Author of the Month

Name: Rhiannon Ward

First Novel: In Bitter Chill (as Sarah Ward)

Most Recent Book: The Quickening

' will be trapped within the confines of Clewer Hall until all its mysteries and secrets have been unearthed.'

England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex to photograph the contents of the house for auction. Desperate for money after falling on hard times, she accepts the commission.

On arrival, she learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, the consequences of which still haunt the family. Before the Clewer's leave England for good, the lady of the house has asked those who attended the original séance to recreate the evening. Louisa soon becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house, unravelling the long-held secrets of what happened that night thirty years before... and discovers her own fate is entwined with Clewer Hall's.

Is it some comfort to us that we now have wi-fi and mobile phones to keep us connected to the rest of the world? For some, they may love the feel of that isolation, being cut off by the snow, no tv, no radio, no telephone! It sounds idyllic, but truly how long would any of us survive without communicating with the outside world? With ‘The Quickening’, Rhiannon Ward perfectly describes how that idyll can quickly turn into a nightmare, how things can slowly escalate and the joy of retreating from the world can make you feel stranded, without escape from the malevolent shadows in the corner of your eye…

‘The Quickening’ is all about atmosphere, how Clewer Hall hums and vibrates, the echoes of past years making their presence felt in the present. It is the sense of feeling and not quite seeing that lends this book the perfect pitch. Louisa senses the danger rather than blatantly sees it. Is there something in the house reaching out to Louisa or is it her imagination? As with most attitudes towards women back in 1925, any thought of the paranormal is put down by the men to Louisa’s pregnancy and the fact being pregnant heightens a woman’s paranoia! But Louisa feels her baby is in serious danger and this new life growing inside her is the main driving force behind Ward’s story.

‘The Quickening’ is about motherhood, the bond between mother and child, how the bond is not broken with the loss of a child, how in those days motherhood was the expected main role of all women and how a woman can reconcile the death of a child as a new one is born with a future their sibling never had. These questions are all brought up with subtlety, but they never detract from the story, but as I said, it drives the plot as Helene, the lady of Clewer Hall desperately needs communication with her sons, all lost in the Great War, before the family leaves Clewer Hall for good.

Ward perfectly shows how lives from across the classes were destroyed by war, the palpable grief that bled into the walls of homes across the world. The saying, ‘If these walls could talk…’ was never truer with this novel, but the secrets, lies and loss are not holding Clewer Hall together, it is destroying it, making the walls of the Hall crumble and disintegrate under the weight of its own misery. I could wax lyrical about ‘The Quickening’ for ages. I read this book in two sittings, the second one I read about two thirds in one go when I had plenty of other jobs to do, but this one would not let me go. I am sure, that like me, you will be trapped within the confines of Clewer Hall until all its mysteries and secrets have been unearthed.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) The year is 1925 when Louisa Drew is commissioned to photograph contents for auction at Clewer Hall in Sussex. Why did you choose this particular time frame for ‘The Quickening’? Did you have to do much research such as the methods of photography at that time?
I’m interested in historical periods where change is taking place. The 1920s was, at its beginning, overshadowed by the legacy of the First World War and also the impact of the Spanish flu epidemic. However by 1925, the decade had its face turned towards the future, new ideas were flourishing and women’s emancipation meant more females in the workplace and in public life. I also wanted to set my story in a period where I’d met people who’d lived through it. I thought about my grandparents a lot – how they spoke, what they ate, the clothes they wore.

I had to do a lot of research. Not only methods of photography but how séances were conducted, how large homes were run, the hierarchy of servants and so on. It was all fascinating but it did take writing the book much longer.
2) What do you think it is about the isolated Gothic pile that still attracts 21st Century readers so much? Have you always been a fan of ghost stories?
I absolutely love ghost stories and, along with crime, it’s a genre I’ve read since I was a child. Remember Misty? I particularly like the English ghost story tradition – from M.R. James to FG Cottam, Edith Nesbit to Sarah Waters.

