Behind Fell. A YA dark fantasy
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
14-year-old Stafford Palk, a boy with the Devil’s Mark, unearths the skeleton of a giant hound and discovers that ‘dead does not mean without life.’
Fell began in the town of Buckfastleigh, where I lived for ten years. It was never a place I loved. I often felt like I was hovering there, never settling. I think in my heart and in my Higher Self, I always knew great sorrow was there, waiting. Towards the end of that decade, just as a cataclysmic family crisis loomed, the story of two boys questioning how the town’s church burned down wandered across the poetry I’d been writing and into prose. In fact, I had given a poetry reading at a festival held in the Holy Trinity ruins. I remember turning down two small press publishers at the time who approached me. It was very silly on my part. I did want my poetry published, but I had a very clear idea about which publisher I wanted. Unfortunately, it turned out that the one I wanted had reached their quota, and that was the end of that. Don’t ask me. I’m not sure why I kept writing poetry but not doing anything with it. Maybe then it was enough that I wrote. When one thinks of the millions of pieces of creative writing being generated and circulated, it makes me realise that you don't always have to have it out there being read. Sometimes, the creation is just enough.
In writing Fell or The Wonder as it was first called, I wanted to see if I could carry over the atmosphere of my poetry into prose. I began with two paragraphs. One was a scene about a chase at the lime kilns; ; the other was a prologue about the church burning. Despite being an English teacher, I did not outline as I often recommended to my students when planning a story. I just wrote. And then I was caught in the swell of a crisis and apart from the occasional ‘adding to,’ I placed my writing on the back burner. But this is by the by.
Buckfastleigh, for those who don’t know it, is a town in Devon residing just inside the Dartmoor National Park. Two rivers run through the town: the Dart and the Mardle. There is also the gentle Dean Burn winding its way from beyond Dean Prior to meet with the Mardle. There are some beautiful physical aspects to the town regardless of my feelings.
The Holy Trinity church (the climactic scene of my novel) has an intriguing history. Originally built in the 12th Century, the church sits high on a hill bordering a limestone quarry. To the east of the main church is the ruin of a 12-13th Century Chantry Chapel. Beneath church and graveyard runs a system of caves that are home to a colony of Horseshoe Bats. It has been noted that a helictite called ‘the little man’ is sited directly below a particular tomb, which I shall return to in a moment.
The church has been blighted over the centuries having been struck by lightning at least twice. Add to this, vandalism, Satanic practice, and a devastating fire, and one begins to wonder why a building has suffered in this way. Has it anything to do with the churchyard’s most infamous burial? Who is to know? But there is an enthralling legend that surrounds the tomb of Squire Richard Cabell.
A wealthy but appalling landowner, Cabell lived in the 1600’s and was feared by those who rented property from him. Such was his reputation for being heartless, it was rumoured that he sold his soul to the Devil. Cabell lived a comfortable life. A charmed one, perhaps. Upon his death in 1677, the townsfolk were so afraid that his evil spirit would go a wandering, they interred him in a tomb behind iron railings. The belief being the Devil is repelled by iron.
Arthur Conan-Doyle came across the legend during a trip and was inspired to write The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is perhaps the most famous and loved of the Sherlock Holmes stories, weaving together the pragmatic detective with a supernatural crime. And even though Holmes dashed the belief (and hope!) in the reader that the deaths were because of a spectral hound, it still evokes delicious chills. It’s a winning combination: misty moor, mires, howling dogs, and murder! Aside from the books, it was covered well by television and film. When I was a child I welcomed Friday evenings, sitting in front of the TV watching Basil Rathbone play Sherlock Holmes, and of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles was my favourite.
The sepulchre is an unassuming building in the daylight with its pale wash of magnolia and its pristine tomb with capping stone. I find it an unusual little building, reminding me as it does of a pagoda. And yet, legend goes that if one should run around it seven times at midnight and then thrust a hand through the railings (a brave soul at that!), it will result in raising Cabell and his Hell Hounds. Do let me know if you’ve tried it. . .
The devastating fire I mentioned happened on the 21st July 1992. It is believed to have been started deliberately at the altar. The fire was so intense, it shattered the Norman font and destroyed the church almost in its entirety. Firefighters did their best to bring it under control given the church’s elevation and the logistics of getting water there.
The newspapers cited arson. There was speculation that it had been the work of Satanists. Apart from the attached newspaper articles there is not much I’m going to add to that, other than it provided more fruit for the basket of ideas I was collecting.
Only the spire and bells survived intact. The tower can be seen from the A38, peeking out from the trees, concealing the fact that the rest of the building is ruined. Since the fire, archaeological excavation has been possible; the remains of Anglo-Saxon burials discovered.
If you’re in the vicinity there are a couple of ways in to visit the ruins.
One, is to drive up past Buckfast Abbey and turn left onto Church Hill where you can park outside the gates. The other two routes in are for walking. Either take a rocky path up past Fairies Hall, which brings you to the limestone kilns first before leading on to the church. Or park up at Station Road carpark, which is next to the Orchard; cross over to the row of cottages and walk to the last one (as if you were leaving town) and you will see a set of steps leading up. Look out for the kissing/wishing steps part way up. They are set apart as the cobbles are laid in a different way to the others.
There is much more to say about how Fell came to be. In some respects it is a reimagining of the Squire Cabell legend, but it was not a straight ride through. Yes, I had two boy protagonists; I had the spectral pack of Wisht Hounds, and the church fire. But story, and title went through many incarnations. The novel began as a timeslip mystery involving a twelve-year-old female arsonist. The two main protagonists were boys who found a tunnel in an abandoned barn that led to the church before it got burned down. There were lots of elements that worked. Separately. In different novels, maybe. Without a clear outline, the story morphed into several stories within one. I liked letting the characters surprise me. That kind of free-writing can be liberating, but not when you’ve inserted all those myriad paths into the body of the novel. It had grown to Leviathan proportions hitting 150k in words. It wasn’t until I heeded some sound advice (which was to decide what the dominant story was), that I was able to bring it down to a very sensible 60k. Fell kept its two boys, except one was living and one was a spirit. The final storyline focused on fourteen-year-old Stafford disfigured in an accident that killed his mother. Nine years after the tragedy, Stafford and his alcoholic father return home to Cabelltown. An extraordinary place brimming with threat and seemingly locked in the past with its superstitions surrounding Squire Cabell. The town is set to hold its annual fair and banishing ritual. But Stafford opens a doorway into another realm, and he realises that his disfigurement, the accident, and his mother's death have everything to do with Cabell and his spectral pack of Wisht Hounds. Cabelltown has been waiting for him. The dead are not resting. And one man, cursed in death as in life, wants Stafford to help him end a deadly plot. If he doesn't? He'll lose his mother all over again.