Monday, 29 June 2015

There's a Ghost in my House

by Addy Farmer



There's a ghost in my house but don't tell the children and especially not the child who's bedroom it seems to haunt. Gather round, reader and I'll tell you. For some reason (don't probe), I was sleeping in the guest room of our fairly big Victorian house. The previous owner had put a brass door knocker in the shape of a fox on the hall side of the door. In the early hours, I woke to hear a tap tap tap on the door. I shifted, waited and it came again. Tap, tap, tap. Not loud, just insistent. Like the sound a fox knocker might make. My guts shrivelled, I stilled myself to stone and willed it to stop. It did not. I crept out of bed on rubbery legs, lungs tight. Reader, I turned that handle ... onto an empty corridor. I breathed again. Maybe it was fanciful but I felt that in opening the door I had done the right thing. Contrary to what my head told me, I obeyed my heart and left the door open. The tapping stopped.

The next day I removed the knocker.

What is it about doors? My second ghost story also involves a doorway and the third one well ... but more of that later. I love a good ghost story but the reality of it scares me. I want to be the kid who goes into the haunted room, who dares to uncover the spooky truth but the reality is that I wouldn't have the courage. So, I do the next best thing and write about ghosts and fear so that I can make my hero do the squirm-making thing I would not do. I want my readers guts to shrivel. 


Well, I have gathered a few stories and some spooky thoughts and observations from our lovely slushpile readers. Even if you don't like them there are plenty of readers who do. Alice Hemming says, "I do not like reading ghost stories at all because anything too scary keeps me awake at night.  Despite this, for the past couple of years in October I have helped Year 6 at my local primary school with their spooky story writing project. They all seem to LOVE writing spooky stories."
So, maybe what follows will inspire the beginnings of a story or illustrate how to frighten yourself or your reader into an early grave. 


1. LET'S BEGIN WITH OUR ACTUAL GHOST ...



Tales of the supernatural have been around for a very very long time, right back to Pliny in fact.
"There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night, a noise — resembling the clashing of iron — was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains," disturbances that led to the appearance of a specter "form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands.
I'm not saying that I'd like to meet him but chain-rattling, shrivelled old man sounds more like a Halloween spook to me.

only scary if you are a cat or three years old
The ghost can come in as many forms as there are people (or animals) but a bit on the pale and still side.
 "I love ghost stories for the shiver of Otherness they bring - the tap on the door on a wild night when you don't expect anyone to call, the footsteps overhead in the empty house. I think less is more - you need to get the imagination of the reader really going - and I'm sure we all have creepy stories to share. Mine is walking home up an unlit country road at two o clock in the morning one very dark night and passing someone who was standing absolutely stone still in the middle of the road, who neither spoke nor moved as much as an inch as I hurried by." Katherine Langrish
No, I would NOT have stopped to warn that unnaturally still being about the dangers of oncoming traffic either because deep down, you just know about the 'wrongness' of some situations. Creeping realisation is a ghastly stomach-plummeting sensation. It is a, was-that-what-I-thought-it-was moment which lasts and becomes the stuff of re-telling.  


The best ghosts are the ones which are unobvious. 

2. TO THE GHOST HOUSE ...


Just why??

If I were in my right mind, I would go nowhere near this property, let alone think of buying it (It happens). Apart from the clear indication of massive spiders plus a lifetime of DIY, the place is clearly HAUNTED. That the house is stuffed with spectral goings-on, does not so much whisper in your ear as smack you round the head. I prefer a more insidious approach.
It would look perfectly normal except that one single thing, perhaps an angle between door and ceiling, would be wrong. One of my old homes. And the ghost there is my former self, or someone I left behind without realising it. Cliff McNish
You may live in such a house and you try and explain it to yourself as the creakings and grumblings of an old house or maybe the gurglings of the unfixed pipes or merely the sun failing to reach the shifting shadows which crouch in certain corners of certain rooms but still they just won't go away. Then they get worse until you have to accept the realisation that your house is a place for the dead and not for the living. Sometimes your worst fear is only confirmed once you have moved ...
I felt uneasy from the start, but dismissed this as I being strange (after living 17 years in the same house) and there being no street lights, so very dark. Odd things happen, like the radio in the kitchen turning itself on in the middle of the night on several occasions, until I turned it off at the plug every night. Things moved while I was out and I heard footsteps upstairs when no one was there. When my daughter - 22 at the time - came back from a year in New Zealand, she spend one night in the guest bedroom then said she wanted to sleep in the other smaller room. After a couple of weeks she confessed she felt there was something in the guest room she had moved out of. She said it was a man and described a lot about him. I knew there had only been one person who lived in the house before us and from what I knew the description could have been him. I asked my next door neighbour about him - without reference to anything about thinking he was still there. Everything my daughter had said matched, a lot of things that had happened tied up to his behaviour too, such as he spent most of his time sitting in the kitchen listening to the radio. Bekki Hill
Shudder. Yes, you lived with the dead for a while.


