In the Reading Corner

Berlie Doherty: The Haunted Hills

December 28, 2022 Nikki Gamble
In the Reading Corner
Berlie Doherty: The Haunted Hills
Show Notes Transcript

Berlie Doherty is one of our foremost fiction writers for children and young adults. She is a double recipient of the Carnegie Medal with her novels Granny was a Buffer Girl (1986) and Dear Nobody (1991). She is also the author of the popular middle-grade novel Street Child and its sequel, Far From Home, which are read extensively in primary schools.

Berlie has written many more books for children and teenagers, from picture books, young fiction, retellings of fairy stories and Bible stories, and YA novels.

Her most recent book, The Haunted Hills is published by UCLan. Berlie returns to her Derbyshire home for the setting of this evocative ghost story.

In this episode, she talks to Nikki Gamble about the importance of music and landscape in her stories and the paradox of finding beauty in derelict places.

About The Haunted Hills
When Carl visits the Peak District with his parents to try and recover from the fallout of a horrific accident, he becomes caught up in the mysterious tale of the Lost Lad. Are the hills actually haunted or is Carl being chased by his own demons? As past and present collide, Carl must learn to come to terms with the loss of his best friend, Jack and find a way to move on.


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In the Reading Corner is presented by Nikki Gamble, Director of Just Imagine. It is produced by Alison Hughes.

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Nikki Gamble (00:00):

Hello, I'm Nikki Gamble, presenter of In The Reading Corner, a podcast about writing, illustrating and reading books for children and young people.

Berlie Doherty (00:10):

My guest today is Berlie Doherty, one of our finest writers of fiction. She's a double recipient of the Carnegie Medal for her novels. Granny was a Buffer Girl, published in 1986 -  a family saga that looks at the changing fortunes across generations as the city of Sheffield starts its transformation in a post-industrial age. And also for Dear Nobody published in 1991 -  a groundbreaking young adult novel that sensitively explores the impact of an unplanned pregnancy on the lives of the affected teenagers and their families.

Berlie Doherty (00:52):

Berlie is also the author of the hugely popular novel Street Child, and its sequel Far From Home. Street Child is set in the 1860s. And it tells the story of Jim Jarvis and his encounters with Dr. Barnardo, who then goes on to establish his homes for destitute children. Berlie has written many more novels for teenagers and children, including younger fiction, picture books and retellings, of fairy stories and Bible stories.

Nikki Gamble (01:25):

Her most recent novel is The Haunted Hills, and I started by asking Berlie what had inspired this evocative story,

Berlie Doherty (01:34):

The story is set in Derbyshire. And the actual setting of the story is, is a real place called Derwent Edge. It's an amazing structure, which has a long spine of a hill with incredible rock formations on it. And they've got wonderful names like Hurkling Stones, and, Coach and Horses. And at the very end of them all, there's one that's called Lost Lad Hill. I've always been fascinated by that reference to something I didn't know about.

Berlie Doherty (02:11):

I first heard about it years and years ago, and I wondered who was the lost lad. I discovered actually that there is a local legend or historical incident about the Lost Lad. People don't seem to know whether it really happened or not. But the story as I heard it, is that a shepherd boy went up onto the hills to bring the sheep back down during a snowstorm.

And the snow got so bad that he took shelter in one of these formations, and he couldn't get out again. But he managed to scratch, on the rock, the words lost lad in case anybody passing, would find him. When he was eventually found, it was too late. 

So that's the story that I heard and, was really intrigued by. And when you go up there -  and it's a very, very windswept desolate sort of place -  you almost could believe that his presence is there. That's what set me off and that's why the landscape has such a powerful part in the story.

Berlie Doherty (03:31):

So was that the starting point for this story?

Berlie Doherty (03:34):

Yes, it was absolutely the starting point. 

I thought originally I would write down the story of the Lost Lad in my own words, I thought I was going to write a series of short ghost stories set in Derbyshire, but I abandoned the idea and decided to move on to a full-length novel in which that legend was the inspiration but isn't the main part of the story.

Berlie Doherty (04:09):

So let's tell listeners a little bit more about the story of The Haunted Hills. Perhaps we can start with your main characters, Carl and his friend Jack. Carl is visiting the Peak District. Something happened - a tragedy. And Carl's, parents think it's going to be good for him, to get away...

Perhaps take up my invitation to fill in some of the gaps for us...

Berlie Doherty (04:35):

Well, he's in a state of shock and grief and guilt He's been taken to have treatment therapy, but his parents really think that it will help to bring him away from home and let nature take over and see if it can help to cure him - to be in a place where there's no television, no interruption, just let him heal himself in a way.

Berlie Doherty (05:10):

They're very, very anxious about him. And, I try to portray their anxiety and care for him. And at times, he is aware of how much they're trying to help him. And at other times, their care and protection are more than he can handle and he doesn't want it. He wants to be on his own - or he wants to be back home. So there is, there's always the pull of affection and loyalty and love and disaffection- just being a teenager, being a 13-year-old who is lost

Berlie Doherty (05:52):

Another lost lad.

Berlie Doherty (05:54):

Yes, yes, exactly. Getting back to titles, an original title for the book was Lost Lad, and then I wanted to call it Lost, and then I just hit on Haunted Hills. And that stuck,

Berlie Doherty (06:09):

The tragedy that we are talking about is gradually revealed through the story. Carl had a very close friendship with another boy Jack...

Berlie Doherty (06:19):

Yes, he and Jack have known each other since birth because their mothers both had difficulties. So they ended up in special care in the maternity ward. And so they've known each other all their lives, and they are very, very close.

Berlie Doherty (06:37):

I've got seven grandchildren, but one particular grandson is so close to his best friend. It's a lovely thing to see. You see it in girls, a very close friendship. You don't see it so often in boys. I think - there's usually a gang of boys or a crowd. He does have other friends, but he and his best friend are inseparable. And I was so affected by that closeness that I wanted to try and portray it with Carl and Jack.

Nikki Gamble (07:13):

You have already talked a little bit about Carl's relationship with his parents, and along with closeness and the loving family comes tension. Sometimes you kick out against the things that you love the most, and you feel the closest to . One of the things that you capture so well in this friendship is the moments of irritation and when that friendship appears to be breaking down - they're sort of uncertain about their feelings towards each other.

Berlie Doherty (07:43):

Yes, that's right. And, there's the distraction of this older boy two years older than them who tries very, very hard to break them up. Jack is taken with this other boy and perhaps flattered by the attention he's getting. And this is awful for Carl. So a lot of the story is about what happens to the friendship and how as they're growing up, they're pulling apart, but pulling together as well. And how complicated it is when you're that age.

Nikki Gamble (08:22):

I enjoyed the way that you structured the story, the moving backwards and forwards from Carl's present in the Peak District and the reminiscence of his friendship with Jack. So gradually, we come to understand their relationship and the mystery of the tragedy is revealed. How early on in the process did you settle on this organization of the narrative?

Berlie Doherty (08:43):

Ooh, I don't know. This story's been, been going on for a few years. <laugh>.

Berlie Doherty (08:48):

When I first knew what I was going to write about, I went to the local secondary school, Hope Valley College, and talked to a group of boys, They were about 15. I met one of them again just yesterday, by chance, at his mother's house and he's now 20. I couldn't believe it. It's taken that long,, to write the story. It's, been through three major drafts. So at what stage that occurred, I can't quite remember

Nikki Gamble (09:24):

Carl is taken under the wing of a local farmer, Al, who looks out for him. We've already mentioned that Carl's parents are trying their hardest to support him, but sometimes help has to come from outside the family. I found the scenes between Carl and Al, particularly moving and tender. There's one scene in particular where Al is teaching Carl the old craft of drystone walling. I got a sense of your appreciation of tradition and perhaps even a sense of grieving for the things that are being lost. And then there's Al's backstory, and he too, has his own ghosts.

Berlie Doherty (10:03):

Well, yes, Al's friend.

I live next to a farm; we're surrounded by farmers and farmland here, which is wonderful. And so it's great for me to watch what happens on the farm. I see it every day. And Al in his gruff sort of way (it's, is not at all heavy-handed) is incredibly sympathetic towards the boy. And tries to help him because of his own experiences.

Nikki Gamble (10:37):

So up in the PeakDiistrict near Edale, which is a gateway to the ...

Berlie Doherty (10:43):

Pennines.

