I do not believe in anything. My dear wife was always more religious than I. That is to say she was more open-minded when it came to matters spiritual and incorporeal, tending towards a polite agnosticism over my own intractable atheism, and general scepticism towards the supernatural beyond the pages of my own fiction.
The current fashion for talking to the dead started about four years ago. While Europe was in revolt and the Chartists were falling apart, across the Atlantic the veil was lifting. It began in a desolate farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, where the Fox Sisters, Kate and Maggie, struck up a dialogue with an entity that had been nightly tormenting the family by banging on walls, doors and windows. They asked the presence questions which it affirmed or denied by rapping, clearly indicating some sort of intelligence. The girls called it ‘Mr. Splitfoot.’ They said it was the ghost of a murdered peddler.
Largely because of a popular fascination with the occult, The Lancashire Witches is the only one of Ainsworth’s novels to have remained consistently in print to this day, often shelved alongside the work of Dennis Wheatley and Montague Summers (both of whom it undoubtedly influenced). The novel is also one of the mainstays of the Pennine tourist industry, and at time of writing, it is still available in many local museums, railway stations and gift shops. As the Dick Turpin narrative of Rookwood seamlessly passed into the national myth, Ainsworth’s romance of Pendle Forest has supplanted the unusually well-documented history of these unfortunate men and women in Lancashire folklore. This ‘classic tale of the supernatural’ (1) although generally overlooked by scholars of the gothic, therefore continues to exist quietly both as a popular cultural curio and, rather more erroneously, in an extra-literary sense as a genuine history.
So this is how the big project first began, as an interior monologue that came to me quite spontaneously while I was still living in Japan, just over ten years ago. This was the voice of a soldier in the water after the Birkenhead went down on February 26, 1852, off Danger Point, a Victorian naval disaster that had fascinated me since I’d first come across the story as a student in the late-90s. It’s rough, but you can see the premise quite clearly. After writing two incomplete versions of the manuscript with the protagonist a soldier from the ranks, the first Irish, the second English, I realised he needed to be a journalist instead…
We were approaching the islands of Madeira, about midway in our journey, the day we lost a man and a horse. The animal belonged to Sheldon-Bond, and he was considerably more put out by its passing than he was that of the human being that accompanied it into the void. The young subaltern remained in a foul humour for the rest of that miserable and ill-omened day, his unfortunate man, Private Dodd, getting the worst of it. I tried to avoid him, as there was already bad blood between us, but this was difficult given the confines of the ship. As he stormed around the deck like a vengeful wraith in a graveyard, I could read the message in his eyes when they connected with my own quite clearly.