Jordan Ogg meets author Alice Thompson to discuss her new Gothic novel, Burnt Island.
Islands make fine sites for fiction, especially the kind designed to invoke terror. They offer writers and readers miles of metaphorical rope to hang any number of fears on. Isolation, containment, loneliness, imprisonment and voyeurism are just some of the extremes that can be explored, as has been shown from the very beginnings of English fiction right through to the present. From Robinson Crusoe to The Tempest, Lord of the Flies to The Wickerman, the island has proven itself time and again an apt site for horror.
Burnt Island is the latest novel to mount this eerie tradition and its author Alice Thompson is no stranger to the genre. Stephen King described her 2002 work Pharos as ‘a gothic music video of a novel that whirls with weirdness’, while Ian Rankin termed The Existential Detective (2010) a ‘haunting, strange Kafkaesque, poetic mystery’.
Having read Burnt Island and been duly spooked, I arranged to meet the author at a cafe by Edinburgh’s Portobello beach. I arrived early and found the long promenade occupied by coffee drinkers enjoying the breezy sunshine and fine views out over the Forth. It’s probably the most island-like place Edinburgh has to offer without actually getting on a ferry and leaving the city - a fitting setting, I thought, to ask the author why she’d chosen an island for her story. But first, a note on the tale.
Burnt Island begins with struggling writer Max Long arriving on the island to start work on his next novel. There Max encounters James Fairfax, whom he suspects of not being the real author of the book that made his fortune. Furthermore, Fairfax’s wife has gone missing. The ensuring tale hauls the reader through several returns of the repressed in a way that echoes Bram Stocker’s Dracula and the uncanny stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
The spores of the story had been developing for some time before Thompson began writing. "I was very much struck by the image of an island with colonnades and cypress trees", she explains. However, it took a real island to induce the vital spark necessary to bring Burnt Island to life. Thompson had not long returned from a writing residency in Shetland. As an author who tends to begin her books with a sense of place, the timing proved perfect. She fused her impressions of the isles’ contrasting landscapes into those of her imagined Mediterranean island - there aren’t many trees of any kind in Shetland, nor are there colonnades - to create Burnt Island as a place of multiple atmospheres and visual experiences:
"On the west side of the island there were shallow pale-sand beaches and turquoise seas, and on the other side vertiginous cliffs dropping into the stormy sea below ... There was an invariable mysticism about an island, Max thought. He couldn’t help but feel islands were inviolate; they had their own special locus. The sky was eternally dramatic; the sun appeared apocalyptic behind a coastline of jagged black rocks. The desolate, astounding beauty made him think of the end of the world. And he loved it, for the end of the world was where he wanted to be."
As a site for metaphor and symbolism, the island location offered verdant ground for Thompson to sow the seeds of her story: "It works on so many different levels, but I think a sense of being on your own is paramount because Max is a writer and he lives in his imagination. An island allows you to fall back on yourself. It allows you space to think in a way that a city doesn’t. You have the sea as a constant reminder of your smallness and you can look out to the horizon indefinitely, so at the same time as being aware of your humanity there’s something quite spiritual about the openness."
But where an island can offer space it can also induce feelings of confinement. In the novel this works on both a physical and mental plain. Having been blocked for months, Max thinks that he needs isolation to write. However, his experience of the island leaves him burdened, at first with uncertainty and later pure madness. The island itself seems to physically attack him, and it’s inhabitants are strange if not downright nefarious. Yet, whether or not this is really the case is never clear, as Max’s own impressions become engulfed in the ravings of a rapidly rotting mind. This is a man who can't break free from the island - the prison - of his own anguish.
Whatever the fate of her protagonist, has Thompson been able to escape the island? "There’s a very special atmosphere to an island that haunts me still", she says, referring to Shetland. This haunting has produced a terrific feat of literary vision which demonstrates to devastating effect the power of the author’s imaginative prowess. With another trip to Shetland planned soon, this time a holiday, I wonder if she might use it to make her own return to Burnt Island? She replies with a smile, "It’s a possibility". I, for one, certainly hope so.