The winter nights are cold and dark, the wind is howling through the trees and you’re in the mood to curl up in front of a crackling fire in a top hat – or, if you’re a lady, a pretty bonnet – to read something dark and gothic.
Vaughn Entwistle’s new novel The Angel Of Highgate takes us back to October 1859. Lord Geoffrey Thraxton is notorious in Victorian society – a Byronesque rake with a reputation. After surviving a near deadly pistol duel, boastful Thraxton finds himself on the wrong side of the attending physician Silas Garrette, a chloroform addict with a bloodlust, and when Thraxton falls in love with a mysterious woman who haunts Highgate Cemetery he unwittingly provides the murderous doctor with the perfect means to punish a man with no fear of death.
Entwistle has got form where supernatural chillers are concerned. He’s the author of two novels in The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle series – of which The Angel Of Highgate is a prequel – The Revenant of Thraxton Hall and The Dead Assassin. He lives in north Somerset with his wife and cats.
Vaughn gives us the intel on his new series, Thraxton, gargoyles, and the secrets of Highgate Cemetery, and finding your killer concept.
Tell us about Lord Geoffrey Thraxton. Where did you get the inspiration to write such a deliciously wicked character?
Lord Thraxton is a bit of a naughty boy. I would describe him as “wicked” in the naughty sense of the word: wicked but not evil. He is impulsive, utterly without boundaries, and has a self-destructive streak that leads him to frequent brothels, smoke opium, womanise, fight duels and tempt fate at each and every opportunity. He’s a pastiche of several real-life characters. Like Lord Byron, he would best be described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He’s also partially based upon also the Irish nobleman, The Marquess of Waterford, known by many as the “Mad Marquess” because of his drunken revels with a group of cronies that frequently ended in vandalism and public outrage.
But deep at the centre of Thraxton is a dark streak of melancholia. He was deeply wounded in childhood by the death of his beloved mother and the subsequent indifference of his stern father. In the novel. Thraxton is a metaphor for the Victorian preoccupation (some might term it, fetishisation) of death. The Victorian era was a time when, due to the prevalence of incurable diseases such as “consumption” (tuberculosis), many people died in the bloom of youth. (The Poet Keats is a tragic example.) The Victorians made an artform of mourning right down to strict conventions regarding the mourning clothes that had to be worn for a full year after the loss of a loved one. The creation of London’s “Magnificent Seven,” elysian necropolises such as Kensal Green Cemetery, Brompton Cemetery and, of course, the crown jewel, Highgate Cemetery, were the physical manifestation of the Victorian obsession with death and mourning.
Why are we so attracted to absolute rotters like Lord Geoffrey?
I think we are fascinated and drawn to scoundrels like Lord Geoffrey Thraxton because they have the power and influence to flaunt the conventions of society, where we do not (or at least not without suffering consequences). Although we all like to live in an orderly and safe world, I think readers get a vicarious thrill reading about a protagonist who follows his or her own path without fear of the social repercussions.
Why are we so fascinated by the Victorian underworld?
I think Dickens has to take a great deal of the blame for this. The criminal underword has always held a fascination for the rest of us. The Victorian criminal, from Jack the Ripper onwards, had the unique ability to slip away into the foggy night, evading capture by the authorities. As such, they become fearful shadows. We read horror and suspense novels because we like to be scared, and the Victorian underworld is filled with bogeymen. The two that feature in The Angel of Highgate: the Mobsman Mordecai Fowler and the deranged Doctor Silas Garette, are utterly ruthless psychopaths dredged up from your worst nightmare.
To me the most spectacular part of Highate Cemetery is the Egyptian Avenue, a dark and gloomy passageway entered by passing through a massive, pharoahnic arch (Egyptology was all the rage in Victorian England). The dark passageway is lined on either side by brass doored tombs and gradually ascends to a circle of granite tombs called The Circle of Lebanon, so named after the towering cedar at its centre. If you’re a topophile like me, there’s nothing to match it for sheer gothic atmosphere.
Will we be seeing the return of your paranormal sleuthing duo Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde?
I certainly hope so. I’m currently writing the third in the series while plotting the fourth book and have ideas for dozens of future books in the series.
You’ve had your own gargoyle-sculpting business! What makes a really handsome gargoyle?
Ugly and scary is what you’re looking for in a gargoyle, which is why my best gargoyles are based on what I look like when I get up in the morning—before I’ve quaffed a big mug of strong tea and had time to pound the horns back into my head.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
A novel takes a tremendous amount of work and consumes a huge chunk of your life. And yet I have written novels that will probably never see the light of day. Not because the writing was bad, but because the concept behind it was not commercial enough. You can write about any subject you like, but to attract the attention of an agent and then a publisher, you need a killer concept (something highly original, but not too way out). But a high concept alone is not enough; you must follow through with terrific writing featuring original characters, sparkling dialogue and vivid prose that crackles on the page.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, because beyond providing the archetype for the detective story with Sherlock Holmes, he was also an incredible innovator who penned ghost stories, science fiction, historical fiction and adventure stories.
Neil Gaiman: the consummate professional. Although he’s been writing for years, he continues to produce fresh, original writing.
Elizabeth Hand. A terrific writer with gorgeous prose. A terrific “voice” and a good prose style are essential for me. I’ve abandoned many novels if the prose is dull and unoriginal. I’m very proud of my own prose style and many fans comment upon it.
Ramsey McDonald. Recognised by many as the master of horror. His short stories are the best in the genre.
Give me some advice about writing…
If you are not writing, you should be reading and vice versa. It takes hours and hours of writing to discover your “voice.” There is no short cut for this. You should also be well read in whatever genre you decide to write in. Not so you can copy others, but so you can avoid copying them. To stand out in today’s crowded marketplace, you must offer something utterly original.
What’s next for you?
I am currently writing the third novel in the Paranormal Casebooks series, entitled, The Faerie Vortex. As you can guess from the title it’s about faeries. However, I always like to take an unconventional spin on whatever trope I use in my fiction. So these are not the Tinkerbell fairies of Disney, these are Faeries in the sense of The Fey: beings that are intimately linked with the Nether-realm that lies between life and death.
I’m also working on the plot of the fourth book in the Paranormal Casebooks series and when I’m not doing that I’m writing a collection of ghost stories.
The Angel Of Highgate is published by Titan Books on December 1st.