I shouldn’t be left on my own. Most times I’ll stay up all night watching movies and get about an hour’s sleep before having to heading to work. I’ll burn myself whilst trying to cook something simple and get into an argument with my console that’ll reach neighbour-worrying volume. One time, though, I wrote a novella in a day. Not just just any novella, but one my favourites to this day: The Final Restoration of Wendell Pruce.
It started with a nightmare. Sam had gotten up incredibly early and headed out with plans. Once I was alone I’d dozed back off, feeling pretty good. I had nothing urgent to do, the weather forecast was promising and I was meeting some friends later. I was content, right up until the moment my subconscious decided to terrify me.
I remember an elderly man terrified of being left alone in a large, dilapidated house. He was pleading for someone to stay as they left him behind. You could hear the ocean outside the open windows and there were figures out there, going back and forth, whispering the lyrics of old hymns. There was also a long, crooked flight of stairs that led away from the house, down into total darkness and there was something waiting at the bottom of those stairs. Something you didn’t want to meet. Beyond that, all I remember is the terror. The sheer, palpable terror.
I jolted awake with the sound of the waves still echoing in my ears. I lay there, the sunlight filling the bedroom, but I wasn’t warm at all. I was shivering, afraid of going back to sleep. I kept thinking of that old man’s pleas and those steep, narrow stairs that led down into impenetrable gloom.
Back then, I’d only just started writing and self-publishing horror stories. I’d finished a few: The Low Road, The Narrow Doors and The Compressionist, but I was still finding my feet. At first, I didn’t even think about trying to make a story out of my nightmare. If I’m being honest, I just wanted it out of my brain.
It was only after a shower and a mug of coffee, that I realised I had to try and do something with it. I was trying to be a horror writer. It would be a shame to waste the fear jangling through my system. So, instead of distracting myself, I sat down and began to work with it.
I was only going to make a few notes but, as I put pen to paper, I started to see a way of joining the dots. I could make a story out of what I was remembering. I could build a plot around those horrifying moments. The details began to change. The stairs didn’t lead down into the void anymore. I knew that house was by the sea, so now they led down a cliff and into the water. Also, I knew the layout of the house hadn’t been quite right. Walls went missing, doors moved. It didn’t take much to realise that could be a house in the process of renovation. An old house with a past and, if there was a past to be discovered, then I needed a lead character who was ignorant to it. An outsider moving in. Someone older, moving away from their life and into their retirement home. It had to be a character with a strong force of will, who was also socially naive but basically likeable. That was where Wendell Pruce first came from.
Now, if you read The Blank Page every week (Hi, Mum), you’ll know Wendell. He was recently interviewed on here about me. Between us, Mr Pruce is my favourite character of all the ones I’ve created. He kept me writing this story on that first day.
The more I understood him, the more I liked him. His attitudes, his fantasies, his belligerent sense of self. I knew the story wouldn’t end well for him so it became a final hurrah for a man who was used to being centre stage.
The story starts outside of his head. We watch him through his son’s eyes. Then, the atmosphere begins to tighten, we stay with him. We see how he copes with what’s happening. We get to understand his hopes for the future and see that maybe he could have been a better friend and father if he’d had time.
A lot of Wendell came from spending two years around Stratford upon Avon studying drama. I’d met a few retired or failing actors there. They were normally pretty decent people, but it never took long for them to fall down the rabbit hole of self-pity. Wendell came with that same baggage. He had their defiance, gossip addiction and loathing. It got me through the darker elements of the story and, rather unexpectedly, he was funny. He kept making me laugh as he was shepherded to his doom. It almost made me want to change the ending, but I couldn’t do it. The story worked because it was about an imperfect man being made to face a truly unfair fate. It spoke about religion and the human way in which we all make selfish mistakes just by living how we want. I couldn’t let that go because I liked him.
What was meant to be a quick jaunt into the opening stages of the story became a deep dive into a complete first draft. It took around three hours and I knew it was working when some of the details I’d set up in the beginning began to be explain themselves before I understood what they were. The mysterious legend about the old church fit with the house and the steps from my nightmare. The odd behaviour of the historian left the door open for something crueller later. The marks on the gate posts became an omen. I was finding the answers as I wrote them.
I stopped for a late lunch, but I couldn’t let the idea rest. I put a horror score on repeat and started to write again. The second draft sharpened Wendell’s terror. The third draft added the epilogue and a final twist of the knife.
Sam came home that night and found me still writing, not even aware it had gone dark. By then, I was reading the story out loud, working it over and over. The stalking silhouette on the clifftop became a faster sequence. The banister swapped sides as the house changed. A figure loomed in the shadows once the church appeared.
Once I was finally finished, I was exhausted. I sat with Sam and watched TV, but I couldn’t really relax. I was beginning to understand what had happened. That nightmare had helped me find my voice. It’d taught me that I could deliver atmosphere and character without trying to emulate anyone else’s style. I could trust the beginnings of an idea, understanding that honing it allowed the finished article to take its own shape.
I published it pretty quickly and, when I had a chance to send something to my current publisher to get their attention, I knew exactly which story it had to be. The reviews it has on Amazon still fill me with pride and every time I see Simon Russell Beale in anything (particularly Penny Dreadful) I quietly dream of him playing Wendell Pruce one day. Maybe for a BBC ghost story for Christmas. Maybe directed by the chap who did Wolf Hall. That would be pretty damn sweet. Especially when you think it all started with a nightmare.
If you fancy reading The Final Restoration of Wendell Pruce now that you know how it came about, I've attached a link below for you: