Monday, 2 September 2013

The story behind "Conjure"

“a couple, at the seaside and there’s a witch”

Newly pregnant, stuck in a job she doesn’t like and mourning the death of her cousin, Beth Hammond’s life isn’t working out the way she thought it would. So when her boyfriend wins a weekend away at the seaside resort of Heyton, Beth thinks this could be just what they need — to get away, relax, and make plans for the future.

But as they begin their weekend, a JCB driver accidentally damages a centuries-old memorial at the beach. He hopes no one will notice, but something has… a presence that was buried beneath the memorial, sealed in a stone tomb. Now that presence wants its revenge on the people of Heyton.

"A powerful and convincing piece of horror fiction.” 
- Gary McMahon, author of the Concrete Grove trilogy.

“Mark West is a talent to watch.”
- Peter Tennant, Black Static

“Mark West’s writing has a heart and soul that many writers would kill for.”
- Jim McLeod, Ginger Nuts of Horror

“Mark West’s stories have a well-crafted, slowly increasing tension and dread, sometimes with a hint of creepy paranoia.”
- Gene O’Neill, Bram Stoker Award winning author of The Burden of Indigo

"Conjure flaunts some genuinely spooky moments [and] the supernatural element works so well because the author merges it with fears we understand, such as abduction and infanticide."
- Matthew Fryer, The Hellforge

"Mark West has created a marvelously enjoyable short novel which captures some of that faded glory of the seaside resort.  It’s a strangely British tale and reminded me of something that may have been produced in the seventies by Hammer or part of Tales of the Unexpected but very much updated with modern quotas of brutality and gore."
- Colin Leslie, Highlander's Book Reviews


My short novel “Conjure” has just been re-published, in print and digital editions, by those good people at Greyhart Press and I thought it might be an idea to write this, an article about how the book came together.

Written under the working title “The Mystery Of The Witch’s Curse” (in honour of The Three Investigators), “Conjure” was started on December 20th 2003 with the fourth and final draft being completed on April 11th 2005. The first draft was 82,773 words long, the final published version was 54,318 words long.

It started with an email conversation I had with John B. Ford, whose Rainfall Books was just about to publish my debut collection “Strange Tales”.  In one missive, John wrote “If you have anything around 30,000 -- 40,000 (or if in future you write anything around that word count) I'll be eager to see it.”  To this day, I don’t know if he was serious or not but I took it as a sign and started to think about a story, having never written a novella before. No big deal, thought this fool.  I spent a couple of weeks trying to figure out what would have enough sweep to justify the length and what I could use as the driving force of the book, whilst two factors (a family event and the fact that the novel I’d just written was very gory) led me to aim for something quieter and more supernatural.

(original interior illustration)

For the location, since I’d used my main fictional town of Gaffney in the novel, I utilised another of my creations, the east coast resort of Heyton, that featured in my short story “Empty Souls, Drowning” (which appeared in the collection).  I love the British seaside and Heyton is essentially Great Yarmouth, a place I knew well - plus it had a funfair and a cinema called The Empire that I could use as key locations.

Thinking of the cinema reminded me of an incident from the mid-80s, when my best friend Nick & I went to see “Beetlejuice” there.  More than the film and the interior of the venue, my clearest recollection - and each time I see the image, I feel overwhelmingly sad - is a little girl, standing at the entrance, giving out pamphlets. She was obviously with the owners of the cinema and stood there whilst we all walked past her, with her little dress and cardi on, her blonde hair in bunches and a snotty nose. She didn’t look unhappy or unfed, but it just seemed like such a jarring thing to me, this little girl with a cold standing in the evening air, giving people pamphlets about coming attractions.  I never used any of that in the story, but I wanted to get some of that feeling, the quiet air of desperation, of trying to get the punters in and keep the business going.  As I was turning over the idea of the cinema in my mind, I suddenly got an image of Beth (my heroine) standing in a glamorous Art-Deco toilet, hearing something moving about but not being able to see it and then having everything disappear around her. I liked this and told Alison about it (who didn’t like it!) and realised I had my first set piece.

