Reg Little talks to author Alasdair Donaldson about his macabre book inspired by Oxford

Alasdair Donaldson is really not the ideal guide to his former Oxford college. Visiting New College with the much travelled barrister is a distinctly creepy experience — more than sufficient to put off any undergraduate from staying behind over the holidays.

Pointing to the college’s magnificent Bell Tower, he tells the story of John Quinbey, an eccentric former college member, who in the 17th century was locked up there until he died of starvation. Known to be something of a blasphemer with a taste for macabre experiments — Quinbey regularly exposed himself to dangerous levels of mercury — his treatment by the college, nevertheless, seems well a touch harsh.

Then there is the college ghost, the Black Scholar, known to stride backwards around the deserted medieval cloisters.

“Every Halloween undergraduates have a tradition of running around the cloisters three times to discourage him from appearing for another year,” he tells me.

If pressed, while not himself a believer in ghosts, he wonders whether he may have come across the spectre.

“It was at around 1am, out of term time. No one was around. I walked into the cloisters and was confronted by a dark figure under a tree. When I looked again it was gone. A college night porter, without any prompting told me he had had a similar encounter.”

It all helped make New College the perfect place for the young A.N. Donaldson to study PPE before embarking on his legal career in Lincoln’s Inn.

For since the age of 12, he has had a passion for ghost stories, in particular the writing of Montague Rhodes James, the provost of Eton School who came to be regarded as Britain’s greatest writer of ghost stories.

When Mr Donaldson finally settled on writing his own story of necromancy, witchcraft and gruesome goings on, it is little wonder that he returned to the turrets of his old college for inspiration, with the college ghost taking centre stage.

And it turns out that the 30-year-old writer has used a whole array of real life characters from New College’s history in his first novel, Prospero’s Mirror. Two former college wardens, Michael Woodward and Herbert Fisher, the statesman and historian, are featured, along with the sinister Quinbey.

As well as borrowing heavily from M.R. James, he even brings in his real life literary hero, who travels up from Eton to Oxford to investigate the inscription on an ancient stone mirror found in the “bowels of the college’s vaults”.

Although renamed Old College, there is no doubting from the description of the quadrangles, gardens and references to Wykehamists where the story is based. Beautiful by day, haunting by night, this Disneyland of perpendicular gothic could hardly be a creepier setting for a ghost story.

Well, in fact, it could — if you moved much of the action to 1665 with the city’s streets full of disfigured bodies in carts, well-fed rats and zombie-like men, women and children covered in swellings waiting for death to put them out of their misery.

For this is a time of plague and in Mr Donaldson’s novel at least, Oxford experiences just as much horror as the London of Charles II, with colleges forced to slam shut their heavy gates in a bid to survive.

Oxford in the 1660s clearly captured Mr Donaldson’s imagination.

“It is such a fascinating period, particularly in Oxford. I think people forget just how important Oxford was at the beginning of the science revolution.”

The likes of Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren were all at the height of their powers and were also members of the Invisible College, referred to in the book. “They met in Oxford to conduct experiments and observations, including the Comet of Christmas,” claims Mr Donaldson.

“Wren performed an experimental removal of the spleen of a living dog, which survived the procedure unharmed. This was a time when human dissection by non-doctors was illegal.

“The results of their more minute observations, which included the first living cells ever seen, were published by Hooke in 1665 as a book called the Micrographia.”

Plague, macabre experiments, an Aztec mirror, with a Nazi academic thrown in for good measure, it makes for a heady and fearful mix.

And in the view of Mr Donaldson, who now lives in London, there is never a better time to be writing ghost stories than during an economic downturn.

It all comes down to what psychologists call ‘hyper-vigilance’: the idea that when we’re anxious about anything we become more cautious, with our senses going into hyper-drive, looking for possible threats. And the harder we look, the more likely we are to see them.

“We have evolved to think we see threatening figures even when they aren’t there,” he argues. “No doubt this is why it turns out that ghost sightings are more common during recessions. That doesn’t mean the dead are really returning because they are worried about the latest growth figures. It is just that people are more likely to see them — or think they do.”

He points to the fact that a Mori poll found that 19 per cent of British people claim to have seen a ghost, with two in five believing in their existence. And despite living in an age of unprecedented scientific advances and scepticism, that number has significantly increased in recent decades as other superstitious and religious beliefs have declined.

“It is precisely because they are such a good metaphor for our other anxieties — be they economic or personal — that people continue to enjoy ghost stories and horror films, whether or not they believe in the supernatural,” he says, with the stories cathartic, a sort of escape-valve.

“They allow us to exorcise our deepest subconscious fears. They let us test-drive and purge these most powerful of emotions in the comfort and safety of our own homes. And when we’ve finished screaming or laughing or hiding behind the sofa, we can put down the book or turn off the TV — turn on all the lights — and feel safe.”

In the words of his great hero, M.R. James, good horror stories provide “a pleasing terror”, playing a role in allowing us to feel better about things.

One of the themes of the book is a debate about styles of supernatural fiction, particularly the merits of arguably the two greatest ghost story writers, James and Edgar Allen Poe.

Now the Oxford educated lawyer is helping lead the genre into the digital age, with e-publishing having proved a lifesaver for his book.

Big publishers, while expressing enthusiasm told him pressure from e-books meant cutting back on publishing new high-end books by debut novelists, so he ended up signing up with Endeavour Press, the electronic books specialists.

“You might say there’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation going on with e-publishing solving a problem it has helped to create.”

Future projects are on the horizon, including a travel book (he can claim to have visited more than 60 countries) a biography of the political philosopher John Locke and a horror story set in Russia, which surely cannot be more chilling than the cloisters and quads of his old college, which will never be viewed in quite the same way by those who looked at Prospero’s Mirror.