Article published on June 3, 2016.
Phil was impressed with Mr Entwistle’s Angel of Highgate and wanted to know more – Vaughn, as we now feel we can call him, was kind enough to accommodate us!
Phil Ramage: What is it about Highgate Cemetery that made you choose it as a central location for your novel?
Vaughn Entwistle: The inspiration for the novel came many, many years ago when I was a graduate student. I was wandering the stacks of the university library when I happened to pick up a book entitled: Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla, by Felix Barker. There wasn’t much text: just a brief introduction to the history of Highgate Cemetery and a few simple maps of the grounds. But what made the book so compelling were the atmospheric black and white photographs taken by John Gay, a professional photographer. The book was published in 1988 and many of the photographs were taken around that time. They show a Highgate in full surrender to nature with its tombs and statuary (many since lost to erosion or attacks by vandals) wreathed in vines and slowly submerging beneath foliage. At this time, West Highgate had long gone out of business as a cemetery and was derelict and overgrown. A volunteer society: The Friends of Highgate Cemetery, have since taken it over and are working to restore the cemetery, which now also serves as a wildlife sanctuary and is home to many species of birds, as well as foxes, badgers, and the occasional wallaby. (Yes, really!)
As I pored over the book, I was immediately struck by the sheer gravitas of the place: gothic, mysterious, and suffused in entropic decay. Here’s a few words you may or may not be familiar with: tapophile (one who loves graves, cemeteries and funerals) and coimetromania (an abnormal compulsion to visit cemeteries). Both words aptly describe me. I grew up in northern England watching Hammer films and loved all things spooky and eldritch. At any rate, the book affected me deeply and I immediately recognized that Highgate would make a magnificent setting for a novel. After university I went on to have a career as a writer/editor working in various industries, but part of my mind was still back in Highgate cemetery, spawning a cast of characters to inhabit this moody necropolis. Decades later, I finally sat down to write The Angel of Highgate, a novel in which the cemetery functions as a major character in the dramatic action.
PR: Described as “the wickedest man in London”, a description which certainly seems fitting at the start of the novel where there’s a little bit of playful misleading from yourself, main character Lord Geoffrey Thraxton has to win us readers over, which he does. How did you develop the character of this unlikely hero?
VE: My protagonist, Lord Geoffrey Thraxton is a louche lord with Byronesque pretensions and a morbid fascination with death. Like Highgate, Thraxton is a dark mirror of the Victorian era, whose outward veneer of Empire, modernity and wealth concealed a seething underworld of vice and crime, crushing poverty, and rampant disease such as consumption (tuberculosis), which prematurely snuffed out rich and poor alike. It could be argued that the Victorians fetishised death with their elaborate mourning rituals and their creation of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries—Highgate, Kensal Green, etc. A more shocking example currently circulating the web is photos of Victorian families posing with dead relatives/children. Although ghastly and ghoulish to modern eyes, the photographs were taken as treasured mementos of a lost beloved.
Like many of the time, Thraxton suffered a deep trauma in early childhood when his mother died. Thraxton’s brutish father soon remarried and withdrew all love from the young boy, who was left to wander the cold halls of Thraxton hall, forgotten and alone. By chance the young lord strayed into the family mausoleum and found that the screws of his mother’s coffin had been removed. Thraxton opened the lid . . . and crawled inside, seeking the comforting embrace of his mother’s arms.
PR: The Angel of Highgate is a highly enjoyable Victorian novel. Which novels from the Victorian period have given you the most enjoyment?
VE: Anything by Dickens, of course. Bleak House is arguably my favourite. I read Oliver Twist at a very young age and still remember it vividly (especially the scene where he is apprenticed to a coffin maker and spends a terrifying night alone with the coffins). This scene is probably what gave me the twisted sensibilities that later drove me to write The Angel of Highgate. The Woman in White and Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, are other faves. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is poetic and beautiful. And of course, Austen is represented by Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The Victorians produced a singularly amazing coterie of poets/playwrights and novelists.
PR: One section which is written with real relish is how Lord Thraxton deals with a critic who savaged his poetry. Thraxton describes critics as “leeches sucking on the body of art” and his subsequent treatment should make us reviewers wince. What’s the worst criticism you have had to endure?
VE: I don’t know if it was apparent to readers (some material was edited out) but Thraxton was a pretty lousy poet and the unfortunate critic’s scathing review of Thraxton’s collection of poetry was entirely warranted.
I have to admit that bad reviews wound at the deepest level and are hard to recover from. At first I read every review, good or bad. But I have found that the bad reviews tend to stick in one’s mind much longer than the good reviews, so now I stop reading a review as soon as I gather that it is turning negative. (There is enough rejection in a novelist’s life; I don’t need to go looking for more.)
I will say that reviewers on web sites are generally fairer than the snarky comments one reads on sites like GoodReads or Amazon. There is a lot of obvious trolling and “sock-puppeting” taking place on these sites and reading some critiques it soon becomes apparent that the reviewer has not even read the book, as evidenced by confused character identifications and other giveaways.
One thing that helps me put criticism in perspective is to read reviews of books by authors that I greatly admire. Even terrific writers who have written terrific books receive the odd nasty review. On GoodReads you can check out reader reviews of books such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In amongst the five star reviews you will find a scattering of one and two star reviews by people trying to convince the rest of the world that, despite the massive success of these novels, the books are trash and that the rest of us are deluded fools. I don’t understand why these people can’t admit that the novel was just “not their kind of book.”
Speaking of which, I recently received the worst review I’ve ever had on the website Fandom Post. The reviewer opined that every character was a cliché, every situation in the book was a cliché, and basically hated every sentence.
The sheer vitriol of the review took me aback, since most of the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I think the reviewer even hated the cover art and the type font. If only I could arrange a meeting between this critic and my antagonist, Dr. Silas Garrette (insert fiendish laughter here: Moohahaha!)
PR: What’s next for Vaughn Entwistle?
VE: I am currently writing the third novel in my Paranormal Casebooks series, entitled The Faery Vortex and I am also working on a collection of Ghost/Horror/Weird fiction stories.
Lastly, I would like to end by thanking Phil Ramage and all the other independent book bloggers out there. Now that most major newspapers have decreased or reduced the size of their book review pages, independent Book Bloggers are vital resource for both readers and writers alike.
Thanks, to you all for what you do.