Go to Homepage   Lillian Stewart Carl: Unearthly Undoings

Lillian Stewart Carl (photo courtesy of Lillian Stewart Carl.)

Footsteps march up and down an empty mansion's stairs. Voices sweetly sing hosannas in a ruined and deserted abbey. A revolutionary era sword refuses to stay in its case no matter where you take it. Anxious apparitions impel the living to resolve the mysteries of their deaths. Ghostly grumblers try to impede those closing in on their darkest secrets.

If you think the above sounds interesting rather than scary, well, so does Lillian Stewart Carl. Popular author of such paranormal mysteries as Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, and Shadows in Scarlet, Carl flavors her books with more than just a pinch of unearthly undoings. Even though she claims she never had the pleasure of meeting any specters, she has found out that coincidence can catch up with the fiction one writes.

Crescent Blues: Your most recent book, Shadows in Scarlet, starts in Colonial Williamsburg. This is a new location for you -- what made you choose Williamsburg, Va?

Book: Lillian Stewart carl, Shadows in ScarlettLillian Stewart Carl: My other books set in the U.S. take place in areas I've lived, Ohio and Texas. I've never lived in Williamsburg (although I'm tempted), but it's one of my husband's and my favorite vacation destinations. Colonial Williamsburg is not only physically appealing, with the gardens, trees and historic buildings, the programs are excellent glimpses into the past and the people who work there are good-humored and intelligent. (Is this a plug for Colonial Williamsburg? It sure is.) My main historical interests lie in Great Britain in particular and Europe in general, but I find the colonial period in the U.S. interesting, too.

I originally read a book by Williamsburg archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume (who is as good a writer as he is a scientist) for background on a short story about an archaeologist who uncovers a skull in a stone circle in Scotland ("Upon This Shoal of Time"). Martin's Hundred tells the story of excavations in the grounds of an eighteenth-century mansion, Carter's Grove, where Noel Hume and his crew uncovered a 17th century settlement and several skeletons. (The mansion is now open to the public, and the archaeological museum alongside is superb.) Among the many stories surrounding Carter's Grove is one about a British officer, Banastre Tarleton, riding his horse up the main staircase and supposedly breaking off his sword in the newel post. There is a bit of metal imbedded in the newel post, but judging by the marks around it, it was hammered in. However, Noel Hume did find an insignia from Tarleton's unit on the grounds of Carter's Grove.

One of my ongoing themes is the way the past lingers on into the present, and how people tend to change the past around to fit their own viewpoints.

Like most of what I read, these images nested in the back of my mind for years, and finally blossomed into the set-up of Shadows in Scarlet -- the Revolutionary War era British skeleton found in the back yard of a mansion very like Carter's Grove. Fortunately I had the chance to pump some Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists for information during a tour of their labs. Yes, if they found human remains they'd try to identify the body and return it to its family.

I'm tentatively planning to set another mystery at Colonial Williamsburg. So far, though, I've managed to do that only with a short story, a period piece where Thomas Jefferson solves a murder. ("A Mimicry of Mockingbirds", in Presidential Pet Detectives in 2002)

Crescent Blues: The ghost in Shadows in Scarlet is more -- er, active than any ghosts you've written before. Was James Grant based on a real ghost?

Lillian Stewart Carl: No. Although I've certainly heard ghost stories about -- er, active ghosts over the years. In the Middle Ages James would've been considered an incubus, a sort of sexual demon. While that concept has pretty much fallen by the wayside, except in horror novels, there are plenty of similar stories.

Crescent Blues: Shadows in Scarlet ends in Scotland, a locale you've used in two other books. What is it about Scotland that keeps you sending protagonists there?

Book: Lillian Stewart carl, ashes to ashesLillian Stewart Carl: The chance to keep going back and do research! Seriously, I love the wry humor of the people, the scenery, and especially the lo-o-o-ng rich and colorful history, which leaches into the present in some very intriguing (if often delightfully incongruous) ways. One of my ongoing themes is the way the past lingers on into the present, and how people tend to change the past around to fit their own viewpoints. (Look at the way Amanda sees James in Shadows in Scarlet, for example.)

Then there's the inspiration of Scottish music, part lament and part swagger. If you're not familiar with Celtic folk/rock groups such as Battlefield Band, Seven Nations, Clandestine, or Juggernaut, you should be. Great stuff. It would raise the dead!

Crescent Blues: Crescent Blues has heard that the ghost in Shadows in Scarlet was based on Tom Cruise's character in Interview with the Vampire. Any truth to this -- and have you based any other characters on actors or movie characters?

Lillian Stewart Carl: He wasn't based on Cruise's character, no. What happened was that I watched the video of Interview with the Vampire while I was writing Shadows in Scarlet. Seeing Cruise, with his version of the devastating smile, playing an edgy character in 18th century clothes made me think of James. In other words, Cruise could play the part.

