Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


personal 4 min read

I was visiting my mother recently to pick up a few things since she’s having a bit of a pre-Spring clean, and I came across an old box-file containing some of my writings from my teenage years.

Just seeing the thing was evocative enough, but the smell of the old paper which rushed out of the box when I opened it collapsed the intervening 12 years or so into nothing. I sat on the floor last night whilst Lauren was reading (Memoirs of a Geisha, incidentally) and pored over my old work.

Most of it was typed on an original Amstrad Notepad Computer then printed out on a creaky Canon inkjet, but a fair bit was written longhand in blue pen too. I also kept a manilla folder of ideas and plot-points, which make fascinating reading today. I remember how important the page-count of my stories seemed to me at the time, as testified to by the green sheets of notepaper on which I’d recorded the count for each chapter of each piece.

Needless to say, much of the stuff is riddled with agonising teen angst, unrequited love, existential torment, misplaced fury and all the rest, though I don’t find myself particularly embarrassed by it. It was of a time, and served a purpose for me, offering up months upon months of engrossing enjoyment too. I was sure I’d be a writer. I don’t think I’ve ever given up that dream, either; I just got sidetracked for a decade and a bit, and I remain so today.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the subject matter of almost all the writing is weird horror; I was a voracious Stephen King reader back in the day. I remember writing my favourite short story (which clocked in at a modest 60 printed pages or thereabouts), and finishing it in the early hours of the morning, only to realise that I’d scared myself sufficiently as to be unable to go to sleep or even turn off the light. Delicious memory.

The sources of the original ideas for all the pieces spring readily to mind even after all this time, and I found myself much more fascinated by my notes and ideas even than by the actual fiction. I even found the tiny notepad pages of notes I made one summer when my mother and brother and I were on holiday in the small fishing village of Macduff, about 185 miles north of here, right up on the northern part of the coast of the “shoulder” of Scotland. It was in October 1994 (I think), and I was working up a plan for my first novel. I was struggling with names for characters (how childish all my own attempts at names were, as I thought at the time), and I wanted to soak up some atmosphere. I was also tired of sitting in the big residential caravan we were holidaying in, so I went out at around 11pm and got on my bike, and cycled down the trunk road to the village, and to the graveyard. The gate was unlocked as ever, and I went in.

I was a rather introspective adolescent, and as a budding horror writer, you can imagine the dark thrill of creeping into a graveyard alone on a dark October night. I found a bench and sat down, and took out my notepad. After jotting down some potential character names from the nearby gravestones (mixing forenames and surnames from different stones of course; best not to tempt fate), I sat for a while and just absorbed the atmosphere of the place, occasionally noting down an impression or a shape or a thought. Perhaps that’s macabre; I’m not sure. But it fired the imagination, as you might expect.

Of course, after a while my own imagination rather took over, and I became uneasy. I sat for the further statutory period of assuring myself that I was not leaving because I was scared, but merely because it was getting late, and I was getting cold (and bored, of course; the very height of nonchalance), and at length I walked rather too quickly to the gate. Once outside, I got on my bike, and rode like the devil was on my tail. Safely in bed later, plenty of pages of notes followed, and I had great pleasure in looking back over them last night.

One uncharacteristic venture in sci-fi has a setting in the impossibly-distant future year of 2023; doesn’t seem so far into the future now, and our technology is progressing if not actually slower than I envisioned, then certainly more mundanely. Still, it’s a few years away yet, and you never do know what will happen. I also very amused to see a note amongst my ideas for a story which asserted that the events should be so realistic as to even mention sex.

I must get around to reworking some of the stuff and publishing it online someday; perhaps even posting some of the originals, though I’d have to retype them or at least OCR them first. I’m just not sure I’m ready to share that kind of stuff in its entirety yet, but perhaps I’ll favour everyone with a quote now and again. And there’s still the novel to finish, of course.

I still remember the crystallisation of that one; we were on holiday once again up north, and were at a natural bay in mid-evening, walking the dogs and getting some fresh air. The mist was coming down quickly, and there was very little light left, but we all knew the terrain well enough and weren’t in any hurry to return to the camp site. I’d climbed over a rock wall perhaps 9 feet high to reach the next section of the bay, and was standing alone on a small crescent of rock polls and large boulders, with the North Sea only 20 yards ahead of me. Everything was very still and quiet, and visibility out to sea was low. At the limit of my sight, I could make out a boat sailing out around the bay, no doubt heading for a landing point further east, but it was no more than a shadow behind the curtain of mist rolling in.

My mind spontaneously served up an image of Charon, the Ferryman of Greek legend, who bore the dead across the River Styx to Hades (if, of course, they had been properly buried with a coin under their tongue to pay for their passage), and the similarity to the well-known spectre of Death. I idly wondered, what if the Styx joined onto all the waterways of this world, just at certain times or in certain circumstances, and it was in that way that people were borne away from this life? The story followed naturally from there.

I only ever finished about 3 chapters of it, but I fully intend to give it another shot one of these days. I love to write, and I miss it a great deal when I don’t have the chance for some time (hence the blog, I suppose). I must try to write more, because it’s something I always felt I had to do.

But perhaps not tonight. Almost midnight once again, and work in the morning in the cold and boring light of day. Here’s to dark dreams and the escape of fiction, as I turn out the light.