Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Stories That Go Bump in the Night

The Times is running a ghost story competition, which most of my readers here are not eligible to enter, not being UK residents. But Susan Hill's article about the essential ingredients of a ghost story is certainly worth a read for anyone interested in writing in the genre. (Susan Hill's The Woman in Black is one of the best ghost stories of all time - and if a copy hasn't found it's way into your hands, seek it out!)
A ghost story is not a tale of horror or terror; it is not about werewolves, vampires, monsters or Martians, terrifying though these may be. I doubt if even a few of the most famous stories of the form’s master, M. R. James, should actually be called ghost stories because, although they contain many unpleasant things, those things are not what you and I would call ghosts.

So, what do we call ghosts? (We must set aside the small question of belief. It is perfectly possible to know what ghosts are without believing in their existence.) I define a ghost as the remaining spirit of a person who has existed in this life, but who is known to have died. This spirit is usually seen and often recognised, but it may be heard, sensed or even smelt. So, the ghost story has to have a ghost – usually human, but possibly animal. There have been plenty of ghostly cats and dogs.

The one absolutely essential difference between a “real” ghost and a fictional one is that the ghost in the story has to have a purpose, whereas few “true” ghosts do.

Headless horseman gallop down lonely roads. Men wearing armour and carrying their heads tucked underneath their arms walk through walls. Veiled women drift intermittently down flights of stairs in old houses. Nuns glide by in gardens at dusk. This is “so what” territory. Young women are heard weeping, men shouting, dogs occasionally bark in the night, but why they do this, what they hope to achieve by their hauntings remains, like the apparitions themselves, mysterious.

If these “true” stories are told in print, they are dull, and collections of them pall after a few pages – however full of spooky atmospherics they may be, they are ultimately pointless.

Ghostly fiction is really successful only if the ghost has a reason to appear. That reason is not usually benign. The ghost may seek revenge or retribution for what happened to it in life and the presumption is that, once this is obtained, the haunting will cease. Some ghosts want to alert the living to a secret – the whereabouts of a hidden will or a letter of confession to a crime. They may want to point to the real perpetrator of some ghastly crime. They may even want to bring comfort and consolation. But they must certainly want to do, say or bring about something – or the story fails.

If the crime novel needs a strong, forward-moving narrative, the ghost story is a test of the writer’s ability to create atmosphere. What ghost story convinces if it does not have atmosphere? Traditionally, that atmosphere is, well, ghostly.

When I was planning The Woman in Black, I made a list of essential ingredients of the classic ghost story and after “a ghost” came “atmosphere” – under that heading came “weather” and “place”. Haunted houses? Yes, and for house read “mansion”, preferably old, isolated and in a dark and dismal spot. An ancient chapel, abbey ruins – haunted cloisters are especially frightening. A house with a forest behind it, or a brooding cliff, a cataract, a moor across which the night winds howl – all are a gift to the writer wanting atmosphere. But the ghost story should not be confused with the Gothic. Not all ghosts are Goths and a Gothic tale need not include a ghostly apparition.

One of the most horrifying of all ghost story-masterpieces is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and it succeeds so well because it is a horribly believable story of pure evil. If a ghost story can create an atmosphere of real malevolence, threatening the lives, souls and sanity of the innocent, it is likely to do its job of making the reader afraid and horrified. There is the world of difference between that and the pleasurable frisson imparted by being taken for a walk among haunted ruins as the sun is setting.
I feel the hairs on the back of my neck pricking up already!

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Miss Bib,

do u have the Woman In Black DVD or video? its been out of print so long.


Viz

bibliobibuli said...

don't have lah, viz. and my copy of the book was borrowed and not returned ...

Anonymous said...

i have the book. lent it to a friend, and he claimed he wasn't scared, and that it was boring. stupid bastard.


Viz

bibliobibuli said...

i wasn't really scared neither. but is being scared really the point of a ghost story? it's a big comfort fest really - especially when you are in a country where it's cold enough to sit in front of a fire and listen to the wind howling outside ... delicious. i had a great time reading this book. (i've read another of her books and enjoyed it but the title escapes me at the moment.) but every reader to their own taste, Viz. one booklover's durian is another booklover's stinky custard!

Tunku Halim said...

I saw 'The Woman in Black' as a play. It was SCARY!!! I never imagined being frightened watching a play, but I was.

