Dreaming in Fire, Working in Concrete:
Thoughts on the Concrete Grove Trilogy
“Marc had a theory that some places were always in shadow, no matter how hard the sun was shining. The Concrete Grove was a joyless estate. Apart from the poverty and the criminality that bred here, there was another layer of darkness that could be sensed rather than seen. He thought of a dark sea lapping against concrete pilings, the waves occasionally slopping up onto the land and breaking it away, slowly encroaching…”
– Beyond Here Lies Nothing
**CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS**
When I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I had this cool idea about a haunted council estate in the north-east of England. I started writing the novel (in my bedroom, on an old typewriter – God, those were the days) and managed to bash out a prologue featuring a self-centred architect in the 1960s who designed, built and was then literally devoured by the estate. Then I wrote the first couple of chapters, which introduced a woman hiding out in the estate – at this point it was called Wishwell, and based on a rough estate near my home – to escape the attention of murderous joyriders she’d testified against in court.
Then something happened.
I realised that I wasn’t nearly good enough a writer to do the idea justice. I couldn’t quite grasp the central motifs; I didn’t yet have enough life experience to write truthfully about the things I was imagining.
So I put the idea away, mothballing it in some dark corner of my mind.
Cut to late 2009.
Jon Oliver, editor-in-chief at Abaddon and Solaris had already commissioned my first mass market novel, a zombie book called Hungry Hearts. I was writing the Thomas Usher books for Angry Robot and casting around for a new idea to pitch. But I caught hold of an old one instead, and even though it wriggled a bit I managed to land it and take a closer look.
Gradually, as I explored it, that old notion of a haunted sink estate called Wishwell mutated into a possessed estate called the Concrete Grove. The ancient well at the centre of the site became an ancient grove of oak trees, concealing magical powers. The idea felt strong and compelling, and when I cut into it new ideas bled out. I thought I might be onto something good. So I emailed Jon with a pitch and a brief outline of the first novel, and to my surprise and eternal gratitude, he commissioned the trilogy.
Well, the first novel was. That initial book in the series came out like a dream, as if I were simply transcribing something that already existed. It was a wonderful experience. Where I’d written the tightly plotted Usher novels using outlines, I was writing this organically – siphoning the ideas directly out of my mind.
The second book was much harder. It put me in hospital twice, with stress-related symptoms. At one point I even thought it was going to kill me. But I toiled on, chipping away at the story, trying to bring it out into the light. And I got there. Eventually, I got there, and to me it felt like the best thing I’d ever written.
The third book was hard, too, but not as hard as the second. It came slowly, like self-extracting my teeth. The difficulty here was that I needed to tie everything up and make sure the whole thing worked as a trilogy, and that was tough. I had to wrestle with some of my characters to get them to do what I wanted, and other characters would pop up when they hadn’t even been invited to the party (I won’t tell you which ones – go and buy the book and see for yourself). I got there in the end, but it was a pretty torturous process.
So there they were, the three books, my grubby little babies:
I couldn’t believe that I’d managed to do it, to get to the end. I felt proud and relieved and sad and twitchy. It was strange to be leaving that world behind. When I look at the books I feel a strange combination of happiness and regret.
I’ve essayed elsewhere – on the Solaris blog – that a lot of real locations and structures provided inspiration from parts of the Concrete grove. Hadrian’s Wall, the Dunston Rocket, the “Get Carter” car park at Trinity Square in Gateshead town centre. The Rocket and the car park have now gone (interestingly, they were both designed by the same Architect, renowned for his “Brutalist” style: Owen Luder); they were demolished. It felt strange to see them go, to say goodbye to icon landmarks I knew so well from my past and had used so importantly in my fiction. These pieces of my personal mythology had formed an intrinsic part of my written universe, and I was touched with sadness when I read the reports of their demolition.
But they remain alive in the books, a constant reminder of where I came from, who I am. Ghost places, shadow places, half buried in my words.
When I handed over the final book to Jon Oliver, it was painful to let the characters go. Monty Bright, Eric Best, Francis Boater, Marty Rivers…all those people I’d come to know and love where now leaving my life, perhaps for ever. It was difficult to know how to react. I’d been thinking about them so intensely for such a long time. I was reluctant to watch them leave.
Someday soon, I think I’ll go back there, to the Concrete Grove. Perhaps I’ll write a novella, or some short stories. Maybe even another novel – I actually have an idea for a book (a ghost story) that charts the progress of Marty Rivers after he left the Grove to settle in London and help raise another man’s child.
I know I’ll always be welcome in the world of the Grove. My friends live there, you see. Some of my best friends, the ones I made up, forging them with my hand and my mind from the raw material of my own life experiences.
I know they’ll always be glad to see me. They’ll welcome me with open arms. Because they still have stories to tell.
16 August 2012
Here’s what people have to say about The Concrete Grove Novels:
- Andy Remic
“Gary McMahon is one of the finest of a new breed of horror writers.His work combines spare, elegant writing with an acute sense of the growing desperation felt by those having to deal with the crime and crumbling infrastructure of our urban centers. Illuminating these themes with a visionary’s sense of the supernatural makes THE CONCRETE GROVE one exciting read.”
- The Black Abyss“Here is a book with horror oozing out of its very pores and McMahon lumps it all altogether to give his readers something that is deeply unsettling.”
- Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review