When the Psyche Gets Up Steam
Richard Lee talks to BARBARA ERSKINE, author of Lady of Hay, about the Church, the medical establishment, and her latest book, On the Edge of Darkness.
As a bookseller, one very quickly gets to recognise Barbara Erskine’s name. It isn’t just the number of sales, though a pleasing number do seem to chink their way past the tills, it’s the way the readers feel about the books. They look you straight in the eye, and tell you that this author is their favourite author. If you haven’t read one of her books, they look delighted. “Oh, well you must,” they say. It’s like they’re recommending a spectacular restaurant or a sure-fire bargain. And they will insist on buying them for friends.
On one occasion I sold four copies of Lady of Hay to one lady, who proceeded to give the books to four bemused friends who were with her. The friends started scrabbling with their wallets. “No let me buy them,” the lady said. She smiled smugly at me. “They’re going to love them, aren’t they.” And I’m sure they did. I was similarly hand-bagged into reading my first Erskine. A colleague lent me a copy, then asked every day how I was enjoying it. In the end I had to start it. But once started, there was no putting it down.
I think what fans love in Barbara Erskine’s books is the massiveness of the themes. Her books deal with such ideas as re-incarnation, out-of-body experience, regression through past lives, and passion that never dies. Of course, there is an element of New Age hocus pocus about this, but Erskine doesn’t write like a New Age guru. Her characters are intelligent and sceptical. Her plots are solidly based on fact: fact in the present; fact in the past. They present scientific research and medicine as those strange beasts are today – increasingly unsure of themselves, and increasingly capable of wonders. The logic of the books is that the hocus pocus is something that science will one day have understood and explained. It is certainly something for which there is an overwhelming quantity of human witness in all generations of man.By the time I came to meet Barbara Erskine I had read four of her books (Lady of Hay, Kingdom of Shadows, Child of the Phoenix, On the Edge of Darkness) and counted myself a fan. I was looking forward to the occasion, but also felt a certain trepidation.
It isn’t often that you venture into a conversation with a virtual stranger knowing at the outset that you will tackle subjects as intensely personal as religious belief, or as potentially embarrassing as astral sex. Happily, though, when Barbara arrived, it wasn’t awkward at all. We were soon drinking coffee and eating Danish pastries, happy as sandboys. The difficult subjects – well, they just sort of came with the flow of the conversation.
Barbara Erskine doesn’t see herself as a historical novelist. “Really, only Child of the Phoenix is a straight historical novel,” she says, “Actually, I’d like to write another, but they won’t let me…” she indicates her colleague from the HarperCollins publicity department, and I gather, in some unspoken way, that the straight historical book cannot have sold as well as the others. So what are the books, if not historical? I suggest, tentatively, horror? Barbara smiles. “Midnight has maggots in it, and so I became for a while an honorary horror writer, and that was great fun. Then I went to a Convention and saw what real horror writers looked like, and I thought ‘No, perhaps I’m not one of these'”. Or romance? “The romance is incidental, I think. Well, perhaps not. But if it is about romance it is about Karma and destiny and love down the centuries.” A bit like Wuthering Heights, I suggest. “Well… of course… it’s very flattering…” Barbara splutters. But yes, she admits. She does see her books as being written in the singular and very British tradition of Emily Bronte, and perhaps Daphne du Maurier.
The Wuthering Heights comparison, I think, is a useful one. When I asked her where she finds inspiration for her books, I was fully expecting her to say that they were from people she’d met, things she’d read. The germ of the idea for Lady of Hay, for example, as I knew, came from some tests that were being conducted at her university.
“Yes – I found out about [regression] at University, because a friend of mine was taking part. They were doing some experiments then in the psychology labs, just like in Lady of Hay, and she was regressed. She relived a sort of eighteenth century life in Scotland. They got access to go into the house that she described, and she described architectural details and details inside that were actually there. When it all started checking out, though, she panicked – got really really scared, and wouldn’t go on with it. But I was so intrigued. I’d never heard of regression before, and the thought of actually going to history – living it – was absolutely wonderful.”
Anyone who has read Lady of Hay will see in the above anecdote the whole motor of the story. But it isn’t what is important to Barbara Erskine.
“It was the landscape,” she said, “The atmosphere, the wonderful atmosphere of the Black Mountains. I have a very strong sense of the spirit of place, and the things that float up out of the ground – and the stories sort of appear. With Lady of Hay I kept falling over Mathilda. She kept knocking on doors. I kept noticing her. This was the woman that owned Hay castle, she was a witch, she was a giant, you know, she ran with the hell hounds, and yet she was a proper historical character. What kind of personality does a woman like that have? That all these legends have accrued round her. So it went from there. But it was the atmosphere that started it.”
