Real-life locations: a source of nightmare … and solace

This article appeared in the Evening Herald last Saturday – I trust they won’t mind me putting it up here. It’s about the real-world locations that inspired Shiver the Whole Night Through…and where some of it was even written.

Creating a sense of place is hugely important in books; it grounds the narrative, establishes the fictional universe, enriches the whole thing. For my latest novel, Shiver the Whole Night Through, I took that to the next level in two ways: by making “place” essentially a character in its own right, and by using real locations as inspiration for the setting.

Second one first: my Young Adult novel is a noir-style mystery with a paranormal edge and elements of horror, fantasy and romance. It starts with 17-year-old bullying victim Aidan thinking of ending it all. He stays his hand, then hears that local beauty Sláine really has killed herself. One night a message forms in ice on his window: ‘I didn’t kill myself.’ Determined to discover the truth, Aidan is drawn into a dream-world of magic, terror, revenge and redemption, as the world turns ever-colder and an ancient evil threatens everyone.

The forest outside his small Atlantic Coast town is called Shook Woods – from the Irish “siochta”, for “frozen” (dramatic irony, as the area is soon engulfed in a weirdly extreme winter). The story for Shiver had been percolating in my mind for years, and was strongly inspired by real places I regularly visit.

First, a large Coillte plantation in Killanena, Co Clare, about seven miles from my home. Row after row of huge fir trees, almost military-formation in their straight lines. Something very spooky about it, almost intimidating, even during the day: hardly any light penetrates the massed ranks of trees. It was easy to imagine dark deeds and darker hearts dwelling within this endless twilight.

More forests nearby, of different size and aspect. Dromore Nature Reserve near Ennis, which reminded me how much other life is found in these places, besides the arboreal. Coole Park in Galway, famously the home of Lady Gregory and inspiration to Yeats, Synge and many others (yeah, I like to aim high artistically). Various forests I’ve known down the years in the Burren of North Clare.

And the Burren itself is so strange, otherworldly and beautiful that it couldn’t help filtering through. One scene in Shiver – when Aidan and Sláine first meet – takes place in a clearing within the woods, surrounded by straight-edged rock.

Take it away, Aidan: “The rock-face was cut sharply at both ends and stepped in shape, making the whole place resemble an ancient amphitheatre that’s been let return to nature. Like something they might visit in a TV show about the Greek islands.”

Indeed, so deeply did my actual location influence the book’s fictional locations that I ended up writing some of it in the forest. It sounds an awful cliché, I know – the author sitting in “deep” contemplation of sublime nature, or something.

I never used to believe those stories writers would tell. Nevertheless, in this case it’s all true. I’d park my car at Killanena, light a smoke, pour some coffee, stare out at the dark pines and then, after a while, start typing…

The other way in which a sense of place matters profoundly in Shiver is this: Shook Woods is a fundamental part of the story. As said already, it’s basically a character. It has a personality (which is spooky enough), it has agency (spookier still), it affects things and changes people (spookiest of all).

In some ways Shiver was my attempt at an Irish version of Twin Peaks, one of my all-time favourite works of art. And just as in David Lynch’s seminal drama, much of the pivotal action in Shiver takes place in the forest.

Without being too spoiler-ish: it’s where Sláine dies, her and Aidan meet, their relationship deepens, his whole view on life evolves. It’s also the source of all this murderous evil, and the stage for Shiver’s final reckoning.

More than that, I wanted (again like Twin Peaks) to capture the mood and atmosphere of the forest – any forest, all forests – and make them feel real, almost tangible to the reader. That unnerving sensation of dread and reverie and melancholy, which you can’t shake and don’t really want to.

I’ll let two of my characters explain it. One says: “I’d been searching for something my whole life, and somehow knew I would find it in this place… It’s the forest, I think. These black woods around us. The town itself is strange, there’s no doubting that. But the uncanny black heart of it lies in Shook Woods. It beats, that heart, it’s alive. This forest is alive, boy, in ways you could scarcely imagine. …They often are. Why do you think cautionary fairy-tales are usually set in the woods? That the highest concentration of serial killers in the United States is in the heavily forested North-West? It’s the place where our darkest selves are realised and revealed. Where the deepest melodrama of the human spirit is played out.”

And the second character thinks, “He was right, I reflected with dismayed horror. The woods were more than a collection of trees and wildlife: they were some kind of eerie dreamscape, a hellish netherworld into which I’d been drawn. Mysterious, ambivalent, unreal, yet strangely comforting too. The forest, I remember someone writing once, was everything those fairy-tales made you feel.”

Shiver the Whole Night Through, I hope, does that too. Makes you feel how the creepy, dreamy old fairy-tales did. But any success wouldn’t have been possible without the real-life woods around me. Source of nightmare and solace, an inspiration as deep as the black of a mid-forest night.


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