi propaganda, were also kept working for longer than in most countries (partly because so many British young men had been killed or injured). 25,000 of these 400,000 PoWs decided to stay and a few of them married local women, like my grandfather (796, according to Wikipedia). It must have been a very strange time for them, despite the sympathy. Especially as some – like my grandfather – were only 17 when they were captured. What a way to start your adult life.

My grandfather was adored by all in my family – my mum, grandma, dad, and me. He died when I was 10 years old, of lung cancer, but I will always remember the war stories he told me, the scars from his injury, and above all his gentleness, and loving kindness.

After he died, my grandmother became committed to the cause of peace. Having refused to evacuate and remained in Eastbourne despite regular bombing, she knew the pain of families who lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict. She was a lifelong member of CND and even joined the Women’s camp at Greenham Common.

In remembrance of all who died and continue to die in senseless war.

Me, my mum and grandfather

Black Beacon – Inspiration

Black Beacon is one of my favourite, and one of my most personal, books so far.

Black Beacon Christmas ghost story opening page

This is why:

One, it takes place on the Sussex Downs, near Beachy Head, and in Eastbourne, where I was born. I love this area of the south coast for the wide sweep of the Downs (broad, grassy hills, with small pockets of woodland); for the white cliffs that plunge into the rough sea with its red-and-white striped lighthouse; and for the pastel blues, whites, greys and browns of its pebble beaches. And Eastbourne, which I still visit regularly because my mum lives there, is a beautiful town with a grand, white parade of hotels and a gold-domed pier on the seafront. I even lived in one of those hotels for a while, when I was little and my dad was working there.

Two, the main characters, Theo and Nat, are loosely inspired by my grandparents, who I loved so much. They met after the war, when my German grandfather was a Prisoner of War. The story of how he was captured is astonishing – almost unbelievable – and I’ve included it in the book.

Black Beacon Christmas Ghost story back cover

Three, it’s about Christmas, in the 1970s, and what’s not to love about that? The heyday of glam, Slade, Wizzard, Brotherhood of Man… OK, before you go mentioning the winter of discontent I plead innocence. I was a small boy reading Tintin and playing with my dog. I adored Christmases then, always with my grandparents, they were one of the most exciting times of my life.

And lastly I love Black Beacon because I’m a horror fan and it’s frightening. At times, really frightening. The ghost is… pure evil.

So I invite you to read it and find out why – if you have the stomach for a proper haunting this Christmas, that is…

Black Beacon: A Christmas Ghost Story, is available on Amazon now.

Black Beacon Christmas ghost story proof copy

Now THAT is a bookshop!

Now THAT is a bookshop!

Blackwell's bookshop

Over half-term we took a short break up near Oxford, and spent a very enjoyable day walking round the venerable city. I went to Blackwell’s, a bookshop that’s been around since the nineteenth century, and was reminded of how a good bookshop will really inspire you. Whilst it’s great to have Waterstone’s in Dorking, where I live, it’s small and seems to always have the same or similar books on display – with a good portion of the shop given over to small gifts and toys now, too. I don’t often feel gripped by anything when I go in. But here I was bolting around like a dog in a field of sheep, constantly thinking how I not only wanted to but needed to read this, and this, and this…

OK, Blackwell’s does have the advantage of an incredible 3.5km of book shelves, as you can see in the picture – but still, the main ‘top’ displays had a more diverse and intriguing selection than I’ve seen for a long time. And that’s not to say size is all that matters – there was another small cafe bookshop in the Oxford market which had a great display, full of interesting books, not the usual suspects.

If I can just get that right...
Hmmm...

So, this post is in praise of our beleaguered bookshops – keep them going, whenever you can! Above is a book you’ll see that amused me and another that amused my wife (I think you’ll guess which is which!) And below is a fabulous-looking ghost story I picked up in Blackwell’s second store for Graphic Novels and Sci-fi/Fantasy, which includes a Horror section…

Petra's ghost

The Ghosts of Alice: Spectacular Spooktober Sale!

Later this week I’m starting a (thinks fast) Spectacular Spooktober Sale (!!) on The Ghosts of Alice series.

The Ghosts of Alice: Spooktober sale

Running up to Halloween, each of the three titles will have a week on sale on Kindle at the discounted price of 99p/99c.

