The shady places of north London where evil spirits appear to lurk

PUBLISHED: 14:29 23 June 2020

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Richard T Kelly tells of settings that inspired his modern-day gothic novel

»Dear reader and fellow north Londoner: I imagine, like me, you are partial to an occasional stroll over Hampstead Heath or through Highgate Wood. What finer privilege does a local resident have than to enjoy these leafy groves and broad green expanses? But in doing so, do you ever experience a flicker of unease – find yourself unnerved by a hush in the trees, a sense of some presence in the shrouded gloom beyond the sunlight? I know I do. I admit to an overactive imagination; and I don’t mean to scare you. Or, rather, I do – up to a point. Let me explain.

North London has been my home, more or less happily, for 15 years now, in which time I’ve written a number of books without ever wishing to write one set in my own backyard. Until, that is, my latest novel The Possessions Of Doctor Forrest: a modern-day gothic horror story for which I have tried to reimagine the chills and thrills of such sensational 19th century fictions as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Wilkie Collins’ Woman In White, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Supernatural

This genre is a longstanding love of mine. When I was a teenage reader back in the 1980s, “The Hampstead Novel” was an epithet commonly directed at books felt to be overly concerned with comfy bourgeois married life. Yet the term baffled me, since I was sure it could only refer to Dracula or The Woman In White – books I knew and delighted in, which had done so much to establish London as a city of the imaginative supernatural and north London’s own special share of that gothic richness.

In 1860, Wilkie Collins gave readers the unforgettable scene of his hero Walter Hartwright picking across Hampstead Heath in darkness only to be startled by “the figure of a solitary woman, dressed from head to foot in white.” That moment on the page still startles today and, back then, it certainly inspired Bram Stoker, who went on to invent the “Hampstead Mystery” section of Dracula in which vampiress Lucy Westenra haunts the Heath and nips at the throats of little boys who tell the police childish tales of a “bloofer lady”. For me and millions of readers, these stories suggested that Hampstead and Highgate were natural sites for dark, dangerous, even diabolical doings.

When I first got to know the real Hampstead, I was struck, amid the leafy suburban homes, by the number of big gothic piles with 19th century flourishes of gable and spire. Thus, when I got round to the plot of The Possessions Of Doctor Forrest – concerning three successful medical men, Scottish-born but adoptive Londoners – it was clear to me that their residences had to be in well-heeled Hampstead. The titular Doctor Forrest is a cosmetic surgeon whose mysterious disappearance appears to unleash a diabolical evil upon his two oldest friends. For the purpose of my story, that evil needed shady places in which to lurk and I thought it natural that one such should be a gloomy copse on Hampstead Heath.

But I also felt I should cast my net wider, throw a sinister pall over some of the fixtures of my own neighbourhood in Crouch End. Thus I decided to have the villain of my story haunting the long Parkland Walk between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace where nature has reclaimed the old railway line. Having taken my children along that walk in pushchairs many a time, I felt a pang of guilt at lumbering it with a resident ghost but then the imagination is hard to stop once it starts inventing.

Creepy parkland

My book also needed a graveyard location, for reasons you can probably guess. Highgate Cemetery, with its mournful stone angels and moodily overgrown tombs (featured memorably in Dracula but also Audrey Niffenegger’s recent bestseller Her Fearful Symmetry) was an obvious choice. Visually, though, my model was Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, another supremely creepy parkland cemetery with a splendidly derelict Gothic chapel. Since its actual location didn’t suit the topography of my story, I invoked “creative licence” and transplanted Abney Park lock-stock up to Muswell Hill.

The longer I worked at the book, the more London locations with eerie potential leapt out at me: old Victorian psychiatric hospitals converted to “luxury apartment developments”, august mansion blocks hiding online brothels staffed by sex trafficking. Any great city harbours certain demons, just as Dr Jekyll’s skin made a shelter for Mr Hyde. I believe a gothic skeleton is still observable under the skin of London, if you peer past the facades and into the shadowy corners. And if you are partial to a macabre story, one that unfolds on your doorstep, I very much hope you may be tempted to delve inside The Possessions Of Doctor Forrest.

n The Possessions Of Doctor Forrest by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber and Faber on June 2. Richard blogs about the novel at www.drforrest.co.uk and discusses it in an online video clip viewable at www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3ZYUlVwQ5o


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