Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor is a tenderly observed account of the – sometimes surprising – inspirations that led to the creation of an undisputed masterpiece of Victorian gothic literature.

Bram Stoker

Dracula, or The Undead, written by Bram Stoker is an epistolary novel in which imagined documents form the development of narrative. Echoing this style, O’Connor shows how Stoker’s work was influenced by certain people, by the places and events observed during the years the author spent working as the business manager at London’s Lyceum theatre.

The building as we see it first is decaying, damp, and full of cats. Haunted by a ghost called Mina, it provides a fine allusion to the castle of Count Dracula. With the scaffolding and riggings of the stage the reader cannot help but think about the ship on which The Vampire sailed to England. The music from the orchestra, the squeaking clarinets and violins, provides the perfect soundtrack for this tormented dark production. But Stoker also would have read the Penny Dreadful magazines, such as Varney the Vampire. He would have seen the shocking photograph in which the actress Sarah Bernhardt lay as dead inside her coffin. We know he was affected by the mummified remains of a Crusader in an Irish church. And then, there was his own demise, most probably from Syphilis – though O’Connor does not dwell on this. Still, it is a fact that this infection of the blood was a great scourge for the Victorians. Acquired during sex or childbirth, it then led on to cruel disfigurement, insanity, and even death.

Desire and predation dominate this novel. At the time the Ripper’s crimes led to a fevered atmosphere of dread. Never cliched or too obvious, O’Connor draws upon the blood lust and the spirit of depravity, showing how it influenced the horror found in Dracula. 

When the atrocities were going on, females employed at the Lyceum were instructed to share cabs at night, rather than risk walking out alone through London’s foggy streets – a consequence that leads to the great actress, Ellen Terry, sleeping inside the theatre, along with Bram, and Henry Irving; the three members of the trinity on which this story has been based.

Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry is a sheer delight, witty, angelic and alluring, almost seeming supernatural when she glides through London’s streets in veils. Irving is the actor manager whose dangerously dark good looks and cruelly sardonic wit is charismatic and yet troubling. He is certainly the model for the ‘exquisitely corrupt earl”, providing words and actions later echoed by The Vampire. Very early in the novel, when Stoker waits to be invited into Henry Irving's dressing room, the actor tells him, “I don’t bite.” Later, Irving mentions how the two old friends have known each other going on for 700 years.

Henry Irving

There is amusement here, and poignancy because, of course, they’re not immortal. In this novel age, decline, and death are constant and disturbing themes, as is the torment of the writer who lives in fear of never being known. How ironic that, long after they all made their bows to leave this mortal stage, the three live on in memories today – their names and work still proving as eternal as The Vampire.

A thrilling construct of a novel, exquisitely contrived to show the settings and the characters whose loves and lives inspired the evil decadence and dark despair contained in Stoker’s Dracula. A great tribute, and a work of art. Deeply affecting.

ADDENDUM: As an addition to this post, I've just seen this wonderful article from The Shakespeare Blog by Sylvia Morris. The post gives more background detail to the historical facts in Shadowplay and is even more fascinating for the inclusion of this photograph of Henry Irving and Bram Stoker leaving the Lyceum theatre, about to head off who knows where?  

How wonderfully alive they look. 


In my novel, Elijah’s Mermaid, I describe a Victorian artist who is obsessed with painting his muse in the form of a beautiful mermaid. The Last Days of Leda Grey sees the mythical creature appear again, this time when an Edwardian actress plays such a part in an early silent film. 

A Mermaid, by Waterhouse

This is not a new preoccupation of mine. Just look at the sidebar of this blog! It began when I was five-years old, when one of the very first books I loaned from the local children’s library was Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid ~ a tragic, far darker story than the Disney version might imply.

But then mermaids are conundrums ~ these mythical sirens, half-women, half-fish at once being familiar, and also extremely exotic. From under the waves in which they swim surrounded by bones of long-drowned men these fantastical deceivers gaze back up through the mirror of the sea; although, should they be captured and removed from their natural environment they might become quite different: crippled, lonely creatures who must weep for the ‘other world’ they’ve lost ... unless, of course, they are the fakes displayed as curiosities in museums, or private collections.

I describe one such fraudulent creature, known as the Feejee Mermaid, a taxidermist’s masterpiece combining a monkey’s upper corpse joined onto the tail of a giant fish. And now, this monstrosity lives again through another historical novel that I simply couldn't wait to read even though it won't be published until January next year. 

How lucky I am to have received a proof of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, a gloriously entertaining Georgian romp by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

 Portrait of Mary Robinson by Hoppner ~ and perhaps a model for Angelica Neal

This delightful literary romance conjures so vividly to life the unlikely and charming friendship between our hero, Mr Hancock, a widowed, middle-aged ship owner who trades from his humble East End home, and the golden-haired, somewhat down-on-her-luck, London courtesan Angelica ~ officially known as Mrs Neal, and rather charmingly described as being "as cool and fragrant as rosewater custard."

