Re-blogged from Authors Electric.
It’s that time of year again, when pumpkins are carved out, horror films dominate the TV schedules, and kids don Frankenstein masks and flit around their neighbourhoods asking for sweets. Well, technically speaking, I am of course a few days late, but my Authors Electric slot falls on the second of the month, which means that – curses! – the coveted Hallowe’en spot will never be mine. Neither will that of April Fool’s Day, which I miss out on by just one day. That particular splendid opportunity goes to my esteemed colleague, Valerie Laws. Ah, well: better late than never, I suppose.
Ghosts. Whether you believe in them or not, they continue to haunt us. They have, so far, proved remarkably resistant to the silver bullet of science. You can’t get away from them; you might not have seen a ghost, but ask around in your social circle and the chances are that at least one person will claim that they have. Even if you never encounter a spook in the real world, that still leaves the fictional world; indeed, several of us in Authors Electric write ghost stories. How to account for the phantom’s enduring appeal?
Do ghosts exist? The question misses the point, perhaps. Ghosts can be said to exist simply by virtue of the fact that people – people of all cultures and times, people who have no apparent reason to lie – consistently report encountering them. The question, really, is what we think they actually are. Are they hallucinations? Unusual brain activity? A natural phenomenon that we don’t yet understand? Or are they genuinely paranormal or supernatural?
Somewhat to my disappointment, I haven’t seen a ghost, or at least not one that I recognised as such. I’ve had the unnerving feeling that I wasn’t alone, that I was being watched by someone unseen. I had one frightening experience in the Edinburgh Vaults, when I heard a loud thumping noise. I was with a tour group, but none of the other visitors were responsible and the remainder of the vaults were apparently empty. I was scared at the time. Later, my rational mind kicked into gear and began to supply explanations. The vaults are in the middle of a major city and, being underground, probably have strange acoustic properties. I could have heard a sound from outside, perhaps – traffic going past on the road above, or a distant door being slammed – which echoed down in the vaults, and was distorted and amplified. Add a touch of imagination, and you can see what might happen.
I don’t know why I’ve always had this fascination with hauntings. There’s nothing in my childhood, as far as I can remember, that obviously accounts for it. I do remember that, when I was about six or seven, I belonged to a book club organised by a teacher in my school. Every so often we were able to order a discounted book from a small catalogue. I ordered Scottish Hauntings by Grant Campbell, despite the fact that I’m not Scottish and hadn’t, at that stage, ever even been to Scotland. The book duly arrived, and I spent a few happy nights reading it in bed by torchlight, thrilled by the eerie illustrations and even eerier stories. Not only was it spooky and compelling; it was (I can imagine sceptics rolling their eyes at this point) intelligently written, never once patronising its young readers but trusting them to form their own ideas. It supplied mundane rational explanations – that the Eilean Mor mystery might have been due to nothing more than a freak wave, for example – and allowed room for doubt to creep in, as when the author pointed out that eyewitness testimony tends to become less reliable with time. Yet that keen intelligence, lightly worn, never threatened to dim the sense of mystery, which is the thing that I remember most about Scottish Hauntings. In a fit of nostalgia, I looked it up on the internet, and there it is, available for the princely sum of £0.01.
I grew up largely in Wales: not in a particularly picturesque or romantic area, just in an ordinary small town on the edge of the South Wales coalfield. Yet still it seemed that an ancient, Celtic mystery seeped through the fabric of everyday life and appearances. From an early age I sensed that there was another world, running alongside this one perhaps, mostly hidden from us and encountered only in the form of fleeting sensations and impressions, but sometimes there, visible and real, to anyone lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I gazed wistfully at a fire-damaged old farmhouse and mill as I passed them on the way to and from the local shops, wondering if I might glimpse or experience something…
I never did, sadly. Perhaps it really is a question of being in the right place at the right time. In one of my favourite creepy films, The Others, ghostly encounters are portrayed in this way. The living and the dead are treading different but strangely parallel paths, and sometimes – due to an unplanned, unforeseen, random collision of circumstances – those paths briefly cross. They never did for me, regrettably. My encounters with the spirit world seemed destined to be confined to the pages of books.
Not that that was a bad thing, necessarily. I began to devour ghost stories, discovering some all-time favourites in the process: The Lady’s Maid’s Bell by Edith Wharton, The Fire When It Comes by Parke Godwin, Somerset Maugham’s A Man From Glasgow. I discovered M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and Harry Price’s (supposedly factual) account of the Borley Rectory case in The Most Haunted House in England.
The progression from reading ghost stories to writing them seemed a natural one. What I discovered, though, in those early, faltering attempts, was that the ghost story, if it’s to be done well, is a surprisingly tricky form to master (I’m not sure I’m halfway to mastering it, even now). It calls for the evocation of atmosphere, the slow building-up of tension, and releasing that tension at the right moment, and in the right way. It relies not upon garish shock-and-awe tactics, but upon mood and setting.
I’m still fascinated with ghosts. Some would say that, at my age, I really should know better. They’re right, perhaps. But some things are stronger than we are, and my fascination with ghosts is one of them. I’m still waiting. Perhaps, one day, I’ll have a genuine brush with the supernatural…