Of course, it doesn't have to be a house. It could be anywhere - an airport, a theatre, a pub or a hospital ...
"I grew up with a grandmother who told the best ghost stories, all of them supposedly true. That sense of things just out of sight and unexplained has always fascinated me and it was inevitable that the supernatural would crop up in my writing. One story my grandmother told me was about a time when she worked as a nurse in a small private hospital in Ireland, many years ago. She had become friendly with a dying woman and often sat with her when her shift was over. One day, when she was on the night shift, she came in to work and walked up through the quiet building to the ward where the dying patient had a small private room. As she reached the landing, she heard the woman calling her name and she hurried to see what the matter was. She found the room empty, and one of the other nurses told her that the woman had died several hours earlier, calling out for her. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, though, a good spooky tale is the perfect reading matter for a winter night by the fire. One of the best supernatural stories I've read in a long time is Dark Matter by Michelle Paver - the perfect blend of icy darkness and subtle threat!" Pat Walsh
It could be a place. Rosemary Sutcliffe in her ancient Roman Britain tale of adventure, The Eagle of the Ninth wrote one of the most chilling supernatural paragraphs of place. When Esca and Marcus enter the ancient temple ...

"The black darkness seemed to press against his eyes, against his whole body, and with the darkness, the atmosphere of the place ... it was horribly personal. For thousands of years this place had been the centre of dark worship... Marcus felt that at any moment he would hear it breathe, slowly and stealthily, like a waiting animal." Rosemary Sutcliffe

This a wild, ancient and threatening kind of supernatural. It is a haunted space based on fear of the unknown, on basic human instinct, in fact. It is an atmosphere conjured up by a common belief in a powerful, guardian spirit. But we're grown up now, aren't we? We're above all that ignorant, illogical nonsense? My head says, yes, of course but such stories still have the power to make my little heart beat faster.



3. THE RIGHT TIME. 

The obvious time for all those ghoulies and ghosties is at night, in the deep dark, possibly midnight. It works for me.




The dark brings on all those primeval fears of the unseen, the unknown. The final dark that comes with death.
"The first one (ghost), that I remember, was when I was about 10 or 11 and staying at a friend’s house. The house was built round the turn of the last century and was quite a rambling place. I got up in the middle of the night to go to the loo, and on returning to the bedroom, saw an old man coming up the staircase. I knew immediately he wasn’t “real” but I didn’t think he was going to harm me, but he was pretty frightening – small and hunched over and seemed quite bad-tempered – so I hot-footed it back to bed!" Nicky Schmidt
Yet the daylight can bring more subtle and surprising fear. One of the best short stories I've read was called 'The Clock', I forget the author (don't hate me). It was set on a hot Summer's day and a young person had been given the seemingly innocuous job of fetching a clock from a particular bedroom for his Aunt. It all came together - the increasingly stifling heat, the blinding light, the just-emptied rooms, lingering creaks, the swollen wood of the windows he tried to escape from and the loud ticking of the unwound clock. I was so relieved that the hapless protagonist, clearly given the task by a scared relative, escaped. I shared his horror and relief as he looked back at the sunny face of the house. How had that been so terrifying? Probably because it shouldn't have been and is the nearest sensation to my second story for you, set in Summer and involving a doorway...

It's just upstairs - it won't take you a moment ...
It was summer and I was spending a couple of days at my grandmother's rambling old house. She asked me to go to the sewing room and retrieve a lampshade she was working on. I went up the main stairs and along the sunlit corridor, took the dog-leg creaking staircase up to the attic, up, up. There was only a doorway and the sunlit sloping-ceilinged sewing room beyond. On the tiny landing, there to my left, was a small square window over looking the garden. I glanced down and the lawn was empty but I became aware that someone else was beside me looking out. I froze. My breathing shallowed. I heard nothing, I saw nothing but I KNEW that there was something very, very close.
I forced myself through the doorway and grabbed any old lampshade from that well-lit, well used room and ran passed the window and down the stairs. I never went up to the attic again and my grandmother moved soon afterwards.


