Haverscroft House is big, old, gloomy and in need of some major refurbishment. Kate Keeling’s husband Mark has his heart set on it – despite the crumbling car in the garage and the locked attic that they are not allowed to view before they move in.
Kate only agrees to leave everything she knows in London and move to Haverscroft in a bid to salvage her marriage.
Little does Kate realise but Haverscroft’s dark secrets will drive her to question her sanity, her husband, and fatally engulf her family unless she can stop the past repeating itself.
Can Kate keep her children safe and escape Haverscroft in time, even if it will end her marriage?
Haverscroft is a deliciously dark supernatural tale from debut author S. A. Harris. I am delighted to welcome Sal to The Shelf today to tell us more about the book and about the process behind creating a gripping modern ghost story.
Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books! Haverscroft is described as a ‘modern ghost story’. What was it that drew you to the genre and how did you go about updating the tropes found in classic ghost stories for a modern setting?
I have loved ghost stories since I was a small child so it felt very natural to write one. Many such stories are historically based but I wanted mine to be in the modern day.
Although a contemporary setting offers fresh challenges, mobile phones for one, many of the essential elements of a good ghost story are timeless. Things that go bump in the night don’t really ever change. There is little difference in the dodgy electrics at Haverscroft to a guttering candle flame. Unexplained sounds or peculiar smells are as disconcerting to someone living in 2019 as they were, say in Charles Dickens’ Jacob Marley, in A Christmas Carol, is not unlike the damaged soul of Edward Havers in Haverscroft.
Fear is one of our strongest emotions; it is essential to our survival. Dark corners, shifting shadows or unfamiliar noises can just as easily spook us today as they did our ancestors over millennia.
In addition to being a ghost story, Haverscroft is an intimate portrait of a marriage on the rocks, and of a modern family trying to atone for past mistakes. What made you want to combine domestic drama, something more commonly associated with psychological thrillers, with the supernatural?
I wrote the first couple of pages of what would become Haverscroft one Sunday evening as I sat by the fire over the winter of 2010/11. Kate and her family spilt onto the page and were instantly very real to me. Kate was recovering from mental illness. I knew she had cheated on her husband Mark but I didn’t know why. They were at once a family in crisis and looking for a fresh start. I knew the house they would find was haunted.
The details of Edward and Helena Havers developed later but the basic premise was there quite naturally from the start. There was no conscious decision on my part to mix the elements of a psychological thriller with a supernatural tale. It was simply the story that arrived on a winter’s night as I sat beside the fire.
Protagonist Kate and her husband Mark are both very realistic characters, both of whom have secrets to keep. Was it tricky portraying the more difficult aspects of their characters whilst also keeping the reader on their side? And how did their fallibility tie into the overall feel of the novel?
Very! I wanted Kate and Mark to be characters the reader would sympathise with and understand even if they did not agree with their behaviour or the decisions they made.
Mark and Kate are under considerable stress for very different reasons at the start of the novel and consequently, their behaviour is sometimes challenging. Mark is snappy, short-tempered and shouts at the children. Kate is often distant and slow to respond because of her mental health. It took several drafts of the novel to get their relationship as I wanted it to be and for the characters to read, I hope, sympathetically.
Kate and Mark’s fallibility ties in with the mistakes made by the other characters in the narrative. Mrs Havers has not made good life choices! Mr Whittle and Oliver Lyle leave much to be desired.
The overlap is particularly strong with Mark’s obsession with Haverscroft House, one he shares with several other characters in the story. Kate’s fragile mental state makes her feel isolated, not only from her husband, and at times from her children as well, but also from the other characters. She is not certain whether to trust Mrs Cooper, she worries about village gossip in a similar way to Alice Havers. At the beginning of the novel, nothing is certain; the Keeling’s failing marriage and the fallibility of all the characters tie the novel together.
Kate struggles with her mental health throughout the novel, frequently questioning her own sanity as supernatural events begin to unfold at Haverscroft. Was mental health something that you specifically set out to address in the book, and how did you go about blending this with the ghost story genre?
I did not consciously set out to address mental health in the novel. When Kate first walked into my mind I knew her mental health was at the root of her problems. She is burden with guilt regarding the damage she perceives she alone had done to her marriage but also in her neglectful relationship with her mother.
As the novel evolved over time and through various drafts it became clear why Kate was so troubled. As the novel grew, mental health became a theme. Edward Havers has PTSD. Like Kate, Richard Denning has suffered a nervous breakdown. Mark is under enormous strain and is barely holding onto his sanity at points in the novel.
As an unreliable narrator, Kate was perfect for a ghost story. The reader can never be sure her decisions are rational or her internal thoughts reliable. Kate’s mental health fed the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, something all good ghost stories need.
Haverscroft House and the surrounding village community both feel very real! Are they based upon a real place, or entirely conjured from your imagination? How did you go about researching such a place?
I first realised Weldon Church and the river running past the village was based on a real place when we collected our third child from a school camping trip. His elder two siblings had been on a similar trip years before. The church must have stuck in my mind as the feeling of déjà vu when I saw Surlingham Church, the graveyard and lychgate was starling. I had been walking around it in my mind for months!
The village is not based on any one place but countless Suffolk villages. The small hamlets I’ve driven through countless times that straddle a lane, a building here and there and then they vanish, just trees and cow partly again in the rear-view mirror.
Haverscroft House is entirely in my imagination. It is so clear, even now I sometimes take a walk through its rooms and climb the wide staircase or sit on the small metal seat beneath the willow trees and watch the water ripple across the pond.
Haverscroft has some throwbacks to some of the classics of the ghost story genre – I definitely got some ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Secret of Crickley Hall’ vibes when reading it! Were there any authors/titles that particularly inspired the writing of Haverscroft? And any books that you would recommend to readers who enjoy Haverscroft and want to seek out other modern ghost stories?
These are too numerous to mention! Some influences would be Daphne Du Maurier, M.R. James and more recently Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger, Kate Mosse, The Winter Ghosts and The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales.
Some titles I have read whilst writing Haverscroft have been The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements, The Small Hand by Susan Hill, Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffee, The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah, Haunted by James Herbert and The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley to name just a few.
I have over the years also read the classics you mention in your question and would recommend those to readers as they remain powerful narratives. I have just finished Michelle Paver’s most recent novel, Wakenhyrst and would recommend her ghost story, Dark Matter as one to read.
Haverscroft is your debut novel but I believe that you are now working on a second supernatural tale. Are you allowed to tell us a little about the new book?
Silent Goodbye is a supernatural tale set on the Suffolk coast. Evie Mathews returns to England to her late father’s old house to spend the New Year with her estranged brother only to find he is missing. The house seems changed and not in a good way. As time pulls out and with no sign of her brother, Evie starts to fear not only for his safety but also her own. The story is in my head but lately, there has been little time to get it down on paper! Now Haverscroft is launched and finding its own way in the world and with a family summer holiday on the horizon, I hope to get writing!
Thank you so much to Sal for talking all things spooky with me today! The ghost story is one of my favourite genres and, having read Haverscroft, I can highly recommend it as a compulsively chilling tale that is sure to keep you turning the pages late into the night!
Haverscroft by S. A. Harris is available now in paperback and ebook from Salt Publishing and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers, including the publisher, Waterstones, Hive, Book Depository and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing me with a copy of the book in order to prepare for this Q&A, and to the author for answering my questions!
You can check out reviews and other content about Haverscroft at the other blog tour posts, details of which are below. Thank you to Emma Dowson from Salt Publishing for organising the tour and inviting me to take part!