The ghosts of wartime past: Simone St. James’ 1920s Gothic fiction
by Sarah Johnson
SJ: An Inquiry into Love and Death is set in post-WWI England, and the war still exerts a strong pull on the characters. Why does this period lend itself especially well to an atmospheric ghost story?
SS: I picked the era at first simply because I love it and always have. It’s a tremendously fun era, and when I started a few years ago (pre-Downton), it was relatively hard to find in fiction.
But as I write, I find there are lots of ways the era lends itself to ghost stories. The lack of technology is handy — there were still remote places, lacking in electricity, with no phones or radios, so a sense of true isolation was still possible. And when you think of the immense number of men who had died in the war, of all of the families and towns left bereft, you have very fertile ground for a ghost story.
SJ: Jillian Leigh is a female student at Oxford in 1924, and many people don’t know what to make of her. How did you develop her character?
SS: The classic trope of the gothic is the helpless heroine, who is isolated and at the mercy of the hero, who she isn’t sure she should trust. For this book, I wanted to turn that on its head. What if the heroine of the gothic was smart, courageous, and the kind of girl you’d want to be friends with?
A girl of the time couldn’t have attended Oxford without family money, so I gave her a family who approves of her education. But Jillian has lived an insulated life, tutored and buried in books, attending an all-female college. She hasn’t really seen life up close, and she doesn’t have much experience with men. She hasn’t yet reached her full potential. That was what I explored.
SJ: In going through her late Uncle Toby’s things, Jillian is surprised by the scientific nature of his ghost-hunting equipment; he used a galvanoscope to discern the presence of ghosts rather than séances, for example. How did you investigate 1920s-era ghost hunting?
SS: I didn’t specifically investigate ghost hunting in that era, actually. What I did was take a look at the technology of the time and put together my own ghost hunting kit. (Sometimes, when you’re writing fiction, you can’t let research dampen the creative fun.) I thought, if I were a ghost hunter, what could I use? And my research stemmed from there.
The galvanoscope was a happy accident—I was reading about the war at sea during the Great War, for reasons that are significant to the plot, and found a passing mention of the use of the galvanoscope in detecting submarines. Britain used them to detect the magnetic fields of approaching U-Boats. That was one of those great “a-ha!” moments that make authors want to tell strangers in the street about their good fortune.
SJ: I loved the gorgeous descriptions of the local region. Did you base Rothewell on any particular town?
SS: I used Clovelly, in Devon, as a very basic starting point – it’s a pretty town set on very steep cliffs down to the sea. But from there I imagined everything from the ground up. Most of my settings are vividly real in my imagination, so I write them down. For supplemental research, besides Google, I find dusty old travel books from that period and read the descriptions.
SJ: I’m excited to see gothic mysteries with romantic elements making a comeback. Do you have any favorites in this genre?
SS: I didn’t discover gothics until my twenties, which was when I discovered Mary Stewart. Other authors like Victoria Holt come close, but to me nothing matches Mary Stewart’s brilliance with plot, prose, and character. If you like my books and you’ve never read her, go out immediately and pick up her books!
Simone St. James’ An Inquiry into Love and Death was published by NAL in March ($14.00, 368pp). Visit http://www.simonestjames.com for more details.
About the contributor: SARAH JOHNSON is HNR‘s Book Review Editor.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 64, May 2013