Alex Bell: An Exclusive Interview on Frozen Charlotte

Alex Bell: An Exclusive Interview on Frozen Charlotte

What inspired the story for Frozen Charlotte? Did you know how things would play out before you started?

I stumbled across the Frozen Charlotte dolls whilst doing research online one day and the idea for the story basically came from there. I thought they were so deliciously creepy and unusual, as well as not being all that well known, so it seemed like a great starting point for a horror novel. I didn’t know exactly how things were going to play out before I started but I had a rough idea. I prefer not to plan my books in too much detail but I do like to know how the book will end.

What qualities do you most love about Sophie? What inspired her character?

The inspiration for Sophie’s character really came from a lot of gothic romances I’ve read by writers such as Victoria Holt and Madeleine Brent. These often involve a fairly ordinary heroine finding herself in extraordinary surroundings where she has to deal with strange/fascinating/eccentric characters who most often have various dark secrets. There’s very much a sense of not knowing who to trust and things not being as they seem in this type of book, and I really enjoy that kind of ambiguity as a reader.

I wanted Sophie to be quite normal, in contrast to the other family members, but her courage and determination are the things I most admire about her, as well as her commitment to find out what happened to her friend.

Who was your favourite character to write aside from Sophie?

I really enjoyed writing both Cameron and Lilias because they’re both unusual characters with a lot of personal demons. They have quite a special relationship so I especially enjoyed the scenes where these two feature together.

What is your favourite quote/scene from the book?

I like the Frozen Charlotte ballad extracts that appear at the start of each chapter. My favourite lines from the poem are:

‘”Such a dreadful night I never saw,
the reins I scarce can hold.”
Fair Charlotte, shivering faintly said,
“I am exceedingly cold.”

My favourite scene in the book is probably the end scene in the schoolhouse – and also the bathroom scene – but I can’t say too much about those without giving away spoilers!

Why did you decide to include frozen charlotte dolls in the story? What creepy stuff can you tell us about them?

I’d originally intended for the dolls to be voodoo dolls but it was hard to get too excited about this because they’ve been done so many times before. Frozen Charlotte dolls are quite unique, and not all that many people seem to know about them, so I thought they’d be more interesting.

They were popular during the Victorian period and are based on a ballad about a young woman who refuses to wrap up warm for a sleigh ride to a ball and, when they arrive, her fiancé discovers that she’s frozen to death during the journey. The dolls are normally made of white porcelain and have unjointed “frozen” limbs that are intended to portray a corpse. It seemed so typically macabre of the Victorians to create dead dolls for their children to play with! The dolls all come naked, with only painted hair, facial features and shoes. The idea was supposed to be that children would make dresses for them out of any spare fabric their mothers might have lying around.

They’d sometimes be put into Christmas puddings as hidden charms, or frozen and used as ice cubes in drinks. They come in a variety of sizes and some are designed to float on their backs in the bath (known as bathing babies). More rarely, you can also get Black Charlotte dolls and male versions called Frozen Charlies.

There were hundreds of them made and you can still get hold of them fairly easily today, although their delicate porcelain bodies mean that they’re likely to be broken in some way, or missing limbs or heads. You can find some quite interesting, and perfectly ghoulish, upcycled jewellery on places like Etsy, which are made from broken pieces of the dolls. I have a necklace myself of a tiny Frozen Charlotte that I absolutely love, despite how strange and creepy it is!

What sort of stuff did you have to research for this book and how did you sleep at night afterwards?!

I obviously did a lot of research about Frozen Charlottes. I also researched other famous haunted dolls, such as Annabelle and Robert. A common theme seemed to be for a child to be given a haunted doll that caused all kinds of problems in the house, which was blamed on the child at first, until the parents came to believe that the doll moved around by itself, or when there was no one home.

I also researched Ouija boards and old schoolhouses. The research was definitely the creepiest part of the process, especially all the stuff I read about haunted dolls. Some of them look terrifying as well! I had to try to put it all out of my mind before turning out the light to go to bed, but I have to admit to being generally more easily startled whilst I’m writing a horror novel!

The Island of Skye is such a creepy setting in your story! Why did you choose it and did you have to go visit it for research?

I wanted a British setting but also somewhere that seemed quite remote and wild and cut off from the rest of the world. The idea was for this to add to Sophie’s sense of isolation, and to make it more difficult for her to lose her nerve and run away. I also liked some of the Scottish mythology, and tales about mermaids and kelpies. Unfortunately, I haven’t visited the island myself, as there wasn’t enough time to fit this in when writing the book.

