INTERVIEW: Elizabeth Brooks on nightmares, stately homes and ‘The Whispering House’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Elizabeth Brooks on the research process behind her novel The Whispering House (Doubleday, 2020).

The influence of Gothic literature pervades The Whispering House – aesthetically, thematically and through its implicit and explicit references to books like Rebecca and Austen’s Gothic satire Northanger Abbey. I’d like to ask what Gothic means to you, and how you perceived its influence feeding into your narrative designs for The Whispering House. What is it about the Gothic aesthetic in particular that excites you as a writer?

It was the atmosphere of Gothic that lured me to the genre in the first place. I can’t resist an opening page that beckons me through the foggy streets of Victorian London, or through the doors of a forbidding house, or into the woods, promising mystery and menace aplenty! There’s no more pleasurable invitation to a story, especially when I’m sitting up in bed, warm and safe, with a mug of tea to hand.

However, when I began writing in the genre, I became increasingly aware that atmosphere is not enough to sustain a novel. No matter how many “bumps in the night” a writer can squeeze in per chapter, it will only be a compelling read if there is some profound human interest at its heart. All novels are about people – the ways in which they think, function and interact – and Gothic is no exception. The setting can be as weird and wonderful as you like, but the central problem must be relatable. I think it’s this juxtaposition of the exotic and the mundane that gives Gothic literature its special eerie quality.

In many respects The Whispering House is a world away from reality (stately homes, locked attics and mysterious paintings don’t provide the parameters for most people’s lives, including my own!) but there’s nothing outlandish about the novel’s central problem, which is a re-framing of the question that drives both Jane Eyre and Rebecca. What if the person you are closest to, and most dependent upon, is not what he seems? What if the supposedly familiar turns out to be the horribly unfamiliar?

In the end I think I’m drawn to the Gothic because it’s both fun to play with (all those creaky stairs, and wavering candles, and watchful portraits!) and capable of bearing the weight of serious subject matter. It’s a world-view that’s essentially questioning and doubting. In the context of a Gothic novel, the nicest, simplest and most satisfying answers are never the right ones – and that’s how I like it.

I think I can see that link between the uncanniness of human experience (that conflict between the familiar/unfamiliar) and the Gothic motifs you employ in The Whispering House. I guess the most obvious of these is the house itself – Byrne Hall – which evokes the tradition of the ‘haunted’ manor house that still occupies such a prominent place in the English imagination. I’m aware you based your design for Byrne Hall on the home of Agatha Christie, and I hoped you could explain a little of how this location helped inform your use of setting. What did you glean from your research into the real house that became useful for the fictional one?

Yes, The Whispering House was inspired by a visit to Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Devon – the evocatively named Greenway – which is now owned by the National Trust. I changed a lot of the details when I fictionalised the house – for example, the view from the garden has become a sea-view rather than a river-view, and I’ve made the interior cold and empty, whereas the real Greenway feels cosy and lived-in. The most important element that I borrowed was the Queen Anne style façade, with its white walls, pillared porch and symmetrical rows of windows. I loved the idea of a house whose serene, elegant exterior hides a dark, sinister interior.

It mattered to me that the estate once belonged to Agatha Christie, and had provided the location for several of her stories (Dead Man’s Folly and Ordeal by Innocence among others). I think that’s why my subconscious linked ‘Greenway’ and ‘menace’, right from the start. All stately homes are inspirational, in that they invite you to wonder about the private lives of the people who have lived there, and the events that have taken place in the very rooms you’re strolling through, but the Agatha Christie connection gives Greenway an extra special frisson.

In houses like Greenway, the past often feels just – but only just – out of reach, and I think it’s this that draws me to the haunted house tradition. I don’t feel particularly compelled by apparitions, or poltergeist activity, or clanking chains; for me, it’s about the eerie ways in which the dead make their mark on a place, leaving traces, both material and atmospheric, that continue to affect the living. National Trust properties like Greenway are full of such suggestive traces: empty clothes and shoes, stained teacups, inky pens, the creased spines of books in a bookcase. It’s this kind of haunting – in which the absolute absence of the dead coexists (and jars) with their proximity – that inspired The Whispering House.

To my mind, that understanding of ‘haunting’ leads me straight to Rebecca (and to Hitchcock), straight to that sense of a ‘material and atmospheric’ trace. I’ve already mentioned du Maurier’s novel as a possible influence, and I feel that idea of the ‘trace’ can only be compounded by the repeated references to dreams in The Whispering House, echoing the feeling of Rebecca’s famous opening line: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Could you tell me how you handled your designs for the dream-sequences, and perhaps explain the challenges of composing dream-sequences within a fiction framework?

Dreams recur throughout Gothic literature, because of the ways in which they permit access to a character’s most private desires, fears and obsessions. Normal forms of self-expression – the way a character talks, dresses, goes about her day-to-day life – may hint at an inner darkness, but dreams allow the writer to dig more deeply. Having said that, I think writers should be careful to use dreams sparingly and purposefully. Fictional dreams can’t be allowed to ramble on and on with no apparent structure, the way real ones often do – that would be a recipe for tedium!

Freya is by no means stupid or insensitive, but she is, like the narrator of Rebecca, a naïve observer of events. A savvier personality would never fall so easily for Cory and the ‘Byrne Hall idyll’. Her dreams and half-awake fantasies are a way of exploring the disconnect between the version of events that her conscious mind accepts, and the unease with which her subconscious mind is fraught. At some level, she feels victimised by Byrne Hall right from the start: in Chapter 1, having escaped the wedding party, she falls asleep on the cold hall floor and dreams she is a fish, ‘gutted and laid out on ice.’ Even at the peak of her bliss, after her first night with Cory, she dreams of a panicked voice urging her to get away and go home.

