In my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, a father takes his daughter to a European forest and after a terrible storm he tells her the rest of the world has disappeared and they are the only two people left on earth. She believes him. I like to think it’s almost what you could call a post-apocalyptic novel, or end-of-the-world fiction, or the term I like best: postapocalit.
Sometimes it’s a devastating disease, or a human-made environmental disaster, a natural catastrophe, or nuclear war that ends the world as we know it. Whichever event changes everything, the ‘rules’ seem to be that very few people are left to struggle for survival in a radically altered world.
When I was growing up in the 1970s I was allowed to stay up late (like Peggy in Our Endless Numbered Days) to watch the television series, Survivors about a group of people in Britain who have survived a plague. It gave me nightmares, but I loved it. And I’ve loved postapocalit and films ever since.
When I was writing Our Endless Numbered Days, I read or re-read as much postapocalit as I could find. (I also read a lot of survival fiction and non-fiction, and these lists will hopefully feature in future posts.) I read so much of it, that again I had recurring postapocalit dreams that didn’t go away until I finished writing.
A little while after Bitter Orange was published in the UK, the author and blogger, Isabel Costello asked me to write something for her ‘literary sofa‘ website. If you don’t know it or her, she hosts a huge number of fascinating posts, author interviews and book reviews. This is the piece I wrote, republished here, about the inspiration for the location in Bitter Orange.
There’s a place not too far from where I live called the hangers. It’s a short range of wooded twisting hills, so steep-sided that they haven’t been cultivated or much changed by humans, and the trees that cling there – beech, lime, yew and ash – are ancient. I regularly walk the footpaths snaking through these woods, and when I was looking for a location for my third novel, Bitter Orange, the hangers’ ghostly beauty seemed perfect. Bitter Orange is set in a dilapidated country house called Lyntons, and deciding which house it could be based upon was never going to be a problem. About ten miles from my house in the opposite direction to the hangers is The Grange, is a neoclassical property managed by English Heritage. In the grounds there is a lake and a small flint grotto, but most of the surrounding countryside is undulating farmed fields, beautiful in their own way, but not dramatic enough for what I had in mind.
So, I shifted my house ten miles east and set it down right at the foot of the hangers. That’s one of the perks of being a writer – I can move anything to anywhere else, even whole country houses. Now the hills and woods corralled the house, keeping whatever was there isolated and contained.
The original (real) house was built in 1660, red-brick and square, but in the early 19th century it was transformed into one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in Europe. The land around it was built up so that the basement floor was completely underground, and at some point all the windows in the attics filled in so the servants mustn’t have got much daylight unless they went outdoors. In its hey-day The Grange had 24 indoor servants, while the estate supported 100 households.
But two world wars changed life for many English country estates and due to death duties their owners could no longer afford their upkeep. Many houses fell into disrepair and were consequently abandoned or demolished. (In 1955 England lost one house every two and a half days.) And The Grange was no different. It was last inhabited in 1964, and in 1972 it was almost demolished by the Baring family who had bought it, until the government got involved and the house was preserved.
And so it still stands today – preserved but unrestored. The outside is open to visitors (and free) all year round, but the inside is only accessible on certain dates for tours. And if you get to go inside you’ll understand why. Most of the interior has been ripped out, and many of the ceilings have gone (netting hangs under them to collect the falling debris). Plaster has gone from many of the walls, but enough remains to give this house an eerie atmosphere of a place kept in suspended animation. A house stopped in the final moment before disintegration.
Once I’d decided that my characters would live in a house inspired by The Grange for the summer of 1969, I visited the outside often, walking around the huge cedar of Lebanon trees, and down to the lake. The orangery (once renowned for its innovative system of channelling rainwater down its interior pillars to water the plants) now houses an opera company – The Grange Festival. The Festival hosts open days and the house is usually open as part of England’s Heritage Open Days scheme.
I visited the interior on as many occasions as I could, and I also wrote to English Heritage to ask if someone could show me around. Richard, the caretaker kindly took me into every room possible (there are still stairs up to the attic, but there are very few rooms that are safe) including every room in the basement. Here, the opera company stores its costumes and props, and so illuminated by bare bulbs I saw dummies and masks, brooms and top hats. As we walked around, Richard told me about the ghosts that haunt The Grange and confessed that sometimes even he (a down-to-earth type) doesn’t like to be there alone. I could see why. At least one of those stories made it into the finished version of Bitter Orange.