If I base a character on anyone at all, most of the time it's a real person. And even then the character will take on a life of his or her own very quickly. I got the idea for Mark in Dust to Dust and Garden of Thorns from a young man who came to clean the carpets, but Mark is very much his own person. I will sometimes have actors in mind to play the part. For example, the character of Eric in Ashes to Ashes was almost deliberately written for an actor named Paul Darrow, who was Avon in the British science fiction series, Blake's Seven. In my next book to be published, Time Enough to Die, the character of Howard Sweeney is played by Michael Caine, one of my favorite actors. Going all the way back to my very first novel, Sabazel, a very young Mel Gibson could play the warrior-king. And it occurred to me after I saw the splendid movie adaption of The Fellowship of the Ring that Orlando Bloom, who played Legolas, could also play the lithe young wizard in Wings of Power.

My older son's bedroom had something wrong with it, or so he and I thought. My husband and younger son noticed nothing.

Most of my characters, though, seem to come from and exist in some strange parallel universe.

Crescent Blues: Arrrgh! That came out all wrong. I MEANT to say I heard that you used Tom Cruise's BODY from Interview with the Vampire -- not his character.

Lillian Stewart Carl: Tom Cruise could definitely play the part. Can't you just see him in that red coat and plaid? Mmmm…

Crescent Blues: You've had some very interesting ghosts in your books -- where do they come from? Are any based on actual ghosts?

Lillian Stewart Carl: Not directly. But I've been reading ghost stories all my life, so I'm sure I've picked up on various ghostly archetypes. I simply consider ghosts to be characters, with personalities and personal histories, who exist in a slightly different space-time continuum from the living characters. Sometimes they interact with the living characters; sometimes they're like videotapes, playing over and over.

History is a psychic ghost haunting us all. We haven't gotten here without having been there first.

Crescent Blues: I've got to ask -- do you believe in ghosts? Ever seen one?

Book: Lillian Stewart carl, dust to dustLillian Stewart Carl: I take famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson's attitude about the paranormal: all argument is against it, but all belief is for it. While I've never actually seen a ghost (thank goodness!) I'm easily spooked by dark, mysterious places. My family and I stayed in a 200-year-old house in Scotland (the original of the not haunted house the students stay in Dust to Dust) which was seriously weird. My older son's bedroom had something wrong with it, or so he and I thought. My husband and younger son noticed nothing.

We also once stayed at an old hotel in England, where my older son had a small room of his own next to ours. For some reason the place already spooked me. Then, the next morning, we woke up and found a very large, very faint paw print on my son's bedroom door that hadn't been there the night before! Seven years later (I am not making this up) -- seven years later I was reading a book titled Secret Britain and found a passage saying that that exact hotel was haunted by the ghost of a big black dog! And I will add that in English mythology black dogs are protectors of children. (Cue the Twilight Zone music.)

Crescent Blues: Your first books (Sabazel, The Winter King, Shadow Dancers, Wings of Power) are fantasy -- all loosely based on history and mythology. What was your impetus to change from writing fantasy to paranormal mystery?

Sabazel ("The Borders of Sabazel") was inspired by a line in a Smithsonian Magazine article about Alexander the Great, saying that he'd had an affair with an Amazon.

Lillian Stewart Carl: Simple. The first books were published at the bottom of a very long list by a very large publishing house and didn't sell very well. (Even after The Winter King went into a second printing.) I couldn't have sold a fifth novel in that series. Since I'd always loved books by Mary Stewart (no relation) and Barbara Michaels and other romantic suspense writers, I decided I'd pull out the stops and do one of those. And I was ready to do a contemporary novel, where I could use slang and telephones.

That the book I wrote turned out to be Ashes to Ashes, which I owe to yet another trip to Scotland, where we visited Craigievar Castle. I loved the place, small, personable, quirky. Plus the guidebook contained a very helpful floor plan. Craigievar became the model for my imaginary Dun Iain in Ohio. (This is the book which tells the story of Rebecca, a woman from Missouri, who goes to work in the castle. When we went back to Craigievar itself after the book was written, our guide was a woman named Rebecca from Oklahoma. I didn't have the nerve to ask her if she, too, was having a rocky relationship with a handsome if moody young Scot.)

Crescent Blues: What drew you to take historical and mythological tales and "rewrite" them?

Book: Lillian Stewart carl, sabazelLillian Stewart Carl: I've always loved history and mythology, and was a great fan of sword and sorcery when it was only a very small and disreputable offshoot of science fiction. The short story that grew into Sabazel ("The Borders of Sabazel") was inspired by a line in a Smithsonian Magazine article about Alexander the Great, saying that he'd had an affair with an Amazon. I'd never heard that before, and the old imagination took off. Sabazel is, in a way, a marriage of convenience romance with gory battle scenes and some nasty bits of sorcery. The rest of the series went on from there, with the two middle books starring the son of the two protagonists of the first book and dealing with, well, the Mongol Horde, bull-dancers, haunted tombs, sexual politics, battles, volcanoes, magic -- all sorts of cool stuff. The last, Wings of Power, follows another relative who gets himself into trouble and is exiled. When you get halfway through that one you realize I'm doing the story of the Trojan War set in India. Great fun.

Crescent Blues: Do you think you'll ever go back to writing fantasy?


Lillian Stewart Carl - Continued