Author Interview: Peter James on The House on Cold Hill

Ladies and gentlemen, dear readers old and new. I am very, very delighted and proud to present you with my very first author interview and it is with one of the most celebrated writer’s of crime. A few weeks ago, I was requested to read and review the book The House on Cold Hill by crime writer Peter James. The book was released last week. Here, I present my Q+A session with the writer.

1. Briefly tell me about the experiences you had that inspired the events in your novel The House on Cold Hill, both in buying the house and concerning any events that you experienced?

The House On Cold Hill is very much inspired by – and modeled on – an isolated historic house in Sussex that my former wife and I bought in 1989 – and which turned out to be seriously haunted.

It was a classically beautiful, rather melancholic looking Georgian manor house on the edge of a Sussex hamlet, with a long history. Before being a manor house in the Middle Ages it had been a monastery, and prior to that there had been a Roman villa on the site. My wife and I were born townies and, much like the characters in novel Caro and Ollie, we were excited at the prospect of owning this huge mansion, but it was a financial stretch with a seemingly endless list of work to do on it. We had many unexplained things happen there, and our neighbours, and even our guests, reported some extremely spooky ghostly sightings. During one of my meetings with the previous owner he said, “You’ll love this place with what you write – we have four ghosts!” It turned out he was fibbing. There were four!

2. Your research notes mentioned four separate ghosts in the house that you bought. As an extension of the previous question, are any of the ghosts in the book a direct inspiration?

I’ve certainly used parts of my own experiences and those that I have been told about during my time in that house.

One significant ghost does appear in The House On Cold Hill… I’ll explain a bit of the background. I was standing in the front porch, on a beautiful spring morning, with my then mother-in-law, a very down-to-earth lady, who was a senior magistrate. But she had a ‘fey’ side to her – in that she was very open minded about the paranormal, and always had a particular recurring, frightening dream whenever someone she knew was about to die.

From the front door where we were standing, there was a long, narrow corridor which ran almost the width of the house, through to an oak-panelled atrium, with four Doric columns, which led through into the kitchen. This atrium was all that remained of the monastery which had originally been on the site, and you could still see the arches where the altar had been.

As we stepped aside to let the removals men leave the house to fetch another item, I suddenly saw a shadow, like the flit of a bird across a fanlight, in the interior of the house.

‘Did you see that?’ she asked, with a knowing look.

Despite the warmth of the sunlight, I felt a sudden chill. I knew at that moment she had seen something uncanny. But I did not want to spook my wife on our very first day in this house. We were both townies, and this was our first move into the countryside. She was already apprehensive about the isolation of the property. The last thing I needed was for her to be unnecessarily scared by a ghost! So I shook my head and told her I had not seen anything. But in truth, I was feeling a little spooked by this.

Our first night was uneventful, and our Hungarian Puli dog had been very happy and calm. I’d been told that dogs would often pick up on any supernatural occurrence way before their owners, so I took this a good sign.

In the morning, my wife left for work at 8am. After breakfast I went to my study to resume work on my third supernatural novel, Sweet Heart. Around 10.30am I went downstairs to make a cup of coffee. As I entered the atrium, on my way through to the kitchen, I saw tiny pinpricks of white light all around me. My immediate reaction was that it was sunlight, coming through the window in the far wall, reflecting off my glasses. I took them off, put them back on, and the pinpricks of light had gone.

I returned to my study, but when I went downstairs to make myself some lunch, the same thing happened. And again after removing my glasses and putting them back on again, the pinpricks had gone. But I was left with a slightly uneasy feeling. In the afternoon, when I went downstairs to make a mug of tea, it happened again.

I said nothing to my wife when she arrived home that evening, and she did not see anything.

The next day around mid morning, when I was alone in the house, I saw the pinpricks again, and at lunchtime. After lunch I took the dog for a walk. We’d only gone a short distance along the lane when an elderly man came up to me, introducing himself as a neighbour in the hamlet. ‘You are Mr James, aren’t you?’ he asked.