In the novel there is a bridge over the lake and follies in the grounds that Frances, the protagonist is commissioned to examine, including a mausoleum, obelisk and ice-house. It took me two years to write Bitter Orange and the landscape surrounding the house is so firmly fixed in my mind that when I go back there now, I look around and always think, but where is the bridge, where are the follies, and why aren’t there any hangers surrounding the house?
I grew up reading ghost stories — M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe — and loved watching the ghost story dramas that were on television every Christmas. I’ve always enjoyed being frightened, to feel that surge of adrenaline when I’m doing no more than curling up on my sofa or in my bed. It’s a natural high without any serious consequences.
Haunted house stories bring that feeling of uncertainty or terror home. If you’re indoors when you’re reading a novel with a haunted house at its center, the room you’re in, its uncurtained windows and dark corners, will still be there when you put the book down, and so the thrill continues. And your own house doesn’t have to be a gothic mansion with turrets and secret staircases to be scary. Ordinary houses and apartments all have their own peculiarities that can unsettle. Are those noises water gurgling in the pipes or something else? Did the kitchen door creep open because it’s badly hung, or is something standing on the other side? The fun of reading novels with haunted houses is turning off your thinking brain and seeing how you react.
In Bitter Orange, my third novel, I play with the tropes of haunted houses: the grand dilapidated mansion, the bird found dead in a room, the white face at the window. It’s not only a haunted-house novel; Bitter Orange touches on the ghostly because the setting and the characters’ states of mind seemed to ask for it. Here are seven great haunted house novels that have me glancing over my shoulder:
This book is for anyone who has sat in a lighted room at night with a large glass window in front of them and worried about what’s out there beyond their reflection. Except that Kehlmann cleverly plays with that dread by altering the reflection so the terror becomes what is or in fact isn’t in the room. The narrator in this brief novel is staying with his wife and daughter in the antithesis of the haunted gothic mansion: a modern glass box rented from Airbnb, in the Alps. Written as a journal, the book includes the screenplay the narrator is attempting (pretending) to write, interspersed with notes on the state of his marriage. But as he looks back over what he’s written he sees entries he doesn’t remember making. The book plays with time-travel as well as hauntings, and even throws in a bit of geometry.
I couldn’t write a list of haunted-house novels without including this perfect example. Jackson sets the horror up from the first paragraph, saying of the house, “whatever walked there walked alone.” A paranormal researcher gathers three other people together, including lonely spinster Eleanor, to investigate Hill House in New England, a labyrinthine property of odd angles and dark corners. It’s clear by the end of the novel that the house has a malignant agency; it’s not haunted so much as it’s evil personified, which Eleanor becomes fixated on and changed by.
The McCray and Savage families decamp to their two Victorian summer houses at Beldame on a spit of land along the Alabama Gulf Coast, taking with them thirteen-year-old India who is visiting for the first time. But there is a third house in between the two, one that has been empty for years and is slowly being consumed by sand. No family member will step inside it except the spirited India. The location — all heat, light, and encroaching sand — is unlike the usual haunted-house trope of dank darkness, which makes it all the more vivid. The Elementals that inhabit the third house are slippery things, not quite ghosts, but some sort of malevolent shape-shifters that truly terrify.
In 1947 Dr. Faraday is called out to Hundreds Hall, a dilapidated English country house that he first visited when he was ten and his mother was a maid for the family: “I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain — like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.” From that clever description, Waters hints that this story will be ambiguous and subtle. Faraday becomes entwined with the Ayres family as odd events occur in the house. This is an historical novel with wonderful period detail, and by the end you could say that it’s not the house that is haunted, but the people in it.
There aren’t any witches in White is for Witching, but there is a house in Dover, England that could be said to be alive. The story — which is slight — is told by four voices, one of which is the house itself. The main narrator is Miranda Silver, who has pica, an eating disorder which compels her eat things which aren’t food, including chalk and plastic. Four generations of dead Silver women exist within the walls of the house and it seems the building has no intention of letting Miranda go either. The writing style is fairytale-esque, and structure is unusual, with the points of view often swapping unexpectedly. There is a feeling of unsettling and confusing dark magic, and it’s the kind of book you have to sink into and not struggle against to discover its full enjoyment.
Mary and Graham Coles move to a rural cottage in Suffolk, England, one that is “dark and unsteady, turned in on itself.” They have suffered a terrible tragedy and are trying to make a new life for themselves in the country, but Mary catches fleeting glimpses of children in the house and hears their voices outside, as well as seeing a red-headed man. As this narrative develops we are switched into one taking place a hundred years previously. Here, a red-headed stranger is caught under a falling tree and taken in by the family who live in the same cottage as the Coles do now. We hear from a character who is “haunted” by a ghost from the future: “Merricoles.” The two timelines are intricately woven, and the whole story carries a wonderful undercurrent of menace.