The two of them are introduced when Mr Hancock ~ “a portly gentleman of forty-five, dressed in worsted and fustian and linen, honest familiar textures to match his threadbare scalp, the silverfish fuzz of his jowls, the scuffed and stained skin of his fingertips” ~ finds himself the unwitting owner of a hideous stuffed mermaid that Mrs Chappell ~ a brilliant caricature of the most decadent brothel ‘madam’ (just read and rejoice in the humour of her peeing in a pot in a carriage) is intrigued with the freakish mermaid and hires it to show in her ‘nunnery’, hoping the curiosity will draw a larger clientele.

Mr Hancock is also invited to enjoy the grand unveiling, but is then so shocked by what he sees performed by Mrs Chappell’s whores (all of which Hermes Gowar conjures with such salacious wit and colour) that he flees the brothel in disgust. However, he cannot forget the voluptuous charms of the lovely Angelica ... and so their relationship begins, though it's not at all the type to which Angelica is used.

As the novel progressed I found myself developing such affection for this oddly mismatched couple, both of whom are deeply troubled by events from inescapable pasts. Both are trapped in webs created from their self-delusion, also self-preservation, with Hancock often imagining the baby son who died at birth to be living, still part of his real world in scenes which are movingly disclosed. And then, when it comes to Angelica, so well-versed in the art of deceiving men, she also succeeds in deluding herself. Much like the fake stuffed mermaid, she may beguile her clientele, but for how long can she go on without losing her very own heart and soul?  

Such is the central theme of this novel where illusion and shameless trickery are linked to scandal and financial gain, where the glittering surface of beauty and wit conceal a darker underworld of sin, of neglect, of despair, and grief. Through such a mire the survivors try to swim ~ and sometimes sink below the surface too ~ which only makes us love them more. 

In this clattering Georgian London are extremes of wealth and poverty, with everyone striving to survive whether morally, or immorally. There may be gorgeous shell grottos and pretty girls in West End shops, but these scenes bear stark comparison to the animal activities going on at the hands of blood-stained butchers, or in the filth of night-time alleys in which women far less fortunate live out their doomed existences. As Angelica knows all too well, the future is precarious. “Simply go on as best you can ~ the wheel will turn. It always does.” 

But which way will the wheel turn for her?

As the story rolls ever onwards towards its final dramatic scenes, at times with shocking outcomes, the book almost transcends its bounds, becoming something more profound as it forces its protagonists ~ and also the reader observing them ~ to take a long hard look at their reflections in a mirror: to find the courage and the hope to face the truth of what they are.

As seductive as any siren's song, this remarkable, glittering Georgian tale has a heart of purest gold.

 Imogen Hermes Gowar ~ a wonderful new literary talent



The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements is a seventeenth-century ghost story . A story in which the oppression and wild beauty of the Yorkshire moors provides a compelling backdrop, where a sense of encroaching malevolence seeps like a ‘winding sheet of fog ... silent, still, watching’ through the very stones of Scarcross Hall, and the fates of all who live there.

Scarcross Hall is claustrophobic, grim and gothic to its core, with its “... days of grandeur long faded. There are slates missing from the roof, cracked panes in the leads, and a crumbling central chimney. A high wall lends poor protection, pocked and lichen-stained, ravaged by years of storm and gale. It has the air of a shipwreck, abandoned and disintegrating amid the great wild ocean of the moor.”

At the centre of the story, and residing in this wreck of the house, is the admirable character of Mercy Booth who, almost from the very start when walking on the cold dark heath has a sense that she is being watched by something that chills her to her soul ~ that perhaps her family is cursed by the treasure of three ancient coins, ‘worn and warped, decorated with pagan symbols’, that her father says he found one day within The White Ladies circle of standing stones ~ “the rugged stones pale on the skyline, heights pointing to Heaven, roots buried Devil knows how deep.”

Mercy’s father used to tell his child that the coins held the magical gift of protection. In those days she had often played with them, rattling the coins in her two cupped hands. But now, as the years of youth have passed, Mercy thinks of darker tales, of ... “folklore and fancy, handed down to us young ones, whispered by firesides on dark winter nights. After that I sometimes wondered if, rather than protection, the coins offered an ill omen.” She also thinks of chanted songs known to the local community. The warnings she perhaps should heed...

“One coin marks the first to go.
A second bodes the fall.
The third will seal a sinner’s fate.
The Devil take them all.”