Nikki Gamble (10:43):

To the Pennines, yes.

You must have abandoned stone houses.  I remember when I used to do the walk up to Kinder Scout - how otherworldly it is. And when you come across a stone building in a state of decay with trees growing in the centre, it's so evocative.

Berlie Doherty (11:04):

Oh, yes. Incredibly. And it's very sad and wonderful at the same time, to walk around some of these ruins. There's one very, very near to where I live. And it's, it's almost like a haunted house. You can just feel the presence of the people who worked there and had their homes there for hundreds of years. And now it's just empty and crumbling. And there are lots of unused barns, which fortunately are inhabited by barn owls <laugh> more often than not. The fields are scattered with them, and some are maintained well and occasionally in use, but some aren't. Some are just sinking into the earth.

Nikki Gamble (11:51):

Do you think there's something about an old building that hasn't been restored that sparks something in your brain that can take you back to the past so much easier than if it's been restored to what it might have looked like? Somehow the ruin of it Is more powerful.

Berlie Doherty (12:09):

Absolutely. Yes. and you get that in old castles, don't you? It's much more exciting and dramatic and atmospheric to look around an old castle with a crumbling keep, et cetera, than a restored one. You do get a sense of the past. And it's something about the desolation of it all.

Nikki Gamble (12:33):

So let's talk about ghosts,

Berlie Doherty (12:35):

<laugh>. Oh, right.

Nikki Gamble (12:37):

It's not the first time that you've written a ghost story.

Berlie Doherty (12:39):

.No, it isn't.

Nikki Gamble (12:41):

What do you think the appeal of the ghost story is to us?

Berlie Doherty (12:47):

I don't know. I think it's; it's very strange because I don't know if I've ever seen a ghost or if I actually believe in ghosts, although I have felt an extraordinary presence once in a place. But I think it's the same with fairy stories, with magic and myths and legends that come from the past. There's this sense of not just being ourselves but of being part of something, part of history, part of hundreds and thousands of years. We're not on our own. I don't like to call it a spiritual awareness; it's maybe simply the imagination. but I think we all do have it. And perhaps some of us nurture it and enter into it more readily than others.

Nikki Gamble (13:42):

Robert Westall once wrote about the ghost story and its connection to landscape for him. Which is what I feel your ghost stories are.

I sometimes tell a personal story of my godmother, who had a farm near Settle in Yorkshire. She was renovating her farmhouse and took down some of the internal walls. You know how they used to put objects in the walls? Like a shoe, a mirror and a hairbrush, a lock of hair, that kind of thing. And they found these objects in the walls of her house. And she used to say that after that, up on the moors when the weather was bad, she would always see figures walking towards the house, and then they would just disappear.

Berlie Doherty (14:35):

That's rather lovely, isn't it?

Berlie Doherty (14:37):

So I think with The Company of Ghosts and The Haunted Hills, my two ghosts if you can call them that, are not malevolent. They're not, jump out and scare you ghosts., I wanted a sense of, of a real person. So in both stories, you get to know the complete history of those two characters.

Nikki Gamble (15:09):

You've got some wonderful artwork on the jacket.

Berlie Doherty (15:11):

I certainly have.

Nikki Gamble (15:13):

We should talk about Tamsin's artwork. How does the jacket reflect your story?

Berlie Doherty (15:17):

Well, the covers are absolutely gorgeous. 

The house is amazingly similar to my house <laugh>, but she hasn't been there, and she hasn't seen it. It's a very typical Derbyshire stone house. And so as soon as I saw the cover, I thought, yes, that's home.

 And the setting' is quite right. The colour is stunning. And there are lovely touches. She's put those ghosts that you can see and yet can't see in. You know, they're there and yet your eyes are drawn to the house and the glow of what should be a warm, friendly house. And then there's the hills and the crow, which appears a lot in my book. And the skylark up above somewhere,

Nikki Gamble (16:14):

Anyone who's heard the liquid warbling of the skylark as it rises and then falls back down to the moor will, I'm sure, have the sound imprinted on their auditory imagination. The skylark is an important bird in this story; Al teachers Carl to identify its song. And in one of Carl's memories, we learn that Vaughn Williams Lark Ascending really moves his friend Jack.

