I think it’s probably horror films and television that are to blame for the assumption that ghost stories are inherently gory, bloody, violent… If this were the case, I wouldn’t read them. Something being eerie and something being fright-inducing are totally different, and the latter is hugely dependent on film techniques. Watch any scary movie with the sound off and you’ll see what I mean. Other than A Quiet Place, of course, but I’d argue that’s because the total lack of sound inverts it and becomes the sound effect.
Historically, when it comes to ghost stories in literature, it’s far less about frights and all about a sense of creepiness and self-doubt. If anything, the spooky-factor for me has always been stories where you aren’t even sure if there’s a ghost involved. So, if you’ve not really got a sweet-tooth but want to get into the Halloween spirit, here are some sugar-free treats to sink your teeth into this Halloween.
- Ghost Walk
By Sarah Wragg
I’ll be chatting to the author of this collection of ghostly poems on 5 November on a new podcast and video show I’ve started, Babble, so mark that in your diaries alongside whatever virtual firework plans you’ve got pencilled in. In the meantime, feast your eyes on Sarah’s collection Ghost Walks, each poem a candy-sized burst of sweet, sour and punch.
Each poem reflects the fleeting but tangible experience (or notion of) ghosts – or rather, how the living perceive the dead. In some of them, the imagery is that of traditional ghost stories, and in others there is a modern subversion, while many blend the two: of Kindles on ghost ships, ghostly forest walks by iPhone-light. Sarah writes about the human condition and the supernatural in equal measures, letting us decide what is real and what is fantastical.
The question of why humans are so curious about ghosts or the idea of them, and why they are even scary (they’re dead, surely the living are a more serious threat?) is really fascinating to me. Why do we give people frights and find it funny? Why do we enjoy getting frights? Are our lives so hollow that we have to create something even more hollow to prove our solidity? Is it an obsession with finding meaning after death? A subconscious desire for retribution and the potential for payback, therefore illuminating an appeal to haunting? Are they just a manifestation of the things we know we’ve done wrong? It is naturally something I’ve asked Sarah her thoughts on, though I’m not sure there’s ever going to be a precise answer to these sorts of questions.
- The Canterville Ghost
By Oscar Wilde
The Canterville Ghost was the first of Oscar Wilde’s writing I read, and it was his first published story, too. History and ghost-fix all in one? Yes please.
I really enjoyed the pace and the wit used throughout The Canterville Ghost, and the idea of an unsuccessful, unscary ghost was brilliant. It’s particularly relevant now, despite how long ago it was written, as trying to scare people becomes harder the more desensitized we are by violence as well as the realistic nature of modern day production quality. Most of the time, there’s more blood and gore on the news than in fiction, so how to scare us?
I felt desperately sorry for Wilde’s ghostly character who can’t scare the Americans who have moved into Canterville Chase, despite his very best efforts, elaborate costumes and well-practiced haunted laughter. My thoughts on what actually makes ghosts scary when they’re dead/clouds of dust/see-through were stirred throughout as the Canterville ghost became more of a clown than a ghost. It’s also reassuring to know that even a ghost can have an existential career crisis, right?
It’s charming and the political undercurrents of Wilde’s views of British aristocracy (spoooooky) are rife, which a lot of Wilde’s work is renowned for. Although it’s not exactly subtle, he’s a couple of sentences short of a full blown public service announcement.
- The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson
Moving away from the bite-sized poems and fiction and into the realm of 19th century horror and mystery fiction: Shirley Jackson, The Queen of Ghost Stories. Arguably, her most famous horror novel is We Have Always Lived In The Castle, which I’ll be reading and chatting about over on Cardiff Book Talk, which I’ve done before for The Testaments and Carmilla. I think The Haunting of Hill House might be one of the best books I’ve ever read, so I’m not really sure what to expect from one which is considered “better”.
Based on this blog piece, you probably think I’m a bit of a sucker for a ghost story. Well, until I’d read The Haunting of Hill House, I hadn’t read any. I thought I didn’t like this sort of thing. I really hate being scared and sometimes (always) get a fright when someone puts the windscreen wipers on without warning me. But reading this wasn’t “scary”, albeit a psychological rollercoaster and bloody creepy at times, and I’m thinking perhaps it’s just loud noises and blood that I don’t like. The worst sleepover of my life involved watching the original The Amityville Horror. The only thing we could do to recover was watch The Hannah Montana Movie straight afterwards. I probably won’t watch the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House unless someone presents a strong argument for it (or maybe the comparison will make a good blog post… hmm…)
The story is quite simple, so one might think it’s full of tropes, but I’m inclined to think Jackson invented the tropes and that every ghost story since has simply followed suit. This is a fascinating exploration of fear and self-doubt, the effects and manifestations of them, and how the scariest things in the world sometimes dwell within our minds.
By Sheridan Le Fanu
How about an 1800’s Gothic novella next, AKA The OG Vampire Book? Okay okay, fair comment, stop shouting, vampires aren’t technically ghosts. But I think I could make a pretty convincing argument that because they can’t die, they’re theoretically dead, and therefore they can stay in this blog post. I’m glad we settled this like adults.
