Some Thoughts on The Watcher

I used to get frightened reading. I used to like being told or read ghost stories by MR James, Edgar Alan Poe. The masters. I remember my mother retelling me the plot of Hitchcock’s Psycho when I was too young to get in to see the movie (which seems funny now). I’ve jumped plenty of times, but never been scared in the cinema.

I was a true believer in the Uncanny. But I lost my religion around age 39, when I had kids. Now that we are all vampires or werewolves, I have no allegiance to horror or any genre. In fact I shun them.

I am not sure what induces me to write. Ideas come, float around in amniotic flux, then either disperse or coalesce suddenly like a shoal of fish. Which can be unsettling. I take on each new book as a journey of exploration, a quest which will surely end in discovery, revelation, enlightenment. It almost never does. In my non-fiction book, The Wolf Children, I hoped to establish whether human children had ever been fostered by animals in the wild, or whether such tales belonged to myth and folklore, reflecting a longing to revive the lost connection with our animal ancestors. The strange story of the wolf children of Midnapore led me on a trail through remote Indian jungle villages and amongst the embers of scientific controversy. But the truth about feral children remains elusive.

As a fiction writer, I’ve been attracted to the outer limits, the far frontier, searching for meaning in the unexplained, looking beyond the boundaries of ordinary experience. Described as a metaphysical thriller, The Watcher charts an individual’s attempt to make sense of human existence through a chain of past lives that are linked down the ages by a single purpose – a karmic journey, as he sees it, towards the light. It tells the story of an ordinary man whose unremarkable life spirals into nightmare when he commits a mystifying atrocity. In his quest to discover the cause of his actions, the hero, Martin Gregory, takes the reader with him into the darker corners of his mind presenting his elaborate fantasies as the truth. We know this can’t be the case, yet we want to believe him. Partly because we don’t trust his nemesis, the smooth, rational psychiatrist who, in a contrapuntal narrative, warns us not to listen to his patient….he’s talking nonsense, he needs help! Naturally, it’s Martin’s lapel-grabbing insistence that ‘you must believe me’ that prevails against the dry clinical response of Dr Somerville, who may be smart and is probably right but before the hero’s eyes and ours turns sinister as hell. In the final down-the-ages struggle between good and evil we have to be rooting for Martin, the anti-materialist, save-the-planet visionary complete with crystal staff and ready to lead mankind back onto the true (spiritual) path, to win…there’s no middle way. The fate of the earth hangs in the balance!

In Home Before Dark, my most recent meta-psycho-thriller, I revisit some of these ideas, but in a very different context. A man searching for his daughter’s killer in Florence gains and holds our sympathy until we begin to doubt whether he is a reliable witness. Could he even be the murderer himself? The novel enters the hall of mirrors of the internet, which brings a new complexity to questions about what is real and who can you trust that have always interested me.

The internet, vast tissue of lies, nurturing environment for crime, threatens the small arena a writer controls – the discriminating use of information, the authority of the word, reflection. The sacrifice of content to the god of immediacy makes almost all its connections blithely, shockingly mundane. By structuring a novel to recreate in literary terms the rapidly shifting perspectives between points of view, between reality and illusion, between belief and disbelief that you find on the internet, I hoped to reflect its power to change the way human beings think, the way we relate to each other. In Home Before Dark this very banality lulls the reader’s fears and suspicions even while it lets in (as the banal often does in real life) EVIL.

I’m delighted The Watcher is being reissued, even if I don’t get the horror classic tag. I was offered the chance to change a few things, maybe bring it up to date. There’s stuff I would like to have done differently. But then, not now. I still have a problem with the mythical ‘Magmel’ part of the story. I was never happy with the way it changed the pace and tone of the book — one minute you’re reading a tense, sophisticated urban thriller, the next it’s Lord of the effing Rings. And I don’t think it really worked. But a creation myth was needed to explain the chain-of-tormented-souls business.

What I do still like is the way Martin’s visions tie in with what he sees around him in the present (the engraving in the Public Library, the chandelier, the devil-porn in Somerville’s library etc). If Hitchcock were alive today and making The Watcher I’m sure he would get a lot of mileage out of these signposts that point both ways: ie. they seem to imply Martin is crazy while feeding our suspicion that he may be onto something. There’s an important line towards the end of the book – ‘skypilot’ to Martin: ‘Try to really understand what’s going on out there and…let noone underestimate the reasonableness of going crazy.’

Horror? I don’t think so.

Charles Maclean is married with four children and lives on the west coast of Argyll, where he runs a small estate and holiday cottage business. An associate editor of Travel and Leisure magazine, Maclean spent ten years in New York, from where he wrote a column for the London Evening Standard. He was a founder member of the Ecologist magazine and with Edward Goldsmith helped launch ‘Blueprint For Survival’, which became a handbook for the environmental movement in the UK.

He has written several acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction including The Watcher and the prize-winning classic Island on the Edge of the World.

Penguin Books’ reissued edition of The Watcher is now available in bookstores everywhere.