Mercy’s fate is to run her father’s farm, enduring the personal agony of witnessing his rapid decline into old age and dementia while also striving against the elements and the cruelty of the landscape. Her hands are hardened, stained with mud. Her nostrils are filled with the stench of blood, and yet she is utterly at one in this world to which her soul belongs, revelling in the feel and the odour of peat and moss beneath her feet, and describing such glorious visions as: “Silvery water ... a thousand year path...dropping from the fells, freezing into icicles, glazing the mosses and hazing into fine mist where it meets the valley bottom.”

The Coffin Path’s settings are beautifully drawn, with the book divided into parts that echo the seasons of the year, and in which Clements’ vivid and visceral landscape provides a reflection of Mercy’s soul. There is almost an animal element to the wildness of her existence ~ whether washing her own bloody rags in a stream, or delivering a lamb out on the moors; even in the moments when she finds a dead sheep blown with maggots and flies exuding the putrid stench of death. 

Such connections with flesh, with birth, and death are described with the rawest honesty. Indeed, many aspects of the lambing work was so vividly described I felt compelled to ask Katherine Clements if she’d ever experienced such things first hand.  She had, which did not surprise me, because this novel exudes authenticity, with even the yeasty scent of dough rising in the kitchen bowls imbued with a stench of sour dread, rather than being comforting. Candles stink of mutton fat. The night-time house is unnerving, whether in its abandoned dusty rooms with the lingering memories of the dead, or in the terrifying fireguard, carved and painted to look like a little boy. And then, there is also the real child, Sam, often visiting the house, who is frail and in need of protection, and yet with a presence increasingly linked to our own chilling sense of dark unease - such as when Mercy watches him one day and thinks ~“Our Sam has his eyes open, staring into the far corner, smiling to himself as he watches cloud patterns dance across the plaster. Something in his expression is unnerving - knowing, almost triumphant. Is he laughing at us?”

Added to this growing fear is the spiralling tension we witness resulting from Mercy’s sensuality. She is no longer the carefree girl who once ran wild across the moors. Neither is she the virgin with naive hopes to be wed one day, to produce a family of her own. Here is a real woman who experiences real sexual needs, even if she does not live in an era when such behaviour is admired. 

This is an age of political turmoil, with the aftermath of the Civil War causing enormous social distrust and economic turmoil. A time when many women are still accused of witchcraft, when people believe whole-heartedly in the existence of a Heaven and Hell ... and perhaps even damnation for one whose independent life and power as a landholder is poisoned by evil suspicions and fears, by sexual tensions and jealousies. 

Mercy's peace is then unsettled more by the unexpected arrival of a stranger known as  Ellis, who Mercy employs as an extra hand when the farm is beset by troubles, and to whom she is strongly attracted despite an initial sense of distrust ~ though never for one moment can she begin to imagine the influence he will come to exert on her future life.

The starkness, the gritty honesty, the often alluring brutality at the centre of this novel has many echoes of Wuthering Heights. Scarcross is also a house that’s cursed, set alone in a rural setting where Nature is raw in tooth and claw. From the moment we enter its doors we are immersed in a sense of impending doom where simmering tensions and darkness of shadows gradually reveal the truth in a violent and moving climax.

Oozing with gothic symbolism, this brooding and beautiful ghost story is guaranteed to haunt your dreams long after the cover has been closed.

The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements will be available in February 2018, published by Headline Review.


Here’s the thing, whenever I’m reading Jane Harris' work, it’s not that I don’t enjoy every single finely-crafted moment, but it’s only when the novels end that I tend to look back and find myself truly immersed in the stories’ themes, the settings, the plots, the characters. Moments come back to haunt me. Images flood into my mind. And, I think, what I’m trying to express, is that the work has a certain quality that is ‘classic’, lasting, and profound. 

Her latest novel, Sugar Money, is certainly no exception. 

Set in 1765, this is a story based on fact, following the adventures of two slaves, Emile and Lucien, the brothers who are sent away from their island home of Martinique to Grenada, with the secret task of smuggling 42 stolen slaves back to their original master; the Frenchman, Father Cleophas. 

The novel is vibrantly alive with a cast of engaging characters, but throughout it is narrated in the voice of the younger Lucien, whose bawdily unique language is as joyous as his spirit, albeit with a naivety that eventually will be addressed ~ because Jane Harris is not an author afraid of pulling punches. How could she be when the theme of this novel is slavery, theft, brutality? A scenario in which some dreadful horrors have to be endured. But what endures above all else is the humanity, the love and hope, the instinct for survival, for freedom, also dignity. 

That message is as important now as it was 200 years ago. Black Lives Matter. This book matters ~ as you will soon discover, when it’s published by Faber & Faber on October 5, 2017.

For more information on Jane Harris and her novels, please see her author website