Musicality, I think, is a quality that I associate with your writing. Music is often referenced in the stories, but I also think that your prose is very rhythmic.

Berlie Doherty (16:50):

Thank you. That's, that is something that I aim for.

And actually, when I speak to children about writing, I always advise them to read their work out loud. At the end of every working day, I read aloud to myself what I've written because I want to hear the music of the line. And if it doesn't have a melody to it, if that makes sense, then it's not right. If I stumble over the words, then it's, it's not right. It hasn't got the right cadences in it.

Berlie Doherty (17:21):

You know, I think that might come from when I started over 40 years ago; I was writing stories for radio and plays for radio. And I think that out loud voice has remained a very important feature of a book - even if it's going to be read silently.

Nikki Gamble (17:43):

I certainly feel when I read your stories aloud that it's effortless. the text is supporting me

Berlie Doherty (17:50):

Because I have also written libretti for operas., I obviously, don't do the music, but, I write the songs in it first, and then it goes to the composer. I sing it to myself, even though I have no idea what their melodies would be,. But it then, they say it's, it's almost there.

Nikki Gamble (18:18):

I'm guessing it's an intuitive process rather than one that is worked out.

Berlie Doherty (18:23):

It's totally intuitive. Yes

Nikki Gamble (18:25):

One character that we haven't talked about is April, farmer Al's enigmatic farm hand. What can you tell us about her role in the story?

Berlie Doherty (18:35):

She's a strange character, isn't she? I don't how she developed. But I, I grew very fond of her. I don't like walk-on parts at all, so I try, to introduce a character and develop them in some way.

April is a mystery. Carl thinks at first that she lives on the farm, that she's the farmer's daughter, but she's not. And she doesn't want to talk about her past. The farmer doesn't know about her past. She just turned up one day. But she knows the countryside; she knows the hills. She has this affinity with nature, and she cares for Carl, although she has her own abrupt way of seeming to mock him. She wants to help him. . She's a few years older but not much older than him. But in a sisterly sort of way, she tries to protect him. And yet, at the same time, she scares the life out of him sometimes or makes him really annoyed because of the way she behaves.

Nikki Gamble (19:54):

There's something isn't there about these characters who are not instantly likeable but do the right thing and don't make a show of it. Al the farmer is like that too - the fact that he allows her to sleep on the sofa, but he says at one point there's a room for her If she asks for it. But he says we're not going to tell her because we don't want to frighten her away. What a wonderful, sensitive response that is from somebody who on the outside...

Berlie Doherty (20:30):

Is pretty gruff and Yeah. <laugh>. Yes, he just gets on with life.

Nikki Gamble (20:35):

So you seem to like those characters?

Berlie Doherty (20:37):

I do. <laugh>, yes.

Nikki Gamble (20:41):

it's not the first timel that you've written about places that are local to you. Do most of your stories arise out of what's around you?

Berlie Doherty (20:52):

Not necessarily, but certainly, I have written many books set in Derbyshire - not always defined as being books about Derbyshire. And sometimes they're set here in my valley, but I don't always name it. Books like The Snake Stone is actually set in this valley, for instance. Holly Starcross. and quite a few of the farming stories for children are set here very firmly. iI is an inspirational area. I mean, why write about anywhere else when you have got here?

I do go elsewhere in my imagination, but it's usually somewhere that I know; I usually like to feel familiar with the place. And then I think perhaps the reader will also feel familiar and at ease within the pages.

Nikki Gamble (21:44):

This reminds me that there's another place that you write about in The Haunted Hills, which is Cornwall. And I felt that you possibly have a passion for Cornwall, too.

Berlie Doherty (21:53):

Well, I go there a lot. Yes. And I know the area of Cornwall that I was writing about very well indeed. There's something about the colour of the sea there. It's just incredible.

Nikki Gamble (22:06):

Well, we are not going to reveal what happens in the story because we want people to read it for themselves. But what they can expect is a fine eye for things that are around - a fine eye and a fine ear. A wonderful classic storytelling voice, characters we care deeply about, authenticity in the relationships between characters, and a story that will tug at the heartstrings too.

Thank you so much for joining me in the reading corner, Berlie. Such a pleasure, to talk to you.

Berlie Doherty (22:46):

Oh, thank you very much. I've enjoyed talking to you.