Barbara Erskine’s first book, Lady of Hay, is about a sceptical journalist, Jo Clifford, who is writing a series of articles debunking 1980s fads. Fairly high up on the hit-list is regression. Jo does not know, though, that she herself was regressed back in her university days. She went into such a deep trance that she almost died, but the psychologist ensured that when she awoke, she remembered nothing. Sure enough, Jo is hypnotised and regressed once more. She relives again the life of Mathilda, Lady of Hay. In the present, Jo feels that she is going mad. More and more, she begins to realise that there are parallels between the past and the present – friends and enemies then, friends and enemies now. The story is written so tautly that the tension between the two time-lines feed one another. It is a remarkable book, full of lust, jealousy, ambition, obsession and selfishness, relieved only occasionally by acts of love and friendship. And Barbara is right; it isn’t really romantic. But it is certainly brooding, and majestic, like her Welsh hills.
Landscape isn’t always as simple as ‘place’, though, because the place may have disappeared or have been ruined. Sometimes it is necessary to work through the intellect to the senses.
“When I walk along the street,” Barbara says, “I’m always very conscious of what was there before rather than what’s there now, because modern cities are so hideous, so spoilt. But just there under the pavement… I’m a great one for looking down holes in the road. Living near Colchester, where you’ve got the Roman town underneath, every single hole that you look down you can see previous pavements, previous roads. You can still see the layer there of burnt earth, where Boudica burnt the city. You can actually see it as a black line under Colchester, because the heat was so intense. It was absolutely extraordinary, and it is still there, to be felt and sensed…”
Speaking with Barbara Erskine, you quickly get a sense of how she thinks, how she writes. There is always a wish to see more, or to see more deeply. Merely having seen deeply is not enough, though. What you see must also “be felt and sensed”. A lot of the passion of her writing comes from wanting to convey this feeling to her readers; and also from exasperation at those who will not try to feel the past.
“I want people to see things the way I see them,” she says, “So often you meet people and they don’t see it. They don’t see anything. They go through life with their eyes shut. Because there’s so much that’s wonderful and mysterious and exciting that we can see, never mind all the stuff that is more difficult to see.”
And what, exactly, is all this stuff that is more difficult to see?
“Well, science is getting there slowly,” she explains, “They’re sort of coming forward into the past. In the old days, people used their senses, they believed their intuition. It wouldn’t have occurred to them not to. But we’ve lost our confidence in ourselves. So we have to wait till science can reassure us that this is real.
“I belong to something called the Scientific and Medical Network which is a group of people all over the world who are trying to bring science and medicine into – you know – us lot coming the other way, as it were. And they’re particularly interested in out of body experiences, reincarnation, healing, all these kind of things that science at one end dismisses as total cobblers. And yet there is so much proof out there. Actually statistically acceptable tests that scientists are doing. And they’re just never reported in the journals because people are afraid of saying it.”
Kingdom of Shadows, Erskine’s second book, deals with similar themes to Lady of Hay, but this time the regression is less voluntary, less contrived. Clare Royland remembers the life of Isobel, Countess of Buchan, and this time the heavy and tragic history is set in Scotland. The plot is again elemental; Clare longs for a child; she passionately loves the ancestral home which has been left to her in her aunt’s will, Duncairn Castle in Scotland. There is loneliness, trappedness, sensuality and even eroticism in the book. The history that she relives provides both the barrier and the resolution to her present-day troubles.
This, for me, is the perfect Erskine cocktail: a measure of the more otherworldly side of Emily Bronte, and a measure of Sigmund Freud via some modern, probably feminine, commentator, against a background flavour that is by turns modern, by turns grittily medieval. Her writing style has something of the historical – the fantasy historical of, say, Mary Stewart – and something of the Eighties blockbuster – fast cars, fast women and fast plots, all with designer labels. However unlikely it seems, it is a combination that works, perhaps most of all because she believes it.
“You can’t deny that people are in touch with real lives,” she says, “Though whether it’s your own real life or someone else’s, I really don’t know. But it’s an awfully, awfully convincing theory.”
Following Kingdom of Shadows came Child of the Phoenix, a more or less straight historical (though still with astral sex), set in 13th-century Scotland, then two ‘ghost stories’, Midnight is a Lonely Place and House of Echoes. These latter are contemporary tales, told in real time, about the hauntings of families and houses.
With On the Edge of Darkness, her latest book, Erskine has returned to history, again to her beloved Scotland, but this time to the magical and dangerous world of the Picts. A standing stone, part crucifix, part pagan, acts as a portal between this world and previous ages.
