What makes a good ghost story?

Ghost-Stories-The-Woman-In-White-Who-Stands-In-The-GraveyardI write ghost stories. I don’t know if they are any good (although I did publish three, in a short collection called The Marrow Scoop, just to test the water) but it is a genre I enjoy reading and that is always a positive start when one wants the words to flow.

I have been a little disillusioned lately though, as my favourite spooky stories are nearer those of M R James, Charles Dickens or Edith Wharton than the paranormal psychological and positively erotic supernatural fiction that has become so popular. I wonder if we, as a species, are becoming harder to frighten? So many stories and video replays of real-life horrors are available via social media 24/7 that the rustle of a curtain or the scratch on a skirting board might seem too tame.

What can be more frightening than one man driving a car deliberately to kill a random group of strangers he knows nothing about or setting a bomb filled with nails to kill and maim for life? Except perhaps the knowledge that our children might be at risk of harm whilst in the care of those we thought we could trust implicitly?

Perhaps this surge in the popularity of the mythical beasts of horror – the vampires, the werewolves, the zombies – is part if the desire to control a new reality. Down the centuries there have always been people who commit the most wicked crimes against their own, or against strangers, but now it is exposed to daylight and refuses to crumble to dust.

download (12)So I am reevaluating my own spooky tales as I continue to write them for a modern audience. I am reading as many of the ‘greats’ as I can, shorter and longer stories, spooky or less so, classic or contemporary.  However, even Susan Hill, the author of one of the best ghost stories of recent years The Woman in Black seems to be finding it hard to compete with the out and out gore fest of the horror genre, and with psychological thrillers and crime novels, which increasingly seem to delve deep into our innermost fears – of being hunted perhaps, or stalked. Her most recent stories, such as The Small Hand and The Travelling Bag have garnered less favourable reviews. Choking mists and a gothic backdrop can only achieve so much it seems. The chills must come from elsewhere, and the piece be deemed a good short story as well as simply a frightening one.

My best stories (I think) have been inspired by antique pieces with something of the grotesque about them –  a marrow scoop or spoon, for example, was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to scoop the marrow from cooked bones, as something of a delicacy. Another tale of mine, The Ponyskin Trunk, was again triggered by the sight of a travelling case covered in the hide of a piebald pony. But one can only use that device so often before the ‘game’ is given away too early on.

As a child, I remember television programmes that left me genuinely too scared to go up the stairs for fear of what might be lurking. Even my favourite poet, John Keats, has conjured a phrase, in a fragment, that sends shivers down my spine…

This living hand, now warm and capable 
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold 
And in the icy silence of the tomb, 
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights 
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood 
So in my veins red life might stream again, 
And thou be conscience-calm’dsee here it is– 
I hold it towards you…

But how does a modern writer capture that feeling and express it on the page to create an equally terrified response?

RatsnovelI recently read some James Herbert to better understand the creeping horror that can build to a crescendo, sending you hurtling under the bedclothes, seeing a potential killer in even the smallest creature. The Rats certainly sickened me and occasionally left my fingers feeling contaminated by something as I turned the page on yet another gruesome scene of rodent carnage. I did hear scuttling and caught shadows flicking quickly at the corner of my eye, but I finished it feeling sick rather than truly scared. I also read The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, but found I was imagining the horrors of the film version rather than conjuring my own scenes from the author’s prose.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson,  did grip me, having seen the film too long ago to really remember the stand-out images, but I think that is more than a ghost or horror story. There is an examination of psychological issues layered within the plot that could almost make one believe one’s very sanity is at stake.

So I am really interested to find out what my readers find truly terrifying in a story. Is it still possible for a classic ghost story to create the proverbial ‘shiver down the spine’ on first reading? Which books or stories have stood the test of time and which modern authors have truly ‘creeped you out’?

Or do you think, as I am beginning to, that we are faced with so much that is ‘wonder full’, so many things possible that were, just a few years ago, unthinkable, that it is almost impossible to be surprised? Will the next stop be the book with an image that suddenly comes to life before your eyes, snarling on the page?

Do let me know what you think!

 

 

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8 Responses to What makes a good ghost story?

  1. Viv says:

    I loved your spooky tales. I write that sort of thing myself and it’s hard to find new ideas that don’t overdo the themes that have been traditionally at the core of the ghost story. I prefer unsettling to gore-fests, both reading and writing and adore MR James’s works. I’m going to (probably) put a ghostly tale on my blog for Halloween if I can pluck up the courage.
    I like Herbert and King, and a few others, as they seem to get to the heart of what scares us. I read Hill’s Woman in Black but didn’t much like it (or the film).

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thanks Viv. Your stories are wonderfully unsettling and if you can put a new one up that would be great. MR James is a genius and I only wish I could think up some great ideas for some new stories like his!

  2. Bethany says:

    I think the problem nowadays is that the spooky ghost story genre has become confused with the horor genre. When I published my ghost story “The Night of the Storm”, I had people commenting tat it wasn’t a horror story. Well, I never said it was! It’s the same with Halloween. It used to be ghosts and spirits, now it’s the living dead, gore and blood, bandages, scars and zombies!

    • keatsbabe says:

      Yes – unless an arm drops off or a face gets chewed away it isn’t scary enough. They aren’t the things that make me scared of the dark though. Too obvious…

  3. valkyriekerrykelly says:

    I love the oriental ghosts ‘Ring,’ ‘Grudge,’ ‘Dark Water,’ etc. The original Japanese Dark Water is fantastic. The American remake, not so good. Henry James ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ will always echo.

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thank you – those are great ideas. I love writing a ghost story, but really struggle to set them in the present day. The psychological aspects of a good spine chiller are the way to go, but a real skill!

      • valkyriekerrykelly says:

        Change the location if you do not want to change the time period. The reason Turn of the Screw and the Japanese films work is because the ghosts are essences of very vulnerable children. There was an old film called ‘Changeling’ not the Jolie one and the original haunting. No gore, very little sight of the ghosts, just the idea that something else is there. More terrifying than visceral horror.

      • valkyriekerrykelly says:

        I think the creepiest scene is in the office building in ‘The Grudge’ when they see her emerge on camera.

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