Nina Jones, formerly a chic, affluent city girl, has lost all of her money at the hands of her supposedly perfect boyfriend. She’s left her so-called perfect life in Spain, and has retreated to the only place she can think of: the Highgate flat formerly belonging to her bat-loving dead Uncle Arval.
He’s got a spare key behind the gargoyle.
“Which bloody gargoyle?” I mutter.
I drop my bags on the pavement and gaze up at the building in front of me. Built of crumbling grey stone, with pointed dusty blank windows, it squats like a gothic monster among the neat red brick Edwardian houses that populate the rest of the street. A precarious turret pokes up from its snaggle-tiled roof. Cobweb tracery sticks to the gables. While the other trees nearby flutter with leaves just beginning to turn crimson and orange, the sole tree here is wizened and its leaves are brown and crispy. It’s one o’clock in the afternoon and the British autumn sun is high in the sky, but the house looms in a strange pocket of its own special darkness, which oozes onto the street in a misshapen shadow.
Uncle Arval’s building could illustrate the dictionary definition of “depressing”. Even from the outside it smells musty, like the grave of ten thousand spiders and mice.
And let’s not even talk about the gargoyles.
Two carvings shaped like dragons crouch over the thick iron-laced wooden door, glaring bug-eyed east and west as if to frighten off visitors. A twiny-legged stone spider monkey twists around the drainpipe near the first storey windows. Stone faces project from the walls at seemingly random places, scowling and frowning and gurning and pulling their mouths open with their grossly oversized hands.
You’d think so much sculptured personality would liven the place up a bit, but they just make the building’s outline more lumpy and shadowy. The fact that most of them are missing body parts doesn’t help.
It begins to drizzle. It’s been sunny for my entire journey, in direct contrast to my mood it’s true, but the British September sun isn’t up to much compared with Spain even when there’s nary a cloud in the sky, so I haven’t been in danger of being cheered up or anything silly like that. But now, when I’m standing in front of the only single place I can think of where I might be able to crawl away and lick my wounds for a little while, it rains. Harder now.
The rain starts dripping down the back of my light Spanish jacket. I put my suitcase on the stone step up to the front door, stand on it and, wrinkling my nose, feel around behind the east-pointing dragon for a key. It’s definitely slimy back there. Accumulated algae and moss, I try to convince myself. Not worms. Or slugs. Or squished decomposing creatures.
I pull my hand out quickly. I think the black stuff on my fingers is only dirt, so I swallow hard and check behind the west-pointing gargoyle. Its buggy eyes goggle at me as I rummage behind it. “Don’t worry,” I tell it, “I won’t steal your wallet.”
Though if it did have one, I’d be tempted, if only so I could afford a Frappuccino.
Close up, these things should look less creepy because you can see how fake they are. But instead they’re more creepy. The chipped-off claws and lichen-blooming stone seem about to move.
No key. With a grunt of disgust, I wipe my dirty hand on the skirt of my floaty flowery dress and step off my suitcase. The house looms over me like a monster in a bad movie.
Who would choose to live in a place like this?
Arval, of course. Batty Arval. The place probably has bats living in it. That was probably the attraction for him. I know Dad hates London these days, but I’ve always wondered a bit why he never visited his brother, even if he wouldn’t visit me. Now I understand. Even if the key floated sparkling clean into my hand on a little pink fluffy cloud, I have exactly zero desire to set foot inside this place.
But I haven’t got a choice.
My idea for this story was totally to write Bridget Jones meets Northanger Abbey. I know I could never in a million years write a straight vampire romance story (though my dear friend, Kathy Love, is very good at them). But I love the gothic feel of vampire romance, and I love the idea of two worlds colliding. So I decided to take a typical shoe-loving chick lit heroine, and stick her in a crumbling gothic mansion with a bunch of people who appear to be blood-sucking freaks.
Of course, why Nina Jones got to the Temple of Gloom in the first place became as interesting a story as her being there at all, and so that’s probably why the book is so long.
I was reading the Twilight series when I wrote the book, and you might be able to find one or two references there. I also got to reference ‘Salem’s Lot and Buffy. The part I loved most about writing this book, though, was when I visited Highgate Cemetery as research. Along with the Sir John Soane Museum, it’s one of my favourite parts of London.
This picture on the right, though, was taken in the more mundane Reading Cemetery. As you can tell, I love hanging around with dead people!
photo by Ruth Ng