I was the first to admit, going into reading the vampire book that predates even Dracula by 25 years, that I’m no expert on vamp-lit… as well as the first to admit that while I don’t believe The Twilight Saga to be a work of literary immortality (unlike the shiny-skinned hotties between its pages), 14-year-old Meg was a big fan. I also watched all eight seasons of The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off series, The Originals. I digress. I went into reading Carmilla unsure but open-minded because it could only be better than that strange cartoon featuring Adam Sandler as Drac (which I haven’t watched but would probably love, who am I kidding?)
I proceeded to have a wonderful experience. It wasn’t old-fashioned despite being 148 years old, nor was it impossible-to-finish-due-to-three-page-sentences as is sometimes characteristic of literature from the 1800’s. “The kind of book where you can tell they were paid by the word” was a description my boyfriend made about The Count of Monte Cristo which is a perfect description of what I had anticipated, even though it was a novella. Rather, it was refreshingly light and poignant – funny, observant, and most importantly, creepy.
Though technically a spoiler, I imagine you already guessed it (because I told you straight away and also because it’s really impossible not to guess it as Le Fanu isn’t necessarily trying to hide or surprise): Carmilla’s presence is directly linked to some mysterious occurrences and deaths of women in the local village, and our other characters must figure out how to deal with it.
- Ghostly Stories
By Celia Fremlin
Again, some short stories. I think it’s a format well-suited to ghost stories, as unexpected twists and mighty build-ups come in quick, delightful bursts. Kind of how I’d imagine a ghost to present itself. No self-respecting ghost gently eases you into a fright, surely? This ties back into how difficult it is to actually scare someone these days, especially with words rather than some discordant flute music and/or missing/rotting limbs.
Celia Fremlin’s Ghost Stories is an anthology of two short stories. They are delicious morsels best eaten all in one go (which, admittedly, is how I usually go about eating delicious things). The sleeve blurb described them as “a little Patricia Highsmith, a touch of Shirley Jackson” and I have no clue who Patricia is but I’ve made my case about Shirley Jackson. Patricia’s being added to the list.
Both stories have similarly ghostly plots, with mother-daughter dynamics (scary already?) and a hefty helping of repression (is that not what ghosts are made of, other than ectoplasm?)
- The Cave
By Kate Mosse
So, this is both a short story (or perhaps more of a novella) and a novel. Kate Mosse wrote The Cave as a “Quick Read” as part of the World Book Day initiative of 2009. Later that year, she turned it into a novel called The Winter Ghosts, which I haven’t read but I’m eager to see which format suits it best.
It’s set in 1920’s France, which I reckon is about as ghostly a time period the country has seen given that it had the highest ratio of deaths to population size of all the participating nations of World War I. It’s also set 700 years before that, following a persecution of the Cathar faith by the Catholic church. So there’s a lot of unease, and ghost stories are usually born out of incomplete or unresolved deaths. Also, I like to imagine all ghosts dressed in this time period’s clothing – the boo-geoisie, if you will. I’m hoping that when you arrive in the costume department once you’re a ghost, you’re given your chemisette and dusty evening gown rather than Yeezy’s and crop top. You can’t go about your daily business of haunting if you’re dressed for a Tik Tok video.
The story is simple (like all good ghost stories should be, I think, or risk convoluting the chills) and well-written. I think the novel will likely be better, because this is in parts a little bit rough and underdeveloped, which is evidenced by the fact that Kate was able to use it as a springboard for a whole new novel. But overall, if you want to get in the “festive” spirit, this is definitely one to dabble with.
- Wuthering Heights
By Emily Brontë
While I said under The Haunting of Hill House that I’d never read a ghost story before it, that’s not strictly true. No, I’m not going to put Harry Potter into this because that really doesn’t count just because it contains ghosts, but rather, my favourite book of all time: Wuthering Heights. People drive me crazy when they think Wuthering Heights is a love story. There is love in it, sure, but man-alive it’s not romantic, like a Jane Austen type love story. That was not the Brontë way. These characters are selfish, manipulative people who let their “love” excuse being mean and a little bit nuts, if you ask me. Heathcliff digs up Cathy’s grave, for Pete’s sake. It calls to mind Emily Brontë’s poem Remembrance, where there’s an implication of some dirt under the fingernails…
Yes, the ghosts in Wuthering Heights are more of the “internal misery” and mourning type, but as I’ve said already, all the best ghost stories leave you questioning whether the ghosts are real or all in the characters’ heads. Brontë has just made it quite clear that Cathy’s haunting of Heathcliff could just be a projection of his inner turmoil.
As with all gothic fiction, ghosts are their own characters in Wuthering Heights, but their existence is so ambiguous that you can read it either way. Whether ghost-Cathy is in Heathcliff’s mind, or simply a nightmare, there’s no question that he’s haunted by her. As with the villagers who claim to see Heathcliffe’s ghost, it could also be a sign of the times and superstition. But again, it doesn’t (ever) matter, with a ghost story, whether or not the ghosts are actually real. What matters is what they represent, and that they exist wherever there’s enough going on in the heads of the characters, their past and present, that manifestation is the only option.
And on that note, a song: