Monday, 10 September 2012

A Haunted Writing Retreat

The hearth is the heart of a house, or so I have always believed. This is the open fire in the cottage I rented for two weeks this August, hoping to finish the sequel to Witchstruck while living there alone, with no distractions - especially as the nearest phone or internet signal was three miles away. No Facebook, no Twitter, no blogging ... just good solid writing every day.

On arrival, I was a little disturbed to notice in the Guest Book that, since my last visit there, a few previous guests had felt a 'strange presence' in the cottage. Just trying to put the wind up other guests, I told myself sceptically.

One person had written in the Guest Book: 'We woke in the middle of the night to find an old woman standing at the foot of our bed. When we turned on the light, she vanished.'

This too I tried to dismiss as nonsense, though it was a little unnerving. I'd stayed at this same cottage twice before and only ever felt an occasional presence in the late evenings, but nothing sinister or alarming. The cottage is situated on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, in a tiny village - a hamlet, really - where most of the cottages seem to be holiday or second homes. So there are few people about during the day and the nights are utterly silent. But peace and quiet seems like a boon for a novelist, and I had always written vast amounts while there before.

This visit, however, almost as though 'turned' by the subject matter of the novel I was writing - i.e. the sequel to Witchstruck, a Tudor novel dark with occult mysteries and the summoning of the dead - the presence in the cottage began to feel malignant. Even angry. The weather became quite nasty too, with torrential downpours and the sky dark in the afternoons. I needed a fire most evenings, for the house felt damp and unwelcoming. Or was that just my imagination?

I tried to shrug it off, dismissing my nerves as part of my creative build-up to writing a story about ghosts and the occult. But odd things kept happening. I found doors open that I had left shut. Books and other items moved from one side of the room to another while I was upstairs or in the bathroom. Then there were unidentified creaking and knocking noises in the night - even the sound of the downstairs door being opened and closed several times while I lay terrified under my duvet in the dark bedroom. To add to this, my car broke down over the Bank Holiday weekend, leaving me stranded for days, unable to go out and back up my work via the internet. Then an entire chapter of my novel just "disappeared" while I was out of the room, though it had been correctly saved.

I finally got the car fixed the day before I left, and rewrote the missing chapter, though with some misgivings. It had been an account of a dark seance with John Dee, the Tudor astrologer and 'conjuror of spirits'. Had its loss been due to computer malfunction, user error ... or something more sinister?

Too nervous to go to bed most nights until dawn light had begun to show, I had written for hours every day and soon reached the close of my novel. By the last day, I only had 5000 words left to write. But that was precisely the moment when disaster struck.

On attempting to close my laptop down on the last morning, ready to leave the cottage, the screen froze. Then the computer made a loud clunking noise. I later discovered that was the sound of my hard drive breaking. Little did I know it at the time, though I suspected, but my laptop hard drive had just bitten the dust - taking with it the last 25,000 words I had written and not backed-up on the internet.

This last incident - my laptop mysteriously dead just as I was on the point of leaving - utterly freaked me out. The silence in the lonely cottage was suddenly menacing. I threw the last of my things in the car, backed out of the gate as fast as was safe, and drove towards the nearest main road like the devil was at my heels. I felt on edge for miles, only gradually relaxing as I realised I had left the cottage far behind me and need never go back there.

Of course, there are perfectly logical and non-occult reasons why things went wrong for me that week: my car broke down because I was unaware that the air filter clip had snapped; I was over-worked and tired, so imagined the odd movements of doors and books, and the noises in the night were mice or branches, or perhaps just my imagination.; the mischievous comments in the Guest Book on arrival had primed my subconscious to expect some kind of otherworldly presence, and the subject matter of my work made me especially vulnerable to that kind of suggestion; and the lost chapter about the seance and the subsequent irrevocable breakdown of my laptop were simply due to an old machine suddenly giving up - if you'll pardon the expression - the ghost.

But none of this makes the knowledge that I have lost the last 25,000 words of my novel any easier to bear. A mechanic has the laptop now, but still no news of whether my manuscript can be recovered, though it's been over a week. It looks like I will have to rewrite the last third from memory. Above is the chart I kept, detailing how many words I wrote per day in that last week - as you can see, rather a lot! The moral of this tale is, if staying in an isolated and possibly haunted cottage entirely on your own, with no internet connection for automatic backups, take a USB pen - or two - and back up your work every day. I bet Charles Dickens never had this much trouble with A Christmas Carol.


  1. What an experience. All to be featured in another novel no doubt. Also as you say lessons learned, back up, print out and if all else fails open a bottle of spirits.

  2. Absolute material for a great novel there. You will get the fear down very well!

  3. Jane! Loved reading that sad little tale of your novel's near demise! Written in your usual fluent and inimitable style. However, a stern and rather alarming lesson for the future to make sure you have a USB flasher at least. I've got several of 'em and never go anywhere without 'em. Brilliant written piece though!

  4. By God haunted indeed. I hope you'll keep a usb flash drive with u for future instances.

    Aparajita@Le' Grande Codex

  5. Definitely will now have USBs strapped to both thighs when I go into these remote writing locations ...


    Victoria x


Many thanks for visiting my website and commenting! Victoria.