Setting is such a vital component of any horror story, to the extent that the place in which the narrative is framed can become a central character.
Take, for example, the eponymous building in Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, which she describes so chillingly as being “not sane.” Susan Hill’s 1983 ghost story The Woman in Black finds protagonist Arthur Kipps shacked up and shivering in Eel Marsh House, a haunted pile that is accessible only via the ominously named Nine Lives Causeway. In these narratives, the setting becomes an omnipresent, living (or un-dead) force to be reckoned with. The Queen of all horror storytellers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, describes a body of water in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) as, “a vast sheet of fire…beautiful yet terrific.” This mirrors the spark of life that gives Victor’s creature his agency, but also foreshadows the elemental fury and revenge that takes hold of him as he searches for the meaning of his existence.
When the time came for me to write my fifth novel, the folk horror Hearthstone Cottage, I knew I had to go back to the rural west coast of Scotland featured in my third book The Jack in the Green. I used moodboards of photos from my travels, and watercolours of old crofters cottages to paint a picture of the building and its surrounding landscape in my mind. Story discussions with my friend, director of photography Alan Stewart, decided that the region should be the Kintail Mountains with its dramatic lochs and peaks.
But I also needed a stone circle in the story and drew on my many pilgrimages to the Rollright Stones and Avebury in England in order to create my fictional ‘Spindle Stones’. As any academic folk horror book will remind you, isolation is a key element to this sub genre, and I needed a title that would help to convey that feeling of being alone in the landscape. I sent a shortlist of cottage names to my editor, the wonderful Don D’Auria, and he picked my favourite — Hearthstone Cottage.
Fast forward to summer of this year when i took a well earned break after editing the book. The road led me to the Wales/Shropshire border, where I’ve traveled many times.
There’s a white-knuckle inducing road, with a lovely old cottage on the corner. So every time I’ve driven past it, I’ve felt that jolt of fear from the road, along with the aesthetic beauty of the cottage. This time around there was a tractor in the road, causing all the traffic to slow down.
And for the very first time, I saw the name of the cottage I’ve driven past so many times over the years…
“2 Hearths Cottage!”
Beauty and terror rolled into one place. I wonder if the name had subliminally become etched into my subconscious, until it was ready to emerge in the waking nightmares of my new novel.
So, when you stay the night at Hearthstone Cottage, be warned — it really does have a history of terror.
“Lee creates an atmosphere of unease and foreboding that culminates in explosive violence and terror. Rife with frightening imagery, ghosts, and visceral horror, this tale will please the most ardent of horror fans.” – Booklist
Mike Carter and his girlfriend Helen, along with their friends Alex and Kay, travel to a remote loch side cottage for a post-graduation holiday. But their celebrations are short-lived when they hit and kill a stag on the road. Alex s sister Meggie awaits them in the cottage, adding to the tension when her dog, Oscar, goes missing. Mike becomes haunted by a disturbing presence in the cottage, and is hunted by threatening figures in the highland fog. Reeling from a shock revelation, Mike begins to lose his grip on his sanity. As the dark secrets of the past conspire to destroy the bonds of friendship, Mike must uncover the terrifying truth dwelling within the walls of Hearthstone Cottage.
Hearthstone Cottage is out now from Flame Tree Press: Amazon ** Flame Tree Publishing ** and all good stockists of haunted cottage novels
His film and television directing credits include the multi award-winning shorts On Edge and Red Lines, and the promo campaign for the Discovery Channel series True Horror With Anthony Head. He was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Gothic Filmmaker of the Year Award for his film The Stay. Frazer was named one of the Top 12 UK directors in MySpace.com s Movie Mash-up contest by a panel including representatives from 20th Century Fox, Vertigo Films, and Film Four.
Frazer is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Brunel University London and is an active member of the Horror Writers Association and International Thriller Writers. His guest speaking engagements have included The London Screenwriters Festival and The Guerilla Filmmakers Masterclass. Frazer Lee lives with his family in Buckinghamshire, England just across the cemetery from the actual Hammer House of Horror.
Meghan: Hi, Frazer. It is an HONOR having you here today. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Frazer Lee: Hello! Thanks for hosting me, and I must say that I love Meghan’s House of Books ☺ Forgive me while I switch to third person for the ‘official author bio’…
Frazer Lee is a novelist, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His debut novel The Lamplighters was a Bram Stoker Award® Finalist for Best First Novel. Winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Gothic Filmmaker of the Year Award for The Stay, his film credits also include the acclaimed feature film Panic Button. Frazer resides with his family in Buckinghamshire, just across the cemetery from the real-life Hammer House of Horror.
