In 1900, three lighthouse keepers on a Hebridean island disappeared without a trace. The theories surrounding the bizarre and enduring mystery inspired Emma Stonex to reimagine their story with a fictional spin.

The Lamplighters is a story of three lighthousemen and the women in their lives, told from the differing perspectives of each character. Arthur, Bill and Vincent work-two month shifts on The Maiden, a lighthouse tower off the coast of Cornwall, returning to the mainland in between for a three-week respite with their loved ones. Christmas is approaching and the year coming to an end when a boat is sent out to collect Bill for his home break. But the tower is found deserted, with no sign of the men and no clues as to what had happened. The tower was locked from the inside, the kitchen table laid for a meal, and all the clocks had stopped at 8:45am. It was uncanny. Did another boat pick them up? Did they jump and drown? Where they abducted? Where were they?

Stonex structures her novel between two time periods: 1972, when the three keepers vanish into thin air; and 1992, when a writer pursuing the story for his next book tracks down the women. The recollections he gleans from Helen, Jenny and Michelle, as well as stilted communications between the women themselves, provide the context to past events.

The Lamplighters is as darkly enthralling as it is sumptuously intriguing. A case of an unexplained disappearance becomes a multifaceted novel about an investigation, interspersed with personal stories of the players involved, their relationships with each other, and with the lighthouse that came to dominate and shape their lives. Throw in some spooky local legends, animosity between the women, a grief-stricken father, an ex-con, an obsessive affair and an unforgiving sea, and you have a page-turner you won’t want to put down.

Lockdown has seen most of us confined to our homes for long stretches of time. It’s been strange, uncomfortable, claustrophobic, luxurious, isolating, liberating, stifling, adventurous – we’ve all responded in our own ways to these necessary conditions. But imagine if this was the rest of your life? In that context, The Lamplighters couldn’t be more timely.

Farhana: You have a lifelong passion for lighthouses. Tell us more! Have you spent time in a tower lighthouse?

Emma: I’ve always loved lighthouses. The ones on the coast bring to mind childhood holidays and crabbing in rock pools – but it’s the tower lights that fascinate me most. I love their loneliness, their distance from land, their majestic height and the grit it must have taken to build them centuries ago. I’ve visited land and island lights, but never a tower. They’re hard to access, which adds to their allure. I’d need to take a helicopter, land on top and climb down through the gallery. Know any pilots I can make friends with?

I used the parts of the mystery I found most captivating and transposed them to a different time and place. I didn’t want to attempt a straight retelling, because these were real men who lost their lives and real families suffered.”

The Lamplighters is loosely based on the Flannan Isles Vanishing of 1900. What is known about that case, what is the speculation that surrounds it, and how did you use this as a platform for your novel?

As soon as I read about the real-life vanishing, I knew I wanted to reimagine it in a novel. It’s so eerie and fascinating. In December 1900, a boat on passage from America noticed the lighthouse on Eilean Mòr was not lit. When an investigating crew was sent, they found, according to reports from the time, ‘no sign of life on the island’ and ‘no response made to a rocket fired from the ship.’ The entrance gate to the compound was closed, as was the lighthouse door. The beds were empty, and the clocks had stopped. It sets your imagination going, doesn’t it? Speculation has been rife over the last 120 years, with rumours abounding from abduction, madness, ghosts and drowning. I used the parts of the mystery I found most captivating and transposed them to a different time and place, with original characters. I didn’t want to attempt a straight retelling of the tragedy, because these were real men who lost their lives and real families who suffered.

Read more from Emma about the Vanishing

Tell us about your choice of a tower lighthouse as the setting – with its light in view of the families on the distant shore, but isolated, cramped and battered by wind, rain and waves.

