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Whitby and the Lure of the Gothic

Posted on 16th September 2016 by Sally Campbell
While planning the follow-up to her immensely successful In Bitter Chilland fuelled by a life-long fascination with Hammer Horror, crime writer Sarah Ward travelled to Whitby, the birthplace of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Here, she explains how the eerie location stirred the shadows of her imagination and helped her to write A Deadly Thaw, the second Inspector Francis Sadler novel.

Photo: Sarah Ward (c) Eleanor Crow

My crime novels are located in the Derbyshire Peak District, an area of breathtaking beauty that fluctuates between being packed with tourists during the summer season and days of wonderful isolation in the depths of winter. The location is a gift to a writer, inspirational in its splendour and a peaceful environment that’s conducive to hard work. For my debut novel, In Bitter Chill, I was inspired to use the cold, wintry landscape around me as the setting to a decades-old murder.

Photo: Derbyshire Snow (c) Sarah Ward

For my second book, A Deadly Thaw, given that the story takes place in the month of May, I wanted a less closed-in feel to the setting. This was partly done through making use of the changing scenery of a Peak spring when the hedgerows are a riot of flowers and a weak sun shines on the hills. I also wanted to move part of the narrative to another location. For the plot, it was important to find a small town where a person could hide which was a significant distance by car from Derbyshire. It also needed to be, like the Peaks, a tourist spot as the fugitive is first glimpsed by a woman on a coach tour.

There’s a Gothic thread running through A Deadly Thaw. It’s a police procedural but I’m fascinated by the Hammer movies that were regularly shown on TV in the 1980s. I have my two teenage protagonists Lena and Kat, watching the films late on a Saturday night, a symbol of their closeness which is subsequently ruptured after a catastrophic act.

Photo: Whitby Abbey (c) Sarah Ward

A place intimately associated with Gothic is, of course, Whitby. A Yorkshire seaside town, it was once a religious centre centred on the abbey on the peninsula. The ruins still dominate the skyline giving the place an eerie feel. Whitby’s literary tradition arguably started with Caedmon, the Anglo-Saxon poet, but it was as a location in Bram Stoker’s Dracula which has given the town widespread fame. In the book, a Russian ship, the Demeter, runs aground on the shores of the town’s harbour and later, in St Mary’s Churchyard, Lucy Westenra is attacked by the Count. It was this combination – a forbidding and dangerous setting with connotations of women under attack – that made it an ideal choice for my book.]

As I researched the town from my Derbyshire cottage, I was fascinated by the rich place that Whitby has in our literary tradition and reflected how much it has in common with Derbyshire. As crime writers such as Stephen Booth and Val McDermid have used the brooding Peak District as a background to murder, Whitby’s foreboding skyline has been depicted by Peter Robinson and Paul Magrs. I was following in a rich tradition, the only problem being was that I’d never visited the town.

Photo: The Sea at Whitby (c) Sarah Ward

My trip to rectify this was an example of how research can reap dividends in unexpected ways. I got as much from driving north east along narrow country roads, with the rain pelting onto my window screen as I did from the town itself. I could see how a journey could be made in my novel, late in the night, in a climate of fear and disorientation. When I arrived in the town, I was assailed by the smell of frying fish and chips mingling with the sea air. It was a strong, rich image to put into my book.

Ultimately, I think it was the presence of the sea that swung it for me. In landlocked Derbyshire we have stunning hills and bleak moors but the ocean also creates its own atmosphere and sense of time ebbing and flowing. As I watched the evening sea, I was inspired by the rhythm of the waves lapping against the harbour wall to show how creating a refuge for one person can fashion a place of danger for another.

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