More Ghosts at the Royal Hotel
April 2, 2019 — 21:33

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Australian literature crime fiction crime series fiction writing  Comments: 2

Some time back I wrote a post on ghosts at the Royal Hotel in Queenscliff.

At last the long process of writing and editing my novel about a murder in the basement of the Royal is coming to an end. I’m involved in discussions about the cover, which will be designed by the incomparable John Cozzi, who created the cover for the second book in my sea-change mystery series, The Swan Island Connection. I’ve just sent John some photos of the haunted old hotel.

Reading through my manuscript for the last time, I was surprised by the importance of ghosts. That sometimes happens to a fiction writer; she’s busy focussing on one theme or another, then goes back to the story and finds that something else has been important all along.

Brigid Magner is a literary scholar and lecturer at RMIT. Speaking about her research on literary tourism, Brigid makes the point that houses where famous writers have lived are often felt to be haunted.

“But the term ‘haunted’ does not always refer to ghosts as such. It can also refer to a ‘haunted’ state which can either be a pleasant communion with a bygone spirit, or it might entail distress and anxiety. It can also refer to the old ‘haunts’ of notable individuals.”

In my story, the young man killed in the Royal’s basement was a Henry Handel Richardson scholar, visiting Queenscliff for a tarot reading which he hoped would connect him to the spirit of his heroine.

In the 1870s, the child who was to become Henry Handel Richardson lived with her family at 26 Mercer Street, just a hop, step and jump from the Royal. No one has seen or heard or felt a ghost at 26 Mercer Street so far as I’m aware, but the Royal is reputed to be haunted from its basement to the top of its tower. Built in the 1850s, it was Queenscliff’s first morgue.

Ethel Richardson – or Ettie as she was known when she was a small girl –  believed the spirits of the dead could communicate with living human beings, as did her father, Walter and her sister Lil. Ethel maintained this belief to the end of her life, though she was secretive about it.

I thought of all of this as background to a murder mystery, but then somehow it became more than background. Not that my main characters believe in ghosts or spirits; they don’t. But they are influenced by them nonetheless.

One suspect sees visions and has done since her childhood. Chris, my police constable, is sympathetic, but wary at the same time. Then one night he ‘sees’ Mary Richardson, Ethel’s mother, hurrying home from the fort where she has been struggling to learn book-keeping and Morse code so she can support her daughters.

Chris, who has always admired Mary, is moved and shocked.

I guess is that, looking back at the novel now that it is finished, I realise there’s a thin membrane, a kind of gauzy veil, separating my policeman and woman from the characters they are investigating. There aren’t two sides of the fence; there’s no black and white. This blurring of boundaries interests me. I hope it will interest readers too.