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!



Hallowe’en horror – why we love a great ghoul & the scary art of self-publishing

MarrowScoopWell I did it. I doubt anything All Hallows Eve could throw at me could be more frightening. My admiration for all those out there who regularly self-publish their fiction is immense – putting work that has been part of your life, perhaps dredged from your writing soul, out to strangers is terrifying.

Yesterday I published three of my ghost stories as The Marrow Scoop and other Stories, on Amazon for Kindle (knowing now that anyone can download it via a Kindle app for pc or iPad etc). I love writing spooky stories and think I write best in a tone that anyone who is a fan of M.R. James and the writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries would recognise. Two of the stories pay homage to that great writer and in my opinion it is much harder to write a really chilling ghost story set in the 21st century. Is it because we are now so used to the special effects on television and in computer games perhaps? Are we more cynical and less ready to believe in spirits? Have shows like ‘Most Haunted’ and the NLP and illusions of Derren Brown convinced us that we are always being fooled by photographs of ‘ghosts’ and contact of any kind with the dead?

Brown_ladyAt a time when many of us are struggling to deal with the world we live in; the speed we must work at and the loss of control; the horrors we are faced with from local issues (here in Somerset I have been horrified by both a badger cull and the development of a new nuclear power station for example) and from across the globe, I am surprised at this lack of belief. I am not talking about clanking chains and white sheets or pumpkins and vampires but this reluctance to embrace the possibility that there is another dimension to our lives. I am not convinced of one faith over another but I would love to have some faith in the worth of us all beyond this mortal coil.

Perhaps that is why I am drawn to the mysterious art of the supernatural story. Or maybe it is simply a way to express that darker side of my nature that must generally be repressed, in the same way I love a good crime novel? I have included antique artefacts and a little of the paraphernalia of the classic ghost story, but hopefully with a little sprinkle of originality.

Who knows…. But putting The Marrow Scoop together I felt increasingly aware that some of my stories were simply not quite ‘right’, and good friend and fellow writer Vivienne Tuffnell (who has her own volume of eery stories available as The Moth’s Kiss) was honest enough to mention some weaknesses. So they will have to wait until I have a break from my non-fiction writing (Shell Shocked Britain is due at the publishers in eight weeks time) before they make it into print.

So hopefully the three stories I have published will offer you a shiver as you sit in the warm comfort of your Halloween homes tonight. I found it a hard volume to price, but it is £1.53 (Amazon do funny stuff with VAT) and I hope it is worth it….

What do you think about our continuing love of being spooked? And if you are a self-published author, which is more frightening – the idea of being in a room with the most ghoulish ghoul or pressing that ‘publish’ button?!

In which I write a spooky story for Hallow’een – The Marrow Spoon

(Inspired by M.R.James, master of the ghost story in whose footsteps I aspire to follow, with reverence)

The date upon which the following incident occurred is a little unclear, but its consequences are most certainly not. A very close friend has had life changed immeasurably for him and my own views on the necessary rational response to things inexplicable have been shaken to their very foundation.

Those who travel in the south-west of England quite often neglect to spend much time in the county of Somerset. This dismissal is quite unjustified – the countryside, towns and villages have many charms and the coastline of the north is varied and dramatic. For those who admit to an interest in the supernatural there is much to absorb: the mysteries of the levels, of Glastonbury and of Exmoor. Perhaps there is an inward-looking aspect to the locals of this expansive county that appears unwelcoming, but this is not in truth the case. Certainly my friend – who for this story I shall call Adams, was used to experiencing nothing but kindness.

Adams was something of an antiques ‘enthusiast’. He absorbed books on the subject; approached experts for advice and attended lectures at Universities across Europe. You may assume, rightly, that Adams was not required to work for a living, having inherited a considerable sum from an aged aunt who had, it seems a similar love of antiquity. Unfortunately her taste in old items was lacking and it was during Adams’ efforts to find dealers willing to take on large, dark lumps of mahogany that his curiosity in things of greater finesse was piqued.

The story that I here recall is set in a small town on the edge of Exmoor, visited by Adams one autumn on an antique-hunting expedition. He had never been to this place before but had read in the antiques press, for there is such a thing apparently, of a large shop that occupied three floors of an old mill. How he had not come across this establishment before was a mystery but these things happen and he determined to rectify his omission. Thus he arrived, late on a blustery autumn afternoon, and booked into the small public house in the square. A tiny room looking out upon the blank wall of a neighbouring cottage was all that was available to him but it would do and refreshed by a splash of cold water on the face he unpacked his few belongings, set his notebook on the bedside cupboard and went down to an early supper.

Described to me later, this first evening should have offered to Adams a premonition of the events to come. However, at the time the quiet that came upon the bar as he sat down, the coolness of the landlord at his attempts to converse on the subject of the shop he wished to visit and the lumpen dinner he was served were nothing in the excitement of his anticipated shopping trip. The conversation downstairs limited, he decided upon an early night and retired to a bed as lumpy as his dinner.

The night was, as is often the case in these stories, stormy. The frames in the windows of his room were metal and loose but having folded a piece of notepaper small and stuffed it between the frames he achieved a modicum of peace and slept until eight.

Continue reading “In which I write a spooky story for Hallow’een – The Marrow Spoon”

Of pumpkin, pall and poetry -what really makes me sleep with the light on….

There will be few of those reading this blog unaware that tonight is Hallowe’en.If it isn’t pouring with rain thousands of children will be knocking on doors demanding sweets with menaces, and tomorrow tons of delicious pumpkin will be lying on the compost heap. It is all very commercialised and not terribly scary anymore, so I thought I would look at what really scares  me; that proper spine-chilling fear that makes even the darkness at the top of the stairs terrifying.

I must admit this post has taken a long time to write, with so many drafts and re-writes I almost gave up. I understood eventually that this isn’t about some in-depth analysis. It is subjective, visceral and unique to every one of us.

There are some universal fears of course. That cold horror that comes over you as a child when you lose sight of a parent, or as a parent when a child wanders off (or hides in the skirts in M&S  – Evie, you know who I am talking about…). The fear of serious illness, the death of someone close. However on Halloween we think about those things that frighten us, but from which we can escape. We put ourselves in the way of the spooky and macabre; we ‘enjoy’ being frightened and appreciate a return to the comfort and warmth of reality.

Anyway, enough of the analysis. What frightens me?

It is the ‘Victorian Gothic’ – the curses, tombs, hauntings and madness feared in reality and expressed in fiction and poetry and to some extent in architecture. Hideous gargoyles, huge iron gates, murky Whitechapel streets, all the trappings of a black and white horror film. Fog thick enough to lose your bearings in, misty marshes hiding treacherous quicksand. I am not one that likes blood and guts in movies. It may make viewers hide behind a cushion but I want to end up scared, not vomiting. Give me The Others or The Haunting (the 1963 version) rather than Saw or Chopping Mall (yes really, that is the title..).

Continue reading “Of pumpkin, pall and poetry -what really makes me sleep with the light on….”