This haunted house novel ticks a lot of boxes for familiar (and reassuring) tropes: rambling and isolated country house, weird current inhabitants, and a happy family that gets “stuck” there. Marian and Ben, together with their son David and aunt Elizabeth, rent a Long Island mansion from the Allardyce siblings one summer. But it’s so cheap, is it too good to be true? Marian becomes obsessed with the house and its contents, as well as an upstairs sitting-room beyond which lives old Mrs. Allardyce. Marian must provide meals for her three times a day, and yet never sees her. You do have to roll with the 1970’s dialogue and occasional sexism, but if you’re looking for a house that turns people mad, this is a classic.
Are there any haunted house novels you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments below.
“In the vein of Shirley Jackson’s bone-chilling The Haunting of Hill House, Fuller’s disturbing novel will entrap readers in its twisty narrative, leaving them to reckon with what is real and what is unreal. An intoxicating, unsettling masterpiece.” Kirkus (starred review). Read more reviews for Bitter Orange.
Bitter Orange is published today (October 9) in the USA and Canada. And to celebrate I’m giving away one set of all three of my novels: Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons, and a hardback copy of Bitter Orange (with its US cover).
To enter, just visit Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and follow the instructions there. The competition is open worldwide.
The Canadian cover, from House of Anansi, is almost the same as the UK version.
Early US reviews have been great:
Kirkus (starred review) “In the vein of Shirley Jackson’s bone-chilling The Haunting of Hill House, Fuller’s disturbing novel will entrap readers in its twisty narrative, leaving them to reckon with what is real and what is unreal. An intoxicating, unsettling masterpiece.”
“In her new novel, Claire Fuller enhances the mystery with luscious detail: sights of ghosts, smells of overripe fruit, echoes of Cara wailing. The plot’s movements are rendered secondary, at least in the early going, to the atmosphere, and it’s to the novel’s benefit; with sensations so alive on the page, you’re constantly kept on your toes, attuned to the mania. You’ll ask, beguiled: What’s really going on here?”
Bitter Orange is published in the USA a week today (9th October). Tin House, my US publisher is running a competition for US readers to win a Bitter Orange hamper if you pre-order the book before publication day. And you can get a 30% discount off the full price if you order online through Powell’s Books, using the discount code ORANGE. Once you’ve pre-ordered, send your proof of purchase to email@example.com to be entered into the competition.
The book is already out in the UK and Germany, and you can read what reviewers have been saying.
In the US it’s been appearing on lots of round up lists of what to read in October, including:
Time Magazine: “Unsettling and eerie, Bitter Orange is an ideal October chiller.”
Entertainment Weekly: “Fuller (Swimming Lessons) weaves between two timelines in this story of a love triangle hurtling toward tragedy. Set predominantly in the English countryside circa 1969, Bitter Orange explores attraction, obsession, and the power of storytelling.”
NYLON: “Fuller is a master of the quietly eerie; she’s excellent at creating an aura of pervasive dread—and sustaining it till the very last page.”
Lit Hub: “A beguiled introvert, a manor in disrepair, and other people’s secrets? Easy sell.”
Vulture: by author Tana French – “Reviews say the book has an unreliable narrator, beautiful writing, and hints of Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier. No way can I resist that.”
If you like the sound of that, pre-order from Powell’s Books, or anywhere else you fancy. Just keep your receipt.
I don’t speak or read any Japanese but I recently came across this Japanese term: mono no aware. There is no direct translation into English, but as far as I can understand, it means a sadness or sensitivity at the impermanent, transient nature of things or life.
As part of the publicity for the UK release of my novel Bitter Orange, I was asked to write a piece for The Guardian to go in their ‘Made in’ section. This short article is written each week by a different author about the place that influenced them the most when growing up.
Mine was about the freedom I had as a child to roam the countryside around Sydenham – the small Oxfordshire village where I was born and spent the first ten years of my life. My father renovated a cottage in that village, and then built a house next door which we moved into. For six months while the build was going on we lived in a static caravan onsite and I played amongst the house’s foundations and helped my dad stack bricks. We sold the house in 1977 when my parents divorced.
The article was published in The Guardian on 4th August and you can read it here.
A day or so after it was published online I looked at the comments under the article. The first one said, ‘Claire, we live in the house your family built. You’re welcome to come and visit any time’. And then I got a message on Twitter from a man called Mark, saying the same thing. Via a series of direct messages on Twitter we established that Mark’s parents had bought the house from my family, and many years later he bought it from his mother.
