Firstly, to get us in the mood for supernatural shocks, here are the opening title with Marc Wilkinson’s wonderful theme to one of the greatest British horror films of all time: ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’
A darker book haul…
Next up are a couple of non-fiction titles which I recently bought: ‘The Ghost: a cultural history’ which has just been published and does what it says on the tin – with glorious, glossy illustrations. ‘The Ghost’s Who’s Who’ is a second-hand in which Jack Hallam provides a round up of ghosts from across the country.
Here is one of my favourites entries…
Babes of Bamber: near Shoreham, Sussex: The children of William de Broase, friend of the Conqueror and Norman Lord of Bamber Castle, are the pathetic ghosts of this Sussex downland village. A thin, ragged boy and girl are still to be seen fleetingly gazing towards the castle ruins, or begging for food. They were innocent victims of the ruthlessness of King John who, suspecting de Broase of plotting, demanded the children’s custody as proof of his loyalty. Though the family fled to Ireland, the children were arrested and brought back to Windsor, where they were starved to death in the castle dungeons.
What makes a great ghost story?
Possibly the best place to start is with MR James. James published his stories between 1904 and 1925, quickly becoming classics of the genre, a reputation which was enhanced further in the 1970s when the BBC dramatized a number of his tales, broadcasting each of them on Christmas Eve as ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’. Like the stories, these short films became classics of their kind, alongside the Jonathan Miller directed ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ which is often listed as one of the most frightening pieces of British television.
So, what can we learn from James?
1/ Brevity makes the heart beat faster.
It is notable that James only produced short stories. Tension can be built up and sustained across a few pages – any longer and, in order to maintain both plot and suspense, a rollercoaster has to be created, building tension and then releasing it, building and releasing. In itself this is no bad thing and sustains most thriller and horror stories. A ghost story of any length has to keep to this formula – see ‘The Shining’ by Stephen King or ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson as classic examples of the longer ghost story. Remember though – these are rare examples of the successful long ghost story. Emphasising the brevity angle is the fact that for a ghost story to be effective you should also…
2/ Keep the plot to a minimum.
The whole point of the ghost story is atmosphere and fright, so don’t dilute this with a convoluted plot. Of course, you can get around this with an interesting sub-text: a perfect example of this is Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, which has a great lesbian subtext.
3/ Don’t give the ghost a backstory or reason for being.
Again, this dilutes the supernatural element: A ghost should simply be a ghost, the spirit who has come back to frighten. If you give the ghost too much of a backstory you effectively make it human and therefore remove its sting. A truly frightening ghost is one which is inexplicable. If you must give the ghost a backstory don’t make it a sob story. There is nothing worse that getting to the end of a tale and finding what we thought was a malevolent spirit intent on destruction is actually a misunderstood mind who simply wants to right a wrong. and again, if you must give a back story, make it horrible. The BBC’s terrifying TV mockumentary ‘Ghostwatch’ did this excellently by making the ghost ‘Pipes’ a child molester.
4/ Give just enough information to keep the reader informed.
Avoid ‘info dumps’ of narrative or plot. If the reader needs to learn something then drip tiny nuggets of information which also helps with the ratcheting up of tension.
5/ Suggest, don’t confirm
Are ghosts real? That is the question which should be in the minds of the characters and readers alike. So until your climax (when you can confirm the existence if it is pertinent to the narrative), keep everyone guessing, because you need to ensure that you…
6/ Leave enough space for the readers to frighten themselves
Whatever is written on the page will always be topped by what the reader can imagine for themselves, so take advantage.
7/ Set the story in whatever period you like.
Many writers seem to think that you have to set a ghost story in the past. While this might make things a little easier in that you don’t have to work around mobile phones (which must surely be the worst invention ever for thriller writers?) this isn’t necessary. Contemporary settings can be equally as unsettling.
8/ Is a resolution really necessary?
No, but the best stories end with the ghost getting the upper hand.
To sum up these points, here is a micro-story taken from James’ ‘A School Story’. In essence it is a perfect ghost story, despite being slightly less then two lines long:
‘…there was the lady who, on locking her bedroom door in a strange house, heard a thin voice among the bed-curtains say, ‘Now we’re shut in for the night.’
It is brief, suggestive, doesn’t give much away, leaves enough for the reader to fill in their own gaps – Is the house strange as in ‘unknown’ to the woman, and if so why is she staying there? Or, is the house ‘strange’ as in odd, and if so in what way? And if so, why is she staying there? Why does she feel the need to lock her door? Is the voice malevolent or benevolent? How does she react? Is she scared? Can she open the door? Is she trapped? Is it a ghost…or a psycho-killer? – and, in the end, the ghost has the upper hand. Perfect.
Now, before I finish, one final rule:
9/ Study the rules and then do your own thing.
While these rules are, in general, adhered to in most of the great ghost stories some are bent – sometimes more than slightly – to meet the author’s needs. In particular I’m talking about the ghost story as a novel – if all writers had stuck to the rule about brevity, then we’d certainly wouldn’t have ‘The Shining’ or Michelle Paver’s great ‘Dark Matter’.
