My latest free release on Kindle is my short collection Touched by Magic: Human Dramas in the Paranormal World. Several hundred people have taken the opportunity to pick it up, and I very much hope that they enjoy it because, out of all of my self-published books on Kindle, it is one of my very favourites.
So I thought I’d say a little bit about the origin of each of the four stories.
HANAKO FROM MIYAZAKI is the product of two trips to Japan, about ten years apart. The tale begins in Tokyo, which I visited sometime in the mid-Nineties. I went on from there to take a look at Lake Ashi, Mount Fuji, and Kyoto -- the latter in the company of a couple of old friends from Washington D.C. -- but spent that whole first week in Japan wandering around its capital city. I had an incredible time there, but the trip didn’t generate a single word of fiction for one very simple reason. Most of my time in Tokyo, I was lost. I mean that literally and figuratively. Japanese street signs -- back then at least; it might have changed these days -- have to be among the hardest in the world for a Westerner to read. And, since I’m the kind of traveller who likes to simply stroll along and follow his nose, I spent a good part of every day in Tokyo not being quite sure which part of the city I was in. Occasionally, I’d either come across a landmark recognisable from the map, or else an English-speaking local would help me out, and I’d get back on the right track. But Tokyo, its ways and customs, was a mystery to me, albeit a fascinating mystery I couldn’t get enough of.
Fiction, however, is about understanding, and I simply didn’t feel I understood the place nearly well enough to write about it.
But in 2005, my wife was due to attend a big international conference in the town of Miyazaki on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Her fare and hotel room were being paid for. Mine, obviously, wasn’t. But -- after a few days of humming and hawing about the expense -- we decided that it was an opportunity we couldn’t afford to miss. So I went with. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Although it didn’t seem like it at first, because we arrived in Miyazaki at the tail end of a big monsoon. Rain was still coming down in solid sheets, just like the rain at the start of the story. Having travelled twenty-one hours, though -- involving three separate planes -- I wasn’t in the mood to be confined to my hotel. I went out anyway, getting soaked through to the skin but not even caring. Because Kyushu is an astonishing place. The Japanese think of it as their own version of Hawaii, for a start. And, in their folklore, it’s also the place that the Shinto gods settled when they decided to visit our world.
It’s a volcanic island, craggy and magnificent. It has high mountainous peaks, steaming geysers, waterfalls that look like they are made out of cut crystal. Vast sections of seafront where flowing lava has hit the ocean waves and been solidified by the sudden coolness into bizarre sculptures. It also has some of the most amazing temples and shrines in the entire nation, including one in an undersea cave. Some of these are detailed in the story.
But it was an unexpected stroke of luck that really sealed the deal, when it came to writing about the place.
My first evening in Miyazaki, I walked into a restaurant to be confronted with a sight I genuinely hadn’t been expecting. At the table next to mine were half a dozen English guys, enjoying a typically raucous night out … and speaking to the waitresses in perfect Japanese. It turned out that they’d all been in Miyazaki for years, married to local women and teaching English for a living. And that was when Japan stopped being such a mystery, because these friendly -- and, admittedly, slightly drunken guys -- spent at least an hour explaining to me the customs and traditions of the place, the dos and donts. I spent nearly two weeks based in Miyazaki, travelling around Kyushu, and I ran into some of these guys a couple more times during my stay, and really got to understand the place, largely due to their advice.
The story started forming in my head about halfway through my visit, and by the time that I was due to leave I was ready to write it. One problem -- I hadn’t brought my laptop with.
I flew home, hit the sack for five hours, dragged myself up, fixed a cup of coffee, and immediately began writing ‘Hanako from Miyazaki,’ which sold to the first editor I submitted it to.
SEEING might have humbler origins, but they are no less poignant in my memory. When my wife and I first married, we bought a small house -- the only decent one we could afford -- in a distant suburb of East London. We had very nice neighbours and a comfortable home, but the area was essentially bland and, after five years, I’d had enough of it. This was the early Eighties, and house prices had shot up enough that our house’s value had doubled since we’d purchased it. So I started looking at flats in central London. Most were still out of the reach of my pocket. Except that I finally came across one, in Bayswater, a few minutes walk from Hyde Park (London’s equivalent of Central Park in NYC), which was heavily reduced in price due to the fact that it was a fifth storey walk-up, no lift. Whatever. We were both young and fit. We took it, and spent our next three years there.
And so our second home was on a classic central London garden square, and we were high enough above it we could see the treetops, not to mention all the people passing by. And ‘Seeing’ is about that, about living in a place where you can watch the whole world -- or a good part of it -- going past your window, at the heart of one of the most fascinating cities on this planet.
AFTER THE STORM comes from another of my wife’s business trips, to a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this time. That’s another deeply fascinating city, blending ancient and modern in a way no other place quite manages, a melting pot of cultures and races, and I’ve written about it in one of my Immortal Holmes stories and will doubtless write about it -- and hopefully visit it -- again. But after KL, we went on for a few days to the offshore island of Penang, which is a whole other deal.
You’ve never seen such beautiful, palm-fringed, white sand beaches in your life. Except you can’t go in the water -- at the time of year we went, at least -- without risking being stung half to death by jellyfish. There are sites going back thousands of years, a snake temple, a scorpion temple even. It’s a lovely but mysterious place, in other words.
We were planning to stay our entire visit at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which features very largely in the story. It’s colloquially called the E&O, and has been called that for a century or so. Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward, and Somerset Maugham all stayed there. It is a grand Edwardian hotel that is still run today along the lines of that age, the staff in the same uniforms, the decorations and the furnishing unchanged. There are no single rooms in the E&O. You get a three-room suite, complete with parquet flooring, ornate mirrors, a writing desk and the rest, so that you feel as if you’ve just wandered onto the set of Downton Abbey. And the food in the dining room all comes under silver salvers, the local staff meticulously polite. It’s a terrific, atmospheric place.
Unfortunately, the part of Georgetown -- Penang’s capital -- that the E&O is situated in is not. It’s precisely as traffic-choked and dilapidated as I describe it in the story. Great hotel, awful location, in other words. So after a couple of days, we decided to switch to a more modern hotel in a nicer spot further up the coast.
But almost everything I talk about in ‘After the Storm’ is real. The constant daily thunderstorms were real. The huge monitor lizard climbing up the wall was something that I observed from my hotel window. And the final scene, the final conversation with an elderly Chinese taxi driver, is recounted word for word, the way it happened to me in real life.
The story is about the present and the past, and the way they sometimes get connected, and what could be more symbolic of that than a hotel like the E&O?
Finally, THE TAPPLEWORTH ANGEL. I think of it as a traditional British supernatural story with a modern twist. It’s set on the mist-shrouded moors of Devon, the same location as Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’ I’ve been to Devon a good few times, and used to have a friend who lived in that kind of deserted setting, although not in a house as grand as Saul Sturman’s in the tale. But I visited most years, and got to know the terrain well.
It’s a story about love conquering even time and age, and was the basis, a couple of years later, for my short novel ‘No Man.’ And the final line is, I believe, one of the best endings to any of my stories.
I hope you agree. Whatever, ‘Touched by Magic’ is based on some of the most memorable episodes in my life, and means an awful lot to me.