4. GHOSTLY PURPOSE.

I think you need to give your ghost a reason to live; that it to say, a purpose in coming back. Many short stories are about the given notion that a place or a house is haunted and it is all about how your protagonist comes to stumble into the way of the ghost. Then the flesh on the bones of the story is how he or she reacts to it. Longer stories need to have reasons for why the ghost haunts. In fact, the ghost's story may well be resolved along with any issues the protagonist may have.
"I do come back to ghosts. I think it's because they are such driven characters. After all, they must be desperate for something if they've stayed behind. That makes them instantly intriguing, even when you have no idea who they are yet." Cliff McNish
I sometimes feel so sad for ghosts. They are the ones left behind and they don't like it. They are creatures of such powerful longings; lost love, snatched life, unresolved family doings. All these yearnings are sustained by powerful emotions like anger or jealousy or love. By staying behind it seems that ghosts have lost their more rounded emotions and are left trapped in a loop of FEELING and an inability to deal with it. Like, Lindsey Barraclough's, Long Lankin, the monster at the heart of the story has a sad history. It has twisted to become a consuming thirst for revenge. In this case our hero must discover his weakness and defeat him.


"No one but the dead can love life so much. It's wasted on the living." Cliff McNish

5. TELL THE TRUTH.

Some 'true' stories become the best written ghost stories.
"Take the curious case of Hinton Ampner. The abbreviated version goes something like this: in 1771, a woman named Mary Ricketts became so exhausted from a parade of inexplicable terrors that she packed her bags and quit her home. Apparitions of a man and a woman had appeared day and night, sometimes looking in through windows, sometimes bending over beds. That she felt her children were in danger is one of the many reasons why this is almost certainly the “lost” true ghost story that was supposedly related to Henry James by the Archbishop of Canterbury, EW Benson, one winter evening in 1895, thereby becoming the germ of the story that developed into The Turn of the Screw."
The academic, M.R. James invented a genre of his own, the antiquarian ghost story. In these, the protagonist is an elderly scholar who discovers some ancient artefact which brings down its wrath upon him. His stories are very much based on how he led his own academic life and his readings. One of my favourites is, 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad.'

Behind you!


Another favourite is, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. It is the story of a scholar who tells a rector the tale of how, while searching an abbey library, he found clues leading him to the hidden treasure of a disgraced abbot. All the way through I want to shake the protagonist by the shoulders and tell him to, "put it back before it's too late!" 

But of course, he does not listen, they never listen ...




There are so many wonderful ghost stories out there. If you don't have any true tales of your own then here's a list of of great ghost stories to start you off. I love a good list.
I would love to hear more ...

"I was writing the opening to BREATHE when, without me realising it, the winter light had faded outside, leaving the house dark. I left my study and went to turn the light on in the corridor. At the same moment I heard a really strange noise downstairs. It was very unsettling, like a word being uttered but not quite. I've never been able to explain it, or why it was so unnerving. It's my M.R. James moment." Cliff McNish



The ghost story is possibly the oldest form of story. It fascinates and repels. It delivers a frisson which makes you thankful for the life you have and slightly fearful of what is to come ...

SCBWI stalwart and no mean writer of ghost stories, Gill Hutchison, sums it up well when she says, 
" ... they tap into all of that eerie stuff that we know we don’t know, however hard science and/or religion try to explain and rationalise. The louder you laugh it off, the more you’re tempted to check -behind you. The fine line between what we consider to be unnatural and what just might be supernatural is in a different place for all of us." 
I love reading ghost stories because a good ghost story builds feelings of fear that imperceptibly creep up on you, drawing you in and leaving you checking the dark corners of your house even after you finish the last page. Bekki Hill
Okay. My final ghost story is a photograph. It was taken by my sister-in-law at Otterden Place in Kent. This is where my husband's grandparents died and were buried. It was only when she showed us the photograph that we noticed the presence of something that had not been there when the photograph was taken. It is seemingly a veiled woman with the distinctly linen feel of a Jamesian spirit. 
On the other hand it could just be a glitch in the camera  ...


Many thanks to all those wonderful contributors. I have just twitched the curtain with this blog, lifting the veil is another matter ...

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