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Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t get the visibility it deserves within the arts – from films to books. But working in local journalism gives me an opportunity to find those who have put the stamp of the city into literature, or likewise, theatre or cinema.
The old industrial city, often looked down on by outsiders, is rich in history and heritage, and has a landscape that lends itself wonderfully to creativity.
So when local author Matt Rayner released his debut book about a bloke from Stoke, I was desperate to give it a read and see Staffordshire briefly represented in fiction.
Matt, from Abbey Hulton, is an ambulance service employee by day, reader and writer by night. And as a fan of classic, historic novels, has written a ghost story of his own, inspired by his own experiences.
The dad-of-two often goes kayaking and wild camping in the Scottish Highlands, and in 2016, stumbled upon an abandoned cottage in secluded Scotland after escaping a storm whilst out on the lochs.
The 32-year-old knew the derelict dwelling would be the ideal setting for a horror story, and set upon his writing endeavour.
The blurb for Echoes of Home reads: “After accepting a generous opportunity to start afresh, Leslie Wills, a young man from Stoke-on-Trent, eagerly begins his long-distance journey to the Scottish Highlands of Elphin, a settled village that sits huddled amongst the dominating mountains.
“Its people are welcoming, and the beauty of the land is great. But deep within its Highland paths, a location rests hidden from the public’s eye. A location which entices you to learn the truth of its troubled past. But once you bear witness to its sights and sounds, its presences will never allow you to forget.
“Uncover the truth, Journeying back to a forgotten time. With a plot full of secrets and suspicion that will leave you longing for answers.”
Leslie Wills lives in Longton – Brook Street, to be exact – working at one of the few remaining potbanks at Spode. Born into poverty, Leslie finds himself down on his luck after the death of his mother, leaving him alone in the world and suffering with his mental health. But a visit from his estranged eldest brother leads to the opportunity to set up in Scotland, and so Leslie leaves the bottle kilns behind in search of isolated countryside.
But there’s a reason that Elphin Cottage stood empty for so long, which is what Les works to uncover. What he finds – with the help of unlikely farmer friend Coulls – is a harrowing tale. But Matt’s extensive research into true historic events really brings it to life. The ghost story could be likened to that of Woman in Black, with Matt admitting he’s a big fan of Susan Hill. It’s full of suspense, and the images painted with adjectives are often dark and damp, adding to the tense atmosphere.
Echoes of Home quickly made it to the top 50 best selling horror novels after its release on New Years’ Day 2021. It will have you flinching at the creaks of your own home, waiting for bloody, blistered hands to appear at your windows.
The tragic event the ghost story was written about was The Great Famine, of Ireland, from 1845 to 1849, and The Highland Famine that followed, in Scotland, from 1846 to 1856. Matt’s ancestors hailed from Ireland at the time of the food shortage, and characters in the book were even named after his own ancestors.
I read the book in 24 hours. It’s short chapters made it easy to dip in and out of throughout the day, but equally lent itself to interesting bedtime reading which made you pull the covers up a little tighter. I could barely put it down, and there were some very interesting and thought-provoking twists. I found myself thinking it would have made a great GSCE English Literature study, with a number of talking points and different ways things could be interpreted.
In the few chapters set in the city I did feel there were a couple of Stokie related tricks missed. It would have been great to see ‘The Sentinel’ mentioned when a cafe worker is reading ‘the morning paper’ (chances are that’s a very bias opinion on my part, since I work for the paper), and Les also could have been eating cheese oatcakes at said cafe. The book is set in 2003, and was born into poverty, but the story – written in first person – uses quite educated language where Les could have thrown in some Potteries dialect on occasion. That said, the language that was used lent itself well to the nature of it being a classic ghost story, and added to that feeling in the novel.
Echoes of Home is a ghost story full of history and suspense, and an absolutely gripping debut. You’ll be scrambling up your stairs when the lights are off in an attempt to escape what’s hiding in the dark. It’s emotive, and constantly has your brain ticking over with questions and theories – but all will be revealed as your turn the final pages. Echoes of Home is available on Amazon for £8.49, or £1.99 on Kindle.