Hi Peter! Can we start with an introduction to your new book; The House on Cold Hill?
The House on Cold Hill is a story about a young couple with a 12 year old daughter. He’s a website designer and she’s a solicitor. And they move from Brighton – they’ve always been townies – into a huge wreck of a country house in Sussex that needs ground-up renovation. And within a short time of moving in uncanny things start to happen. They move in on the Friday, and the first thing that happens is on the Sunday night when the daughter is in her bedroom. She’s talking on Facetime with a friend of hers in Brighton and her friend suddenly says “who’s that lady standing behind you?” and she turns around and there’s nobody in the room. And slowly things start to escalate from there.
It’s very much inspired by a house that I myself lived in with my wife who actually was a solicitor, back in the 1990’s. It turned out to be quite seriously haunted.
So was the book inspired by your own experiences or did you try to keep it separate from that?
I’m a great believer as a writer in always drawing on your own experiences in life. And when we bought this house in 1998 – we’d always been townies – it was an isolated and slightly decrepit house. I don’t remember who said it but I was writing stories at that time; thrillers, so he said “oh you’ll like this place with what you write, you’ve got three ghosts”. I thought he was joking!
And literally the day we moved in, I remember vividly I was standing with my mother-in-law who was a feisty lady, but she also had a sensile side, she’d had dreams where she saw that members of the family were going to die. And I was standing with her in the porch and the removal men were carrying stuff in. And we had a long narrow hallway which opened into this oak-tiled room. It had been a monastery originally, and this had been the chapel of the monastery – it’s an atrium now, and you had to walk through that to get into the kitchen. And I saw a shadow which was like the flit of a bird. And my mother-in-law said “did you see that?” and I knew she’d seen something spooky but the last thing I wanted was for my wife to be freaked out on day one of moving in, so I said “I didn’t see anything”.
The next day I was in my study upstairs writing – my wife worked in an office in Brighton – and I went downstairs at half ten to get a cup of coffee. I went into this atrium room, and I saw these pinpricks of light just floating in the air. I thought it was my glasses catching the sunlight from the window so I took them off and put them back on and they were gone. Well the same thing happened at lunchtime when I went down, and it happened again in the afternoon when I went to get a cup of tea. And I didn’t say anything when my wife came home, but the next day it again happened in the morning and then at lunchtime.
So I took our dogs for a walk down this lane and this old boy came up to me. He said ‘oh you’re Mr. James who’s just bought the manor house?’ ‘yes’ I said, and he said ‘and how are you getting on with the grey lady?’ … and I said ‘well what grey lady?’. He used to housesit for the previous owners and he said this atrium room had been made into a flat. He said ‘I was sitting in an armchair, watching telly all on my own, and suddenly this lady in grey crinoline with a really mean expression just came out of the wall’, he said ‘she came towards me and flicked my face with the crinoline at the edge of the dress, and it was so hard that it stung and then she disappeared into the wall behind me’ he said ‘I was out of that place and wild horses couldn’t have got me back in there again’
I took my mother-in-law out to Sunday lunch and asked ‘so what did you see?’ and she described exactly the same as this bloke had. So I thought ‘okay, I had better tell my wife’. I told my wife and she said ‘well actually I’ve seen her several times and I didn’t want to tell you’. We ended up getting an exorcist, a guy called Dominic Walker who’s become bishop of Reading and Monmouth but at the time he was vicar of Brighton, and he’s also chief minister of deliverance of the Church of England. And his role was to investigate and deal with any weird occurrences. He came up to the house, he said to me ‘what it is Peter, is that you’re slightly psychic and you’re picking up some of her energy’. And he just said to her ‘you go away’ very firmly. And that was it for five years.
And then around 1994 I had a book published called ‘Host’, it had just come out in paperback. We had this lovely oak chest that we used to keep in this room, and I had a copy of ‘Host’ in this chest. It was quarter to 8 in the morning and I was having breakfast when my wife shouted from upstairs ‘I can smell burning’. And I turned around and this book was on fire in the front room. I lunged across the side and I grabbed it, threw it in the kitchen sink and turned the tap on. There was a prosaic explanation in that there was a glass paperweight sitting beside it. You’d assume the sun’s rays refracted through it. But it was still very weird that it was in that room.
We hadn’t been in the house very long, and there was this old lady living in the village and she was a very interesting character her name was Anne Stobart and her family had owned the house in the first half of the 20th century and i think it was her grandmother had become a real man-hater, she’d had a disastrous marriage, and she just ended up hating men, and she hated happy husbands. I think the previous two couples before us who had lived in that house had divorced, as we ended up doing as well.
There were all sorts of other things going on. Every time we went away we had a house sitter in the house and they’d either move room or they’d move out. Our dog refused to go down into the cellar, just flatly refused but it wasn’t very steep steps they were very gentle steps. But we were fine, I was never scared.
The house obviously had a very long history; the monastery was there before the house, and before the monastery there had been a Roman villa. Parts of the ruins were still visible in part of the gardens. The house originally owned all of the land around us but it got sold off over the years. And there was a housing development upon it, I remember walking across one evening just around past the houses, and this chap came out, he was in his 40’s, really down to earth. And he said to me ‘I wish you’d keep your bloody monk under control. I was at this family christening on Sunday, at 4 o clock in the afternoon I was sat down with the Sunday papers and a cup of tea, and the room went stone cold and I looked up and there was a monk in a hood staring down at me’. And he said ‘he turned and walked away, so I jumped up and followed him, I thought it was one of my relatives playing a joke on me. And the monk went into the kitchen, and I went in my wife was in there doing the washing up. And he said there was no door of the kitchen. There was nobody in there’.
