John Gay’s gloomy photos of Highgate Cemetery inspire new novel

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Bridget Galton talks to author Vaughn Entwhistle, who says the famous cemetary is the ultimate setting for his gothic novel, The Angel of Highgate.

It was John Gay’s photographs of Highgate Cemetery seen in a library hundreds of miles away that inspired Vaughn Entwistle to set his novel there.

Like many writers before him, his imagination was captured by the gothic gloom and atmospheric splendour of the Victorian graveyard where Highgate photographer Gay, among others, is buried.

Set in 1859, Angel of Highgate (Titan Books £7.99) opens as fictional rake Lord Geoffrey Thraxton visits the graveyard one fog-shrouded night to commune with the dead.

There he spies a mysterious woman flitting between the stones and becomes obsessed with her. In what turns out to be part mystery novel, part love story, the book numbers a badly burned Crimean surgeon, and an odious literary critic among its characters.

Entwistle, who was born in Canada, grew up in Blackpool and lived in the US before returning to the UK says: “I was living in Seattle and browsing in the university library when I picked up a book called Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla by John Gay and thought: ‘this is the ultimate setting for a gothic novel – a place where a wonderful story could come from’. At the time I had never been to Highgate. I have been since and it’s one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever visited.”

Entwistle has also written two novels pairing Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and The Picture of Dorian Gray author Oscar Wilde as they investigate paranormal mysteries.

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So it’s safe to say he’s an avid fan of Victorian Gothic, although he also cites Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell as literary inspirations.

“That period is a dark mirror for our own times. All the problems we have they had too. Conan Doyle described London as ‘The sewer of the Empire.’ There was migration from all over the world, crime, poverty and vast disparities between haves and have nots….”

He points out that that detective fiction and gothic horror were all created by 19th Century novelists, who often, but not always featured ghosts.

“Conan Doyle said: “ghosts need not apply here” there was nothing supernatural in Sherlock Holmes but Lord Geoffrey is obsessed with death. He’s a rake. described as the wickedest man in London and he likes hanging out in Highgate Cemetery where he sees a lady whose mother is buried there. She suffers from porphyria which makes her sensitive to daylight so she can only go out at night.”

Entwistle says research for his historic novels never really stops.

“There are so many details I have to get right; how much was a ride in a hansom cab? What were the wages of a maid of all work? I have a wall of books, diaries and biographies of the age. I can’t write a sentence without checking them.”