“If there is real history,” she explains, “then I have to stick to it, I can’t manipulate it for my own ends. But if there’s a gap, then I can fill it in.”
The ancient standing stones are one such gap.
“There are lots of books on these picture symbols, but they tend to contradict one another, which is lovely, because I can put my own interpretation on them. Of course a magical interpretation is not the one you read in history books. In history books, they say they’re signposts, or gravestones or they’re clan totems or something. I don’t think that’s exciting enough myself, because they’re so dramatic as symbols.”
The most important of the magical symbols for the book is a symbol of a mirror, which is taken from an actual stone.
“The interpretation that history puts on that is that it’s to do with a woman, either a woman clan chieftain or a woman’s grave. And that’s probably not true, because when you think about it the Celts were very vain – but it was the men who wore the decoration, had the long hair and tattoos and all the rest of it. So I don’t know if that’s true. That’s as much an interpretation as mine. I think the idea of reflections is a nicer one.”
The stone provides a link between past and present, and the difference this time is that it is a character from the past – not a ghost, not a re-incarnation – who comes forward into the Twentieth century, pursuing the man she loves. Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that love’s path does not run smoothly.
Barbara Erskine’s plots are always metaphysical in this way, and I was intrigued to hear her views on religion. It turns out that she has a wonderfully English kind of faith – “I do regard myself as a Christian,” she confides, “I have a great-uncle who was a bishop, and we have a lot of clergymen in the family. I do go regularly to church, because the church is practically in our garden. We’ve got the old manor house – so it’s so close you couldn’t really not.”
Over the course of her novels, though, she has found both support and opposition from the Church.
“There are very different wings of the church. When I was actually writing Lady of Hay our local vicar was the Diocesan exorcist, he was very pro the book. He was tremendously helpful and he said, you don’t know the half of it, what exorcists have to deal with. On the evangelical wing of the church they can get quite – er – cross. And I don’t see why. If you believe in the supernatural, you’ve got to cover the whole span. Now angels and devils and miracles and the whole spiritual hierarchy has gone, and you’re left with just God, and you’re a bit embarrassed about that as well…That’s the great thing about the Church of England, that you can adapt it to your own ideas.”
I ask her about the Church’s position on reincarnation.
“If you go back you find they sort of abolished things reincarnation – when was it? At the Council of Nicaea was it? It was in order to keep the cure of your soul in the hands of the priest. You mustn’t leave that kind of thing in the hands of the people themselves. The church was being used as a political power by Rome, and it was a very good tool. Anything that allowed people their own kind of autonomy was taboo, frowned on, persecuted. They just said one day, OK, we don’t believe in this any more. And people who know about this will quote you loads of passages in the bible which more or less prove that Jesus believed in it. And the Old Testament too, even where people are reborn as other people. The Bible is always being used. It’s so open to interpretation that you can pick out the bits that suit you.
“When I was in the States I did get a lot of confrontation with very fundamentalist Christians who said I was dealing with the devil and who really went for me, which really stunned me, because in this country people don’t really take it that seriously if you write fiction.”
You can’t talk to Barbara Erskine, apparently, without asking her advice about regression. I was no exception to the rule.
“Unless you’re confident and happy about it, you mustn’t do it. SO many people have asked me a bout it now over the years – but no, if you are frightened, you must not do it. Because you never know what you’re going to turn up. That’s the reason you’re scared.
“If you are going to do it, you’ve got to do it with someone who knows what they are doing, and will help you stand back from it, if it starts getting hairy. Someone who will make sure you’re seeing it as a film or picture. Someone to make sure that you are conscious that you’re not that person now.
“You know, nowadays, everyone knows about this, and there are loads of people around doing regression, but twelve, thirteen years ago when I was researching this, there were very few. I was going through the yellow pages trying to find someone who would do it. I found a good chap, in that he had trained with someone who had actually written a book on the subject, but he hadn’t done it before, and he didn’t make me stand back, so I was describing kind of living all this and coming to a sticky end, which is not good, not good at all.
“You’ve got to allow people the space. Otherwise it haunts you and you dream and your psyche gets up steam.”
Before going, I ask her about future projects. The next book, she says, is about Egypt. For longer term projects, though, she seems vague. I ask her about the story suggested by her own regression. Would she dare to go back to that?
“At the time – I had no regrets – but I did think no more. But maybe one day. The thing is that it was glimpse into a story that was very interesting indeed. There is a lot of processing that’s got to happen first, but maybe I would like to write it one day.”
(c) Richard Lee, 1999
First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 5, Spring 1999.