How Peter James’s latest novel was inspired by haunted Sussex house

Posted On 06 Oct 2015 at 10:15 am

Brighton author Peter James will be talking about his new novel The House on Cold Hill this Friday, and how it was inspired by a haunted house he once lived in.

The House on Cold Hill jacketMr James, who now lives in Brighton, has teamed up with City Books for the event at BHASVIC at 7pm.

He is expected to talk about he called in an exorcist (and former vicar of Brighton) to rid the house of the ghost – and how it later returned.

Tickets for the event are £8 which includes a glass of wine. You can find out more here.

Peter James on the real life ghost story behind The House on Cold Hill

The House On Cold Hill is very much inspired by – and modelled on – an isolated historic house in Sussex that my former wife and I bought in 1989 and lived in for a decade – and which turned out to be seriously haunted.

It was a classically beautiful, rather melancholic looking Georgian manor house on the edge of a Sussex hamlet, with a long history. Before being a manor house in the middle ages it had been a monastery, and prior to that there had been a Roman villa on the site.

‘You’ll like this house, with what you write,’ the owner told me, mischievously, on our first viewing.  ‘We have three ghosts.’

It turned out he was fibbing – the house, we were to discover later, actually had four… The first one manifested while we were in the process of moving in.  I was standing in the front porch, on a beautiful spring morning, with my mother-in-law, a very down-to-earth lady, who was a senior magistrate. But she had a ‘fey’ side to her – in that she was very open minded about the paranormal, and always had a particular recurring, frightening dream whenever someone she knew was about to die.

From the front door where we were standing, there was a long, narrow corridor which ran almost the width of the house, through to an oak-panelled atrium, with four Doric columns, which led through into the kitchen. This atrium was all that remained of the monastery which had originally been on the site, and you could still see the arches where the altar had been.

As we stepped aside to let the removals men leave the house to fetch another item, I suddenly saw a shadow, like the flit of a bird across a fanlight, in the interior of the house.

‘Did you see that?’  she asked, with a knowing look.

Despite the warmth of the sunlight, I felt a sudden chill. I knew at that moment she had seen something uncanny.  But I did not want to spook my wife on our very first day in this house.  We were both townies, and this was our first move into the countryside.  She was already apprehensive about the isolation of the property.  The last thing I needed was for her to be unnecessarily scared by a ghost!  So I shook my head and told her I had not seen anything. But in truth, I was feeling a little spooked by this.

Our first night was uneventful, and our Hungarian Puli dog had been very happy and calm. I’d been told that dogs would often pick up on any supernatural occurrence way before their owners, so I took this a good sign.

In the morning, my wife left for work at 8am. After breakfast I went to my study to resume work on my third supernatural novel, Sweet Heart. Around 10.30am I went downstairs to make a cup of coffee.  As I entered the atrium, on my way through to the kitchen, I saw tiny pinpricks of white light floating in the air – about two dozen of them. My immediate reaction was that it was sunlight, coming through the window in the far wall, reflecting off my glasses. I took them off, put them back on, and the pinpricks of light had gone.

I returned to my study, but when I went downstairs to make myself some lunch, the same thing happened. And again after removing my glasses and putting them back on again, the pinpricks had gone. But I was left with a slightly uneasy feeling. In the afternoon, when I went downstairs to make a mug of tea, it happened again.

I said nothing to my wife when she arrived home that evening, and she did not see anything.

The next day around mid morning, when I was alone in the house, I saw the pinpricks again, and at lunchtime. After lunch I took the dog for a walk. We’d only gone a short distance along the lane when an elderly man came up to me, introducing himself as a neighbour in the hamlet. ‘You are Mr James, aren’t you?’ he asked.

‘Yes, I am,’ I replied.

‘You’ve just moved into the Manor?’

‘Two days ago.’

‘How are you getting on with your grey lady?’ he said, with a strange, quizzical look that immediately unsettled me.

‘What grey lady?’ I asked.

He then really spooked me. ‘I was the house sitter for the previous owners. In winter, they used the atrium as a ‘snug’ because, adjoining the kitchen, it was always warm from the Aga. Six years ago I was sitting in the snug, watching television, when a sinister looking woman, her face grey, and wearing a grey, silk crinoline dress, materialized out of the altar wall, swept across the room, gave me a malevolent stare, gave my face a flick with her dress, and vanished into the paneling behind me. I was out of there thirty seconds later, and went back in the morning to collect my things. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back in there again!’

