Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Walkabout Wednesday goes grave with Julie Cohen

It's Walkabout Wednesday, and my buddy Julie Cohen asked if she could take us on a field trip. Silly me forgot to ask Julie *where* we were going on this field trip, so she's taking us to a graveyard...

Hello and thank you for having me back in the Playground!

One of the greatest things about being a writer is being able to research anything you want and put it into a book. I decided to set my latest book, NINA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF GLOOM (out this week!) in the North London area of Highgate, just so that I could make a key scene happen in Highgate Cemetery.

Highgate Cemetery is, as far as I’m aware, the best cemetery in the world. And I’m a bit of a cemetery fan, I must admit. It’s a Victorian temple to death, completely over the top and Gothic and wonderfully creepily beautiful. It’s actually two cemeteries; the eastern side is newer and open to the public to stroll about and holds such notable corpses as Karl Marx and George Eliot. The western side is wilder and darker, fallen into picturesque decay, and only open to visitors at certain times and by guided tour.

It’s an important habitat for London wildlife, both plant and animal, and it feels like an alternative universe. The minute you step into the cemetery, by climbing a stair up into a row of gravestones, you can forget you’re in one of the world’s greatest cities; in fact you can forget you’re in a city at all. It is hushed, and green, and special.

It even has its own vampire legend, an undead creature who prowled the night in the 1970s preying on unwary Highgate residents and, er...foxes.

Here’s an excerpt from NINA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF GLOOM, about the western side of the cemetery. Nina Jones is taken there at dusk by her mysterious upstairs neighbour, Viktor, and they walk along tomb-lined paths to the incredible Circle of Lebanon, a circular construction of mausoleums with a giant Lebanese cedar growing from the centre of their ceiling.


The stone stairs in the curved wall climb upwards, and are pitched in such a way that I can’t see to the top of them. “Are we the only people in this place?”

“The only living people, yes.” He smiles at my hesitation and that’s enough to get me moving up the stairs. At the top, I gasp.

Trees loom over the gravel path, forming a canopy. And between them, behind them, around them, through them, a city of graves.

“Holy crow.” I wander forward. You can’t hear the city, only a rustle of trees and our feet on the gravel. The gravestones crowd together, some spiky like jagged teeth, some elaborately carved, piled on top of each other as if jostling for position. In the deepening shadows I see a stone angel, a shrouded pillar, a weeping woman without a hand.

“This way,” says Viktor, leading me up the path. Leaves crunch and whisper. They are orange and brown, and the foliage around us a muted curtain of colour in the fading light. Against this, the graves are subtler hues of grey and pink and brown stone, greened over by lichen and moss.

“It’s beautiful,” I murmur. A slow riot of life and decay. I try to read the inscriptions but it’s difficult in the shadowy light; anyone could lie here, deep beneath, sleeping.

It’s definitely getting darker as we ascend, but my eyes adjust to it and so I can see adequately, within the tunnel of trees at least. It feels as if the cemetery stretches in a labyrinth for miles around us.

“Last week I was spending most of my time in an alley behind a dry cleaners,” Viktor tells me. “This place has more perks, if you don’t mind it being a little spooky. Speaking of which, here we are.”

“Oh, wow.” Suddenly, out of a wall of trees, there’s a big stone gateway, flanked by improbably elaborate pillars. “It looks like a set for an Indiana Jones film.” I point through it, to an upward-sloping stone corridor. No roof, just doors either side, their entrances pitch black. “You can so imagine a big ball rolling down through there to crush us both.”

“Want to take a chance?”


This is creepy. This is really creepy. I don’t need to be told that these are crypts. There are skeletons lying behind these doors. Skeletons, rotting grave clothes, and lots and lots of spiders. Our footsteps echo slightly and the air has grown distinctly colder.

“Are you scared?” Viktor asks me. The fingers of his free hand brush my arm.

The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. My heart is pounding. Every shadow seems poised to leap out at us.
“I’m not scared.”


What’s the most magical place you’ve ever visited? I’ll give a signed copy of NINA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF GLOOM to a commenter.

Julie’s website:

Buy NINA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF GLOOM with free worldwide shipping!


Lacey Devlin said...

I've never seen anything like it! The pictures look amazing and I'd never heard of the vampire legend so I've reach my scare quota for the day :D

Rachel said...

What an amazing place! It's been added to my 'must see' list.

Magical place:

a secret spot in the middle of the New Forest where we used to go for picnics as children. There was a clear, tinkly stream with mossy banks, orchids and venus flytraps. We'd build dams and munch blackberries and it was SO quiet.

