S. K. Tremayne: The Photos in The Fire Child

S. K. Tremayne: The Photos in The Fire Child

This gloomy shot was taken on a wild winter’s day on the Lizard coast. The silhouetted tin mine is Wheal Trevelas (used as a location in the Poldark series). In the background, on the left, you can just see the shape of a container ship, with its yellow light glimmering. I think it was this that made me include the photograph. The distance, the cold and the twilight, and that feeble, fleeing light. Brrr.

Anyone who’s been to the wonderful Port Eliot summer festival in southeast Cornwall might recognise this. It is the round tower of Port Eliot House, one of the inspirations for Carnhallow House in the book. Though Carnhallow is set in far west Cornwall, I borrowed several aspects of Port Eliot, including its monastic origins, great age (1000 years old at least), and, most of all, the labyrinthine basements: dusty, chaotic and poignant, replete with one family’s history, and left to moulder below ground.

I took this shot on a freezing day in January. It’s a scene underground at spectacular Levant mine, in West Penwith. The cold dripping corridor leads to the ‘man engine’, a primitive kind of automatic ladder used in Cornish tin mines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1919 this particular man engine collapsed, killing dozens and mutilating many more; the mine was subsequently half abandoned. It still has a haunted feel today.

It was only when I got home that I noticed the human figure at the very end of the tunnel. I have no idea who this is, I recall being alone at the time. I am sure it is a guide, or perhaps another tourist. Quite sure.

This is the only photo in the book which has absolutely no connection with Cornwall. I took this image at least three years ago, in an abandoned Knights Templar ‘tower’ in Lincolnshire. The tower has a reputation for hauntings, and in the 19th century skeletons were discovered walled up in the brickwork of the tower’s exterior, no one is quite sure why.

The strange carvings are ‘apotropaic graffiti’ – sigils and figures designed to ward off witches and evil. They probably date from the 13th century.

Anyone who knows west Cornwall will probably recognise the ruins in this photo: it’s magnificent Botallack mine, with its two engine houses perched right on the mighty cliffs. Botallack (along with nearby Levant) was the primary inspiration for The Fire Child. I love these clifftop Cornish mines, partly because of their brutal yet grandiose beauty, but also because of their amazing industrial archaeology.

The tunnels under this mine date back centuries, and many of them stretch far under the sea. Miners who worked here in the 18th and 19th centuries first had to shin down ladders for an hour, and then crawl, half naked, for a mile under the ocean, until they reached the rock face, and the glistening black tin.

Many miners drowned in these undersea tunnels.

Lastly, an historic photo. I’ve used several vintage photographs in the book, most of them by the great pioneering Cornish photographer J C Burrows, who took shots of the deep mining interiors at great personal risk. This, by contrast, is an exterior, author unknown. It is much less artistically impressive than Burrows’ work but I included it because, firstly, it is another view of Botallack mine, and because it shows the reader what Botallack was like in its heyday, sometime around 1880.

The second reason I included this photo is the mood. I like the sense of silence and repressed emotion, the way the women have stopped work and turned to stare, their faces inscrutable, or maybe faintly angered, or sad. As if they are trying to speak to us, across the decades and the centuries, but they cannot. It was this sense of muted and ghostly reproach, of the tortured past revisiting the present, that is the essence, I hope, of The Fire Child.

The Fire Child – S. K. Tremayne

When Rachel marries dark, handsome David, everything seems to fall into place. Swept from single life in London to the beautiful Carnhallow House in Cornwall, she gains wealth, love, and an affectionate stepson, Jamie. But then Jamie’s behaviour changes, and Rachel’s perfect life begins to unravel. He makes disturbing predictions, claiming to be haunted by the spectre of his late mother – David’s previous wife. Is this Jamie’s way of punishing Rachel, or is he far more traumatized than she thought?

As Rachel starts digging into the past, she begins to grow suspicious of her husband. Why is he so reluctant to discuss Jamie’s outbursts? And what exactly happened to cause his ex-wife’s untimely death, less than two years ago? As summer slips away and December looms, Rachel begins to fear there might be truth in Jamie’s words: ‘You will be dead by Christmas.’