I was struck both by the sincerity of the man, and his genuine fear, which I could see in his eyes as he told me the story. It truly made the hairs on the back of my neck rise.

I returned to the house after our walk, feeling very uncomfortable. I even wimped out of going through the atrium into the kitchen to make my afternoon cuppa! But when my wife came home in the evening, I said nothing – I suppose I did not want to believe it myself, and she was still extremely nervous about living in such an isolated house.

The following Sunday, we had invited her parents to lunch. Whilst she was occupied putting the finishing touches to the meal, I took her mother aside and asked her what exactly she had seen that day we were moving in.

She described a woman, with a grey face, dressed in grey silk crinoline, moving across the atrium – exactly what the old man had described to me.

I was stunned – and very spooked. Later, after her parents had left, I decided I had to tell my wife. She took it in the pragmatic way she had of dealing with most difficult issues in life. ‘You’ve met several mediums in your research – why don’t you ask one of them to come in and see what they find?’

A few days later, a medium who had helped me a lot during my writing of Possession came to the house, and I took her into the atrium, and left her on her own, as she had requested.

An hour later she came up to my study, and yet again, described exactly this woman in grey silk crinoline. She explained the pinpricks of light I kept seeing by telling me I was slightly psychic, so while I was not actually seeing the entire apparition, I was picking up some of its energy – hence the pinpricks of light.

I asked her if there was anything I could do about this, and she told me that the apparition was of a deeply disturbed former resident of the house, and that it needed a clergyman to deal with it.

I felt a tad cynical about her response – but at the same time, I was now feeling deeply uncomfortable in what should have been the sanctuary of my own home. But there was a vicar I knew who I thought would be able to help, and with whom I had become good friends.

At the time he was officially the Vicar of Brighton – but with another hat, he was also officially, the Chief Exorcist of the Church Of England. That wasn’t his actual title, which was the less flaky-sounding Minister Of Deliverance. A former monk, the son of two medics, a university double first in Psychology, he was as far from Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin in The Exorcist as you could get.

He is delightful human being, with whom I had become good friends, and still am to this day. He is a modern thinker, a clergyman who has a problem with the biblical concepts of God, yet still retains an infectious faith. His views, for instance, on the Ouija board are that far from putting its participants in touch with the spiritual world, it actually opens up a Pandora’s Box of their own inner demons.

Even so, I was a little surprised when he cheerfully entered the atrium, stood still for a couple of minutes, and then loudly and very firmly enunciated, into thin air, ‘You may go now!’

He turned to me and said, ‘You should be fine now.’

Well, we were, until a mid June day in 1994. My novel, Host, which had been published the previous year, by Penguin, in hardback, had just been published both on two floppy discs, billed as, The World’s First Electronic Novel, and in paperback. The thick paperback lay on a beautiful antique wooden chest which we kept in the atrium. I always put my latest book there, for visitors to see. On this particular sunny morning, I was having breakfast, around 7.45 am, while my wife was upstairs getting ready for work. Suddenly she called down, ‘I can smell burning!’

I suddenly realized that I could, too. I turned around, and to my amazement, the copy of Host, on top of the wooden chest, was on fire!

I rushed over, grabbed the book, ran to the kitchen sink and threw it in, then turned the taps on, to extinguish the flames.

There was, of course, a perfectly prosaic explanation: Close to the book, on the chest, was a round glass paperweight. The hot June morning sun rays had been refracted through it, much the same way that as kids, we used to set fire to things by letting the sun’s rays refract though a magnifying glass.

But… the fact this had happened in this room which had had the apparition in added a very sinister dimension.

The above story was only one of the spooky occurrences we had in this otherwise glorious house. The second happened the first weekend we spent there. It was on the Sunday morning and I said hello to our nearest neighbours, who lived in what had, in former days, been the Manor’s coach house.

‘I just want to ask you,’ the cheery elderly occupant asked, ‘Because my wife and I are very curious. Do you have any one staying with a young baby this weekend?’

‘No,’ I told him.