I don’t think the Gothic has ever completely gone away. I feel a personal connection to the genre as two early gothic novels are set in Derbyshire where I live: Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Uncle Silas’ and Bram Stoker’s ‘The Lair of the White Worm’. Beyond the Victorian gothic, many of the tropes continued with Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ and Ruth Rendell’s stories. We all love a crumbling house with a dysfunctional family, don’t we?
3) Louisa is heavily pregnant when she accepts the commission at Clewer Hall. This is a tale that strongly resonates about motherhood and how that bond between mother and child is strong even after the loss of a child. How did you deal with weaving such a strong emotive theme into your story?
I really wanted my protagonist to be a feminist, determined to work and have her story heard but I also wanted to introduce an element of doubt. Is Louisa really experiencing strange happenings or is she hallucinating because of her pregnancy?

Pregnancy for Louisa represents a new start but also a reminder of what has already passed. I don’t have children myself and I have had friends write to me asking how I got some of the experiences and emotions so right? Well, I asked mothers! How far could you run when you were seven months pregnant? Did you experience any odd emotions or sensations? Did people not believe what you said? I also got a midwife to look through the section when Louisa goes into labour.
4) The story refers to a séance back in 1896 and the fact that years later another séance is going to be re-enacted under the same conditions. You are a member of the Society of Psychical Research, so has spiritualism always fascinated you? This part feels so central to the story, was this your jumping off point for ‘The Quickening’?
I do find Spiritualism interesting but I would say I’m a sceptic. I am, though, interested in stories. What people believe they’ve seen, who’s spoken to them from the spirit world and what messages they had. When you’re dealing with grief, people are vulnerable and are at the mercy of charlatans. But do fake mediums negate everything? I don’t think so, which is why I find the subject fascinating. The things that can’t be explained are a great source of inspiration for me.

I’m on the fence as far as the existence of ghosts. I do believe places are imbued with what’s gone before and I get a very strong sense of the past when I’m in a new setting. I also live in a very old house which has a benign spiritual feel about it.
5) You have real people in your novel with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, Jean. Conan Doyle was a huge advocate for spiritualism and a member of The Society of Psychical Research back in the 1800s. What prompted you to include Conan Doyle in ‘The Quickening’?
I wanted the 1896 séance to have been really famous – making the front page of the newspapers and being an event talked about from upper-class drawing rooms to street sellers. For that to happen, it needed to have been attended by a very famous person. Either I could have made someone up or use a real-life person who might have attended a séance and I settled on Conan Doyle who was a spiritualist up to the end of his life.

There are, of course, drawbacks in including a real life figure. You have to be careful not to libel them but also try to capture their way of speaking. I was lucky as video of Conan Doyle exists and is on YouTube.
6) As well as ‘The Quickening’, your DC Childs novels usually have a crime embedded deep in the past. Do past crimes fascinate you?
They do. Both in real life and fiction. I’m not interested in explosions of violence or serial killings. What inspires me to write are crimes that have a long genesis, the origins of which can be decades in the past. It adds a layer of complexity for the narrative. Characters are forced to rely on memory and long-held beliefs.
7) Do you have a strict timetable for writing? Has lockdown had any effect on how you work? What are you planning next? Will it be under Rhiannon Ward and can we expect more of the supernatural in your next novel?
When I’m doing the first draft, I try to write a thousand words a day. That was the plan for lockdown (I even thought I might be able to increase it to 2k words each morning) but I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of March which meant three months of being in and out of hospital. I’ve been discharged now so all is well but it means I’m a little behind on my writing. But catching up! I try to do some writing every day.

My next book will be a Rhiannon Ward book but the title is secret at the moment. There will definitely be more of the supernatural in it. It’s set in the early Victorian period.
8) With your experience as a writer, what advice would you give to anyone attempting their first novel?
That the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. It never fails to surprise me how bad I am at getting the words down on paper. It’s the editing where the magic happens and I have to remember that when I’m squeezing out that first draft. And don’t be afraid to tear apart your draft once you’ve written it. I’ve learnt it will come together… eventually.
9) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
I’m a huge fan of crime fiction and have read it since childhood. My three desert island reads would be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré, Crooked House by Agatha Christie and Shroud for a Nightingale by PD James.