When Tarn Richardson and I were about 16, we were at school together and played in the same rugby team, he at number 8 with myself at scrum-half just behind him, where I happily let him make all my tackles. He was Rob then - Tarn is a middle name and now nom-de-plume - a somewhat dashing player, a good rangy runner and a strong line out forward. We were in touch for a couple or so years after school, and then, as is the way of things, we had no contact until Facebook.
If Richardson was a rugby-renaissance man in his late teens, he hid it well (perhaps all such rugby people do), so when his Facebook timeline started telling stories of novels, and of agents and then publishers and finally, gloriously, multi-book deals, I had to get in touch. Tarn’s debut novel, The Damned, was published by Duckworth in May and over the last few weeks we’ve exchanged some e-mails and spoken about his writing, about the Great War and about werewolves.
It seems an odd sort of combination when you first think about it – werewolves in the trenches – and in all honesty even three or four chapters into The Damned, I was struggling with the concept. So how did they come together, these odd bedfellows?
“You say they’re odd bedfellows but, in my view, werewolves and World War One are the perfect fit. The whole thing of ‘Monsters we are, lest monsters we become,’” he says “Werewolves are monsters, but only in order to satisfy their base needs, to try and stop themselves from becoming even more terrible monsters. And for many of the soldiers in the Great War, it was exactly the same. They did monstrous things, trying to survive one more day, lest they became a monster - or a casualty. I really liked the analogy between the two. It was something I knew I could work with.”
The idea came from the different generations of his family. A trip to the trenches with his father and brother-in-law, “on the historical trail of two of my great uncles who went out to fight in the great war, one of whom didn’t come back”, lit the touch paper, but early ideas of a great opus ‘tied me in knots’ until he could find a theme to hang his story on.
“Anyway, one night I was sitting down with my youngest son, who would have been seven at the time, reading a book to him and he stopped me and said that he was bored with it,” he says. “So I went and found another book to read to him. Same reaction. So I asked him what he would write a book about which would keep him entertained and he said, ‘World War One and Werewolves’ and a light went on and I thought, ‘Ooh, that’s a nice idea!’ And it went from there!”
The First World War has rarely been far removed from British consciousness. One boarding house in the school we attended had photographs of its fallen – boys no more than a couple of years older than us when we were teammates – on the walls of the main staircase. They were haunting, these lost boys whose eyes followed you up the stairs silently reminding us to count our singular generational blessing of peace: There but for the grace of God…
And God is another theme that plays a conspicuous role throughout The Damned, or at least the Catholic Church’s role in the on-set of war and the origin of werewolves. The Church hierarchy has had a great deal more fictional exposure in recent years than it might deem desirable, particularly in the Dan Brown catalogue and many similar novels that have followed. With its long history as a European power broker and wielder, as well as a rich tradition of mysticism it is fertile territory for conspiracy novelists and is rarely cast in a holy light.
And so it is here, although Richardson claims he did not set out to bash the Church, but instead during a conversation with LAW (his literary agent) he was advised that the story needed more and was pointed in the direction of the Church.
“There was no intention of basing anything on the Church but then I sat with LAW and we’re going through everything and I started to look into the folklore behind werewolves and the creation of them and discovered amazing stuff about the inquisition and excommunication of high-ranking Catholics to create werewolves so they would be cursed for eternity,” he says.
It was a crucial discovery because it gave the story depth and allowed Richardson to move away from what he describes as the “Hammer Horror” view of werewolves lending the creatures a deeper reason for existence and a dramatic purpose beyond blood and gore.
Richardson’s research also threw up the conflict between the traditional Church and its orthodox counterpart, particularly in eastern Europe and evidence that the former viewed the War as an opportunity to inflict mortal wounds on the latter. Both these themes play strongly in the book, interspersed between tales of survival from the 1914 Western Front and a gripping investigation into a series of brutal murders.
“The werewolves themselves, so long the poor relation to vampires and zombies in the modern media, are relatively infrequent but hugely destructive visitors to the plot. So does Richardson hope that he can do for the humble werewolf what The Walking Dead, Twilight and others have done for their more celebrated supernatural peers?
“I certainly hope so,” he says. “They’ve certainly been cast as the poorer cousin for too long, which is unfair, I think. They’ve always been portrayed as feral, uncontrollable beasts who lack compassion and are full of rage, anger and bloodlust. As a result I think they’ve been seen as being tricky to write about, or at least write in a satisfying, rewarding way, and to pin deeper meaning upon, which is, of course, where monsters work best - when they reflect real human fears and concerns.”
Amazingly, in this landscape of popery, butchery and trenches, Richardson weaves not one but two nascent love stories into his plot – one of them between a church Inquisitor and a Nun!
Richardson laughs with the same easy, relaxed laugh he had as a teenager when I ask him whether there really is a future for these two – Poldek Tacit and Sister Isabella. Will he forever be an inquisitor? She a nun? Can they be together?
“That’s a challenge one of the challenges, and it’s proving quite good fun to write in book two,” he says. I have tried not to create flat characters. I want them to be rounded sand unusual and spiky and difficult at times, complex characters. The fact they have this complex relationship is challenging though that makes writing it a joy.”
This book of werewolves, turbulent priests and over-the-top is, in fact, he says, “a love story. It’s two pairs of people falling in love”.
And if that, and the rest, sounds unlikely, as it did to me, than I challenge you to read the book. Richardson admits the story has been a hard sell to readers, many put off by the werewolves, but when they have persisted they have enjoyed it.
“The challenge is to get people to pick the book up who wouldn’t usually,” he says.
And that was my experience. Initial resistance followed by a few chapters of uncertainty and before I knew it I was finishing it and looking forward to the next installment.