Meghan: What are five things most people don’t know about you?
I have a mysterious scar on my right hand.
An obsessive fan of The Cure, I have seen the band play like 38 times so far. (I know that isn’t very many, so I’m working on it.)
I was vegetarian for twenty-five years, but recently became pescatarian after recurring fever dreams involving flapping fish in an ocean storm.
My middle name is Alaric.
I am unable to converse until I am on my 2nd coffee. (I’m drinking my 2nd right now, luckily.)
Meghan: What is the first book you remember reading?
Frazer Lee: The Gauntlet by Ronald Welch, which transported me to a medieval world. Oh my goodness, what a book. I cried when I finished it because I didn’t want it to be over and I felt so bereft.
Meghan: What’s a book you really enjoyed that others wouldn’t expect you to have liked?
Frazer Lee: Perhaps Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard because it is rather on the sentimental side and my reputation as a hardened cynic goes before me?
Meghan: What made you decide you want to write? When did you begin writing?
Frazer Lee: I started writing stories in junior school because I lived in Staffordshire and needed to escape somewhere. (As Lou Reed and John Cale once sang, when you’re growing up in a small town, and you’re having a nervous breakdown, you just have to get out of there.) Reading, and writing, did exactly that. (Some of) my teachers encouraged me, and for that I am eternally grateful. I remember smiling when my school report said, “I look forward to Frazer’s first novel.” Took a while, but I got there in the end.
Meghan: Do you have a special place you like to write?
Frazer Lee: I like to write surrounded by trees, with my cat by my side, but I also like to write on the move, on trains, planes, in cafes, but never in automobiles – that’s too dangerous.
Meghan: Do you have any quirks or processes that you go through when you write?
Frazer Lee: I like to write to music without lyrics, and I enjoy playing physical CDs and vinyl, so I often go through a kind of stop-start-stop again dance when I’m finding the right groove in which to begin a book. I talk to myself A LOT. And that 2nd coffee thing I mentioned earlier also applies to the writing, more often than not.
Meghan: Is there anything about writing you find most challenging?
Frazer Lee: Nagging self-doubt can be a problem. That feeling that it’s not coming out quite how you’d hoped or imagined and what’s the point anyway? Like most things in life, it’s nothing that a stroll in the woods can’t sort out. Grit your teeth, roll the dice, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.
Meghan: What’s the most satisfying thing you’ve written so far?
Frazer Lee: I wrote a scenario about a grown man trapped in the skin of a young boy and he does this insanely disgusting thing with a big syringe and someone’s buttock fat… I don’t know if it was satisfying but it sure did make me cackle a lot writing it!
Meghan: What books have most inspired you? Who are some authors that have inspired your writing style?
Frazer Lee: My favourite novel of all time is still Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Bloody hell though, it has everything. Familial drama and tragedy, impossible highs and unfathomable lows, beautiful imagery that ties the whole experience together so memorably. And through it all, the terror of loving – and of losing. I think that mash-up of the Gothic and cutting edge science has had a long lasting effect on me. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I love J.G. Ballard’s writing so much as he continues that blend of new ideas/technology with the structure of a classic murder mystery or police procedural, but adds such a uniquely perverse dimension to proceedings that sometimes makes you feel grubby for just reading the book.
Meghan: What do you think makes a good story?
Frazer Lee: An idea. A character, her vividly rendered world, and a seemingly insurmountable problem.
Meghan: What does it take for you to love a character? How do you utilize that when creating your characters?
Frazer Lee: Cheesy as it may sound, there’s that sweet spot when they’re speaking to you as you write them. If I can feel how they feel, hopefully readers can feel that too. I’m attracted to deeply flawed characters. The deeper those flaws, the more interesting I find them. There are no sexual athletes and crack-shots in my stories, more likely a bunch of barely functioning failures. That’s not for everyone, I know. If you want shiny, try your luck at a casino. I’ll wait for you in the basement bar.
Meghan: Which, of all your characters, do you think is the most like you?
Frazer Lee: I doubt that I’m the best person to judge that, but maybe the Skin Mechanic? (I’m a dab hand with a flesh-comb too.)
Meghan: Are you turned off by a bad cover? To what degree were you involved in creating your book covers?
Frazer Lee: I’ve been lucky that I’ve rather enjoyed my book covers so far. My editors and publishers always involve me in the process with a questionnaire, where I get to drop heavy hints about things I’d like to see or un-see. They are never quite as you imagined them, though, and that’s all part of the fun I think.