‘Yes, I am,’ I replied.

‘You’ve just moved into the Manor?’

‘Two days ago.’

‘How are you getting on with your grey lady?’ he said, with a strange, quizzical look that immediately unsettled me.

‘What grey lady?’ I asked.

He then really spooked me. ‘I was the house sitter for the previous owners. In winter, they used the atrium as a ‘snug’ because, adjoining the kitchen, it was always warm from the Aga. Six years ago I was sitting in the snug, watching television, when a sinister looking woman, her face grey, and wearing a grey, silk crinoline dress, materialized out of the altar wall, swept across the room, gave me a malevolent stare, gave my face a flick with her dress, and vanished into the paneling behind me. I was out of there thirty seconds later, and went back in the morning to collect my things. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back in there again!’

I was struck both by the sincerity of the man, and his genuine fear, which I could see in his eyes as he told me the story. It truly made the hairs on the back of my neck rise.

I returned to the house after our walk, feeling very uncomfortable. I even wimped out of going through the atrium into the kitchen to make my afternoon cuppa! But when my wife came home in the evening, I said nothing – I suppose I did not want to believe it myself, and she was still extremely nervous about living in such an isolated house.

The following Sunday, we had invited her parents to lunch. Whilst she was occupied putting the finishing touches to the meal, I took her mother aside and asked her what exactly she had seen that day we were moving in.

She described a woman, with a grey face, dressed in grey silk crinoline, moving across the atrium – exactly what the old man had described to me.

I was stunned – and very spooked. Later, after her parents had left, I decided I had to tell my wife. She took it in the pragmatic way she had of dealing with most difficult issues in life. ‘You’ve met several mediums in your research – why don’t you ask one of them to come in and see what they find?’

A few days later, a medium who had helped me a lot during my writing of Possession came to the house, and I took her into the atrium, and left her on her own, as she had requested.

An hour later she came up to my study, and yet again, described exactly this woman in grey silk crinoline. She explained the pinpricks of light I kept seeing by telling me I was slightly psychic, so while I was not actually seeing the entire apparition, I was picking up some of its energy – hence the pinpricks of light.

I asked her if there was anything I could do about this, and she told me that the apparition was of a deeply disturbed former resident of the house, and that it needed a clergyman to deal with it.

I felt a tad cynical about her response – but at the same time, I was now feeling deeply uncomfortable in what should have been the sanctuary of my own home. But there was a vicar I knew who I thought would be able to help, and with whom I had become good friends.

At the time he was officially the Vicar of Brighton – but with another hat, he was also officially, the Chief Exorcist of the Church Of England. That wasn’t his actual title, which was the less flaky-sounding Minister Of Deliverance. He is delightful human being, with whom I had become good friends, and still am to this day. He is a modern thinker, a clergyman who has a problem with the biblical concepts of God, yet still retains an infectious faith.

I was a little surprised when he cheerfully entered the atrium, stood still for a couple of minutes, and then loudly and very firmly enunciated, into thin air, ‘You may go now!’

He turned to me and said, ‘You should be fine now.’

Well, we were, until a mid June day in 1994. My novel, Host, which had been published the previous year. The thick paperback lay on a beautiful antique wooden chest, which we kept in the atrium. I always put my latest book there, for visitors to see. On this particular sunny morning, I was having breakfast, around 7.45 am, while my wife was upstairs getting ready for work. Suddenly she called down, ‘I can smell burning!’

I suddenly realized that I could, too. I turned around, and to my amazement, the copy of Host, on top of the wooden chest, was on fire!

I rushed over, grabbed the book, ran to the kitchen sink and threw it in, then turned the taps on, to extinguish the flames.

There was, of course, a perfectly prosaic explanation: Close to the book, on the chest, was a round glass paperweight. The hot June morning sun rays had been refracted through it, much the same way that as kids, we used to set fire to things by letting the sun’s rays refract though a magnifying glass. But… the fact this had happened in this room which had had the apparition in added a very sinister dimension.

3. What did your investigation (or that of the C of E officials you spoke to) uncover about the history of your house, if anything?

I did find out a bit about the history of the house. For much of the 20th Century it was owned by the Stobart family, the most famous member of which, Tom Stobart OBE was a photographer, zoologist and author. A true adventurer, he was the cameraman who climbed Everest with Hunt and Hillary and took the photos of their ascent, subsequently was shot in the knee in Ethiopia, and tragically died far too young from a heart attack at the local railway station, Hassocks. One member of the family was, reputedly, a strange lady, who became a man-hating lesbian, and subjected Tom’s sister Anne, who we befriended in the years before she died from a stroke, to such cruelty as a child she was never able to live a normal life, or form normal relationships. Anne told us, one day, that this relative used to strap her hands to the side of the bed, when she was a child, to prevent her, should she be tempted, from touching herself.’

Was she the grey lady in the atrium?

During the Second World War, the house was used to billet Canadian soldiers. After the War, during the second half of the Twentieth Century, three couples bought it – and subsequently divorced. We were the third. Was the Grey Lady in any way responsible?

I will always wonder.

4. As an extension of that, were you able to put names to faces so to speak any of the ghosts who occupied the house?

As mentioned in an earlier answer I never ‘saw’ the ghosts but I had probably picked up on some of the energy.

5. You are primarily known as a writer of crime and science thrillers. How much of a departure do you think this will be for your long-term fans? For example, will they find the pacing, style or approach different? Because for me, it was written in the style of a thriller, blending very well with conventional ghost story narrative

Thank you! For my very long-term fans this book will be like returning to some of my earlier work… my first successful novel, back in 1988, was Possession, a supernatural thriller, and I wrote several in this vein before moving on to psychological thrillers and then crime. Much though I love writing my Roy Grace books – I’m currently working on the 12th in the series, there are other areas I’m very keen to explore. I wrote Perfect People, a thriller about “designer” babies, which was published three years ago, in which I look at the choices science will ultimately give parents on choosing the genetic make-up of their offspring. I loved writing it and the book was highly successful. My publishers thought it would be fun for me to have a return to the supernatural, and they were right. I had a great time writing The House On Cold Hill, and certainly plan to write more in this field. Possibly even a sequel!

6. The haunted house plot is a very common theme, yet it always manages to remain so fresh. I also feel you have added a new twist on a very familiar genre. Did you set out in mind with an idea of doing something fresh?

Yes, absolutely. I wanted to put a modern slant on a traditional ghost story. I was thinking of new ways a ghost would communicate in the modern day, like through Facetime, computers and phones. There are time-slips in the book also, so the reader is left wondering if this is a ghost from the past …. Or from the future…..

7. As a reading audience, we British seem to love haunted house stories. Why do you think it holds a particular fascination in this country?

I think in our modern world, in which the media is dominated by atheist views, the fascination in part is because haunted house stories remind us that perhaps – just perhaps – there is a bigger picture. It was the late Elizabeth Bowen who once said that out of all the millions and millions of ghost stories told over the centuries it only needs one to be true, just one, for the world to be changed for ever. I don’t think the haunted house story is particular to this country – out of the US, a much younger nation, have come many of the greatest ghost stories of all time.

8. Having read some of the reviews and ratings on Good Reads, I can see that The House of Cold Hill book has been very well received. Are you tempted to write more of this type of fiction?

I’d be extremely excited to write more of this type of fiction and it is very much in my plan to do so!

Thank you very much to Peter for answering my questions! If you want to read the review of The House on Cold Hill, go here

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2 thoughts on “Author Interview: Peter James on The House on Cold Hill

    1. Thanks Tom! I was pleased the PR company found me not just to offer me a free copy of the book to preview, but to ask if I would take the time out of my schedule for the interview.

      Now I am on their books, hopefully more may follow! Watch this space…

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