Towers are the most beguiling lighthouses, for me. We’ve all stood on a headland at some point or another and looked out at the sea and wondered what must it have been like to live on one. Now they’re all empty, all automated, and this abandonment only adds to the sense of ghostliness. I invented the Maiden Rock for The Lamplighters – an austere, hostile, wind- and wave-lashed tower fifteen miles from the Cornish coast. Its circular rooms are small, no more than twelve feet across, and it’s stuffy and dark inside. I wanted to create a claustrophobic atmosphere in which a man could be a pushed to his limits, coping with cabin fever, monotony, tedium, and of course the close and inescapable proximity of two other mates, whom he might or might not get along with.

How long did you work on The Lamplighters, and what was your writing regime?

I first had the idea ten years ago, when I read about the Flannan Isles Vanishing. At the time, I was writing other books, so let the story float around in my mind for a while, slowly gaining shape. I read as much as I could about lighthouse-keeping, from technical manuals to memoirs, to interviews with keepers and their families. By the time I sat down to write in 2018, I knew exactly how I wanted to tell the mystery. I felt assured enough in my research and in the lighthouse world to relay it with compassion and authenticity.

The novel jumps between the events leading up to the disappearance of your three keepers in 1972, and 20 years later when a writer starts to research the mystery. How did you go about researching the two eras to ensure you captured the times accurately? And what drew you to that timeframe?

The 1970s was an interesting period in lighthouse-keeping because it was the decade preceding automation. This means the lights were still manned, but not for long: a computer would soon be doing the job. For some keepers, like Arthur in The Lamplighters, this was a terrifying prospect – he’s given his whole life to the service and has no idea who he’ll be without it. I was born in the eighties, so had to imagine the era. I listened to a lot of seventies music, watched TV from the decade and engaged with the politics of the time. The nineties were easier – I can remember them well, for better or worse!

British waters have a certain quality when they’re all churned up – sort of brown and yellow, like milky tea.”

Were you at all tempted to have a taste of 1970s lighthouse rations to help get you in the mood to write?

You mean a can of Spam? Ugh. They still sell Spam in the supermarkets and the logo is gloriously retro and unimproved – I guess if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. The keepers’ main indulgences were tea and fags: I think these were more important than the food…

What are the roughest conditions you’ve personally experienced at sea?

Last spring comes to mind, just before the pandemic hit, when we were due to travel to the Isle of Wight in the middle of Storm Dennis. They kept cancelling the ferry crossings, understandably, but eventually we boarded. It was pretty rough. British waters have a certain quality when they’re all churned up – sort of brown and yellow, like milky tea. The boat was rolling about all over the place and I was relieved when we arrived in Yarmouth.

Life on a lighthouse tower sounds similar to lockdown, in that the three keepers live together in a confined space, with the same daily routines, and virtually no contact with the outside world. Do you think this might resonate with a wider spectrum of readers than you originally envisaged, given the events of the last year?

The connection feels uncanny. I wrote the first draft of The Lamplighters in 2018/19, so before the health crisis – when I edited it in 2020 during the first lockdown, all these words were leaping out at me with added resonance: ‘isolation’, ‘quarantine’, ‘seclusion’, ‘loneliness’… We are all living on lighthouses in a way at the moment. If we’re lucky we have a couple of people to be with, and hope for a relief boat landing soon. I do think these themes will be amplified for readers this year – I’ll be interested to hear.

Poetry features in the novel, and references are made about those who read poetry and those who don’t. Is poetry important to you, and “is there a poem for anything that happens in your life?”

Oh, yes, it is. My favourite poets are Keats, Auden and Poe. I also love Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy. I do believe there’s a poem for everything that happens in life. That’s the magic of it – to discover a stranger has expressed in words and rhythm the precise feeling you have in your heart. Poetry is about connection, recognition and rescue.

Your novel is as much about friendship and distrust, detachment, marriage tensions and melancholy, courage and hope, as it is about the mysterious vanishing. The men and their wives and girlfriends are distinctly drawn, with strongly defined personalities. Can you share your process for creating and shaping characters, perhaps using Jenny and Bill as examples?