Meghan: What have you learned creating your books?
Frazer Lee: I’ve learned that it’s good to have a level of attack, but that’s it’s also good to let the thing breathe a bit and to never kid yourself that you have all the answers.
Meghan: What has been the hardest scene for you to write so far?
Frazer Lee: That was a scene in The Jack in the Green because it’s based on something horrible that happened in my early childhood. I won’t go into the details because I’m having a pretty good day so far and I don’t really want to go there again… into the dark… not now anyhow, maybe later.
Meghan: What makes your books different from others out there in this genre?
Frazer Lee: I think that would be for the readers to decide. Maybe each and every book is unique in its combination of character and plot. You could give the same outline and character bios to two different writers and they would create completely different books. I’ve learned that one reader’s “different good” may be another reader’s “different bad” so there’s nothing to be gained from trying to guess which way it’s going to play. I think just be true to yourself, the character, the story and it’ll come out how it has to.
Meghan: How important is the book title, how hard is it to choose the best one, and how did you choose yours (of course, with no spoilers)?
Frazer Lee: The title is usually one of the easiest parts of the creative process for me. Occasionally, you might need a second opinion. I had a few different titles for Hearthstone Cottage and sent them over to my amazing editor Don D’Auria, and he resoundingly preferred the one that’s now on the book spine. And he was right, of course. He so often is (but don’t tell him that, whatever you do!)
Meghan: What makes you feel more fulfilled: Writing a novel or writing a short story?
Frazer Lee: A story well told is a story well told. How well, that’s always up for debate of course. It’s just a sense that the story is the best it can be at that given time, subject to deadlines, and any other constraints, before the story wriggles free of your grasp and you have to hand it over to readers. There is a sense of fulfillment to having gone through that process, and there’s no difference really in how that feels whether it’s a short story, or a novel, or a short film or a feature length movie screenplay, in my experience.
Meghan: Tell us a little bit about your books, your target audience, and what you would like readers to take away from your stories.
Frazer Lee: Each of my books does something a little different with the horror ingredients of isolation, confrontation, and transformation. My target audience is, honestly, anyone who will make the time to pick it up and give it a whirl. I’d like readers to take what they will from my tales, but as I write primarily in the horror genre, I do hope they take away some nightmares with them. You’re welcome.
Meghan: Can you tell us about some of the deleted scenes/stuff that got left out of your work?
Frazer Lee: I write to pretty detailed outlines, so there aren’t really deleted scenes as such. But anything tangential has to go, unless it works. The deleted bits are often the most uninteresting and expository asides about the minutiae of a character’s life, or their belief system (or lack of one). Hopefully what remains serves the character and their story and keeps the forward momentum going. Sometimes moments that are too gratuitously visceral or violent get edited out in favour of what you don’t get to see, because that’s often far more disturbing and scary.
Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?
Frazer Lee: I am working on a new horror novel for Flame Tree Press called Greyfriars Reformatory. It’s a haunted institution story with a post-modern twist. I have a script doctor commission on a movie screenplay that I’m contractually not allowed to talk about. And I’m developing another film project or two for my sins, which are legion.
Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview?
Frazer Lee: Hee, I find the concept that I would have ‘fans’ ludicrous…
I would just like to thank you again for hosting me on the blog today, and to say to anyone who has ever read my stories or watched my films, thank you for taking the time and I hope to see you again soon in your nightmares!
One of Frazer’s early short stories received a Geoffrey Ashe Prize from the Library of Avalon, Glastonbury. His short fiction has since appeared in numerous anthologies including the acclaimed Read By Dawn series.
Also a screenwriter and filmmaker, Frazer’s movie credits include the award-winning short horror films On Edge, Red Lines, Simone, The Stay, and the critically acclaimed horror/thriller feature (and Amazon #1 movie novelization) Panic Button.
Mike Carter and his girlfriend Helen, along with their friends Alex and Kay, travel to a remote loch side cottage for a post-graduation holiday. But their celebrations are short-lived when they hit and kill a stag on the road. Alex’s sister Meggie awaits them in the cottage, adding to the tension when her dog, Oscar, goes missing. Mike becomes haunted by a disturbing presence in the cottage, and is hunted by threatening figures in the highland fog. Reeling from a shock revelation, Mike begins to lose his grip on his sanity. As the dark secrets of the past conspire to destroy the bonds of friendship, Mike must uncover the terrifying truth dwelling within the walls of Hearthstone Cottage.