In January of 2013, the crime fiction magazine CRIMESQUAD.COM were kind enough to feature me as their FRESH BLOOD for the month. This was following their review of my debut novel The Eighth Circle of Hell. They were kind enough too, to list it as one of their top ten crime fiction novels of 2013. Mr Graham Smith, the reviewer tweeted me a couple of days ago to say that even a year later the novel still haunted him; this from someone who lives and breathes the very darkest of crime fiction.
I'm not really surprised that it should, since The Eighth Circle of Hell addresses the brutal, if rather unlikely subject of 19th Century child sexual abuse. I am continually asked why I chose this as a subject for a novel and it’s an interesting story. So here it is:
Around six years or so ago, there were a number of difficult elements in my personal life; severe illness of close family members, hardship and death. I began to write creatively as a catharsis to these and as a form of escapism.
One day, I was visiting my father in the care home where he lived when one of the other residents, an elderly lady who, like my father, was also in the end-stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, suddenly cried out, begging some uncle to stop, screaming that he was hurting her. The room fell into excruciating silence, staff and visitors alike exchanging discomforted glances and trying to imagine what sort of horrors she must be reliving. The lady herself was beyond conversation, beyond comfort and beyond reassurance and surely the only relief she would have from her memories would be her death. That thought very soon took form and shape in my mind as The Eighth Circle of Hell.
Another conversation which fed into the story-line was one I had with the senior nurse at the time. He explained that my father (who was by then doubly-incontinent) was violently resisting attempts by the nurses to bath him. That was hardly surprising, he told me, since my father could not remember who the nurses were from one hour to the next. To his mind, several burly men had grabbed him and were forcibly removing his clothes. Little wonder he fought back.
The plot for the novel that had formed in my mind needed to predate dementia drugs or even modern mental health services and living at the time in Harrogate – essentially a Victorian town – I decided to set it in the 19th Century.
Which is when I happened to stumble across the abomination of the Defloration Mania.
The Defloration Mania was a period during the Victorian age when adolescent, mainly virgin girls were bought, duped, kidnapped, or otherwise procured for rich, so-called gentlemen to rape. It was a time of soundproofed rooms, chloroform and procuresses and the rape was carried out on an almost industrial scale. The pioneering journalist WT Stead eventually exposed it in 1885 in a series of shocking articles entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, (which I have reprinted in full in my previous posts).
The articles outraged a Victorian public and it outraged me, especially as I remembered the terror in the old lady’s screams. It was this anger that gave life to the manuscript for The Eighth Circle of Hell. Everything I describe in the plot; the horrific baby farming, the Annexe, the procuresses and even the gentlemen’s cabaret entertainment was real and typical to the Mania.
The most amazing thing about the period was that despite the 1885 scandal and the riots that Stead’s articles ignited, virtually no one these days, even in England, has heard of the Defloration Mania. The government of the day hurriedly raised the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 years and the whole thing quickly faded away – in the public’s consciousness at least.
The reality however, as opposed to the consciousness did not. The current rash of celebrity prosecutions and accusations related to sexual abuse demonstrates that wealth and power tend to corrupt as much as they ever did. The Mania continues to this day.