You could just tell there were fairys about. And bears.

Lots of love,


Julie Cohen said...

Welcome to my spooky world! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!!


Lacey, Highgate cemetery is absolutely mind-blowing. It's eerie, but in a beautiful rather than a scary way. I'm dying to go there again.

(Notice the little pun there? har de har)

Playground Monitor said...

This is certainly more interesting than the blog I'd have written about the Natchez Trace! Welcome back, Julie.

The most mystical place I've been? I've been to Sedona, Arizona, but not out to the red rocks and vortices, so scratch that. I went to Chichen Itza in the Yucutan section of Mexico and I'd say that was pretty mystical. To see what they accomplished without benefit of modern engineering and construction methods and tools is pretty mystifying.

This Saturday, provided the weather cooperates, I'm going on a Mischief and Mayhem walking tour downtown. Here's what the group's website says:

Mischief and Mayhem Tours, located in Huntsville, AL, combine intrigue, trouble, and mystery, to make your tour entertaining and fun! Our tours, led by guides in period costumes, will leave visitors with a taste of the other side of Huntsville's history!

That should involve some mystical things, right?

Julie Cohen said...

Rachel, your secret spot sounds wonderful and I'm sure there were fairies about. Bears in the New Forest, though? Surely not! ;-)

Julie Cohen said...

Marilyn, that tour sounds so interesting! Are you going to learn about the mischief and mayhem, or create it yourself?

I've never heard of Sedona, Arizona or Chichen Itza or indeed the Natchez Trace (what excellent names), so you've got me there. Red rocks and vortices sound very interesting.

Angel said...

Julie, how totally cool! Another place to add to my list if I ever get to visit London! I actually love cemetaries. They are usually peaceful, beautiful, and a little spooky. Sounds perfect to me. :) And the pictures of Highgate are beautiful.

I can't really think of a magical place, but there are certain places I remember being in my life that have sort of "called" to me, in that "be still and absorb" way. They are always out in nature, with the less people, the better.


Cat Marsters/Kate Johnson said...

I'm planning a trip there this year :) Somewhere I've always wanted to go, and not in any way because Richard Armitage filmed an episode or two of Spooks there.

As for magical places, I guess Stonehenge and Tintagel are a little obvious (but wonderfully atmospheric nonetheless). I went to some underground caves in Holland when I was a teenager (erm, possibly near Amsterdamn, possibly not). They scared the life out of me: absolutely labyrinthine and on the walls you could see claw marks where trapped monks had tried to claw their way out. The story went that when their bodies were found their fingers had been worn down to stubs by clawing the damp rock. Spooky as hell.

Problem Child said...

Hi Julie -- see I told you I'd get the picture thing sorted. (Blogger hates me as you all know.)

I don't know about "magical" but "mystical" would be the ruins of a Scottish village behind my in-laws' house in Inverary. The village was abandoned during the Clearances, but you can still see the houses and fireplaces. There's a sadness there, but there's also just this feeling of connection to the past. Like the ghosts of these people want to tell you something. But not in a creepy way.

Shelley said...

There's this oasis in the middle of Montgomery, Alabama, that seems almost a doorway to another place far from the shops and traffic and noise that circle. It's the Alabama Shakespeare Festival park, and I've loved it since I first set foot on the grounds. It's not a secret place, really, but I think a lot of locals ignore it. There's the lovely theater as well as gardens and thatched cottages and weeping willows and swan-filled ponds. My favorite spot is a little stone bridge with sort of an observation area, a sheltered seating area, that sits over a pond filled with surreally huge fish and looks onto the lush green private fields of the family whose money and land made the park possible. I've been a lot of places since I was an untravelled dreamer living next to that park, but I've never found anywhere I love quite as much.

PM's Mother said...

Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil...Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, GA; only I was there at midday. I can imagine how spooky it would be at night with the Spanish moss hanging from the trees and a fog drifting in from the river.

Instigator said...

Oooh, I totally want to visit there now. The pictures look amazing.


traveler said...

What a unique and delightful post today. I enjoyed the photos and learning about this place. My favorite magical place to escape to is an old mining town in the mountains which has charm, and a quaint opera house which still functions.

Julie Cohen said...

Angel, it's hardly surprising you love cemeteries with a name like Angel! I agree with you about places that "call" to you. It's so wonderful when that happens.

Julie Cohen said...

