I wrote Lilian’s Spell Book to be a really gripping supernatural adventure story, a Chinese box of a haunted house mystery, and a study of a normal family in a very weird place.
Here’s a plot summary:
Lilian’s Spell Book is a paranormal adventure novel about an ordinary English family – mother, father, pre-teen son, baby daughter – who inherit an extraordinary house. They move to this vast Elizabethan mansion in rural Sussex from their small South London maisonette. Very soon, they all find out their new home is haunted. But it is the mother of the family, the unnamed narrator, who begins to suspect that the secret to the house lies in the Elizabethan portrait that hangs in a room just off the vast entrance hall – a glittering, gorgeous oil painting showing the proud, red-haired Lilian holding in her hand a small leather-bound book. But the real wonders start when the narrator discovers the book itself, in the secret library of the mansion. Lilian’s father was an alchemist…
And here’s the opening couple of chapters:
In the very heart of the fire – I could see it clearly – there stood a figure. I thought for one mad moment that it must be my husband, and that he must be burning to death. But the figure stood there, quite calm, quite still, completely unaffected by the furnace-like blaze surrounding them. I could see them through the open doorway that, for some reason, wasn’t burning. The fire did not come that far.
Perhaps I should be clearer. This was not a figure made of flames. This was the outline of a figure where the bright flames left a darker gap. And the gap went all the way to the bricks of the far wall. It was almost as if there were a person-shaped tunnel running through the whole infernal room, from front to back. And there was nothing there to burn, I was sure. This room of our house was totally empty. It was the air itself that seemed to be on fire.
The light from the burning room scorched into the backs of my eyes. How long before the fire spread? How long before our beautiful old wooden dreamhouse was razed to the ground? But still I didn’t turn and run. Still I stared into the light.
I knew this figure. With every passing second, I was surer of that.
I knew her, and I knew she had a message for me.
As I watched, she put her left hand out and beckoned me towards her. Of course she was left-handed! – I’d known that all along.
It was madness but I felt certain that she wouldn’t let me come to harm. It was a while since I had started to trust her. But did I trust her enough to trust her with my life?
Of course I hesitated. Nobody wants want to die like this. Nobody wants to be burnt alive. What I was about to do was against all reason.
Reason, though, was something I had given up on or which had given up on me quite some time before.
I nodded to her.
The figure beckoned me again.
I moved forwards, to the edge of the flames.
I could see her better now. My eyes seemed to be getting used to the bright light. Was that a smile I could make out among the flames?
With a final thought for my husband, my children, I stepped over the threshold – into the heart of the burning room.
It’s the sort of thing that only happens in books – a relative you haven’t thought about for years dies, their solicitors track you down, you’re called to a small, incredibly old-fashioned office and told you own a house you never even knew existed.
If it hadn’t happened to us, I really wouldn’t have believed it. But the solicitors were called Gibbons & Jump, and their old-fashioned office was at 17 Winchester Road, Worthing, and Peter and I went there for ten thirty on a Tuesday morning in May – taking baby Mary with us and leaving my parents to entertain six year-old Jack.
I breastfed Mary in the car before we went upstairs. She slept in my arms for most of the meeting, which lasted just under an hour. That was how long it took to change our lives completely.
The dead relative, Michael Francis Jonson, was a great uncle of Peter’s on his father’s side. That part of Peter’s family seemed to enjoy falling out over things, especially religious things. Michael Francis had been Catholic, and had taken it all extremely seriously. So much so that he refused to leave his house to anyone who wasn’t of the old faith. But most of his family was either wishy-washy Protestants or nothing much at all. (Michael Francis never got round to having children himself.) Even though Peter hadn’t been a practicing Catholic for years, he had gone through the rigmarole of conversion while at university. He said it was because he found the whole thing very glamorous, silly idiot. So, when Michael Francis Jonson decided he needed an heir, he had ordered his solicitors to search out one who was a proper Catholic, and Peter, I suppose, was the best they could come up with.
‘You don’t have a photograph?’ asked Peter, after Mr. Gibbon broke the news. Mr. Gibbon didn’t look like a gibbon. He looked like a grizzled chimpanzee.
‘I think you should go and see it for yourself,’ said Mr. Gibbon. ‘Then you can make up your mind about taking on the responsibilities, etcetera. It’s about half an hour from here. You could be back by teatime.’
I could tell this was the kind of office where teatime was still held sacred. Four o’clock, and not a minute after.
