Today, I have with me author Helen Stringer, author of Spellbinder and The Midnight Gate, two wonderfully spooky and supernatural middle grade novels. I just reviewed Spellbinder last night and will be reviewing The Midnight Gate later this week, both are spectacular middle grade novels, with a great combination of funny commentary and seriously spooky moments.
I asked Helen if she would talk a little about where she got the inspiration for some of the creepy places that her novel take place in.
One of the things that has always got my imagination firing on all cylinders is places. Old places, new places, buildings, countryside, towns, cities – it really doesn’t matter. Most of the time, particularly with historical sites, the only view you are going to get is as part of a tour group. Often this is fine – when I was at school we were taken to an old Elizabethan house outside Liverpool so many times that the actual tour blurb is engraved on my memory. The house is called Speke Hall, which became Arkbath Hall in Spellbinder, where the tour guide that takes Belladonna and her classmates through the house spouts, verbatim, the old Speke Hall tour of my childhood!
Many real places pop up in Spellbinder and Midnight Gate, an old monastery near Barrow in Cumbria, a 1930s apartment building in Liverpool, and an electric store/vaudeville theater in Los Angeles, as well as my old school – Belvedere, which really is made up of three Victorian Houses joined together. The one place that I grew to know almost as well as my school, however, is the fabulous Croxteth Hall.
Croxteth was the home of the Earls of Sefton. It is a vast pile right on the edge of Liverpool and was such a mish-mash of styles that after the last earl died the National Trust turned down the opportunity to run the property. Enter the city council. They took on the old place and when the surviving countess gave permission for them to have the family papers, I was hired to catalog them. This was my first job. It was supposed to be for six months and I was totally unqualified, which didn’t matter as I was only supposed to be making lists. Then the first of two disasters struck. First, the countess changed her mind about the papers (oh, no! I’m going to lose my job!), then the local paper ran a campaign questioning why the place wasn’t open to the public (hooray! I get a new job!).
The scramble was now on to prepare the place for visitors. There was only one problem: the countess had sold off nearly all the furniture, so the first part of my new job was to research the family history and put together a tour with what we had to hand. The second was to actually do the tours at the weekends.
It was kid in a candy store time! A bunch of my friends were hired to help do the tours (what were the managers thinking?) and during the week I spent most of my time either downtown in the central library reading the personal diaries of the lady who was countess in the early 1900s or wandering around the huge house, keys in hand, seeing what they would open. The answer to that was…everything!
We meandered all over the place, found the earl and countess’s ceremonial robes, complete with coronets (and tried them on, of course), found boxes and boxes of photographs taken by the same countess who wrote the diaries (she was a keen photographer and had a dark room at the top of the house), and explored the absolutely massive kitchens.
The kitchens consisted of a giant room with dozens of stoves and huge worktables, as well as smaller rooms for the preparation of vegetables, meats and confectionary. (This is the kitchen that Belladonna finds in the House of Mists in Spellbinder.) The kitchen also featured a large dumb waiter that was powered by water. The servants would simply load up the dumb waiter and pull an enormous lever. There would be the sound of rushing water and the huge box would move slowly upwards to the dining room. Needless to say, we had to experiment with this. One of my friends climbed into the box, we closed it, pulled the lever and ran up the servants’ stairs to the small ante-room next to the dining room. It seemed to take forever, but eventually the box hove into view and we got our friend out. His name was Steve, which is odd, because it’s exactly the kind of thing Steve Evans would do! (I should probably pause here and point out that it was really dangerous and could have gone wrong in so many ways. But it didn’t. Heh.)
By the end of the summer I had worked seven days a week for almost a year. I was exhausted but had absorbed everything about the old house and grounds and it has never left me: the perfect proportions of the eighteenth century rooms that make you feel calm as soon as you step into them, the winding servants stairs and basement passages, the grand main staircase and pillared balconies, the tiny servants’ bedrooms at the top of the house, and perhaps most of all the details of the life of the daunting woman whose domain it was in the days of balls and hunts and garden parties.
These days the house is run like a well-oiled machine, with a proper visitors center and glass cases of artifacts. But I prefer to remember it as it was – a chaotic playground and an inspiration that I find myself returning to again and again.