Cat/Kate, you HAVE to go to Highgate. You will love it. I love Stonehenge too, but the tourist barriers sort of detract, I think—I like Avebury better, where you can touch the stones. Tintagel is absolutely wonderful. I'll never forget visiting there. And your caves sound horrifying!!

Julie Cohen said...

Kim, thanks for sorting me out here! Your Scottish village sounds wonderful. I'd love to visit it. Maybe I will get up there one day!

Julie Cohen said...

Shelley, I love how you describe the Shakespeare Festival Park, especially the huge fish. I've never heard of it but you've made me want to go.

Julie Cohen said...

PM's Mother, I can picture the film of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as you describe the Georgia cemetery. What an amazing place.

I'm thinking I'm going to have to have a holiday just to go to all these cemeteries!

I love the cemeteries out in the middle of the woods in Maine, where I'm from. You'll be going down this seemingly uninhabited road near nowhere, and suddenly there's an old cemetery and nothing else. There's one not far from my parents' camp, miles from anywhere. It kind of makes you wonder.

Julie Cohen said...

Instigator, you need to visit! It's a great excuse to go to see the dead people!

Julie Cohen said...

Traveler, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Your mining town sounds magical and I am also a fan of old opera houses—I set my first book in something similar, a derelict cinema.

Julie Cohen said...

This isn't in reply to anything it's just to say that I've had the weirdest word verifications on this site today.

"fliedog" "statt" and the current one is "slograp", for example.

Sherry Werth said...

How interesting! I haven't had the opportunity to visit a cemetery like Highgate, but if I ever get to London it will be on my list of things to see.
I live in Alabama but didn't know about the Shakespeare Festival Park that Shelly mentioned in her post. I see a 'road trip' in the near future. :D

Word verification: skingew - that is weird!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I totally dig cemeteries. I even held a freshman comp course in the campus cemetery. The kids were freaked. I dug it.

Anyway, no need to enter me, ladies. I'm dropping in to say thanks for the e-mail. I've got this posted at Win a Book -- Julie, if we can help you promote anything, let us know.

Minna said...

Magical place. Hmm. I've visited a couple of castles and like any good castles, they are all supposed to be haunted.

オテモヤン said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
catslady said...

It was in Haiti - we took horses up a mountainside to see The Citadel - an extremely old fort or what is left of it but it was so high you were in the clouds and looking out it seemed like you could see the entire island. I felt like I had gone back hundreds of years.

Kathy said...

Oh! (Rubbing hands together with glee) I love cemetaries!!

Welcome, Julie! What a treat. Thanks for sharing Highgate with us. I've never been there but now must go.

I have always been drawn to cemetaries. We went to a church in Shrewsbury, NJ that had been funded by a pirate who roved with Blackbeard. He sought to ease his sins by giving his money to this church and he's buried right beside the front door. This particular church is surrounded by gravestones dating back to the early 1700's. So cool!

Standing at Little Bighorn cemetary where Custer and his men were killed and buried (Custer and his brother were later moved elsewhere) gives one a very mournful feeling. Such stupidity!

I love to walk through battlefields where many unmarked graves give the land mystic aura.

But the best cemetary I've ever been to would have to be the Arizona sitting in Pearl Harbor. Standing above the wreck, which is sitting right side up underneath the memorial, you can see down into the ship, hear it moan and see oil continuing to leak and stream out of it over 60 years later. 1200 men are entombed in that ship and when you see their names listed on the wall of the memorial and hear the ship moan, it is as if you are there in battle, experiencing the fateful day once more.

Anonymous said...

Hey Julie,
You have my heart going 90 to nothing(southern expression). Wow, I would not be in a graveyard near dark much less in the dark. No how, no way (yes, that's me - chicken). But I admire those that have those kind of nerves. But I do love the pictures - beautiful.

baileythebookworm said...

I went on a 6 1/2 hour cave crawling tour with my boyfriend a couple of weekends ago -we went to Mammoth Caves, and I was absolutely struck dumb by how amazing it was. We got to climb through portions of the cave that are totally unused except for the specific tour we were on, and we saw some of the most amazing rock formations and caves (when we weren't crawling through holes that weren't much more than 42" around). It was amazing.

baileythebookworm at gmail dot com

Kristen said...

That is definitely going on my list of must visit places if I ever make it over to England (the trip has been my anniversary present for two seperate years and I've still yet to go--maybe third time's a charm?).

Most magical place? Well, the Grand Canyon has some pretty mystical side canyons but for me, the most magical place is sitting in the little rowboat my grandfather made in the middle of our bay watching the sun go down. It's utterly quiet and gorgeous and beyond special.

mariska said...

I had visited one old house, i mean really really old, about 200 years old in my mom village when i was about 10 or 12 years old.

it's so dark, you know the old house always looks like right ?
the light that can enter the house only the light from the sun outside, via the broken windows and ceiling.

And i had experienced very creepy feeling. I saw a huge and tall black figure, looking at us (we entered the house in group, 5 people) and i moved to the center of the group when i saw this thing. creepy..
when i looked at that figure again, it just disappeared.

Julie Cohen said...

Tis the next afternoon in England and I'm catching up with the comments...

Susan, I love the freshman comp course in a cemetery! I've done the same thing, though with younger students—I taught at a girls' school on the site of a convent and I took the 11-year-olds into the nun's cemetery to observe and write poetry.

Our writing group has a day-long programme of events every summer and we hold it in a church that has a wonderful cemetery, and the part I always like best is when we're told to stroll around the graves and make up stories.

Julie Cohen said...

Minna, I love me a good castle! Sort of like my house...hmm, well, maybe not. ;-) Are there many castles in Finland?

Julie Cohen said...

Catslady, that citadel in Haiti sounds amazing. How cool is that.

Julie Cohen said...

Kathy, I love your list of cemeteries! A pirate, soldiers and sailors. The point of a cemetery should be to help the living to remember. Thanks for those descriptions; I really enjoyed them.

Julie Cohen said...

Roberstonreads, I have to admit I'm not a visitor of cemeteries after dark in real life. My characters Nina and Viktor went at dusk and stayed after dark, but me, I went in the middle of a June afternoon with the sun high in the sky. :-)

Julie Cohen said...

Baileythebookworm, caves are creepy! It must be incredible to go there, far underneath the surface. Wonderful, though I think I would be scared.

Julie Cohen said...

Kristen, you have to make it to England this year!! It's such a wonderful place to visit, though be careful of doing what I did and come to visit and end up staying!

And I love the image of you in your grandfather's rowboat. There's something about waves, water and silence. You must feel a connection with your grandfather too.

Julie Cohen said...

Mariska, whooo that sounds spooky! I've never seen a ghost and I can't say that I care to. Yikes!

Julie Cohen said...

And finally...thanks so much for having me on the Playground, everyone! I love visiting you guys!

And I hope you enjoy the book if you pick it up.

Shelley said...

Sherry: If you do go to ASF, you should make a day of it and see a play. The performances are world-class, and not all of the plays are by Shakespeare, so you get a variety of choices. :)

donnas said...

That looks great and I loved the story. I have never experienced anything like that but I really hope I do one day!

Michele L. said...

Ok the most magical place I have been to is inside a cave called Meramac Caverns. Oh wow, I was so impressed and awed at the beauty of it all! It was all lit up, and there were different areas in the cave that they called labeled as a certain room. It was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen!

The next most magical thing I have ever seen is Hearst Castle in California. We went on a tour and OH MY GOSH! It is HUGE! It is jaw droppig! The rooms are spectacular and what opulence! The pool outside is just amazing! That was an incredible trip to that castle which is located high up on a mountaintop. The bus ride up there is scary too! You have to see it!

Michele L. said...

Oh man, you guys want scary? I went on a ghost tour in St. Augustine, Florida at night. That is supposed to be the most haunted city in the US. Well, let me tell you it was a blast! I love anything to do with ghosts and I got the biggest thrill touring with the lady and my sister-in-law walking around at 11:00pm. at night in all the most haunted areas in the town. The wind was blowing, a fog was drifting out over the cemetary which had these big, creepy, knarly looking trees that overhung the sidewalk, so you had to duck to avoid getting hit by a branch at night. I tripped a couple times on the sidewalk trying to avoid those branches. My sister-in-law, Sylvia, screamed at said something pulled her sweater. Let me tell you we all jumped and hurried out of there as fast as we could!

We also stood at the perimeter of the cemetary as the tour guide pointed to this house where this ghost of a lady is reportedly seen the most on its side balcony. We just stood there for a while watching but didn't see anything since we had to get moving to see the rest of our tour of the town.

This would have to rank as the scariest tour I have ever taken! I don't say it was magical but maybe ghostly in the way the winds were blowing that night. Pretty softly like a whisper in your ear and curling around your head, in wisps like ghostly fingertips brushing your hair!