There was a silence.
‘Who gets it if we don’t take it?’ I asked.
‘The taxman,’ replied Mr. Gibbon, as if Peter and not me had asked the question. ‘Mr. Jonson would die intestate.’
If we took the house, he said, we would have to sign some papers, and agree to bring up any children of our own as Catholics – otherwise they’d be disinherited and lose the house, or any money from the sale of it. Also, we couldn’t just auction off the whole kit and caboodle.
The solicitor explained, very carefully, that this last bit was binding. ‘You will not be able take anything out of the house for the purpose of selling it – the furniture, paintings, even the crockery. It is all part of the estate, and must be maintained by you. Paintings can be loaned for exhibition, if they are properly insured. The building itself, of course, cannot be sold. Nor the land it is build upon. Nor any of the surrounding acreage. Either you own it, as the heirs of Mr. Jonson, or it passes to the state. The same conditions will apply to your children. However, there are outbuildings, some garages, a garden shed, and the same strictures do not apply to these properties and their contents as to the main house.’
‘Oh good,’ said Peter, ‘so we can sell the lawnmower.’
‘I am merely relating the terms of the will,’ said Mr. Gibbon.
‘I am merely saying that we can sell the lawnmower,’ said Peter. He was never able to take official people all that seriously. That was one of the reasons I loved him like I did.
‘I believe there is a lawnmower,’ said Mr. Gibbon. ‘And it would of course be yours to sell – though that might leave the gardener in some difficulties.’
‘Could we rent the house out, and live somewhere else?’ I asked.
‘No,’ said Mr. Gibbon. ‘That is explicitly forbidden.’
Then he handed Peter the keys and a piece of paper with the address.
‘You’ll find an inventory of the contents in the middle drawer of the desk in Mr. Jonson’s study, rear room, left hand side.’
‘There’s no alarm?’ Peter asked.
‘No,’ said Mr. Gibbon. ‘It’s all rather old-fashioned.’ Which was rich, coming from him.
As soon as we were out on the street, Peter said, ‘I don’t like the bit about Mary and Jack having to be Catholic.’ It was a sunny morning. People whose lives were still the same walked past us with shopping bags in their hands.
The key was nothing special – just a dull brass Yale attached by a steel ring to a fob of new leather.
Peter held it up next to his ear and shook it like a bell.
‘I’m trying to hear money,’ he said.
I looked at him properly for the first time in a while. Blue eyes. Stubble. He was a bit of a scamp – could never get his dark hair to sit down properly. When we’d started going out I’d thought he was very attractive, but that I was the only person to see it. It wasn’t that Peter was the greatest looker; it was the energy he had inside him. Turns out, I wasn’t the only person to see it. At least one other did.
‘This is fun,’ I said, trying to clear those sad thoughts out of my head.
My name is Jeane Jonson.
I’m an ordinary woman and I have an ordinary family, at least that’s what I thought. We lived ordinary, happy, suburban lives – in Tulse Hill, South London. Peter had his own business, creating and maintaining financial software for small companies. As for me, before I had the children, I’d been a schoolteacher at a primary school. I intended to go back part-time as soon as Mary was in nursery. We couldn’t afford for me not to work. We weren’t rich. We were as normal as normal gets. This inherited house was the first extraordinary thing that had even happened to us. Even Peter’s affair had been perfectly normal.
With the traffic, the drive took more than twice the half hour Mr. Gibbon had promised. Almost as soon as we started, Peter had to pull over so I could get in the back. Mary had woken up, and wouldn’t stop crying. She calmed down when she felt me beside her, and we set off again. Luckily, Peter had recently put Sat Nav in our car, so finding the village was easy. We had the postcode, and the solicitor had told us to follow the road down past the church. This went on for about a mile, only wide enough for one car, and with tall beech trees on either side. Here was where Mary decided to fall asleep again. She’s a very good baby – typical second child. Or at least the kind of second child everyone hopes for.
The road ended at a pair of tall black metal gates, beyond which was a gravel track curving round to the left. The gates were open.
Peter stopped the car and turned off the engine.
‘What are you waiting for?’ I said.
‘I need a moment or two,’ he said.
‘Don’t be so melodramatic.’
‘I’m just preparing myself for the full horror. It probably doesn’t even have a roof.’
‘Then we’ll get a roof put on. Anyway, Mr. Gibbon said there were paintings – and they wouldn’t just leave paintings open to the rain.’
