Ruth Ware: People in Glass Houses

Ruth Ware: People in Glass Houses

The lights turn the house into a beacon, a glowing jewel in the forest that that architect imagined when he put in all those huge, impractical glass walls. You imagine a thousand moths flying towards it in the darkness. But you wouldn’t know. Because from the inside now all you can see is your own reflection against the darkness of the glass. The house has become a one-way mirrored fish-bowl. Anyone outside can see in. But you would never know.

If this sounds like a scene from a horror movie, you’re not far wrong. It’s actually a description of The Glass House, the setting for my book In a Dark, Dark Wood. A lot of people have asked me where the inspiration for The Glass House came from, and many people have assumed it’s a real place, maybe one that I’ve visited or stayed in.

In fact The Glass House is probably the product of watching too much TV. In my first draft, the house in the forest wasn’t the modernist confection of glass and steel that it eventually became – it was closer to the old, tumble-down sheep croft that Flo’s aunt demolishes to make way for her architectural creation. But at the time I was writing, I was watching a lot of Grand Designs. I don’t know if you’ve seen the show, but a lot of the drama seems to centre around windows. They’re invariably huge, and impractical, and usually ordered from Germany or Sweden at great expense, and they usually don’t fit when they arrive, or don’t conform to UK building regulations, or become the final straw that pushes the budget for the build over into bankruptcy. And when Kevin McCloud does his final tour of the house, with the white-faced owners saying how it was all worth it… probably… my over-riding thought is always – how on earth are they going to afford curtains?

One day, as I was pondering on the house in the woods, I began to think how much scarier if, instead of a small, inconspicuous cottage, the house in the story was a great glass beacon like the ones in Grand Designs. One with huge windows and glass walls. One with no curtains, where you couldn’t shut out the forest, even if you wanted to.

I started to think about the fact that my first instinct, when night falls and the lights of the room begin to reflect back at you, is always to draw the curtains, and how vulnerable you feel when you can’t do that. You see the room reflected in the glass as someone outside would see it – but you would never see them unless they came and pressed their face right up against the window pane. When dusk falls, curtainless windows change their function – instead of being a way to observe the world, they become a way for the world to observe you.

And I thought too of all the horror films I watched as a teen – things like Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street and later Pretty Little Liars. They’re always set in huge, vulnerable American houses, ones with lots of doors and windows for the heroine to rush around shutting when she realises the terror lurking outside. But the scariest moment of these films, for me, anyway, is always the moment the camera moves outside the house, and becomes the gaze of the killer. We see him, or rather, we are him, as he circles the house, peering in at the windows, watching the inhabitants within.

So, with a touch of sadism, I took my poor characters out of that former croft, and put them in a huge glass bowl of a house, and it became a metaphor for the way that they are all exposed a little bit by the events in that house. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s getting dark. I’m off to draw the curtains…