Diana is also preyed on by dreams. As she lies dying in her bedroom at Byrne Hall, her nightmares mingle feverishly with her memories, and sometimes she sees ghosts. I think Diana’s dreams are a symptom of her unhappiness and guilt, and of the painful love she feels for her son. Diana is a very defensive character, and it took me a while to work out how to penetrate her armour, and give her some form of self-expression. Dreams, half-dreams and hallucinations felt like one answer. If Diana was well, I think she would do everything in her power to resist such visions; its only because she’s disintegrating that the truth has its way with her.

To sidestep the Gothic for a moment, I’d like to point towards an intriguing commentary on the act of writing that comes towards the end of the book. Freya questions explicitly the old trope of ‘Write what you know’, adding: ‘as if seeing – or knowing, or painting, or writing – is ever a simple thing…’ Is that a perspective you share? What might it mean to ‘write what you know’, if anything, and where do you define the limitations of that?

When Cory advises Freya to ‘write what you know’ it’s his way of telling her to chill out, and to stop seeing creativity as a challenge. When he paints Freya, he doesn’t so much paint what he sees, as what he wants to see – i.e. a conventionally sexy female body – and thus his portraits say more about his limitations than they do about Freya herself. Cory is so confident in his abilities ‘to know’ and ‘to see’ that he fails to acknowledge the essential mysteriousness of other human beings.

Several years ago, whilst struggling to work out why my first novel wasn’t working, I had a Eureka moment. I realised that when I was writing my two main tasks were to be observant and to be precise. Writing a novel wasn’t about inventing airy-fairy metaphors, or self-consciously original sentences, or finding a home for obscure adjectives. It was about looking – really looking – at my characters and their world, describing what I saw as accurately as possible, and shaping it into a story. This is a difficult thing to do, and it doesn’t get easier (although it does get more enjoyable), because the more you look the more you see.

Freya spends most of the novel struggling to fulfil her ambition to write, because she’s living in a hall of mirrors. She’s too confused to be sure of what she sees, or what she knows, so how can she begin to describe it? Towards the end of the book she gains, at long last, a hard-won clarity. For months Cory has been telling Freya, via his portraits, ‘I know who you are,’ and when she writes her review of his exhibition, she effectively asserts, at risk of her life, ‘No, actually, you don’t.’ It’s a modest act of resistance, but glorious in its way!

Finally I’d like to ask broadly about what you feel is the driving force behind The Whispering House. At the heart of it, is it a response to the ‘haunted house’ genre, a commentary on art and possessiveness, an exploration of human behaviours in the face of loss and guilt? It is of course all three and much more, but what do you see as the central question that the novel poses? What, if anything, is being whispered to us?

Whenever I begin writing a novel, I try to focus on the practical stuff (Who are the characters in this story? What’s going to happen to them? Where will their story unfold? etc.) and trust the deeper themes to emerge of their own accord. If I sat down in front of a blank screen thinking, ‘Right, this novel is going to be about Grief’ (or Art, or Guilt, or any other big idea) I’d be overwhelmed, and wouldn’t know where to begin. Once I’ve got my characters up and about, talking and interacting with one another, I tend to get a sense of what I’m ‘really’ writing about, and I can home in on the bigger questions.

The Whispering House began as a response to the haunted house genre. As you know, the idea came to me in response to a particular place (Greenway House), which was a nice, down to earth way to start. It enabled me to ask, and answer, questions like: What does my haunted house look and feel like, and how much will it draw on Greenway? Who lives in this house and what is their relationship to the place? What has happened to them before the story begins? Why is the house haunted? Is this novel going to be a supernatural story with ‘actual’ ghosts, or a Rebecca-ish haunting, in which the characters feel oppressed by people and events from their past?

Once my ghost story had gathered momentum, the larger themes began to make themselves felt. I made Cory a painter because I knew Freya would be attracted to a bohemian artist, not because I expected portraiture to become an important motif in the book. The theme grew organically from Cory’s character, and his relationship with Freya, as I found myself wondering what it means to be someone’s muse; how that might be beguiling and entrapping; how capturing a person’s likeness can be an act of repression. If there are any ‘actual’ ghosts at Byrne Hall, they are the Freya portraits that begin to fill Cory’s studio, and the Stella portraits that he’s hidden in the attic.

Likewise, I didn’t intend the book to be a meditation on guilt and grief. In the first draft, Stella was not a character in her own right, but a generic ‘much-loved sibling’, whose death provided the catalyst for Freya’s narrative. The deeper I got into the story, however, the darker and more complex Stella became, and the more I needed to know about the sisters’ relationship.

What is The Whispering House whispering? I think it’s telling us that human beings are essentially unknowable. Cory paints obsessively, yet fails to touch on the essence of his subjects. Freya dredges up memory after childhood memory, but the real nature of her sister’s life and death remains elusive. Diana loves her son and hates her husband, to the point of insanity, but never truly ‘gets’ either of them. Even Tom – the kindest and most understanding character in the book – is far from transparent. I think the house is saying, ‘Yes, secrets can be unearthed, revelations can be made, but “satisfying conclusions” are only partial and provisional. Where people are concerned, there’s always another layer of mystery to be peeled away, and another one after that, and another one after that…’

Elizabeth Brooks grew up in Chester, and read Classics at Cambridge. Her debut novel Call of the Curlew was shortlisted for the Waverton Good Reads award. She lives on the Isle of Man with her husband and children.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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