So what would be the supernatural menace?  I’d written plenty of ghost stories, I was then in the middle of co-writing a massive vampire novel (before they got all sparkly), but I’d never written about a witch before.  Not knowing much about them, I did some research and realised - with a wonderful sense of pieces falling into place - that the folklore around Norfolk is ripe with such tales and that county would be where Heyton existed.

Around about this time, I saw a picture of Monica Bellucci from her calendar, where she was lying on her side in some water and really fell for the concept of that.  That led me to the witch being a young woman, helping out at a farm perhaps. The farmer’s wife is pregnant, the witch and farmer have an affair, the baby is born deformed and the witch gets the blame for it. They test her in the sea, she’s exposed and killed and buried. Alison pointed out that she couldn’t be buried on the beach, so we agreed that it would be on the heath area. If that were the case, perhaps her grave could be disturbed if the council were building new coastal defences like they have at Morecombe Bay. I heard something else click into place.

In the summer of 2003, Alison and I went to Yarmouth with my sister-in-law Laura (‘Flo’s Diner’, in the book, comes from my nickname for her) and a child had disappeared a few days before. Whilst I didn’t want to go into that in any great detail, I thought it could be used as an element, that people’s worry and stress is feeding a negative energy into the town, perking up some of the town ghosts.

At the same time, I read an article about Albert of Monaco, which mentioned a curse put on the principality by someone who was raped. What if, my over-active imagination cried, my witch put a curse on Heyton - all this time, she’s been waiting for the opportunity to come back and wreak havoc on the township that killed her?  A priest condemns her body to the ground, her tomb is sealed and it’s not disturbed for several centuries, until that pesky coastal defence system is constructed.

At the Princess Louise pub in Holborn, London, I told John my ideas at the ‘official launch’ of “Strange Tales”, selling him the concept based on the Monica Bellucci picture (mocked up into a cover) and the synopsis “a couple, at the seaside and there’s a witch”. He liked it so I kept moving and whilst we were Christmas shopping, a week or so later, it suddenly occurred to me that Beth was pregnant - that linked her to the witch (by this time I had her name - Isabel Mundy), who was pregnant by the farmer and what if she told him, just before his wife gave birth to their still-born child?

(original interior illustration)

I decided I had enough at this stage, made a set of bullet points for the plot and a week later started writing.  169 days later (I’m an expert at procrastination plus I was doing three nights a week studying at college for my professional exams), the first draft was completed.  I wrote the second through July 2004, copies of which I gave to my pre-reading band and John and he wrote to me in late September, saying that he’d love to publish it - and also agreeing to me creating the cover art and interior illustrations.

I wrote two further drafts and finished the copy-edit and artwork glitches two days before my son was born, in late May 2005.  Since my sister Tracy passed away before I started writing it, I asked my parents if they would mind my dedicating the book to her and they were happy for me to do that.  My Dad built me a miniature of the memorial (see post here) for the artwork and Gary McMahon gave me a brilliant cover blurb.

As it was, it took another four years before the book was published, due to personal circumstances at Rainfall Books.  That edition sold well and the book got some nice reviews, which I was really pleased about.

In 2011, I was approached by Generation-Next with a view to them publishing an ebook version.  I agreed, it appeared, it was badly formatted and didn’t include the bonus short story my revised cover art said it would and I retracted it from them (several of my stable-mates withdrew their books too).

In 2012, my friend Tim C. Taylor (who runs Greyhart Press and is a colleague from the Northampton SF Writers Group) asked if he could publish it, having read the ebook.  I agreed - I like Tim and Greyhart books are wonderfully designed and produced - and designed a new cover for it (which, I happen to think, is the best one it’s had).  I pondered, for a while, over revising the text (it was completed before digital cameras were widespread) but decided, in the end, that those little touches (which, essentially, age it) were quite nice.

Purchase Details
Paperback pp188 amazon.co.uk RRP£6.50 | amazon.com RRP $9.95
Kindle amazon.com  | amazon.co.uk  RRP $2.99/ £1.99
ePuB Smashwords and coming soon to other retailers…

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