County Armagh writer Stuart Neville on fire with new horror book

County Armagh novelist Stuart Neville talks to Jenny Lee about his most violent and most Northern Irish thriller to date - The House of Ashes, a story about two women bonding over a shared history of abuse

County Armagh crime fiction writer Stuart Neville

COUNTY Armagh crime writer Stuart Neville admits his latest book, The House of Ashes, a dark psychological thriller which spans a time frame of six decades, has been his "most difficult book to write yet".

When I prise into the reason why, it's not a simple answer about the impact of Covid pandemic, as the novelist reveals the thinking process, moral dilemmas and turmoil involved in being a crime writer.

"The House of Ashes is a reaction to my previous couple of books which I wrote under the pen name Haylen Beck and were set in America," says the 49-year-old father of two.

"This is much less commercial and very Northern Irish. It re-introduces the supernatural I had explored in my early books and it verges much closer to horror."

A dark and intense story about abuse, coercive control, friendship, family secrets, resilience and female empowerment, The House of Ashes tells the story of two women, Sara Keane and Mary Jackson, who discover terrifying links that bind them to a 120-year-old house in Belfast.

After having recently attempted suicide, Sara relocates with her abusive husband Damien "for a clean start", to a house belonging to his ancestors.

But when Mary knocks on her door, she reveals the tragic events she witnessed in the house when she was just a child.

The initial inspiration for the novel came from a real-life crime that happened a number of years ago in a village near his home - the details of which Neville won't go into.

"I didn't want to be insensitive to those affected by that crime and pick over someone else's suffering. But the idea of the isolated house stuck with me and I moved the story further and further away from the original case in terms of location and plot," explains Neville.

Drawing a line between fact and fiction is something he, and his fellow crime writers, are very conscious of.

"In the light of the Sarah Everard murder case I've been talking with other crime writers recently about how we portray crimes against women in our fiction, as well as the portrayal of police in those investigations," he explains.

"Things in the real world reflect back on us and we have to reflect back on them by taking a step back, as you need to be mindful of the innocent victims involved."

Careful not to "repeat" himself, or "write to formula", Neville admits he finds it "harder and harder to find fresh ground" as a writer.

"Sometimes when you write a book it takes a while to figure out exactly how you are going to tackle the story," he says.

"It was when reading Michael Hughes's novel Country, which was set around the Irish borderlands and written entirely in the colloquial language, that I realised this was the voice and dialect needed for my older character Mary."

And not afraid to self-critique his own work, after his finished book was accepted by the publishers, Neville, not happy with the balance between the present-day storyline and the historical one, resorted to completely rewriting half of it.

"You sometimes have to be prepared to bare it all down and start again."

Ironically the re-write happened during the first Covid pandemic lockdown, when Neville, like his characters Sarah and Mary, was in enforced isolation.

"It wasn't intentional, but as so much of the book is about isolation, there was a parallel with what the planet was going through at that time, and as a result it's a topic people can relate to," he says.

Among the book club question suggestions at the end of the novel is 'What themes do you think the author wanted to explore in this book and why?'

Surprisingly Neville admits that it isn't always him making those decisions.

"I don't think you can chase those themes consciously - you have to let the story unfold itself. Every reader brings their own values, beliefs and interpretations to a book and often the reader will find themes that I didn't necessarily intend, or was even conscious of."

And for this reason Neville intentionally leaves some of his storylines unresolved.

"Very often, even if you try to lead the reader down a particular path, they choose their own anyway. You have no control over how the reader experiences the work, so I feel it's better if you leave a little bit of room for them to interpret things."

In The House of Ashes, as like his 2010 debut novel The Twelve, which won the LA Times Book Prize, Neville brings in some paranormal elements. Or are they?

"I grew up in the '80s reading Stephen King and that's always been a big influence. But I've always tried to leave a bit of ambiguity as I find readers psychologically will decide for themselves one way or the other."

One thing he did make sure to do was carefully research the subject of coercive relationships and their insidious and damaging impact; and he is grateful to the women he spoke to who shared their personal experiences.

"Many people can't comprehend why people stay in those relationships. But it was described to me as 'the ground always being unsteady on your feet', as the abuser puts them in the position that they always doubt themselves and weakens them to the point they feel helpless."

Whilst much of the violence within The House of Ashes is implied rather than explicitly stated, the book does contain some quite graphic scenes. I ask Neville how writing this affects him.

"A common thing you will find amongst crime writers is that they tend to be very friendly and genial despite writing about the most awful things. I do wonder if there is some sort of therapy in getting it out of your head which leaves crime writers to be genuinely nice people," adds Neville, who in his spare time plays guitar in a rock band called Fun Lovin' Crime Writers.

The House of Ashes by Stuart Neville is published by Zaffre and is out now.

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