This house is more than old memories. It’s like a museum, a mausoleum.
Or a moment of catastrophe, preserved like a body trapped under pumice and ash.
My grandparents lived in a 200-year-old Georgian house in Leith, the northern port district of Edinburgh, Scotland. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, my sister and I spent almost every holiday under its perpetually leaking roof—the big, creepy, old house couldn’t have been any more different from our suburban 60s-built bungalow in small-town Central Scotland.
I’ve been writing stories since I was that wee girl, and so many of them have been set in some version of my grandparents’ house. It has always loomed large in both my memory and my imagination, and I always knew that my first published novel would inevitably be set there too.
Mirrorland is about estranged Mirror Twins, Cat and El. Cat lives in Los Angeles, while El lives, with her husband, Ross, at 36 Westeryk Road: the old and mysterious house in Edinburgh where she and Cat grew up. When El goes missing in her sailing boat, Cat has to return to Scotland, and she discovers that El—or she believes El—has set her on a treasure hunt. Clues have been hidden all over the house for Cat to find, like El used to do when they were kids. These clues force Cat to confront her relationship with her sister, her relationship with her sister’s husband, the very strange and frightening childhood that she and El had growing up in that house—and in particular, the sinister and magical world of Mirrorland that they created underneath the house. Because it’s there that all the secrets of their childhood, their lives, and what has actually happened to El are buried.
Gothic stories have always been my first love—the darker and more thrilling the better. I grew up reading classics like Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Beloved, The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining. I adored Agatha Christie’s clever whodunnits. More contemporary novels like Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects; Jane Harper’s The Dry; even Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I would now also define as gothic, because for me, a gothic story has always been about atmosphere and passion—love triangles, revenge plots, murder—and always at the heart of it a mystery that needs to be solved, or a secret that needs to be exposed.
Of course, in most gothic stories there is nearly always a house—be it dark and foreboding, like Manderley, Thornfield Hall, or Bly; beautiful and grand, like the Sweet Home plantation or the Overlook Hotel; or completely ordinary, like 124 Bluestone Road, Cincinnati. And, nearly always, this house is potentially haunted.
There’s something particularly special about old houses because they have so much history, they have accommodated so much life—and death. The big, creepy, old house in Mirrorland is haunted by all that has happened inside its crimson red walls, because it symbolizes something that must be confronted, a history that cannot be escaped. It is haunted less by ghosts than by what has happened there, all the things that it’s witnessed.
My sister and I always believed that my grandparents’ house was haunted. There was a ghost in our bedroom called Beatrice, a murdered witch in the cellar, and evil faeries under the rockery at the bottom of the back garden. The house was freezing—it had no central heating—so we would run around to stay warm, playing hide-and-seek, sardines, wink-murder. I remember many times hiding in the icy dark, waiting to be found, convinced I could hear someone breathing behind me. Everything creaked and groaned and leaked and rattled. The house was mostly falling apart; some areas were entirely off limits because they were too dangerous, including the stone-vaulted cellar, which, of course, only made them more tantalizing. It was also a very eccentric house, full of quirks and secrets, and as a consequence, many of these elements ended up being directly transplanted into the fictional 36 Westeryk Road.
Before I started writing Mirrorland, I drew out some floor plans, based on memories of my grandparents’ house and some very old fuzzy home videos, and these then became the floorplans of 36 Westeryk Road. I poached, too, with only occasional amendment or embellishment, every weird and wonderful thing I could remember: the high-ceilinged and wood-panelled rooms, crammed to the rafters with mismatched antique furniture, every spare inch of wall covered in china plates and framed pictures. The huge and heavy wooden ‘thrones’ of the dining room, and its gold-and-black filigree wallpaper. The 1920s art-deco bar in the drawing room with its bright blue tiles and oval mirror. The servant bell pull system, which had been electronic and Victorian, rather than the older Downton Abbey-style bell board in Mirrorland (I loved the idea of all those copper wires and pulleys hiding and winding inside stone walls like a city of giant spiderwebs). The vast and high-walled back garden and orchard, including the best climbing-tree in the world, Old Fred. And, most importantly, the stoic little stone washhouse and the long wooden-roofed alleyway that ran the length of the southern side of the house—the components of Mirrorland itself.
Mirrorland is the make-believe world that Cat and El escape to at night. As exciting and terrifying as Wonderland or Neverland or Oz, they share it with Clowns and pirates, cowboys and Indians, outlaws and prison guards. Cat and El can only get down to Mirrorland—that exterior little stone washhouse and long wooden-roofed alleyway—through a door hidden inside a cupboard in the pantry, a long and gloomy room at the back of the house. Narnia was less the inspiration for this than the real long and gloomy room at the back of my grandparents’ house called the Sewing Room, and the vast wooden cupboard at its end that you could climb up into—it was a hide-and-seek favourite.
Access to the stone washhouse was from the back garden only, but it did have another door that lead to the alleyway running along the south side of the house. It was nowhere near as long or as sinister as the fictional Mirrorland, so I borrowed, too, from my memories of that rather more frightening cellar under the house. Though I’d been down there only once or twice—it was where my grandparents stored all the apples from the orchard—I can remember it very well; it was deliciously dark and spooky, with wide stone pillars hiding maze-like turns down pitch black corridors. Mirrorland, therefore, became an amalgam of that cellar and the original sheltered alleyway connected to the washhouse. It is, fittingly, the most imaginary and the most important feature of 36 Westeryk Road; it sets its character in stone and the rest of the house spirals out from it like another giant spiderweb.
Cat and El give important names to every room in the house, like the Kakadu Jungle, the Clown Café, and the Princess Tower. My sister and I never did that, but we did spend hours inside that wooden-roofed alleyway, making up weird and wonderful—and invariably creepy—games. And weird and wonderful—and invariably gruesome—stories about what the washhouse and alleyway had once been for: a cold-store pantry for hungry cannibals or grave robbers; a hideout for escaped patients from the East House Lunatic Asylum. Children have fiendish imaginations, and for them the boundary between what is real and what is fantasy is so fluid. They easily believe in worlds that live over rainbows, down rabbit holes, and inside wardrobes. I’ve never forgotten what that feels like, and I’ve never stopped being fascinated by what really is a form of magic. Because that imagination—that fantasy, that credulity—has the power to protect a child, even to save her life. Or shape what it will become.
When my grandparents died in the 90s, and the house was sold, it felt almost as if we were losing another family member. I remember we spent a last evening in the house—aunts, uncles, cousins—sitting eating takeout on the floor of the dining room, its walls stripped of all but its gold-and-black wallpaper. And then we said goodbye to the house together.
That big, creepy, old house might have been a little crazy and a lot rundown, but it meant something to all of us. It was our past. Our history. It was the place we came back to; the place where we could be together. Families will always have their fair share of conflicts, secrets, and betrayals. But home will always be home. And love—in all of its forms, good and bad—will always be love. That, more than anything, is what I wanted Mirrorland to be about. And while I’ve no doubt that basing a fictional place on my grandparents’ house comes under the category of write what you know, it’s not why I did it. From the very beginning, whenever I thought about writing Mirrorland, my grandparents’ house was the only house I ever saw.
There’s a darkness all around us, and I can feel it close in. The fire crackles.
I can hear the grandfather clock tick, tick, ticking in the shadow of the hallway.
And all around us the house groans and breathes and laughs.