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.I feel the hairs on the back of my neck pricking up already!
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.
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!)