Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ahh, the Lake District - so lovely, so lethal!

Writers are often asked where they get their inspiration from. It's a time-honoured question which crops up again and again. And yet there is never an easy answer. In my own case, there are lots of different sources: other works of literature, movies, plays, historical events, myths, people I know, incidents that befell them, incidents that have befallen me.

But also … places. We all have our own special place, I think. Somewhere we can kick back and relax, but by the same token where the creative juices really flow (every writer I know will tell you that he/she is never really off duty), where the influence of the environment is hugely beneficial to your thought processes.

In my case, if you haven’t already guessed – it’s the Lake District in northwest England.

This is not just the place where my wife, Cathy was born, or the venue for countless happy family holidays going back to my earliest years, it’s also one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth and one of England’s wildest. In addition it is riddled with folklore and legend (hence this very famous old book on the right, by Gerald Findler).

All my tick-boxes can be found in the Lake District.

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before Mark Heckenburg found his way there. For anyone who doesn’t know, DS Heckenburg, or Heck, is my current police hero, and the star character in four novels: STALKERS, SACRIFICE, THE KILLING CLUB and due out next month, DEAD MAN WALKING (the imaginative press package for which is pictured at the top of this column). 

And it’s the latter of these that concerns us today, because though it starts out in Devon, on Dartmoor – another idyllic National Park here in England – DEAD MAN WALKING very quickly transports us north to the Lake District, 885 square miles of mountains, lakes, windswept moors and fathomless forests.

While the Lakes can literally be a paradise on Earth in summer, in the deep autumn, particularly a late-November thick with frost and murky with mist, the endless woods and fells can suddenly feel lonely, desolate, cold; even life-threatening. 

And let’s make no bones about it; lives will be under threat in this book, because Heck, now marooned in the Lake District after the tumultuous events at the end of THE KILLING CLUB, finds himself isolated by these conditions and at the same time grappling with a series of ghastly murders, which may be the work of a truly monstrous killer long thought dead …

But enough of that, the purpose of this blogpost is not to snitch spoilers about the new book. It’s to introduce some of the real life locations I use in it, even though in the actual text they are transported to other corners of the Lake District and are given fictional names.

Above, you see one of my favourite places on the entire planet, the Lodore Falls, which pour down from the dizzy heights of the Shepherd’s Crag into Derwentwater, and in full flood, as shown here, are one of the most spectacular sights in the north of England.

Think you could take a boat down there?

Would you fancy trying it if your life depended on it?

In DEAD MAN WALKING we have the Cragwood Race. If you ever need to picture what it looks like, or where the idea came from, look no further than the image overhead.

Witch Cradle Tarn doesn’t exist in real life, even though in DEAD MAN WALKING it is high in the Langdale Pikes: a small, secluded lake popular with walkers and climbers but quiet for much of the year. It is very deep and very dark, and hemmed on its east side by the rugged scree-cluttered skirts of Fiend’s Fell and a few sparse fringes of pinewood. Check out Buttermere here, the original model for this fictional place, a famously pristine and yet eerily still and mysterious body of water.

The shot below is one which sadly I can’t claim as my own. I’ve no idea who took this atmospheric pic. I found it floating around on the internet. If the original photographer would like to get in touch, I’ll happily credit him/her, or if he/she is so inclined, will take it down. I think it depicts one of the quarry paths above the colossal Honister Pass. 

But whatever it is, here is the origin of the ominous Cradle Track, which hopefully will loom large and menacing in your mind before you’re halfway through DEAD MAN WALKING.

… for some reason Hazel could never fathom, climbers and fell-walkers traversing this route in the past had chosen particularly hefty shards of slate, some of them three or four feet in length, and had then used smaller pieces to prop them upright on both sides of the path – usually every hundred yards or so. What they were supposed to be – distance-markers, or even some variety of crude outdoor art – she never knew, but the illusion they created was of gravestones. Or, if one of the largest ones, some were maybe as tall as five or six feet, suddenly loomed from the fog, of malformed figures standing close by.

On the subject of the Honister Pass, I did shoot this next one, which portrays the road leading down from the top of the pass to Gatesgarth. It’s not the kind of road you’d like to drive hell for leather along, particularly if you were chasing someone, but that never usually stops Heck. Here’s a tip, if you read the book think of this one when you think of Cragwood Road.

That said, the new book isn’t all high melodrama; we aren’t constantly concerned here with soaring rocks and tumbling whitewater. Cragwood Vale, otherwise known as ‘the Cradle’, is like so many locations in the Lake District: danger may lurk in its vicinity but it’s never less than stunningly picturesque. In real life, the Lake District valley I based it on was this one, Borrowdale, a place of dreams.

Of course, a holiday is only ever as good as your billet. The preferred option for my family has often been the LODORE HOTEL (pictured left). I first stayed here as a child in 1967, and we’ve been going back ever since. No, I’m not going to tell you The Lodore appears in DEAD MAN WALKING; Cragwood Vale isn’t quite so grand (though it has a belting pub in The Witch’s Kettle, and I'm sure that boat club looks familiar), but this hotel has influenced me in other writerly ways.

It was here in the early 1970s, where I spent one particular family holiday that has become a landmark in my life. You see that comfortable lounge on the right? Well, it was once the Lodore shop.

I know … astonishing, isn’t it? That’s the kind of quirky thing country hotels did back in those days; they offered quality stuff for sale on their own premises. This particular shop sold Lakeland crafts (obviously), but also books. And not just map-books or guides to the fells. It sold anthologies, and wait for this because it gets even better … it sold horror anthologies.

I know what you’re thinking. Was this place real, or a glimpse of Heaven?

Anyway, it was in this very shop where I bought my first Pan Horror (vols 8-16, if my faded memory serves). But not only that, it sold all 10 volumes of the original TALES OF TERROR series, as edited by the late great R. Chetwynd-Hayes for Mary Danby at Fontana.

Again, memory fades a little, but I think the four I was able to afford at the time were Welsh Tales of Wales, Scottish Tales of Terror, Irish Tales of Terror and Cornish Tales of Terror. With their distinctive artwork, their high quality and yet unbelievably scary stories penned by such master and mistresses of dark fiction as Arthur Machen, Sean O’Casey, Dorothy K. Haynes and Daphne du Maurier, and their insistence on interspersing these fictional tales with snippets of real, genuinely spooky folklore – all with an aggressively local flavour, these books made an indelible impression on me.

There and then, long before I knew I wanted to be an author, I knew I had to do something like this. Evening after evening rolled past during that best holiday ever, and while the older members of my extensive family all got uproariously drunk in the hotel’s excellent restaurant, and then the bar and lounge, I was quite content to sit by the fireplace in that little nook next to the shop, and read my Tales Of Terror, absolutely convinced (though uncertain why) that at some point in the future I was going to revisit this theme, but not confine it to 10 titles, in fact to do as many as possible, covering the whole of the British Isles and maybe beyond.

Thanks to GRAY FRIAR PRESS, I’ve now edited seven volumes in my own TERROR TALES series, but it’s surely no surprise that the very first, published in 2011, was TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT.


  1. I think that the photo above, that you found on the internet, is on Castle Crag (near Grange in Borrowdale, bottom of Derwentwater), not above Honister. I have only seen those numerous tiny cairns on Castle Crag, and certainly haven't seen them on the fells above Honister Pass.

  2. Thanks for that, Nicky. I've been looking for that place for quite some time.