Peter was silent for a moment. ‘I don’t want to force the children into anything that’s not good for them, Jeane. Not just for the sake of money.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘If we don’t like it, we don’t take it. Now, drive.’
He started the engine.
The track curved round to the left, then to the right, then left again. A thick wood surrounded us. Trees high over our heads made the inside of the car quite dark.
And then, without warning, the house was on top of us. Peter had to do an emergency stop, and the tyres skidded on the gravel. He pulled up a few inches short of a green garage door.
In front of the house there were only a couple of parking spaces, nothing more. No grand drive down an arcade of trees. The trees were growing very close, all around the tall two-storey building.
The jolt had woken Mary, who started to do her worst kind of cry. I picked her out of her backwards-facing car seat and cuddled her. She was three months old but chubbing up nicely. I was pleased about that. Jack had been just the same. They took after me, that was for certain.
‘Oh my God,’ I said.
‘Wow,’ said Peter.
‘Look at it,’ I said. ‘It’s a stately home.’
‘It is a bit over-the-top,’ said Peter. He was looking up at the black beams and white plaster of the building, and the diamond patterning in the glass of all the tall, narrow windows. This house definitely had a roof – with bells on. Three bells.
‘No decisions yet,’ I said. ‘Let’s go inside.’
To the sound of Mary’s screams, Peter put the key in the lock and turned it.
Even with a hard shove, the door wouldn’t open.
‘There’s another lock,’ said Peter.
He pushed the door at top and bottom.
‘Down there,’ he said, pointing. ‘I can’t see anything on the outside.’ Peter stepped back. ‘There isn’t even a deadlock.’
‘Perhaps there’s another door,’ I said.
‘But this is the front door, and Mr. Gibbon said the front door. And this key was the right one.’
‘Well, maybe someone’s in there.’
‘Who?’ asked Peter.
‘Let’s find out,’ I said.
If the house key wasn’t impressive, the doorknocker certainly was. It was shaped like the beak of a brass griffin, and when I let it slam home Mary – who had just quieted down a little – started screaming again.
‘Let me,’ said Peter, and banged on the door for a deafening minute.
Then we spent another minute stepping back from the house and squinting towards the upper windows. They were all of them closed, and it was only in my imagination that I saw anything moving behind them.
‘I’ll have a look round,’ said Peter. ‘See if there is another way in.’
He took the key from the door and started off round the right-hand side of the house.
I cradled Mary gently on my shoulder, stroking her back and telling her everything was all right. If she kept on crying, it meant I couldn’t try knocking on the door again – which I was going to, even though Peter wasn’t with me anymore.
It had been sunny on the road but the air around the house was very cold. The tall trees put it in a deep wind-shadow. The place had the still, secluded atmosphere of a pond waiting for its surface to be broken. Nowhere in London ever felt like this, and nothing in my life did, either.
I turned to go back to the car, and just then the front door cracked open.
‘That was quick,’ I said. But when I turned round, I didn’t see Peter.
The door was ajar by only an inch or so, a long line of darkness down its right-hand side.
‘Yes,’ said a female voice.
‘We’ve come to see the house,’ I said.
‘Well, you can’t see the house,’ said the voice.
‘Yes, we can,’ I said. ‘We’re the new owners.’
The door slammed shut. I heard a chain rattle and tap against the wood. The door opened wide.
‘Hello,’ said a woman of around fifty-five, stepping out into the dim light. ‘I’m Mrs. Forster. I do the housekeeping. I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting you.’
‘We’ve come straight from the solicitors,’ I said.
Mrs. Forster stepped closer. ‘And who is this little darling?’
‘Mary,’ I said.
‘And how old?’
‘Thirteen weeks,’ I said. ‘And a half.’
‘Oh, so young. What a sweetie.’
It’s hard not to be disarmed when people are nice about your children. Mrs. Forster had short, wavy brown hair that managed to shine even without sunlight to strike it. She was wearing what I’d call country clothes – a green cardigan over a cream shirt, tweedy skirt, green stockings and slippers.
‘I heard you knock the first time – I have very good hearing. But I was quite a long way away. Are you on your own?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘My husband is looking for another way in.’
‘Oh, he won’t find one,’ said Mrs. Forster. ‘The house is quite secure.’
‘There’s no back door, then?’
‘There are several other doors but none of them are used.’
