The Stolen Child: A dark fairy tale

‘They stole you from me. They took you away for seven years. Your entire lifetime…Make no mistake, my darling. I am coming for you. I will take you back.’

 The Stolen Child is about a couple, Zoe and Ollie, who long for children and when they’re unable to have their own, they adopt a little girl, Evie, from birth. But when she turns seven, Evie receives a card from her real father, telling her that she was stolen from him. Like most thrillers, the idea began as a one-liner…but when I started to flesh out the story, I realised that I had another, darker influence…

My mother and step-father are Irish and I grew up in Ireland before coming to live next to Ilkley moor, where The Stolen Child is set. So my Irish background, and then moving to West Yorkshire when I was eight, played a huge role in shaping the kind of story I’ve told, as well as where it takes place.

Many Irish myths and folktales revolve around the little people, or faeries: one of the frequent themes of these tales is of a child who is spirited away by the faeries to the underworld, and then either returned years later when everyone they know is dead, or replaced with a changeling. When we were children, we used to chant a poem about faeries by Donegal poet, William Allingham. It seems to start off light-heartedly – Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen – but grows ever more sinister:

They stole little Bridget

For seven years long;

When she came down again

 Her friends were all gone.

 

I’m sure Allingham influenced WB Yeats who, at the age of 21, wrote The Stolen Child, also about a child being taken away by the little people, and which gave me the idea for the title of my novel.

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild 

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping 

than you can understand. 

Of course, there are no faeries in my story: it’s set in modern-day suburbia, and any nastiness is purely the result of our all too human desires. But there’s a dark thread that runs through The Stolen Child borrowed from those ancient stories. Evie, gorgeous and innocent though she is, may be damaged. Her biological mother was a drug addict. When Zoe first sees Evie as a baby, she finds it hard to love her:

‘Something is not quite right. I struggle to inhale. Something is wrong. Seriously wrong…She doesn’t look like our child. She doesn’t look like a baby at all. Not a human one.’

And later Zoe worries about Evie’s ‘quirkiness’, as if her daughter, a dark child in a blonde family, is a changeling. And then, there is the setting – Ilkley moor – where the heather is interspersed with rowan trees, which in Ireland, belong to the little people. You must never fall asleep beneath one of them… There’s something too about the age seven: it’s a time when there’s a big shift in brain development and children start having a conscience and becoming more emotionally and cognitively aware. Evie, as she turns seven, starts to realise what it means to be adopted, to be the outsider within a family. The faeries only release little Bridget after seven years…and seven is the number of years you’d serve in prison if your crime was extremely serious, but not quite as bad as murder… 

In Yeats’ poem, the child initially wants to go with the faeries because they promise to give him stolen cherries and take him somewhere beautiful, away from the woes of the world. But when he agrees, they reveal the true nature of what they’re doing and what the child will lose. And Evie, like many adopted children, is, at first, intrigued and beguiled by the idea of her real father coming to take her away.

‘Evie is our beautiful, dark-haired, green-eyed child,’ I say. I can hear the tremor in my voice. ‘Like many seven-year-old girls, she’s obsessed with princesses. We think she looks more like a fairy… Please find her. Please bring her back to us. We miss her beyond measure. She is the love of our life.’ 

But to find out who has really taken Evie Morley, you may just need to read the whole story…!

 

One Year Later – Italy

I’ve always loved Italy, so when I needed a seemingly idyllic holiday for my family in One Year Later, my current psychological thriller, it made sense to choose Italy. I’ve certainly enjoyed remembering the delicious Italian food I’ve eaten on all those trips, the sandy beaches and the slower pace of life…but as the Flower family discover, their remote idyll is a lot more dangerous than it seemed at first…

‘From the air, when I checked on Google Earth before we came, the island is shaped like an embryo, curled around the scoop of an inlet, its backbone a reptilian hump, Maregiglio tucked on the inside of its tail. We’re driving along its spine: the land is dusky green and scrubby, with none of the features that would normally say Italy to me – no sunflowers or olive groves, Tuscan villas or vineyards – only the sea, glittering as sharp as flint, on either side of the island. When we finally see the town, it looks like an ice- cream cone, a swirl of houses in apricot and peach, with the castle, the colour of drying sand, at its peak. There’s a harbour and a spit of beach, packed with plastic sun-loungers and parasols, a wide sweep of promenade edged with date palms.’

Nick. One Year Later

Sadly I didn’t get to go back to Italy to ‘research’ my novel, but had to rely on my imagination, Italian friends and Google Earth.

I made up the Little Lily Island that the Flowers stay on though…

 

One Year Later – Behind the scenes: The Cottage

When we bought a large plot of land and a house that we were planning on renovating in Somerset, I had the idea to set my next psychological thriller, One Year Later, partly in Somerset. 

In the garden of our house we found the ruins of an old cottage…and I started thinking, what if a child were playing amongst the ruins and it collapsed? It became the basis of a terrible scene in my novel… 

 

‘I was lucky, the doctor said later, that I hadn’t been buried alive. I was lucky, he added, that I hadn’t died. 

Since then, but only to myself, I’ve always rephrased his statement: I’m lucky my sister didn’t kill me.’

Nick. One Year Later

 

I told my husband what I was writing and he was so freaked out he got a stone mason to shore up our ruined cottage and make it safer. This is what it looks like now – a lot of the vegetation shrouding it has been cleared away, and one wall has been repointed. 

 

‘We walk through the garden, and the beam clips the outline of the ruined cottage. I pause alongside it, feeling the familiar surge of panic, the sickening sensation I still have in dreams, of falling, of being buried alive. It’s shrouded in ivy; a sycamore has grown through the bread oven, the roots like something out of The Blair Witch Project.‘ 

Nick. One Year Later