What makes a great ghost story?

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Image: ‘Phantasm’ by AN Stuart

I love a ghost story – those short, sharp shocks to the system which darken rooms and bring a sense of dread and foreboding to the brightest of days. But recently I’ve read a number of novels which promise a dose of the supernatural but all, without exception, have disappointed. So, I thought I would try to work out just what it is which makes for a great ghost story.

Probably the best place to look is to 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’.

 Let me know what you think . Do you agree with the rules? If not, why? Or would you add more to the list?
In the meantime, if those are the rules, what are the great ghost stories? Find out soon…


This entry was posted in M R James, Michelle Paver, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What makes a great ghost story?

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