The characters in The Lamplighters came to me through their first-person voices. I was hugely inspired by the narrative interviews in Tony Parker’s superb book Lighthouse – ordinary voices to which I wanted to introduce an extraordinary set of circumstances. Bill was always going to feel ambivalent about the lighthouse: I wanted that ambivalence to define him. He’s an in-between man; he feels he doesn’t belong on sea or land, on the tower or at home, and if a person cannot find his place, where does that leave him? The more he pulls away, the tighter his wife Jenny clings on. I’m interested in the individual traits but also how two people work together, in marriage, and how their perspectives on the same event can, due to private passions and misgivings, be entirely different.

There are other unexplained events in the book, like the ‘silver man’, and one of the wives visits a medium regularly. What are your thoughts on ghosts and spirits?

I wanted to include an element of the supernatural, because I think without it the mystery loses some of its magic and possibility. As for me, I have an open mind. As Jenny says in the novel, “The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything at all.”

We are all living on lighthouses in a way at the moment. If we’re lucky we have a couple of people to be with, and hope for a relief boat landing soon.”

What is the nature of contemporary lighthouse-keeping in the age of automation?

All the lighthouses in the UK are automated now – I think the last to go from Trinity House was in 1996 and the Northern Lighthouse Board 1998. This means these amazing monuments stand empty. In a sense, it’s a good thing, as it’s no longer necessary to make a person live in isolated, difficult quarters, away from their families and real life. In another, it’s a shame the occupation is no more. Many keepers felt a great affinity with their lighthouse, with the sea, and with the simplicity. It’s a vanished world now.

How has your previous work in publishing informed and catalysed your own writing?

I’ve written several books under pseudonyms, and I’ve worked in publishing, so I have experience and understanding of the industry. This makes it easier to rationalise success or disappointment, and to contextualise my book in the market: books work or don’t work based on a vast array of factors, most of which are beyond the writer’s grasp. What’s been amazing about The Lamplighters being published is using my real name: it’s my heart-and-soul novel, so it feels right to finally be myself and put forward what I believe in. The energy, creativity and imagination my publishers have put into the launch has been incredible. I appreciate this all the more knowing how things look from the other side.

Are there any plans afoot for The Lamplighters to be adapted for screen? Who might suit being cast as the key characters? Can you imagine Indira Varma and Tom Burke, who narrate the audiobook, getting involved?

I had a call with my agent about this today, in fact, so watch this space.

What has your lockdown experience been like, including the impact it has had on your daily life, your reading and writing?

So many people have had it so hard, suffering physically and mentally and emotionally – it’s been such a difficult time. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve stayed healthy, so I can’t complain. The thing I’ve found hardest is juggling writing my new book and launching this one with taking care of my two young daughters, one of whom has needed home-schooling. It’s difficult to get creative when you’re breaking every fifteen minutes to dispel arguments and fish jigsaw pieces out from under the sofa. Oh, for a lighthouse to be on!

Tell us about your reading habits. Which authors first got you hooked, and who would you count among your literary heroes and strongest influences?

My favourite author is Rose Tremain – she writes cleanly and honestly, with a great generosity towards and curiosity about her characters. I also love Sarah Waters, Penelope Lively, Brit Bennett and Sarah Moss.

What have you read recently that you recommend?

I just finished Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, which blew me away.

Any cultural highlights for 2021 you’re particularly looking forward to?

Catriona Ward’s heartbreaking, horrific, beautiful and tragic The Last House on Needless Street. It’s phenomenal.

Do lighthouses have personalities?

Yes, they do. It’s our own personalities shining back, of course, but what’s the difference?

 

Emma Stonex was born in 1983 and grew up in Northamptonshire. After working in publishing for several years, she quit to pursue her dream of writing fiction. She lives in the Southwest with her family. The Lamplighters, her first novel, is published by Picador in hardback, eBook and audio download.
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Author portrait © Melissa Lesage

Farhana Gani is a freelance writer and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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