I've become a fan of Eugen Yelchin's creations, so I'm thrilled to have him on today...
STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Thank you so much for inviting me to share a “behind the scenes” glimpse of The Haunting of Falcon House. As with my previous books, this is a middle grade novel that could be read on several levels by both young and adult readers. On the surface Falcon House is a classic ghost story in which a protagonist uncovers a crime that had occurred in the past yet still haunts the present. However, the crime here serves to present a moral argument on a larger scale — is it possible for an individual to feel free in a society that allows one group of people to oppress another?
The story takes place in St. Petersburg. I wanted to write a book about my Russian hometown for a very long time; the feelings that that city can stir in one’s heart could never be forgotten. The reason is not particularly the beauty of its historical center, but rather the fact that the authors like Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol had all used St. Petersburg as the prime location for their stories. As a result, for the dwellers of St. Petersburg, the real city and the city imagined had always blurred into one.
“Below us in the waiting stillness gleamed Saint Petersburg. The churches, palaces, and bridges lay buried under the brilliance of snow. The sky shone with stars. Their pale blue flicker reflected from the frozen river that sliced the city into islands like shards of a shattered mirror.”
“We dashed along snow-coated streets that sparkled like sugar, crossed bridges arching over frozen canals, and passed palaces gleaming with gold. Shops with enormous windows flashed by like tinfoil. The gas lamps had just been lighted, and below the lamps flowed crowds of richly dressed people. Sleighs and carriages I’d never seen the likes of crisscrossed in all direction. The crisp and frosty air rang with crackling whips, ringing bells, and sleigh runners squeaking over the dazzling snow.”
While working on the book, I’ve collected a great deal of photographs of the 19th century Petersburg, some beautiful, some spooky, most giving me exciting ideas for the narrative.
“Bewildered, I gazed at my grandfather’s death mask. The leaping shadows cast upon his aspect by the moving light of candelabrums conferred upon it a peculiar impression of a living face. His cheeks were sunken, eyes tightly shut, and the drooped corners of his mouth seemed to gather into an unpleasant grimace; was Grandfather sneering at me?”
Because the main hero Prince Lev is the “last of ancient lineage”, I was particularly interested in the images of the Russian aristocracy.
“Two piercing eyes were fixed upon me. I gasped and stumbled back. From the vibration of my near fall, the fire flared in the fireplace, light swept across the shadowy recess from where the eyes were glaring, and I saw their owner. A man hovered in the utter darkness. His body was distorted, strangely incomplete, swaying slightly in the flicker of the candles. I could scarcely breathe.”
Prince Lev is summoned, or so he thinks, to take charge of the Lvovs’ family estate by his aunt Olga Lvovna, a classic tyrannical and highly manipulative antagonist.
“I had seen Olga Lvovna’s pictures in my father’s photographic album. In every picture, she smiled, her eyes shining brightly, and she was always dressed in white. That little girl was no more. Olga Lvovna was my father’s older sister, but how much older I couldn’t tell; she looked about a hundred. Her eyes were circled with dusky rings, her waxy cheeks were hollow, and all that remained of her once smiling lips was but a brief thin line. Her dress was black, and she was so pale and skinny, I fancied she had spent her life in prison with neither sunlight not fresh air.”
Given the book’s genre, I had a lot of fun writing scary passages, while trying to stay faithful to the 19th century’s supernatural style. There are chilly shadowy hallways, and candles that go out by themselves, and of course there are bats, lots of bats.
“There was a terrific crash. The whole house shuddered. In an instant, an earsplitting shriek echoed through the shaft. A boiling black cloud rose from below, screeching, shape-shifting, and cartwheeling right at us. I sprang away from the opening. Bats poured out of the shaft, swooping across the landing in a thick, black smudge.”
My favorite place to write is always my art studio, but this time I had to surround myself with objects that would help me creating a believable atmosphere of the 19th century Russian aristocrat’s study — period weapons, taxidermy, silhouette portraits, etc.
And finally, to design the book as an original 19th century volume, I acquired and studied a great deal of antiquarian books —a priceless addition to my library!
Thanks so much Eugene! To learn more about Eugene and his books, visit his website.
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