‘Ah, must be your ghost again,’ he said, very matter-of-factly.

It turned out that he, and other neighbours across the narrow lane outside the house would regularly hear a baby crying. We learned that in the 1920s the drawing room floor had been dug up, because of damp and dry rot and the skeleton of a baby had been discovered – either stillborn, or murdered, possibly by a servant girl, way back in time.

In the grounds was a very narrow lake, a quarter of a mile long. On the far side was a public footpath. During the decade we lived in the house, several residents of the hamlet, and of surrounding villages told us how they had been chased off the footpath at dusk by a Roman Centurion! To me, this was the least credible of the stories. But in many ways, one of the most credible was the day I was collared by another of my neighbours.

The Manor used to own many hundreds of surrounding acres. Over time the land was sold off in parcels. Several houses had been built in the 1930s and 1950s along the far side of the lake. One day I was walking Boris along past them when the owner of one, a very down to earth man in his forties, the works manager of the company that manufactured Filofaxes came over to me and said, ‘I wish you would keep your bloody ghosts under control!’


He then told me, ‘Last Sunday, we held a Christening party for my grandson here. At 4pm, all the guests had gone and I went and sat in the conservatory, to read the Sunday Times. Suddenly the room turned icy, and I shivered. I looked up and saw a monk, in a cowled hood staring down at me. I thought at first it was one of my relatives playing a prank on me. I stood up and followed it into the kitchen. But he had vanished. The only person in there was my wife, doing the washing up. There is no door out of the kitchen. She had not seen or heard anything.’

There was one more very spooky thing that happened during our time there: At the front of the house were two sets of bay windows, classic Georgian. One was in our spare room, which we called the Blue Room, where we often put up guests, and all the time we lived there, I never felt comfortable entering it. Whenever we went away, we employed a house sitter. On each occasion, when we returned home the house sitter would have moved out of this room, giving a lame excuse about not liking the colour, or the morning sun, and slept somewhere else in the house.

As a postscript, I should add something of the house’s history. For the first half of the 20th century it was owned by one family, and the elderly daughter, with whom we became friends, was living in a cottage nearby. She told us that a bitterly unhappy marriage had turned her mother in to a man-hater.

Was she the grey lady in the atrium?

The late author Elizabeth Bowen once wrote that out of all the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of reported sightings of ghosts since time immemorial, it only needs one to be true, just one, for mankind’s perception of human existence to be changed forever.

I don’t totally agree with that, because I think there are two kinds of ghosts: Dumb ghosts and smart ghosts. The overwhelming majority of ghost sights are of these. The dumb ghost is the kind that appears over and over in the same place, such as the grey lady who repeatedly appeared in one Cambridge dining hall, gliding across the floor. When they had the floor raised 12 inches because of dry rot, the next time she was seen she was cut off at the knees. One rational explanation for this kind of apparition is place memory. That somehow, the energy of the person who lived there remains, trapped, recorded. The same base constituents that are in recording tape – electricity and carbon, among others – are in the walls and floors of building and in the ground. It appears that some people are able to see it, under certain atmospheric conditions.

But the smart ghost is something altogether different. One classic example in literature is the ghost of Hamlet’s father – who tells his son to seek revenge. If the existence of smart ghost can be proven, then Arthur C Clarke’s maxim that “magic/the supernatural is the name we give to anything for which we do not yet have an explanation in science” would be sorely tested.

So what are my own views? I’ve lived in two haunted houses and I lived with a medium for thirteen years. I was given carte-blanche by the BBC back in 1994 to travel around Scotland interviewing people who claimed to have seen ghosts or had uncanny experience, and I was invited by the prestigious Society For Psychical Research to deliver a lecture to them on the paranormal. I’ve met countless normal, rational people who have had something happen, at some point in their lives, for which they have no rational explanation. This includes Ian Mullen, a former CEO of world-wide business banking for HSBC (and subsequent CEO of the British Bankers Association) who was told he would be getting this job by a fortune teller in a hotel in Agra, India many months before the out-of-the blue phone call offering it to him; an Alpine hiker I met who was guided down a dangerous slope, when he became lost in a sudden fog, by a mountain guide who had died in a fall there a decade earlier. And the actress, Susan Hampshire, one told me that she was on stage, alone, in the haunted Aldwych Theatre, in front of an audience, when she was tapped abruptly on the shoulder.

Stalin was no stranger to the paranormal. He sanctioned experiments with psychics back in the 1930s, but to get away from any religious connotations, he called telepathy ‘Biological radio”. Sir Winston Churchill, who set up a Paranormal Office early in the Second World War, to see if psychics could “travel” behind enemy lines, believed his life was twice saved, during the war, by his guardian angel. The TV series, The X Files was inspired by the Paranormal Department in the Pentagon, which worked – and still does – with people who are able to have out-of-body experiences. And I have come across a number of incidents where police officers have received help in homicide cases from psychics.

What began it all for me was a terrible car crash in 1983, in which the 21 year-old son of very close friends was killed on the Paris-Lille autoroute at 2am whilst driving to Paris. A Frenchman whose wife had recently left him got drunk turned his car around and drove the wrong way down the autoroute, aiming for the first car coming in the other direction, which tragically was the car of my friends’ son.

At his funeral a family friend, who was herself a psychic, told the parents they needed to go and see a medium to ensure their son had “crossed over” to the other side. The parents were at first totally sceptical, and told her they did not believe in this stuff and just wanted to be left to grieve in peace. But the friend persisted, explaining to them that we all have two spirit guides: If we die of illness or old-age they will take our souls “across”. But if we die suddenly, such as in a car crash and they don’t happen to be around, the spirit becomes lost – or “earthbound” – and wanders around trying to find the body, not realizing it has gone. This is in fact one of the theories about ghosts. The psychic friend told them they needed to go to a medium to ensure their son had crossed over.

Still very sceptical they went, under a false name, to a prominent London medium. The reason for the false name was that they themselves were high profile people in the film and theatre world and their son, an actor, had just had a role in a big movie. As they sat, the medium told them he was getting a car accident, that there was water between them and where it happened, not a wide stretch – it felt like the English Channel. But he told them it was too soon (it was three weeks after the accident) and their son, although he had gone over to the “other side” had not yet settled enough to be able communicate properly. They needed to return in about six weeks time, they were told.

The parents, still dubious, asked if their son could at least give them some sign that it really was him. The medium replied, “He is showing me a towel rail. He says if you go home, go to his bedroom, you will find something wrong with the towel rail.”

Not very impressed the parents left. When they arrived home they went to look in their late son’s bedroom. To their astonishment, the towel rail had fallen off the wall.

This was the first of many strange – and convincing – occurrences that were to happen in the ensuing months. The parents took me into their confidence, thinking it might be useful material to enable me to write a non-fiction book about how seeing a medium was helping them through their bereavement. In the end I didn’t write the non-fiction book, but I was inspired by all that I learned in the ensuing three years to write a fictional supernatural novel. Possession, about a bereaved mother who begins to receive messages from her dead son, became a huge hit here in 1988, and in many of the 23 languages in which it was subsequently translated.

There is a chilling postscript to my writing THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL: A key element of the story is a mysterious window in the dilapidated Georgian mansion that my couple buy. A window that, they one day realize, is for a room that does not appear to exist. A room that has no door… In addition to my home in Sussex, I have an apartment on two floors in Notting Hill. A month after finishing the book my fiancée, Lara and I were walking along the street beneath, looking up, and talking about his particular part of the book. Suddenly Lara asked, pointing up, ‘Which room is that window in?’

We stood there frozen for some moments, as it began to dawn on us that the window did not make sense. We could not work out which room it was. We ran in, raced up the six flights of stairs and into each of the two room which the “mystery” window seem to straddle. But there was no window!

We finally did solve the mystery – the builders who had put a fitted wardrobe in the master bedroom had, for whatever reason, decided to lose the window in the process and, leaving the glass on the outside, had timbered over the inside.

Who says truth is not stranger than fiction?!

Peter James

  1. emma Reply

    I have absolutely loved the house on cold hill. My daughter jasmine Green is a very firm believer in the supernatural. She met Peter James mother in law once I believe and felt an instant connection with her. It’s so refreshing to read a book with close bonds to where we live bit of fact an a bit of fiction. Love this writer, he appeals on every level to my taste, keep up the good work!

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