Living in a house with several ghosts inspired my latest novel, says the crime writer Peter James
My latest novel, The House on Cold Hill, was inspired by my experience of living in a haunted house; a beautiful Georgian manor on the edge of a hamlet in Sussex. There had been a monastery on the site in the Middle Ages, and prior to that a Roman villa.
The day we moved in, in late 1989, I was standing in the porch with my then mother-in-law, guiding the removals men. A narrow corridor ran from the front door to an oak-panelled atrium leading into the kitchen. Suddenly I saw a shadow, like the flit of a bird across a fanlight, in the atrium. “Did you see that?” my mother-in-law asked with a knowing look.
Despite the warmth of the sunlight, I felt a sudden chill, I realised we’d both seen something, but didn’t want to spook my wife on our first day in the house. We were both townies, and this was our first move into the countryside. She was already aprehensive about the location of the property, and I’d played down the vendor’s comments about it being haunted. So I told her mother I hadn’t seen anything. I’d always been intrigued by the idea of ghosts, but never frightened by them. I’m much more scared of the living.
Just like Cold Hill House in my novel, our new home was a wreck. It needed rewiring and replumbing, and much of the wallpaper had been there since Victorian days. There was dry rot, the foundations were crumbling and the entire front facade was perilously supported by the beams. For five years, the place was to become a vast, draining, scary, but often exhilarating, money pit.
Our first night was uneventful, but the following day, I went downstairs for a mid-morning coffee. Entering the atrium, I saw tiny pinpricks of white light floating in the air. I thought it was rays of sunlight reflecting off my glasses. I took them off, put them back on, and the lights had gone. I returned to my study, but when I went downstairs for lunch, the lights were there. Again, after removing my glasses, they had gone. But I was left with an eerie feeling.
The next day, I took the dog for a walk. In the lane, an elderly man came up to me “You’ve just moved into the manor, haven’t you?” he said. “How are you getting on with the grey lady?” He explained how he used to house-sit for the previous owners. “Six years ago, I was sitting in the atrium when a woman in a grey silk crinoline dress materialised out of the wall. She swept across the room, gave me a malevolent stare, flicked my face with her dress and vanished into the panelling behind me. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back there again.”
I was struck by the sincerity of the man and his genuine fear, so the following Sunday, I took my mother-in-law aside and asked her exactly what she had seen when we were moving in. She described a woman with a grey face, in grey silk. I was chilled to the marrow and decided I had to tell my wife. To my surprise, she’d been seeing the same thing and hadn’t wanted to spook me.
A few days later, a medium who had helped me during the writing of my novel Possession came to the house. I took her into the atrium and left her on her own, as she requested. An hour later, she came up to my study and described exactly this woman in grey silk. She said the tiny lights I kept seeing were the apparition’s energy.
The medium said the figure was a deeply disturbed former resident of the house – her marriage had turned her into a man-hater – and that it needed a clergyman to deal with it. There was someone I knew who I thought could help.
Dominic Walker, vicar of Brighton, was also an advisor on deliverance ministry for the Church of England. A psychology scholar and the son of two medics, he was dismissive of much of the alleged supernatural. So I was a little surprised when he cheerfully entered the atrium, then loudly and firmly enunciated, into thin air: “You may go now.” He turned to me and said: “You should be fine.”
We were, for five years. Until a June day in 1994. My recently published novel, Host, lay on display on an oak chest in the atrium – all of a sudden, it was on fire. There was, of course, an explanation: close to the book, on the chest, was a round glass paperweight. The sun’s rays had been refracted through it. Yet the fact that this happened in the room in which the grey lady had appeared added a sinister dimension.
There were many other uncanny occurences. Our nearest neighbours would regularly hear a baby crying; we later learnt that in the 1920s, the drawing-room floor had been dug up, revealing the skeleton of a baby. Other people in the houses built on land that used to belong to the manor had seen a monk in a cowled hood. “I wish you would keep your bloody ghosts under control,” one of them said to me.
Unlike my characters in The House on Cold Hill, my wife and I were fascinated by what occured, not scared. It wasn’t the ghosts that drove us to sell in the end, but the break-up of our marriage. Might the grey lady have been behind that? We’ll never know.