Not too long ago, a tweet in my Twitter feed polled, “How do you come up with ideas for stories?” The thing is, there really is no singular way inspiration strikes. At least not for me.
Most of the time, my ideas stem from one of two sources. Primarily, I am and have always been (to the dismay of my elementary school teachers) a daydreamer. I daydream a lot. I play around with characters and ideas, imagining places and things that never existed. My son can tell you that when we are hiking, I am wont to ask him, out of the blue, “What if a two-headed troll emerged from behind that outcropping and demanded gold?” or “What if between those trees you saw a portal that appeared to lead to a very different kind of forest?” or some other weird query. These self-inflicted rabbit holes are a rich trove of story ideas.
A source nearly as abundant as my daydreams are the conversations I enjoy with my beloved best friend and co-author, Narcisse. We share imaginations that feed and grow from each other. Countless hours over the length of our friendship are spent building strange stories together. Some of those sessions have resulted in last minute scrambles to jot down notes lest we forget the ideas. For example, a lot of what occurs in The Tendrils of Fate was born of such conversations. By the way, if you sat next to me on the NJ Transit buses into New York City and had to listen to just my side of that banter, I offer my apologies!
But sometimes, an idea can arrive completely unexpected and from the most mundane of circumstances. This post is about my most recent inspiration.
As it happened, it was another tweet that set the wheels in motion. This time the post asked, “What movie scared you most when you were a kid?”.
When I was around eight, I was at my grandparents’ house on Saturday afternoon. For whatever reason, I was alone, in the so-called “Children’s Room” where we had an ancient black and white TV. That afternoon’s movie was a horror movie. I’ve always liked scary movies and was excited to finally watch one all by myself. Then it came on, the scariest film I had ever seen – Curse of the Demon aka Night of the Demon (1957).
The first five or so minutes freaked me out so much that I shut it off and ran outside for the safety of sunshine. But there was no solace to be found. That flick put the zap on my youthful head. So much so, that it took nearly twenty years for me to seek it out and watch it all the way through.
And wonder of wonders, Night of the Demon is a GREAT horror film. One of the all-time classics. It is intelligent, atmospheric, very film noir, has a terrific cast, talented director, and, most importantly, it is horrifying. The special effects may be dated, but aside from that one element of age, the plot and acting hold up terrifically well. If you haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend it. Night of the Demon (the British uncut version) is one of my top-five favorite horror films!
Now you know my answer to the tweet. However, it had been a long, long time since I thought about that movie and how much I loved it. So I googled it and found some trivia. For example, it is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite horror films. The Director, Jacques Tournier, also directed The Cat People (1942). I also didn’t know that Kate Bush used it as part of her song Hounds of Love. And, oddly enough, as I write this I am listening to Spotify random radio, based on one of my gothic playlists, when the Lustmord song, Ixaxaar, came on!
Reading through articles written by other horror aficionados with a love of the film, a tidbit in a random comments section caught my attention. A commenter suggested that a far scarier story was a true event that happened over twenty years before the film—the murder of Charles Walton in 1945 aka The Witchcraft Murder. Unfamiliarity with the case spurred curiosity and what awaited was a fascinating tale of murder and folklore.
Here is an abridged version of the events. On February 14, 1945, a 74-year-old agricultural laborer was found murdered on a hill in Lower Quinton, Warwickshire, England. He had been beaten with his walking stick, his throat deeply cut with his own slash hook, and the corpse pinned to the ground with a pitchfork. The murder was investigated by a famous detective of the time, Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard. The detective was stymied by a wall of silence from the community. Additionally, the investigation uncovered a deep history of black magic and witchcraft in the region along with rumors that the murder was not over a dispute about loans but a ritual killing. A belief he apparently espoused later in life, in his memoirs.
The strange and still unsolved murder of Charles Walton is much more curious and fascinating than the previous paragraph reveals. Ann Carney wrote a wonderful history of the incident on her blog at Owlcation.com and the two videos she linked at the bottom by Curious World are very much worth viewing: The Witchcraft Murder Part 1 and Part 2.
While the murderer seems fairly obvious, it is the motive for the killing that remains unclear. Adding to the fascination is the bizarre conflation of real events and folklore. Start with the local history of Lower Quinton, then add the investigation by a superstar detective, the silence of the townsfolk, and finally the amateur inquiry by Margaret Alice Murray, an Anglo-Indian Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and folklorist with the University College London. At 87 years-old, Professor Murray disguised herself as an artist and infiltrated the community in an effort to uncover the truth. She came away convinced the occult was involved.
Other fascinating aspects include encounters with the legendary Black Dog and the murder of Ann Tennant in 1795 under supposedly similar circumstances. Ann Tennant was murdered at age 80 in the town of Long Compton (fifteen miles away from Lower Quinton). She was attacked and killed by James Heywood, a self-proclaimed witch hunter. A pitchfork was the murder weapon. The records state that Heywood intended to kill up to sixteen more women that he knew were witches. It is believed that Heywood was insane.
Then another previously unknown mystery murder popped up in the materials—Wych Elm Bella. In 1943, the skeleton of a woman was found stuffed inside a wych elm tree by four boys who were poaching birds’ nests for eggs. Also unsolved, theories range from her being a murdered prostitute or the victim of a Nazi spy ring. Yet what drew my attention most is that this murder was also investigated by Margaret Alice Murray! She determined occult connections from the placement of a body in a wych elm. In fact, it was this case that led her to look into the murder of Charles Walton.
As I devoured all of this content I began wondering. What if the murders of Charles Walton, Ann Tennant, and Bella were indeed related? What if Charles Walton was actually a witch? What if the residents of Lower Quinton really do have some sinister secret to hide? What if there truly was an occult conspiracy that dated back to the dark ages, one with perhaps druidic connections?
Not just that, but consider the colorful characters involved. What if Robert Fabian and Margaret Ann Murray worked together as a team? Fabian did continue to investigate the matter long after the case was cold. And the more you learn about Margaret Murry, the more impressive she becomes.
What if I wrote a story that answered these questions?
And there you go, the inspiration for my next NaNoWriMo project in November 2019. While I don’t intend to write a fictional version of the real world events, I do plan to use those facts, folklore, and personalities as a launchpad for my own twisted tale of dark magic and the macabre.
Why the long wait? I have to finish editing my 2018 NaNoWriMo project and write the sequel to The Tendrils of Fate with Narcisse first. Plus there is plenty more research to do between now and then.
In conclusion, sometimes inspiration arises from the most unexpected sources. I hope this illuminates some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of how I approach writing.