Mrs. Forster was trying to intimidate me, by speaking very properly.
‘He’ll come back,’ I said. ‘Once he’s gone the whole way round.’
‘Oh, no. He can’t do that. There’s a path one way but the woods come right up to the wall on the other side.’
Mrs. Forster pointed towards the trees behind the garages. They were certainly dense.
‘We’ll go through the house,’ she said, ‘and try to catch him in the garden.’
I was reluctant to cross the threshold without Peter beside me. Not that I’m particularly superstitious. I’m not funny about ladders or broken mirrors or black cats. But, if this was going to be our new home, I wanted to enter it together. I was slightly annoyed that Jack wasn’t there, too. We did almost everything as a whole family.
‘Follow me,’ said Mrs. Forster, and went into the dark hallway.
After a moment more of hesitation, I obeyed – entering that strangest of places for the very first time.
My first impressions weren’t unpleasant. The hall was vast, with a double staircase zigzagging up at the far end. It smelt powerfully of wood and wood polish. The walls were done in tight, oblong panels, right up to the high ceiling where there hung, yes, a real chandelier. Not a crystal one. It, too, was made of wood.
Mrs. Forster switched on the lights and I was dazzled. Everything shone back at me. Jack would love this, sliding around in socks on the parquet. And I would spend my life expecting to fall over and crack a hip. Mrs. Forster certainly knew how to polish.
‘I don’t waste the electricity when I’m just by myself,’ she said. ‘This way.’
There were two wooden doors directly in front of us. They went underneath the stairways, which zagged out and then back in again to meet in the middle. Mrs. Forster turned the gleaming brass handle on the left-hand door and passed through. Over her shoulders, I could see daylight. It took us a little while to reach it, though. First there was a longish hallway, also wood-paneled, and with paintings in the dark on either side. Then there was a small cloakroom. Beyond that was a huge sitting room. I only had time to take in a very large and ornate fireplace to my right and, to my left, a grand piano. Heavy tapestry curtains hid the far wall – a bit moth-eaten, perhaps. There were some holes where beams of light shone through. Mrs. Forster was about to pull them back when a furious rattling started behind them.
‘That must be him,’ said Mrs. Forster, completely unfazed. I couldn’t say the same for myself.
She pushed aside the left-hand curtain. As it started to catch the light, I saw that it was a tapestry inlaid with golden thread. I recognized from the crab, the scorpion and the pair of little boys that it must be the signs of the zodiac.
Peter’s face moved back from the window, but not before I’d seen his mouth give a little gasp of surprise, or perhaps fear.
Mrs. Forster had now moved this curtain as far as it could go, and was walking across to push the other.
I carried Mary towards the brighter light. Beyond the glass was a beautiful walled garden with an ornamental fountain in the middle and rosebushes around the far edges. This was the moment I decided we should definitely move in.
‘Look,’ I said to Mary, and turned her round to see. ‘Daddy.’
He came up close to the glass and made a funny face at Mary, then caught sight of Mrs. Forster beside me.
‘Hello,’ he shouted.
‘Come in the front way,’ I shouted, pointing with my finger.
As Peter walked away from the window, I saw that the elbows of his best suit were bright green and the soles of his best shoes were spattered with mud.
We went back through the house to meet him. It took him longer than I expected for him to arrive – but, finally, there he was.
‘This is Mrs. Forster,’ I said, as he came into view. ‘The housekeeper.’
‘Not really,’ she started to say. ‘I live in the village – ’
But Peter had stepped into the house and, without meaning to, had made two muddy footprints on the spotless floor.
Mrs. Forster looked down in dismay.
‘Never mind,’ she said.
Peter apologized, and took off his shoes. The two footprints he left behind were very clear – like footprints in a cartoon.
‘Would you like me to show you around?’
‘Yes,’ said Peter, at the same moment as I said, ‘No.’ It wasn’t that I disliked Mrs. Forster, or found her creepy, it was just that I thought it would be fun exploring the house, rather than being given a guided tour.
Peter looked at me, then said, ‘I think we’ll find our own way round.’
‘It is quite big,’ said Mrs. Forster. ‘And there’s lots of nooks and crannies you’d never find without someone pointing them out.’
‘Next time,’ said Peter. ‘Do you come every week?’
‘I come every day of the week. You wouldn’t believe the amount of work there is.’
‘Well, it looks spotless,’ said Peter.
Mrs. Forster couldn’t help but glance at the muddy footprints.
‘When are you thinking of moving in?’ said Mrs. Forster.
‘We’re not sure that we will,’ I said.
‘What?’ Mrs. Forster said. ‘And leave this place empty? You can’t do that. It’s such a beautiful house. And such a good home for a family. There’s the countryside…’ She seemed baffled we were even considering living elsewhere.
‘We probably will,’ said Peter, not wanting to upset her.
‘Let’s have a look around first,’ I said. ‘Come on – I’ll show you the living room.’
Peter smiled at Mrs. Forster then followed me through the left-hand door beneath the stairs. Once we were out of earshot, he said, ‘Why didn’t you want the old dear to show us around? She can probably tell us a load of the history.’
I explained about wanting us to explore, together, and Peter seemed to understand. The more nice things we did together, the better.
He stood in the middle of the room, which was about as big as a tennis court. ‘Can you imagine us living here?’ he asked.
I looked around. ‘We’ll have to get some Irish wolfhounds,’ I said. ‘And, when we’ve finished feasting on mutton, we can throw them the bones over our shoulders.’
‘I’ve always wanted to do that,’ said Peter. ‘No, really. I have.’
‘It’s such a big fireplace,’ I said.
We went over to look at it. Mary was dozing on my shoulder. There was a large coat of arms front and centre. It contained lions, gryffins, dragons and stars, all intricately carved in bright stone.
‘No,’ I said, ‘I can’t imagine us living here. I think it would change us. Not straight away. To begin with, we’d probably camp out like intruders. But, if we ever got used to it, we’d be very different people.’
Peter took a last look around. ‘That we would.’
A whooshing sound suddenly came from directly above our heads. It took me a moment to realize that it was Mrs. Forster doing the hoovering.
Off to the left of the sitting room was a study with a big desk, a Windsor chair and several filing cabinets that I guessed were full of Michael Francis Jonson’s papers. One wall was covered with trophy heads of animals: deers, wild boar, even a zebra; the other was dominated by a large map of the house and grounds.
‘We’re going to take it, though,’ said Peter. ‘Aren’t we?’
I didn’t reply, but walked back across the living room and through the opposite doorway. This was the library. It didn’t contain any paperbacks, that’s for certain.
‘These must be worth something,’ said Peter. ‘We’ll have to have everything valued.’
‘But the solicitors said we can’t sell anything from inside the house.’
‘If we’re going to afford to do anything to the place, we’ll have to find a way round that. Where else is the money going to come from?’
It was true. Since buying our house, we’d been able to keep up the mortgage payments but hadn’t been able to take anything off the balance. If we sold it, we’d be left with only a few thousand pounds cash.
Back in the hallway, we found another couple of doors opposite one another. The first (on the left as you came through the front door) led to a kitchen and a small dining room. The other went directly into a more formal dining room, with another large fireplace and plenty of painted portraits.
‘You must be related to some of these,’ I said.
‘All of them, probably.’
Most of those upon the walls were men. But there was a very striking woman with red-golden hair above the mantelpiece. I was drawn to go and look at her more closely. In the bottom corner of the canvas was a date, 1585. Her pose was rather stiff, and her clothes looked very ceremonial, but her face was full of life, full of passion. Her long slender fingers held a small leather-covered book – a red silk ribbon dangling down from between the pages.
‘I wonder who she is,’ I said.
‘A Jonson,’ said Peter. ‘She has the Jonson nose.’
I looked, and it was true. Peter has what most people would call a Roman nose. It’s not something you can miss. I always found it attractive, and thought it showed strength of character.
Looking up at the young woman, in all her spangly glory, I felt terribly frumpy. Not that I thought she’d looked like that in real life. I didn’t have a portrait painter to flatter me, and iron out all the little imperfections. Jack would have told you that I was perfect, but then your children have to, don’t they? I felt like I was starting to get back to my old self, physically, after having Mary. I’m quite petite, and I prefer to have my dark hair short and out of the way. My eyes are probably my best feature – chestnut brown. Not that I’m vain about them. I wish my legs were slightly longer, and my upper arms a little firmer. Overall, though, I haven’t done too badly in the genetic lottery.
‘Upstairs?’ I said.
We could leave all this for later.
‘Upstairs,’ said Peter.
And already I was starting to think about how soon that later might be.
If you’d like to read on a little, the whole book is here, for free, until April 4th 2020.