Solaris

Simon Bestwick on the origins of REDMAN'S HILL

3 years ago

One of the inspirations for Redman's Hill was a conversation I had with Jon Oliver at Fantasycon earlier this year. One of Jon's many talents is an eye for themes and preoccupations that crop up in a writer's work; sometimes he has a better grasp of what you writeabout than you have! One fascination he spotted in my case was the ways in which we change the landscape around us, and are changed by it; the relationship between what’s inside us and our environment.

 Something else Jon said was: ‘You’re a very English writer – without being nationalistic.’ He said he'd love to see a novel rooted in Englishness, in English folklore and myth, like Ben Wheatley’s  film A Field In England, or the writing of Alan Garner and Robert Holdstock. I love both those writers, so that wasn’t a hardship.

I also had in mind the work of Graham Joyce, who passed away a few days after Fantasycon, and who wrote novels in which the angels and devils of myth are just under the surface of contemporary life or hiding in the recesses of our souls, waiting to be turned loose. Graham had a seemingly effortless way of writing about the strange and the numinous in the same breath as the ordinary and everyday, and his work was never simply dark: it was also about the beauty and strength of love and compassion and the short, flawed lives of human beings.

Another theme – one that’s really preoccupied me writing this book – is that of mortality and the idea of an afterlife. Logically and rationally, there’s no evidence that any part of the personality or consciousness survives the death of the body; for myself, in the abstract, I can accept that. But the last few years I’ve lost several loved ones – including both my grandmothers, and, last year, the author and poet Joel Lane, who was one of my closest friends – and that’s a lot harder to accept in the same way. The belief in an afterlife may be the most universal one we have – more basic and more widespread even than religion. That doesn’t make it true, of course, but perhaps on some level it’s necessary for us to cope not only with the prospect of our own deaths, but that of the people we love.

 The other key influences are the twin cities of Manchester and Salford: Liverpool may be my home now, but I was born and bred in Manchester, went to college in Salford and lived there for over a decade. In a sense it still feels like home, and I needed that familiarity. (Outsiders often assume Salford is a part of Manchester. It isn't – it's a city in its own right, with its own identity, although it and Manchester have a close relationship and a lot of shared history.) Neither city is as ancient as, say, London, but they have their histories and stories, going back to Roman times and beyond. Funnily enough, now that I've moved to Liverpool, Redman’s Hill is my first novel to be set wholly in the Manchester/Salford area! 

Arodias Thorne is a fictional character, but he owes a lot to a historical mill-owner from Salford called William Douglas, otherwise known as 'Black Douglas', 'Black Bill' or 'Owd Billy'. A couple of places in Salford are named after him. The old mill-owners were a pretty harsh lot, but even by their standards Douglas was a complete bastard – it was actually said that he never did a single kind deed in his life. He used to recruit – or effectively buy – apprentices from orphanages or workhouses in the South and more or less literally work them to death. There are allegations of sexual abuse too. His body is actually interred in the walls of St Thomas' Church in Pendleton, because his tomb was desecrated so many times – that's how hated he was. His ghost is supposed to haunt parts of Salford, and there are people today who can remember their parents telling them to be home by dark or Black Bill would get them. There's no way you can't write about someone like that...

In terms of place, the biggest single influence on the novel is Higher Broughton in Salford, which Crawbeck is loosely based on; I lived there for a year in the 1990s, in a house at the top of Great Clowes Street. When you get to the very top of that street, the tarmac covering on the road disappears and instead you can see the old cobbles and even the old iron tram-tracks from the 19th century. Then if you follow them, you reach the Cliff, which is exactly what it sounds like – this sheer hundred-foot rock face directly above the Irwell River, with a whole street built along there.

But next to the Cliff, the cobbled road just drops away into nothing, and there's a flight of wooden steps that leads down into the woods of Kersal Vale, which is now a nature reserve. It's often called the Landslide as well, because that's why the road falls away like that – there was a major landslip back in the 1920s. So if you go down into Kersal Vale, it's almost like several landscapes at once. There's the land on either side of the river, which gives you two completely different walks, there are these thick, deep woodlands which are incredible in autumn, there are some high points which give  stunning views of the whole valley, there's a stretch of marshland – and then there's parts with all these ruins and remains of houses.  So, rather like Manchester itself, you've got all these different things driven together in a comparatively small space.

It's still somewhere I love going to – it's a beautiful place and it has all sorts of happy memories for me – and I think that's why it plays a big part (under the name Browton Vale) in this book. I think Redman’s Hill is a very different beast from The Faceless or Tide Of Souls. They were both large-scale, even apocalyptic books; this is smaller, quieter, more domestic. And The Faceless in particular was a very black, very unsparing novel; Redman’s Hill is frightening in places (or at least I hope it is) but I also think there are themes of healing and redemption there. There's more colour and variation, it owes as much to a very English tradition of fantasy to it as it does of horror.

Redman's Hill will publish December 2016. Until then you can check out Simon Bestwick's other works with Rebellion Publishing (including the acclaimed The Faceless) at our store here