Exploring a “House of Ghosts”
“There’s a reason we never took you there. Can’t you see the danger you’re in? Why do you think your mother came to live on the other side of the world from her family? They’re not…nice people, Miranda.”
“There” is Barnsley House, a rambling estate turned into a hotel in the West Country of England, and the subject of an enormously bestselling book called The House of Brides, a chronicle of the generations of women who married into the infamous Summer family. From crime novelist Gertrude, who threw herself off a cliff, to famous beauty Beatrice, who killed herself after setting fire to Barnsley while her children slept, to celebrity chef Daphne, who disturbingly seems to have disappeared, each woman is more notorious than the next—and it’s into this “house of ghosts” that 26-year-old Miranda has come.
Her mother, Tessa, wrote the book. Beatrice was her grandmother. She is a Summer, and the house “has somehow gotten into my blood, just like it got in the blood of the women who came before me.” That’s not the only reason she’s there, though. Her professional life as a social media influencer has self-destructed spectacularly, and her home life with a toxic father and disapproving stepmother has hit rock bottom.
And then there’s the letter. Readdressed several times, it was sent to Tessa, who died when Miranda was only eight, and is from her cousin Sophia at Barnsley. “Something bad has happened,” it says. “Will you come and help us? Please.”
Miranda takes it as a clarion call and arrives late at night, to find the hotel permanently closed and the family full of odd tics, but, mistaken for the children’s new nanny, she settles in to search for the truth about what has happened here.
She is totally unprepared for what she will find, however—discoveries not only about the Summers, but about her own past, about how much of what she thought she knew about herself and her family is wrong, and how much it will affect her future. If she has one.
“I thought about my conversation with Dad. My vehement denial of fear. I had lied again. I was afraid. As the days passed by, I’d become afraid of what had happened to Daphne. I was afraid I might have been the last person to see her. I was afraid something might happen to the children.
“I was afraid something might happen to me.”
Cockram’s THE HOUSE OF BRIDES is a full-on modern Gothic, full of classic tropes—the remote country house, the forbidding housekeeper (“I’m Mrs. Mins. I hope I’m pleased to meet you.”), the missing wife, the brooding husband, the rumors of ghosts, the history of death and scandal—but Jane Cockram made it her own, ringing many modern changes on a genre that may seem familiar, but which she devilishly subverts.
“I wrote the book I wanted to read—and write. A modern take on familiar Gothic tales like Rebecca and Jane Eyre—set in a lush English estate and peopled with characters who were similar to those I had loved before but with a contemporary and playful twist,” she says. “The idea of placing a modern woman with agency in the traditional Gothic setting intrigued me—and I also wanted to try and make that traditional framework a little pacier and thrilling.
“There are some elements of the Gothic which, as a reader, draw me in every time, which includes the creeping and natural suspense that comes out of the setting when it’s cast almost as a character. Meanwhile, the history of that setting seems to encourage slightly murkier behavior under the layers of propriety.
“I have long been interested in British social history, particularly the English country house and its myriad inhabitants and meandering fortunes, and I often wondered about the mythologies left behind in these houses long after the notorious inhabitants are gone. The brides were an extension of that interest and a tribute to those histories.
“The modern characters were more organic—Miranda was quite clear about who she wanted to be from the start and it felt like I had very little say in her development. The book was always going to be focused on the women—especially as a contrast to the dogged obsessions with the males in both Rebecca and Jane Eyre—and I wanted those women to be strong, but not perfect. It was important for them to be slightly flawed but for them not to be subsumed by those flaws.
“Rebecca and other works by du Maurier were a big leaping-off place for me, as well as Jane Eyre, and I was interested both in the ways du Maurier had been inspired by that story and how that same story could influence a modern situation. There are many other writers who operate in that same wondrous theater of Gothic-inspired fiction or suspense and who also inspired me: Barbara Vine, Sarah Waters, Patricia Highsmith. I always enjoy reading historical fiction from writers like Kate Morton, Beatriz Williams, and Kate Quinn, as well.”
