A malevolent ghost is haunting an old mansion house just outside Dublin, putting off prospective owners and demonstrating a terrifying ability to appear at dead of night in the homes of those she has taken against. A group of paranormal investigators, including a young woman with a real psychic gift, are prepared to find out the truth about The Lady, even though their paths have already crossed to deadly effect. This is What Walks These Halls, the debut novel by Amy Clarkin and as thrilling a ghost story as you are likely to read. Andrea Reece interviewed Amy about her book for Books for Keeps.
‘I’ve loved ghost stories from a young age’, says Amy Clarkin in response to my inevitable first question, ‘Ghost stories and horror in general give us a chance to explore the things that scare us, but in a safe way. For me that’s the allure, because I’m very easily scared, but I really enjoy it as well.’ She is, she says, ‘the person that loves watching horror movies but with the cushion in front of my face for half of it.’ She’s also wanted to write fiction since ‘I was old enough to know what a book was’, but it took a combination of circumstances – including the COVID pandemic – to start her writing and to start her writing the ghost book that became What Walks These Walls.
Despite the early love for writing, she lost confidence in her ability to do it while at college and might not have gone back to it except that, at age 25, she became ill with ME, lost her job, and became pretty much housebound. Her mother encouraged her to take a writing course as something she could do in her own time and she began writing non-fiction ‘as a way of processing my illness’, with articles published in magazines. Then Covid hit and, ‘All the newspapers are talking about illness and all I can think about is illness – I can’t write about it as well.’ Instead she decided to write a story ‘for fun and escapism’ and, as soon as she started, realised how much fun it actually was. ‘The dream of writing fiction was still there but I needed to give myself time to come around to it and in a weird way the pandemic was that good push I needed.’ She was still ill and shielding too, but ‘On the days I was well enough I could get up and sit at my desk and write and feel like I was accomplishing something, and it was so exciting: what’s going to happen today? I don’t know but hopefully the characters do!’ She is, she says, a perfectionist – ‘I think a lot of writers are’ – and the pandemic enabled her to let go of that need to be perfect. ‘It gave me a little bit of that freedom even though it wasn’t an ideal situation – the one bit of silver lining for me that came from it.’
The particular circumstances of the pandemic fed more directly into her story too. ‘I was shielding during lockdown at my parents’ home and I didn’t really leave the house much for 15 months. Ghosts drew me because I could imagine that feeling of being in a house with an unknown threat or entity that was all around but that you didn’t understand. When I look back it’s obvious, “Oh, ghosts during a pandemic with an unseen threat at all times…” It did give me a safe, tangible way to explore all those feelings and I got to do it in the form of a genre that I’ve loved since childhood.’
We talk more about the characters in her book, siblings Raven and Archer, the former reserved and still affected by the terrible thing that happened in Hyacinth House when her parents, also paranormal investigators, were attempting to monitor The Lady, the latter much more open and optimistic; their friends and partners in their paranormal business Fionn and Davis; Cordelia the young estate agent who asks for their help; and Éabha, the girl with a special sensitivity to those around her, living and dead, ostracised by her devout parents as a result. She worked out who they were before starting writing, but there were surprises nonetheless, not least the fact that Éabha became the main character. ‘When I started writing Éabha was one of the team, but her voice was often there insisting, “I need to tell this part”, and suddenly I realised she was a main character.’ Éabha’s awareness of ghosts is key to the paranormal theme but she’s also extremely sensitive to other people’s feelings and emotions, able to feel exactly what they’re feeling, to an extent that is overwhelming. ‘Éabha’s feelings are interesting things to explore’, says Amy, ‘She worries a lot about overstepping, she wants people to tell her things because they trust her, not because they think she already knows their thoughts.’ She adds, ‘I have an invisible disability and most people looking at me all will think I’m fine, but Éabha would walk past me and think, “That girl’s exhausted”.’
Éabha has hearing loss, something she has in common with Amy. ‘I didn’t write a character with ME, but I gave Éabha the level of hearing loss I have because I wanted to represent it. I started wearing hearing aids when I was 16 and I was really embarrassed about it because the technology then wasn’t as good, they were very chunky, you could see them if I put my hair in a ponytail.’ Not good if you’re a shy teenager who doesn’t want to stand out. She remembers vividly the experience of reading about a character like her, who wore hearing aids. It was in a book called The Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle. ‘That was something that did influence me in What Walks these Walls, I really did want to create characters that a lot of people would be able to find parts of themselves in – whether that’s hearing loss or skin colour or sexuality – we have such a diverse society now and I want everyone to be able to find something that they see themselves in.’
Éabha’s parents can’t accept her abilities and throw her out of their home when she chooses to join PSI (Paranormal Surveyance Ireland), but she discovers a new family there. ‘The book became about finding your people’, says Amy, ‘The people who see all of you, who accept you wholly. I wrote it at a time when I was very isolated and I think creating this group of people who all have their flaws, all make mistakes, miscommunicate, but still come back to each other is the heart of the book, more even than the ghosts. It’s about found family and getting to be yourself, not having to be ashamed of any part of you even if it’s not a part of you that you particularly like. I hope it’s something that resonates with people as they read it.’
The story is a romance as well, and there were some surprises for Amy in terms of who ends up together. ‘I loved writing the romance’ she says, ‘The romance and the scary things were my two favourite parts – I like to either terrify people or make them melt a bit!’
Readers are sure to feel as invested in the characters as Amy is, and there’s an opening for them to return to solve more ghostly cases. Amy would love that and, as she points out, ghosts are having a moment right now. At one point in the book, Raven’s mother says that Ireland is a haunted country, and there’s certainly no shortage of inspiration for her, whether from the cultural scars on the country – from colonisation to the famine right up to stories of the Magdalen laundries – to the thousands of ghosts haunting hotels and castles.
We finish discussing her ‘favourite’ scary scene in the book – the one in which The Lady terrifyingly appears in Cordelia’s bedroom; it gave Amy nightmares – and had the same effect on me too – and what she’d like people to take from the book, ‘I hope people get whatever they’re looking for out of it, if people want a romance I hope I’ve given them a romance, if people want a laugh there’s a couple of good lines in there. And if people want a mystery, I think there’s one of those too. For me books have always been a way to give your mind a break from everyday life and if my book can do that for people then that’s all I want. Especially as I wrote it when I needed to leave my house without leaving my house, so if I can offer that to someone else then I’ll consider the purpose of the book done – but a part of me is always going to be happy if I hear it scared them a bit too.’ She should be very happy.
Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps.
What Walks These Halls by Amy Clarkin is published by O’Brien Press, 978-1788493734, £11.99 pbk.