Some of my favourite ghost stories
‘Lost Hearts’ – MR James
A young boy is adopted by his elderly cousin. What are his cousin’s motives, and who are the shadowy figures who loiter with seemingly sinister intent? Adapted into one of the best of the BBC’s ‘Ghost Story For Christmas’ strand by Lawrence Gordon Clark: watch this and wonder: who knew a hurdy-gurdy could be quite so terrifying?
‘The wind had fallen, and there was a still night and a full moon. At about 10 o’clock Stephen was standing at the open window of his bedroom, looking out over the country. Still as the night was, the mysterious populations of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the mere. They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either sound. Were not they coming nearer?’
‘The Woman in Black’ – Susan Hill
Young Lawyer Arthur Kipps is asked to visit the remote house of a recently deceased client to put their affairs in order. At the funeral, Kipps glimpses a mysterious woman, dressed in black. Fearful locals shun his attempts to uncover her identity, a search which can only lead to terror…
‘What I heard next chilled and horrified me. The noise of the pony trap grew fainter and then stopped abruptly and away on the marsh was a curious draining, sucking, churning sound, which went on, together with the shrill neighing and whinnying of a horse in panic, and then I heard another cry, a shout, a terrified sobbing…’
‘Dolly’ – Susan Hill
Edward Cayley is sent to spend the summer with his Aunt Kestrel and spoilt cousin, Leonora. Denied a much wanted doll for her birthday, Leonora’s rage knows no bounds… and years to come the repercussions will come back to haunt both cousins…
‘I was about to pick up my book and read a few more pages to lull myself off again, when my ears picked up a slight and distant sound. I knew what it was at once, and it acted like a pick stabbing through the ice of memory. It was the sound of crying.’
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ – Shirley Jackson
The ultimate haunted house story. Four strangers are recruited to spend one summer in a house with a particularly unsavoury reputation. Each of the four has their own reason: for Eleanor it is a means of escaping her unhappy, lonely existence…
‘The house has caught her with an atavistic turn in the pit of her stomach, and she looked along the lines of its roofs, fruitlessly endeavouring to locate the badness, whatever dwelt there; her hands turned nervously cold so that she fumbled, trying to take out a cigarette, and beyond everything else she was afraid, listening to the sick voice inside her which whispered, Get away from here, get away.’
Also has a fantastic film adaptation ‘The Haunting’ (Dir: Robert Wise. 1963)
‘Dark Matter’ – Michelle Paver
At last! A story by a contemporary writer which easily matches the mastery of MR James: Jack Miller is rescued from poverty by the chance to take part in an Arctic expedition. As the Artic winter sets in, his companions leave one by one and yet, despite his increasing isolation, Jack can’t escape the creeping feeling that out there, in the darkness someone, or something is waiting…
‘Out of nowhere, for no reason I was afraid. My skin prickled. My heart thudded in my throat. My body knew before I did that I was not alone.
Thirty yards away on the rocks, something moved.’
‘The Ghosts’ (aka ‘The Amazing Mr. Blunden’) – Antonia Barber
A story which breaks nearly all my rules. Written for children, ‘The Ghosts’ tells the story of how Lucy and James travel back in time to avert the tragedy which cut short the lives of the two ghostly children, Sara and George. Ghosts, time travel, a wicked uncle and a cruel housekeeper. A perfect children’s book and a wonderful film, directed by Lionel Jeffries with the same love and skill with which he made the ‘The Railway Children’
‘As they stood motionless side by side, they became aware of two figures which they sensed rather than saw, passing across the lawn just beyond the line of their vision. Lucy was afraid and clutched at her brother’s hand. But Jamie, whose only fear was that she might break the spell, clasped her hand tighter to give her courage, Then they stood without moving until the figures passed into focus: a tall girl in an old-fashioned dress and a little boy, who came walking quite naturally along the path towards them..’
‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to you, My Lad’ – MR James
An academic lets his curiosity and arrogance get the better of him when, on holiday, he finds a whistle carved with a curious invitation…
‘…there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about it’s motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.’
Adapted by Jonathan Miller for the BBC in 1967. Eschewing ‘special’ effects, the primitive imagery provides primal jolts which may confuse or even amuse the cynical or those overdosed on CGI. But go with the film’s basic logic (the characters even talk in a gibbering approximation of English) and you’ll understand why many claim this to be the scariest TV ever made.
‘The Shining’ – Stephen King (and definitely not the Stanley Kubrick film)
A child with a special power. A father with hidden demons. A mother trying to keep her family together. A family looking for escape…in an isolated hotel with a terrible, notorious past.
Second only to ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ in the haunted house stakes, King’s book is a glorious, chilling rollercoaster. If all you know of this story is Stanley Kubrick’s film, then forget what you have seen and prepare to be scared and touched by this story of a family torn apart at the seams.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Wonderfully creepy, if not your typical ghost story. This brief tale tells of a woman incarcerated in the attic nursery, a room decorated with sickly yellow wallpaper, its pattern exerting a sinister enchantment. Slowly, the woman’s sanity begins to falter…
‘It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old, foul, bad yellow things…it creeps all over the house.’