How do you come up with all the creepy elements to your story? Some of them are so subtle but they still give you that hollow feeling in your stomach.

I suppose I just think of the things that would most frighten me if I was to experience them! I think that you should always be aiming to scare yourself when writing horror, or else you can’t really hope to scare your readers – which is what we all want from a good horror story! That shivery feeling is why we seek out these types of books and films in the first place. I particularly like subtle, chilling horror, as opposed to big slasher type scenes, because I think this helps create a more insidious atmosphere that can be quite claustrophobic and effective.

Can you tell us more about the little poems at the beginning of each chapter?

They’re stanzas from the Fair Charlotte poem by Seba Smith. The poem first appeared in 1843 with the title: A Corpse Going To A Ball. This was rumoured to be based on an article about a real life event that appeared in a New York newspaper in 1840, but that hasn’t been substantiated as far as I know.

What the most challenging part of writing this book?

I think probably the most challenging thing about writing any horror book is to come up with convincing motivations for the main characters to stay in the haunted location, or make it so that they’re unable to leave. We’ve all seen those horror films where the characters just keep returning to the haunted house for no explicable reason, and that’s always frustrating.

This feels like such a great introduction to horror for teens. What is it about horror that appeals to you? Have you always been a fan?

I loved reading the Point Horror books when I was a teenager. There always seemed to be that extra element of excitement about them that made you more eager to discuss them with friends. I think the appeal of horror is that it allows us to dip our toe into a pretty murky pool that we have no desire whatsoever to actually dive into! There’s a particular thrill that comes from putting yourself in the mind set of characters who are going through hell. I also like that horror is high stakes (someone is almost guaranteed to die, or be horribly injured at some point) and if there’s a supernatural element then you never know what awful thing might happen next.

Was it difficult to make a Victorian ghost story seem contemporary and relevant for modern readers? What do you think modern technology like the Ouija board app and mobile phones added to the story?

I didn’t find it overly difficult to make a Victorian ghost story feel contemporary – I think fear is pretty universal, no matter what the time period. Certain things – such as ghosts and haunted toys – were scary a hundred years ago but remain just as frightening today. I think the technology just adds another element of interest sometimes. For example, it occurred to me that by using a Ouija app, rather than an actual board, there was scope to do a couple of extra creepy things – such as have a strange song play from the phone, for the screen to crack etc. I like finding ways to add extra horror elements that I haven’t come across personally in books before because it keeps it interesting to me as a writer.

Although this is a horror, the story deals with grief and the aftermath of death. Was this a challenging subject to write about?

Grief and death are difficult subjects to write about but I find horror stories more effective when they deal with some real life horror as well as supernatural scares. Losing our loved ones, or dying ourselves, is one of our most fundamental fears, so it’s a useful one to tap into for horror.

What was the most rewarding part of writing this story?

Frozen Charlotte was my first YA horror book and this was a genre I hadn’t written in before, although I was a big fan as a reader. So it was rewarding to get to the end having produced my own horror novel.

The cover is really creepy. What did you think when you first saw it?

I absolutely love the cover! I thought it captured the mood of the book really well and looked suitably spooky without giving too much away.

Which authors inspire you to write?

There are so many authors who inspire me to write. Cassandra Clare, John Boyne, Dennis Lehane, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens are big favourites. In terms of horror writers, I’m a fan of Dennis Wheatley, Henry James and, of course, Stephen King. Stephen King, Dorothea Brande and Phyllis Whitney have also written books on the art and craft of writing, and these have been valuable and inspiring to me too.

What books would you recommend to people who loved Frozen Charlotte?

I still think that the old Point Horror series from the 90s deserves reading, although those books might be a little harder to find now. In terms of chilling ghost stories, I have a fondness for classics such as The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and The Haunting of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley. And for YA horror I’d recommend the other Red Eye books (the series that Frozen Charlotte is from). I have another Red Eye novel called The Haunting, which is about witches and haunted ghost ships. I also enjoyed reading Sleepless by Lou Morgan from the Red Eye series, as well as Jekyll’s Mirror by William Hussey.

What’s next for you? Do you have a book underway at the moment?

I have a middle grade fantasy adventure book called The Polar Bear Explorers Club, which is due to be published next year. I’m also currently working on a prequel to Frozen Charlotte which explores the origins of the Frozen Charlotte dolls, and this is due out next year as well.