It was those sorts of things that I would draw upon when writing the book.
I suppose knowing the location so well was helpful to draw upon as well. We noticed you included a floor plan at the beginning of the book, where did the idea for that come from? Did you feel that location was particularly important to the story?
Yeah I thought it would be. I quite like those old fashioned maps you see in books, and I thought it would be a bit of fun to have something like an old fashioned floor plan, but yes I also thought it would help people to visualise the layout, which was particularly important in terms of finding the secret room.
Yes! Well I’ve started the book and I went back to look at the floor plan to try and figure out how I’d missed it. So it was really interesting to have that to go back to.
Oh I’m really pleased you actually went back to the floor plan.
Well there was one bit where they’re stood outside the house and they notice an extra window. And that was the moment for me where it was like “right, this is when we need the floor plan”.
Well that laid the basis for how discrete to make the window look.
I did look at the floor plan before I read the book, and it didn’t even occur to me that the sketched out part might be something.
Oh well I’m really pleased, that’s exactly what we wanted. We were hoping that people wouldn’t really notice it too much. What did you think of the book?
I’m really, really enjoying it. A friend was saying earlier ‘do you want me to tell you what happens next?’ and I was saying ‘no! I want to keep reading!’ It’s been quite a long time since I’ve read a ghost story at all and it reminded me that actually I should be reading more of this genre. I used to read a lot of James Herbert books when I was younger.
Oh well that’s really nice. James was a great friend of mine actually. We used to live literally about 100 meters away from each other.
Oh really? Well I wanted to ask actually, are there any particular books or authors within the genre that you’re a fan of?
My favourite ever spooky story would be The Exorcist – that book scared the bejeeze out of me. I was reading it when I was away skiing, I was in a hotel in Switzerland and I just remember feeling this presence in the room with me. The only other book I had with me was David Niven‘s biography The Moon’s a Balloon, and I had to pick that up and read a couple of chapters before I could go to sleep.
I also love The Shining – Stephen King. And I love Rosemary’s Baby. I thought that was just amazing. Those are my three all time greatest paranormal novels. I loved James Herbert but in a different way, that’s more of an out and out horror.
He did one called The Dark that I particularly enjoyed.
Yeah that was brilliant. I loved The Fog as well. And Magic Cottage.
These are all ones that have been made into films as well. Is that something you’re hoping to do with your new book too?
Yes, it’s actually in development at the moment. We’ve sold the rights to the company that David Walliams and Miranda Hart have. So hopefully that will come to the screen in the next 18 months or so.
Starring David Walliams by any chance?
I would love him to. I think that would be quite a good pairing. I like him as a straight actor. There’s a very creaky post-script out there.
I half-lived in Notting Hill in a flat that is on two floors, and just after I finished the book I was out on the street with Lara my wife and we were talking about how feasible it would be to have a room which didn’t exist. And we were looking up trying to figure out which window in the flat belonged to which room. And both of us said “that window there doesn’t make any sense”. So we rushed up to the flat on the fifth and sixth floor and we couldn’t find the window. And we suddenly realised that when the flat was built there was a window there but for some reason they had put a fitted wardrobe across the window. I thought for a moment it was going to be a secret room with a dead body in it that had been walled up.
There seems to be a lot of personal experiences in this book. Was it different researching for a ghost story rather than a crime thriller?
Good question. I actually really enjoyed it, it was almost like a holiday for me, because for all my crime novels I’m a massive stickler for research. Almost every step in my Roy Grace novels basically revolve around police investigations. I love doing the research, but it means I have to check every single thing with police officers or detectives or traffic officers or response officers or private investigators to make sure I get all the details right. Whereas with this I was able to let my imagination go into freefall. And I still tried to get some scientific explanation that always fascinated me in, but I had a really free hand which I enjoy.
You have included some well-researched modern references in the story though – mentions of Instagram and Facetime for example. For me, it made quite a traditional ghost story feel more relevant and less removed from the modern world. Was balancing the two quite tricky to manage?
Oh I’m so pleased that you said that. Well my publishers asked if I could have a go at writing a modern ghost story, and I thought it would be fun if I could take a traditional haunted house story but really bring it up to date with email and Facetime in the story. I think the more you can make a story touch a nerve in people, the stronger it is. And I think the best way to touch a nerve is to write something that really is relevant, that people get and understand.
Yes definitely. Every time I Facetime somebody now I’m going to be checking the corner of the screen to make sure there’s no one behind me. It seems to me that you’ve used a bit of foreshadowing in the book too. I think at one point Ollie says “their forever home” and you’ve put “forever” in foreboding italics. Did you have fun adding sneaky little allusions to what will happen into the story?
Yes, a lot yes. I think there’s that balance of not wanting to give anything away, but at the same time I think foreshadowing is interesting because it sets people up to think ‘when is this going to happen?’ I quite like it when you have a sense of something to come. If you had known what a terrible day it was going to be you wouldn’t have got out of bed…
The House on Cold Hill by Peter James is out in Hardback on the 8th October 2015. Peter James will be signing copies in WHSmith Churchill Square in Brighton on Thursday 8th October 2015 from 2pm.
And don’t miss the latest Roy Grace novel You Are Dead out in Paperback on the 22nd October 2015.