A couple of weeks ago me, my husband, and my eighty-year-old father went back to visit the house for the first time in forty-one years.
I was excited to be visiting, but also worried about feelings that I couldn’t quite pin down: a kind of sadness at all the time that had passed since we lived there, a nostalgia for my childhood, but also happiness to be able to go back. All those feelings were still there when we arrived, but Mark, his wife, Emily, his mother (who is Japanese*), and his children made us very welcome. We were shown around the house, looking at what was different (a much improved kitchen and family room), and what was the same (the open-tread stairs, the wrought-iron fire screens and door handles, and the bedrooms). Mark’s neighbour also invited us into the cottage next door, and I was shocked at how tiny the rooms were when I remembered them as being huge. My dad, also clearly moved, told us about the minor injuries he sustained while digging damp-proof courses, and an indoor bathroom.
But the nicest part of the visit for me was standing with Mark in his son’s bedroom, which had been Mark’s, and before that had been mine. We looked out through the high window at the back garden and I had a lovely moment of mono no aware at the thought that all three of us had been (or were) children in that room, looking out the window at the garden, and that at some point in the future another child, possibly still unborn, would gaze out through that window too.
*Apologies to Mark’s mother if my translation of mono no aware isn’t exactly correct.
My third novel, Bitter Orange was published in the UK last week. It was a crazy and exciting week, with a launch in London at Waterstones Covent Garden (they have lots of signed copies), and another in my home town of Winchester. I also went on a walk around London signing copies in other bookshops including Daunts, Heywood Hill, and Hatchards. It was hot!
The book has been getting great reviews:
“Fuller is an accomplished and serious writer who has the ability to implant interesting psychological dimensions into plotty, pacy narratives.” The Observer
“It is rare for me to put down a novel and then immediately consider rereading it to see what cleverness I might have missed. This time, though, I am tempted.” The Sunday Times
“Fuller is a master at summoning the atmosphere of a heady, hot summer, that thrums with tension.” Stylist Magazine
Bitter Orange has been longlisted for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. Which books are shortlisted depends on a public vote. If you’d like to vote for Bitter Orange, you can do that here. (And thank you!). Voting can be from anyone anywhere in the world, and closes at midnight on 6th August (UK time).
If you’d like to buy a copy of Bitter Orange it’s available in most UK bookshops now, or online as an audio, e-book, and hardback. Click here to see options.
My third novel, Bitter Orange, will be published in the UK in hardback a week today. The ebook and the audio version are already available to buy. So right now it’s that exciting and nerve-wracking time when people who have had an early copy are starting to talk about it online. So far, the talk, and the reviews have been good.
“In the vein of Shirley Jackson’s bone-chilling The Haunting of Hill House, Fuller’s disturbing novel will entrap readers in its twisty narrative, leaving them to reckon with what is real and what is unreal. An intoxicating, unsettling masterpiece.” Kirkus (starred review)
“The real interest lies in the fascinating gaps and contradictions, the complexity of the characters and the thematic richness. It is rare for me to put down a novel and then immediately consider rereading it to see what cleverness I might have missed. This time, though, I am tempted.” The Sunday Times
“Bitter Orange is undoubtedly a modern classic that defies categorisation but is just wonderful to read. It’s subtle, unnerving, intelligent and a supreme example of the written craft.” Linda’s Book Bag
The spot of light, perfectly circular, roamed her bedroom, over her clothes and the dead fern on the windowsill – a sudden wincing flare as it crossed the mirror. At the window she craned her neck to find its source, but saw no one. The wavering beam sought her out while she backed into a dark corner, and followed her as she scrabbled under the bed. She ducked and weaved, and when she cried out she felt the heat on her tongue and down her throat as she swallowed. Below her beating heart, through flesh and skin she saw the glow.
This is a 100-word piece of flash fiction inspired by the picture above, supplied by Dale Rogerson (thanks Dale!) and as part of Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thanks Rochelle!). If you’d like to write your own story and join in, click here to find out how, or here to read other people’s.
Some early reviews from book bloggers and Amazon reviewers are already coming in for Bitter Orange (published in the UK on 2nd August, and in the US and Canada on October 9th). And I’m pleased to say the vast majority are very positive. But one that I’m especially delighted about is a starred review from Kirkus.
Kirkus is an American book review magazine which is notoriously rigorous. It reviews more than 8000 books each year, and only about 10% of these are given a star accolade.
Due to copyright restrictions, I’m not able to post the review on my website, but you can read it here.