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70. Durham Reads ‘Doctor Forrest’, with Diverse & Fascinating Opinions…

Last week I had the pleasure of taking Doctor Forrest to the Durham Book Festival, this after 7 weeks’ worth of the novel being widely and freely distributed around the county as part of the Festival’s first ever ‘big read’ initiative. My author event at the Gala Theatre last Tuesday night was a delight for me on umpteen counts, maybe chief among them that I was joined onstage by a trio of excellent actors who got on their feet and performed some choice filleted passages from Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Monk, interspersed with my own (thematically complementary) readings from Doctor Forrest. The chairman of the conversation was the excellent Dr Simon James of Durham University, some of whose students were in the audience and who are all, clearly, relishing the Gothic module of their Literature degree. And most of the rest of the house was comprised of people who had read the novel as part of their regular book groups, thanks to the Festival’s giveaway munificence, and who were kind enough to make the trek to Durham so as to hear what I had to say for myself.
Feedback from those reading groups was regularly relayed back to me over the seven weeks of the ‘Durham Reads’ countywide project, and the comments certainly made for a valuable and thought-provoking mix. I can gather them broadly if partially under the following headings:

SOME CUSTOMERS WERE FULLY SATISFIED

‘This novel is intelligent and interesting with well-drawn characters – intriguing storyline that draws the reader to the end.’
‘Found this novel very fascinating and would read other gothic inspired novels by this author.’
‘Enjoyed it. Shades of Dorian Gray…’
‘Echoes of Jekyll & Hyde, a fascinating exploration of the gothic genre.’
‘Liked the diary format & Confession at the end a little like Frankenstein’s Monster.’
‘Weird, wonderful and very enjoyable.’
‘Loved the book. My suspicions on ‘whodunnit’ crept in on page 73.’
‘Read this on holiday and really enjoyed it.’
‘My favourite character was Dr. Forrest – power crazy!’
‘I think R.T Kelly would be a very good crime novelist.’
‘Brutality of the medical language added greatly to the genre.’
‘Very successful plot. I didn’t guess what was happening until the Confession.’
‘If you enjoy a good mystery it is worth taking time to read this one.’

SOME WARMED UP TO IT

‘I enjoyed it from part IV…’
‘Once I was past first 5-6 chapters it gripped my interest. I was hooked on finding out what happened.’
‘Style initially off-putting, but once into the story plot enthralling.’

SOME FOUND IT TOO DARK

‘Enjoyed the first three quarters of the book but found the end unsettling.’
‘The consequences of the last part were evil and menacing – I was glad to finish it.’
‘Dark and depressing. I stopped reading at Page 273…’
‘Shocking and disturbing story.’
‘I found it rather horrid…’

SOME FOUND THE PROSE TOO FUSSY

‘The Victorian style of writing and the modern setting seemed to conflict with each other at times.’
‘Style of writing irritating… Not so much Poe, or Wilde as Alistair Crowley!’
‘Words used archaic and not used in this present day.’
‘There was too much punctuation!’

SOME FOUND IT HARD TO FOLLOW

‘Parts 1 & 2 interesting, Part 3 left me so confused I gave up.’
‘The narrative is good but i don’t think i ever cottoned on to what happened to Dr. Forrest.’
‘Confusion amongst the group as to whether or not he murdered his victims.’
‘No suspense or creeping horror, he took over too many people.’

SOME THOUGHT IT ALTOGETHER TOO FANCIFUL

‘I tried very hard and did read the whole of the book, but could not come to terms with the story, demons and strange goings-on.’
‘Beautifully written, easy to read, shame the story was pure rubbish.’
‘Was none the wiser at the end of the story, very far-fetched.’
‘Better than I expected. Content ridiculous. Not convincing.’

SOME FOUND UNEXPECTED THINGS TO COMMEND…

‘Disturbing, disappointing, but the cover art was great.’
‘Nice clear print.’

SOME WERE UNLIKELY TO FIND ANYTHING TO COMMEND

‘Cover of book makes me think its going to be weird. Is this horror?’

AND AT LEAST ONE READER HAD ME BANG TO RIGHTS

‘Does anyone else think author used old ideas from previous books…?’

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67. Durham Reads ‘Possessions of Doctor Forrest’: Darkness at the 2011 BookFest

Inside Durham's mighty Cathedral: Photo - Sarah Harris

You have to know that for me there’s no finer place on earth than County Durham. It’s where us Kellys come from – at least where my great-grandparents had got themselves to by the dawn of the 1900s: South Moor and Burnhope, Pelton Fell and Eden Hill. Which is why a goodly chunk of my first novel Crusaders was set in the DH1 postcode – Durham City, Framwellgate Moor, Newton Hall, the exquisitely-named Pity Me. Evocative nomenclature comes with the territory up there, and in Crusaders the main character John Gore is seen in his childhood to be a keen collector of intriguing place-names that point to his future vocation as a solitary Anglican priest: Craghead, Monk Hesleden, Quaking Houses, Sacriston.
All this by way of saying that it means the world to me that the 2011 Durham Book Festival has picked The Possessions of Doctor Forrest for its first countywide civic reading project, and has released a thousand copies of the novel for free distribution through local reading groups, libraries, civic and cultural venues and hand-picked ‘ambassadors.’
The effort has been directed by the truly superb New Writing North agency, who gave a no less staunch support to Crusaders back in 2008 – such that with that book, too, a number of reading groups much more accustomed to spending their valuable reading time on proven/bestselling titles by known/acclaimed names were persuaded to give my stuff a try-out. If you’re not a front-rank recognisable novelist then it’s a very, very precious experience to get your work commended to readers in this manner for inspection and discussion. Consequently you do get a lot of straight-spoken opinions coming back at you; but in this day and age it’s hard to imagine a more meaningful and educational experience for a writer. In these situations the readers who have enjoyed a book tend to evince an embrace of it that’s hugely more ardent than any review you could imagine. And with those who weren’t so struck on it… well, the opinion will usually be candid and also fresh, free of the formula and conveyor-nature of newspaper write-ups. I certainly learned a lot on Crusaders, and very much look forward to the same once Durham’s had a read and made its mind up on Doctor Forrest.
I was asked by Durham Book Festival to create content for a Reading Guide to be used by anyone seeking a bit of background on the novel and what inspired it; along with a set of questions for consideration by reading groups. That guide has been very handsomely designed and is downloadable here.
The Festival is also programming a selection of gothic-themed movies which will tour Durham by mobile cinema, and there will be a number of guided walks around the city that explore the gothic architecture and the darker side of local history. A writers’ workshop exploring Doctor Forrest will happen on Friday 21 October
And on Tuesday 18 October I will be talking about the novel at the Gala Theatre, as well as reading selections from Doctor Forrest and also (abetted by actors) some of the great Victorian gothic classics.
A whole lot of Forrest, then, in Durham come October. ‘Come and play with us’, as those sweet little girls say in The Shining

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