Sharon, you're right - being scared is not the objective, enjoying the tale and coming away with a feeling of having been spirited away for those few hours is what it's all about.

Anonymous said...

there's a reason why they're called tales of "terror". you're supposed to feel what the protagonist feels. according to Noel Carroll's The Philosophy Of Horror.

i was frightened by the book, especially the second half. great imagery. another book i just finished that scared me a little is Dan Simmons's Song Of Kali. there's one scene in total darkness that completely creeped me out!

btw, Simmons turned out to be quite a discovery for me. his recent works are very well written. i used to think he was one of those throwaway pulp horror writers. but his science fiction work is astounding.


Viz

S. Cargo said...

I had seen a ghost, I had written a poem about a ghost, but then again, I could be schizophrenic.

bibliobibuli said...

tunku halim - would love to see that

viz - it's like chilli sauce. it makes the mouth hurt a bit but the after affect is a lovely satisfied comfortable feeling. if a horror story doesn't make us deliciously scared, we don't get the cosy after effect. too scary is a no-no. (read cormac mccarthy instead!)

scargo - maybe i'm schizo too as i've heard... something that may have been a ghost .... ooooooooooo

Anonymous said...

Ah, this is an interesting debate! Should ghosts always be scary? But can't one feel affection for a ghost? Can't a ghost be comforting, if you knew the person in life and have longed for their presence, or if they offer you some solace that the living cannot? There's a wonderful ghost in Toni Morrison's _Beloved_, not scary at all in my opinion.... To me, any portrayal of a ghost as *only* scary becomes two-dimensional and veers dangerous close to the "so-what territory" mentioned in the quotation Sharon chose. It's also so predictable, no? But a ghost who *isn't* scary, or isn't *just* scary, now that never fails to capture my interest.

- Preeta

bibliobibuli said...

when i had my spooky experience which may or may not have been in my head my feeling was ... frustration not fear. i wanted to understand what was happening and it all made no sense to me. (am i nuts? if so why has the same thing not happened since? was there something supernatural happening - if so why then and why was i the one to hear it?)

agree with you, preeta. remeber too the film "truly, madly, deeply" ... oh yes, and "ghost" too. and then the children's book "the ghost of thomas kemp" by penelope lively

i'd happily live in a house that was haunted if i could cut a deal with the ghost.

Anonymous said...

sorry, but that's a really silly thing to say, that a scary ghost is "two dimensional." it's like saying "hot dog shouldn't taste like hot dog. now if a hot dog tastes like durian ..."


Viz

bibliobibuli said...

i guess it depends what film/literary tradition you're coming from, Viz. you are a lover of horror, and would probably demand your money back if not scared.

but just ... strangeness is enough for some of us ... maybe ... many ghosts are sad and melancholy rather than outright horrible

Anonymous said...

no, i mean hot dog that doesn't taste like hot dog is interesting of course. but to say a hot dog shouldnt tatse like one cos it would be a cliche, that's not quite right.


V

bibliobibuli said...

it could be though in literary fiction or maybe even in the art-house movie, couldn't it?

Whitearrow said...

With all this talk of ghosts, must mention the book, 'The Ghosts of Motley Hall'...but to all those purists out there, this was a really funny, comedic book as opposed to the horror variety...if i'm not mistaken, it was turned into a tv series a long time ago...to anyone who can get a hold of this one, do give it a go! You won't be disappointed. Now, if i could only remember the name of the author...

bibliobibuli said...

here's something about it on wikipedia. it seems the TV series preceded the book.

Anonymous said...

Happy belated blog bday Sharon!

And I love MR James :)

Whitearrow said...

Thanks, Sharon. My bad, have looked up Wikipedia myself now and it seems the TV series did indeed precede the book. really enjoyed the book...ok, back to work for me.

Anonymous said...

Visited a graveyard while I was in Penang. It was very claming, somehow there's an atmosphere of serenity that surrounds it. You walk near it, especially at night, and you expect to be afraid, very afraid. Instead you experience this feeling of utter calm, like you've just finished your chores for the day and now finally have time to rest.

Daphne said...

I have watched the play four times and I was scared to death each time! But have yet to read the book. I too think Turn of the Screw is one of the best and scariest horror stories ever. And try Hardboiled by Banana Yoshimoto, Sharon - if you haven;t already, that is.