Hunting the Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor

When I planned out my five-book series of mystery stories set in a fictional seaside town, I always knew there would be one based on an end-of-pier show. And, of course, in Eerie-on-Sea, the theatre at the end of the pier would have to be a particularly tumbledown and seagull-haunted place of faded grandeur, dust mote swirls and unaccountable shadows. Having already written two adventures about legendary creatures that turn out to have “a little more bite”, the question I faced in Book III was this: what supernatural beast or entity could my heroes Herbert Lemon and Violet Parma find lurking in a theatre?

Haunted theatres are a bit of a cliché, so I didn’t want to go down the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ route. But the answer only seemed to manifest itself in all its midnight horror when I watched the great magician Caliastra – newly arrived in Eerie-on-Sea – perform her magic tricks in the suitably shabby theatre of my own mind’s eye. Of course she would have a magic lantern! And of course she would conjure impossible yet real-seeming shadow puppets using nothing but the clever manipulation of her fingers. Once I’d hit upon the idea of a magic lantern projecting eerie light and shade, it became inevitable that the perfect being of dark magic and danger for Herbie and Vi to face would be a shadow with no body to cast it.

It turns out there is a particular challenge in writing a character who has no physicality whatsoever. In what way can a being who cannot touch you, or anything, be dangerous? What impact can it have on the world? How can it even speak? Of course, it was exactly these puzzles that turned the Shadowghast from a head-scratching writer’s challenge to a creative joy, and the moment my shadow spirit – haunting his lantern like a genie haunts a lamp – started to taunt Herbie using words made of silence instead of sound, I found myself writing one of the most creepy ‘Eerie-on-Sea’ scenes yet.

I can’t remember when I decided to set Shadowghast at Halloween, or to rename it ‘Ghastly Night’, but it deepens the sense that people do things differently in Eerie-on-Sea. And what better backdrop can there be for performing a forbidden magic trick than the one night of the year when bad spirits are said to roam at large. I love a carved pumpkin as much as the next ghoul, but I soon realised I needed something a little more ‘Eerie specific’ to fend off the shadow-snatcher of the Shadowghast Lantern, and the ‘manglewick candle’ was born.

Readers of Malamander and Gargantis will probably have guessed by now, if they’ve given it any thought at all, that I am an animal lover, and I extend the same respect to the fabulous creatures that only exist in my books. But what sympathy could I, and my characters, find in the free-floating, crooked shadow-man with “a Punch-and-Judy smile and horns upon his head”, who snatches your shadow to control your mind? That’s not very loveable! But even though there was no room in Shadowghast to explore the backstory of this strange being, and therefore little chance for any understanding of his motives, I still find myself wondering about what that backstory might be. I’d like to explore that in a short story someday.

For now, however, I hope you will find the eponymous Shadowghast terrifying and wonderful. And maybe, once you have read the book and understood how to make a manglewick candle of your own, perhaps you’ll even enjoy the eerie spectacle of a flickering shadow-man in your own home this Halloween. I just hope, when you blow the candle out, he isn’t still there…

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