We are delighted to welcome Sarah Pinborough back to the Gollancz Blog with a guest post on the origins of her brand new novel, The Death House.
Back in 2009 I wrote a short story – a rare occurrence these days – for the British Fantasy Society anthology edited by Guy Adams. It was called Snow Angels and it was set in a future dystopia where any children with a genetic likelihood of disease were sent away to a remote nursing home to die. That story is narrated by someone who survived that strange house and is now an old man, and he’s remembering a girl who arrived in the house and fascinates him, and who dies, frozen beside the river, after they both see magical, terrifying creatures in the snow.
I knew when I wrote it that some day I would come back to revisit those children and explore that world more thoroughly. It’s an irony that in that original short, the world itself – the world beyond that of the house – is painted more clearly. The reader is given a reason why it hasn’t snowed in over a hundred years. The government is discussed. The dystopia is very clearly signposted throughout. I enjoyed having that world in my head – I am a sucker for dystopian fiction – but as I kept coming back to the story, it wasn’t the world that drew me in – it was the characters and their situation.
In The Death House it’s clear that we are not in our present time, but the world is simply the world of the house with only allusions made to the time before the house. The world wasn’t what I wanted to write about. I wanted to explore the characters of those who get dragged from their families and locked away. I wanted to explore the pack dynamics of such an existence – especially when the inmates know that there is no escape and all that waits for them is the sanatorium – and no one comes back from the sanatorium.
I am also an ex-boarding school girl – I did a ten stretch – and I think mine was probably the last generation before global communication and computers reached a point that your family was never entirely out of reach. In many ways, The Death House is my boarding school story. Less cheery than Hogwarts admittedly, but while writing the setting I saw in my head was very much the junior boarding house I’d been to, Westlands, an old large manor style house that had front stairs and servants stairs (no servants though obviously) It belonged to another time and while we were there, so did we essentially. We belonged to the house.
It’s the same for Toby, Clara, Will, Louis, Jake, Tom and all the others who inhabit The Death House. Defective, and taken from their homes, it’s now their entire existence. The outside world no longer matters. It’s ephemeral – it’s forgotten them, and so why should they remember it? This is their story, after all. Not the world’s.
There are dark moments in this book, true. There are chilling moments. But I hope that there are also streaks of light throughout. Because I grew to love those teenagers who live within its pages. I think their characters shine through the sadness. This is the story of their friendships and their fights and the bonds that grow between people whether we want them to or not. It’s about life and death and the sacrifices we make for each other, but it is also about life and living. It’s about the strength of love. It’s about seizing the moment and never giving up.
Because everybody dies . . .
It’s how you choose to live that counts.
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