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July 2, 2014

Malevolent Buildings

As you may know (you don’t know? Get yourself a copy of A Dark Dividing, STAT!), Sarah Rayne writes the most deliciously spooky books, many of them featuring buildings — theaters, prisons, deserted mansions — that give off an almost visible miasma of badness. We were curious: Had Sarah encountered, perhaps in childhood, a real-life version of one of these pestilence-palaces? A quick exchange of emails, and YES, she HAD! Here’s the picture — and my, but it sure is creepy! — with her own delightful explanation


One of my earliest memories is of a semi-derelict castle on the edge of the town where I lived as a child. It stood on the summit of a small hill – the old feudal lords always built their strongholds high up so they could keep out a watchful eye for any enterprising enemies that might sneak up on them. It was tough being a baron in the Middle Ages.

The original medieval castle fell victim to a variety of fates, but the main reason for its downfall, was Time. Simply, it crumbled away.

So, with nineteenth century gusto, a replica was built on the site. But it was a replica so outrageously gothic, if it had been offered for sale Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley would have climbed over one another to own it, and Edgar Allen Poe and Matthew Lewis would have been taking gleeful notes.

This ugly and frowning castle was regarded with complicated affection by most of my family. My mother – a romantic at heart – found it fascinating and repellant in equal measure, but spun stories around it. Princesses and gallant knights – and perhaps a villain or two in the dungeons. My father, a former comedy actor, preferred to hark back to the original Keep, when minstrels might have capered through the halls. My brother, in his later years as a music researcher, described it as Wagnerian, especially if a thunderstorm crashed around its battlements. And a brace of spinster great-aunts, who could see its rear end (so to speak) from their small apple orchard on the other side of town, insisted they never felt safe if they hadn’t got that slightly sinister view on hand.

And that’s the castle that threaded itself through my nightmares. To walk up the hillside and see it gradually rear up beyond the trees, was chilling. To know that two caretakers actually lived in its dark rooms – which of course had no electricity – added to its creepiness.

Whichever path you took, it always seemed to lean forward, as if it was watching or listening to you. Or, of course, as if it was about to topple down. In fact one dark and stormy night (what else could it have been?) it did topple down, not in one dramatic avalanche of stones and turrets, but in instalments, a chunk at a time.

The original Keep has since been disinterred and restored, and it’s regarded as something of an archeological triumph of resurrection. But I shall always owe the dark nineteenth century edifice a huge debt of gratitude for flavouring my childhood with a satisfying pinch of gothicism, and for providing me with at least half a dozen plots for all the books I was later to write.



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