Cockram has absorbed those influences to create a style of her own, one filled with the little details that create suspense and build eeriness as Miranda probes deeper into the secrets and intrigues of Barnsley House.
“The most important thing for me is the voice. Once I have that in my head, I pretty much buckle in and enjoy the ride,” she says. “But to get to the voice is the process—I need to write myself into the physical setting to understand how it will look and what the characters will be doing and the mood of the scene. As a consequence, I’ve never been very good at the brief outline, since by the time I have all these elements written down, I pretty much have the whole book—’book’ being a very generous term at that stage of its life.
“I like to play around with tones and rhythms—THE HOUSE OF BRIDES has a real shift in tone early between the modern, Australian setting and the Gothic and mysterious Barnsley—but once I have them sorted, I go back and rewrite and rewrite, and at that stage it’s very much a bowerbird process, a little bit here and then something shiny there. Themes tend to emerge around this point, and they are often subliminal. The later drafts are about teasing them out.”
When she says she has to write herself into the physical setting, she means that almost literally. “I think the interesting thing is how much of my general passions and enthusiasms somehow became ‘research’ in the writing of this book. Nights in country house hotels in deepest Devon and coastal Cornwall, seasonal and produce-driven eating and dragging my children through fields, gardens, and vegetable patches: all in the name of work. It was so much fun pulling together all these disparate influences and putting them together at Barnsley.
“In particular, a shell house originally deep in the Devon countryside, as well as an entire county’s worth of coves and picturesque villages, were combined together in the fictional but very geographically fortunate estate of Barnsley.
“It’s a beautiful part of the world and I find the landscape there so thrilling and inspiring. It comes from a childhood spent devouring books set in those areas and years of reading Country Life magazines—a strange and unusual obsession for someone who lives in suburban Melbourne on the other side of the world. I spent a gap year between school and university working at a remote school in North Devon—living with the children in the boarding house, helping out in the classrooms and on the sporting fields. It was a beautiful part of the world, and weekends were spent on the moor, in the tiny village pubs or rambling through fields. It was a big change from my childhood in Australia and I do love going back there to visit.”
Even with all that inspiration, however, her path to publication was not an easy one.
“The book was written after my first manuscript was roundly rejected on all sorts of levels! To get myself back into the writing game, I tricked myself into thinking I would write something purely for myself,” she admits. “To that end, I was free to throw in all the elements I enjoy in a book. An English country house setting… family intrigue… secrets and mystery… intertextuality.
“I worked on THE HOUSE OF BRIDES for over two years and during that time I wrote with the door firmly shut through many, many drafts. When I had come as far as I could on my own, I showed it to a couple of trusted and experienced beta-readers and after that, I closed the door again and wrote many, many more drafts. At that point, I received an introduction to the amazing Rob Weisbach, who became my literary agent and gave me such solid and transformative advice that more drafts were immediately required. Under Rob’s guidance, THE HOUSE OF BRIDES landed at HarperCollins and from the moment I first spoke with Sara Nelson I knew my book was in good hands.”
And Cockram knew how important that sort of guidance and “good hands” were in publishing. She herself had spent many years as a sales rep for Pan Macmillan in Australia and as a fiction buyer for Borders, so she’d seen publishing from the inside.
“I have to say it’s hard not to imagine the conversations taking place at the sales and marketing meetings! My experience as a sales rep and a buyer has helped in some ways—I know the publishing process—but I also know just how many amazing books there are out there and how short the shelf life can be in an industry with such a high turnover of product. It’s a mercurial business and trying to predict what’s going to happen with any book is very difficult—and I truly appreciate the work that goes in every step of the way to publication.”
That work has paid off. HarperCollins is excited about the prospects for the book, and anyone who reads it will see why—and then await the next one.
“It’s about a relationship between sisters, but it also looks more intimately at relationships of trust, both within families and in the greater world, and what happens when that trust is gone,” Cockram says. “You can expect more family secrets and suspense in idyllic but slightly sinister settings.”
Just beware of that cliff edge.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the Executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: