I’ve been hanging around cemeteries for the past year or so. Two cemeteries, to be precise, in Scarborough, North Yorkshire: the Victorian Dean Road and its late-Victorian overspill, Manor Road, connected by an underpass. Dean Road has a Dead House — a small Victorian mortuary where the dead from the same road’s nineteenth-century hospital, workhouse and prison were laid out prior to burial. Manor Road has a Secret Garden in a steep ravine, a rockery that, until volunteers cleared it, was more lost than secret.
Both cemeteries are beautiful but they also have toppled headstones and broken memorials, grand mausoleums and graves smashed open. There are shattered urns and headless statues and angels with broken wings. So far, then, their spirit of place is conventionally spooky. It takes me back to my teenage years, when I first got interested in the importance of spirit of place in fiction by visiting the old churchyards of the Pendle villages that featured in Harrison Ainsworth’s Victorian potboiler The Lancashire Witches and Robert Neill’s 1951 historical novel, Mist Over Pendle.
I started loitering in the cemeteries not to drink cider with the various men I occasionally stumbled over in the Secret Garden but to devise a different way of delivering a narrative as part of Books by the Beach, the literature festival I launched in Scarborough in April 2014.
This project started when I heard actress Greta Scacchi do an evening of ghost stories for the festival in Scarborough’s abandoned Victorian prison. I’ve always liked the timbre of her voice but the audience and I were enthralled by the nuances she put into her enactments. (These weren’t just readings). This was particularly the case when she was doing Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’: she moved effortlessly from cunning to tremulous to terrified. It was powerful stuff but I thought how much more powerful if she were narrating something like that right into your ear.
I wanted to tell a story set in the cemetery. I felt I needed to play to the location’s conventional strengths. My plan was that the audience would ‘walk the story’, pausing at specific points in the graveyard to hear the next brief chapter. I felt Greta could have fun with a love story with a tragic ending that turned into a ghost story and/or descended into madness. She agreed.
I was assuming love blossomed in the story via a rendezvous in the secluded Secret Garden and ended tragically at the Dead House. But wandering around in the cemetery, pondering murder and supernatural malarkey, I was also thinking about how to deliver the story technically. And I realised I had a logistical problem that was going to affect its structure.
Each audience member would receive and eventually return a headset. The only practicable place for that transaction was outside the Dead House, where we could set up a table and where we had shelter if needed. That meant my story must start and end there. Which actually made sense artistically too. I came up with the first line of the story: ‘A mortuary is more of an end than a beginning, I know.’
The volunteers had given me brief notes about the most notable graves. I walked the cemetery myself, pacing out the distance between the graves and statuary I’d taken a fancy to. I really liked the idea of using the grave of a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade but it was located too far away from anything else. Plus it was dated too early — I was thinking my story was late Victorian. There were graves of those killed in the notorious German bombardment of Scarborough during the Great War but that was too late.
I found a druggist’s grave. Dr Charles Rooke. He had earned his medical qualification as a doctor in Giessen in Germany. I googled him and his most popular items were ceramic pots of Solar Elixir and Golden Ointment, each costing two shillings and ninepence. But, of course, for my purposes, he would sell laudanum and make Scarlett an addict willing to do anything in this graveyard for fresh supplies.
I found another grave commemorating a classic love affair — except my notes told me the man’s other wife was buried a few hundred yards away. I could use that. I walked beneath a high iron bridge and saw (in my imagination) someone take a tumble and land near a tomb that was broken open.
The volunteers told me that many reminiscences of the Secret Garden from the 1950s and 60s talked about a Pink Lady glimpsed through the trees. There was also the phenomenon of the sinking sun turning the pond there blood red on occasion. It was clearly incumbent on me to ensure that someone drowned in that pond. I was cooking with gas — although I did wonder if I had been possessed by the actual spirit of this place.
My main structural problem now was that the route I had decided upon – from the Dead House to the Secret Garden and back – was a bit of a hike. Pragmatically, I needed the story to last a maximum of 45 minutes. I decided on eleven listening points. Some were at tombstones for real people who would become part of the story, others at graves near which elements of Scarlett’s story might have occurred.
I don’t actually live in Scarborough, or anywhere very near to it, so when it came to writing most of the story I was a couple of hundred miles away poring over maps and notes and photographs I’d taken. Completing the story like that caused a bit of a hiccup in the narrative, though I didn’t realise it at the time.
I’d got the narrative pretty much where I wanted it by February 2015, two months before the festival. It was in the programme as ‘The Dead House’. Greta was filming War and Peace for the BBC in Russia but she got her voice-over agent to email me the names of a few recording studios she’d worked in. They were all in central London and pretty expensive. She told me she was going to be in Brixton for a few days so we agreed to support a community studio there.
Only then did I send Greta my story. Nervously — she was doing Tolstoy scripted by Andrew Davies at the time after all. A couple of weeks later, she was perched on a stool in a rather basic sound studio — you might call it a broom closet. ‘Did I just hear a bus go by?’ she broke off to ask. Actually, it was a tube train, Greta. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to try to support a community studio. Especially as, I realised, it was a broom closet. I could see a bucket and brush in the corner behind her.
She’s a pro, of course. Did the reading in an hour though I’d booked two hours for the studio. (The story had ended up about 35 minutes long.) She left and I stayed with the techie to put spaces in between the ‘chapters’ and ensure that when she did more than one version of a sentence or a phrase the right one went in. (It was fascinating to hear her trying different versions of some of my lines. Did I suggest readings? No. I was mostly hoping that she was not trying different versions because what I’d written still made no sense.)
I got the files as email attachments. I took them to Scarborough with me so Rob, my techie there, could help me get them onto the MP3 players. As he was doing so, headphones on, he said: ‘Did I just hear a bus go by?’ A tube train, actually, Rob. He cleaned the files up.
When The Dead House project opened I was touched when Greta texted me from Russia to ask how it was going down. Very well, I texted back — when I was able. My fingers were frozen after spending seven hours a day in a chilly cemetery. Actually, the technology proved a bit more demanding for some people than I expected and I was kicking myself for that aforementioned hiccup in the narrative.
I was the first to ‘walk the story’ and I realised I’d underestimated the distance between the underpass and the iron bridge when doing my final draft. That meant a bit of a sprint for the audience in the middle section of the narrative if they were to keep the suspense up.
Of course, I was most worried that listeners would be disappointed in my story but I figured Greta’s delivery would make up for any of its shortcomings. Thankfully, there was genuine enthusiasm for the story and the narrator — indeed for the whole unusual experience, even in the cold. (Actually, the cold helped as it made the daytime suitably bleak.)
There’s always one, of course — although in this case she had a point. The great- great-great granddaughter of Dr Rooke was a bit miffed that I’d turned her ancestor into a villain.