If you haven’t discovered The Ghosts of Alice yet, it’s a series of standalone books that feature Alice Deaton, a young woman with a mysterious connection to the dead. In the first book, the bestselling The Boy in the Burgundy Hood, Alice lands her dream job to open a medieval house to the public – only to find when the ghosts start appearing not all is as rosy as it seems…

Here’s the dates when each title will be on sale:

  • 11-17 Oct: The Boy in the Burgundy Hood
  • 18-24 Oct: The Girl in the Ivory Dress
  • 25-31 Oct: Alice and the Devil

Have a totally spooky month!

Here’s links to buy on Amazon:

A house with a troubled personality? The setting of The Man in the Woods

Do you think a house can have a troubled personality?

My latest novella, The Man in the Woods, is set in the Surrey Hills. It’s a landscape of rolling pine-clad hills and gentle valleys, a place where it doesn’t take long to find deep stillness and magic, belying the fact it’s less than an hour’s drive from London.

A troubled house in the woods, inspiration for The Man in the Woods
scary house in mysterious horror forest at night

I’ve been living on the edge of the Surrey Hills for 13 years now and love the place. But, as is common with creative writing, the house that inspired The Man in the Woods was somewhere else altogether. It was a house on the edge of a woodland in Kenilworth, a small town in Warwickshire, where I lived for a couple of years as a teenager.

An unhappy house

It’s an odd thing to say, but that house in Kenilworth was not a happy house. Whilst I loved Kenilworth itself, and had plenty of good times there, I never really liked that house. Strange things used to happen there.

Little things lost would be found days later, in the most obvious places – absurd things like a toilet roll holder, which turned up the week after in the middle of the bathroom floor. My stereo would whisper and hiss for some time after it was switched off. We were burgled in broad daylight, the dog emerging cowed at the top of the stairs when we got home and found everything in disarray.

My mum and stepdad’s relationship broke down while we were there. But he didn’t move out so we had to walk through ‘his’ rooms to get to ours, which was very uncomfortable.

One day, a woman appeared at the front door and told my mum the house was cursed. She said she’d fallen down the (very steep) stairs while she was living there, and her partner had fallen down a hole nearby and died.

I met one of my best friends from school recently, who I hadn’t seen for a while. He’s certainly the most practical and sensible of all my friends and he worked for years in the car industry. He visited our house in Kenilworth a few times and admitted how much he hadn’t liked it. He confessed he’d always thought it was us, our family, who caused the troubled aura. But then, when we moved to a new home, he started coming round all the time. He realised it hadn’t been us. It was the house.

Do you know a troubled house?

So that’s how the setting for The Man in the Woods came about. I put together a beautiful wood and a house which, despite its idyllic location, I honestly never liked. It felt like the perfect match for my sinister story.

I’m still inclined to think that the feel of that house was more to do with the troubled relationships in it, and that there was some practical explanation to the weird little things that happened. After all, it’s just possible that a dog could have got hold of a toilet roll holder and played with it for a while before dropping it a few days later in the bathroom. But despite that, I keep an open mind. Perhaps there really was something bad that had happened there, something sinister that seeped into the walls.

I’d be really interested to hear if you have any similar stories of a house with a troubled personality, or of any other troubled places? Let me know in the comments below.

If you’d like to read The Man in the Woods, here’s the link:

(Incidentally, there’s a poem about that period of my childhood in my collection, The Things We Thought Were Beautiful – you’ll know which one it is when you see it, the title gives it away!)

The Man in the Woods is out now!

I’m excited to tell you my latest book, a chilling psychological novella called The Man in the Woods, is out now!

The blurb is limited on this one, as I don’t want to give too much away:

Who is… The Man in the Woods?

The woods are deep and dark and cold and empty…

… except for a solitary boy, out riding his bike…

… and a lone wanderer…

And a lone wanderer, The Man in the Woods

What will happen when their paths cross?

Whatever it is, things will never be the same again.

The Man in the Woods chilling psychological thriller out now!

The Man in the Woods is available on Amazon, in paperback and Kindle editions – or read for free on Kindle Unlimited! Click below for more details and to read an excerpt: