A couple of months ago, I was honoured to do the cover reveal for Alex Cotter’s creepy, atmospheric middle grade debut. Today, I’m thrilled to be part of the blog tour AND have a special piece by Alex about the power of spooky stories.
“Where has Faith’s dad gone? Why has he left his family living in an old house perched on a crumbling cliff top? A crack has appeared in the cliff and Faith watches anxiously as it gets bigger and bigger each day… Her brother is obsessed with the sea ghosts he claims live in the basement, and when he disappears as well, Faith starts to believe in the ghosts too. Can she find her brother and bring her father back before everything she cares about falls into the pitiless sea below?”
This was an absolutely gripping read, full of mysteries, family secrets, and hidden passageways. Masterfully woven into this brooding ghost story, there’s also a story of grief and trauma following the sudden disappearance of Faith’s further. Watching her struggle to look after her grief-stricken mum and half-wild younger brother made for hard reading at times. Faith’s desperation to conceal the truth of her family’s situation and the state of disrepair their home was in was heart-breaking.
I really enjoyed learning about The Lookout’s links to smuggling and the possibility of treasure being hidden somewhere nearby. There are plenty of tales of smugglers from the county I live in so lots of schools do local history studies on them. This would be the perfect text to link with such a topic and share with older primary schools pupils.
Now it’s time for a special piece from Alex:
‘The power of a spooky tale’ by Alex Cotter
I’ve always been fascinated by oral stories – the spoken, mythical tales that have been passed down the centuries to become urban legends, fuel superstitions, or, sometimes, direct moral behaviour.
One of the sparks for my debut MG novel, ‘The House on the Edge’, was the fact that wherever you find smugglers you’re likely to find ghost stories too – because smugglers often invented a spooky story to scare prying eyes away from their illegal operations. A genius idea! Myth-making to obscure their contraband crimes – which subsequently left a footprint of ghostly gossip still being shared today.
For instance, Burton Bradstock, in Dorset, has many yarns of road-based hauntings. You hear tales about this headless dog who crosses the road at night, and the coach that people swear they’ve seen driven by four headless horsemen! Both stories were probably created by smugglers in the 17th and 18th centuries to keep people off the roads at night, so they could move their booty unnoticed! Likewise, the infamous legend of the nine-foot-tall Ghostly Drummer of Hurstmonceux Castle,in Sussex – rumoured to be started by smugglers getting inventive with a bit of phosphorus to conjure up the faint glow of a spectre!
What intrigues me is how ghostly tales were used to directly affect and manipulate behaviour – in the same way many fairy tales were crafted to influence children and their moral choices. Little Red Riding Hood: do what your parents say; Pinocchio: always tell the truth; The Little Mermaid: be happy with what you have. It’s almost a form of propaganda – playing on childish fears to keep control of their curiosity.
It’s also why I wanted ‘The House on the Edge’ to be a journey of the curious. To ask, what’s so bad about straying from the path and meeting the wolf? What if by meeting the wolf, you learn something new; or maybe the wolf is wholly misunderstood – a sheep in wolf’s clothing?! Similarly, as a big childhood fan of The Wizard of Oz, I never understood why everyone saw the Wicked Witch as the baddie. For me, it was the Wizard who duped and manipulated; who (literally) drew the curtains across Truth. Heck, the Witch never pretended to be anything she wasn’t; she was straightforward and honest in what she wanted (her sister’s ruby slippers returned, thank you).
I wanted the child characters in my story to poke away at what was on the surface; to try and be brave despite their fears – or even because of them. To examine what it is they fear and question the stories they’re being pedalled. The type of children to demand why the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. To ultimately unveil the Wizard behind the curtain.
Alongside spooky spoken stories in the public domain, the private ones also inspired ‘The House on the Edge’. Those eerie oral traditions we pass down in our own families – the ghost stories, superstitions or warning tales many of us hear from relatives in childhood. My own grandmother didn’t believe in ghosts, yet she also swore her dead mother saved her life one day by calling her name to avert her from a heavy pane of glass that fell nearby. It fascinates me how our own family folklore can weave a path through our experiences and have the power to affect and shape how we think, relate to others – and create.
Of course, stories have always played an important role in helping us to make sense of life; to supply us with neat answers to difficult questions. But what really interests me is what lurks beneath the oral stories we inherit; what’s beneath the motivation of the storyteller. What are those tales hiding? And for what purpose? Like the smugglers inventing their ghost stories – what darkness and wrong-doings are escaping our notice because we accept what we’re told at face value? Because we’re too scared to stray from the path.
It’s amazing to think that some of the ghost stories conjured up by smugglers hundreds of years ago are still being told today. Are there any local ghost stories from your area? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. In the meantime, be sure to get yourself a copy of Alex’s book, hunker down, and get ready to be whisked away to a crumbling cliff-top and a house poised to take a tumble….
*Many thanks to Nosy Crow for inviting me to be part of this blog tour*