What is the appeal of ghost stories? What’s so pleasurable about being scared silly – and what elements do all the best ghost stories have?
It’s all in the quality of the storytelling. I think the quality of the writing in good ghost stories is often very high, because you can’t get away with fudging things. I started out as a comedy writer, and it’s the same there – if it’s not funny, it just doesn’t work. The same with horror. Ghost stories either work – and scare – or they don’t. It’s a very unforgiving medium. I like that. I like the discipline of that.
What ghost stories also allow you to do is shift and play with time, and move things around, and examine the way our minds work – in a way that I think a lot of other fiction doesn’t permit. Also, you’re revealed when you’re scared. The things that drive you are clearly on display. The same as a laugh, I guess. The reward is more or less instantaneous.
In answer to your question about whether people enjoy getting scared… I don’t know whether they do. I think putting themselves through that experience, overcoming that experience, is part of the fun, and that response varies from person to person.
For example, I’m incredibly scared of spiders. I have a friend who is, too. She went on an overcoming-arachnaphobia course – and she absolutely hated it. The final challenge was to hold a tarantula, and send people pictures of you holding that tarantula. So she just sent people pictures of her just, like, crying while holding this massive spider.
Oh no! That’s very funny.
And that’s how I would be! I would not overcome anything as a result of that experience. But ghost stories offer a way of getting close to that live rail of fear, without actually touching it.
I understand. Tell me a bit about your new novel, The Apparition Phase. Your publisher described it to me as “the definitive hauntology novel”.
The term ‘Hauntology’ began as an academic term in the work of Jacques Derrida, a pun on ‘ontology’ in the French pronunciation, where he uses it to describe a world haunted by Marxist ideas that never came to pass. From there, the word began to be more widely used to describe that sense of dislocation between the world we were promised and the world we got, whether that refers to promises made in politics, music, fiction, technology or society.
However, the word has become a term which explicitly refers to the memories of the so-called ‘last analogue generation’ – the generation who grew up between, say, 1960 and about 1986, who would have to remember – or misremember – anything that caught their attention, a state of affairs unthinkable now, in an age of instant recall. Plus, much of the television, film, and pop music of that era has a kind of witchy bent to it, for want of a better term. And it’s also sort of hard to remember clearly, and that’s become part of the success of it, too. That strand of that era has become fetishized, another avenue of the nostalgia industry, albeit an unsettling one.
“The term ‘Hauntology’ began as an academic term in the work of Jacques Derrida, a pun on ‘ontology’ in the French pronunciation”
My book relies heavily on that iconography, but I also I wanted the past to feel like another country. Owen Hatherley, in the Ministry of Nostalgia, talks about the touchstones of popular hauntology being a very comforting palette, and they are – in a way. However, I wanted that period to come across as much more alien and strange than we’re usually encouraged to recall it, especially in light of how unpleasant we now understand elements of the 1970s, our childhood, to have been. So I started to write this story set in the 1970s. And it just sort of flowed from there. It was just a delight to write it.
I also looked at cases of real hauntings, or ostensibly real hauntings. For a lot of people, it defaced their lives. This wasn’t a pleasant experience. So you think – why would anyone make this up, considering the consequences have been so rotten? It seemed a good starting point. The starting point for the novel is that two people decide to fake a ghost photograph, and let’s just say it doesn’t go well. I wanted to explore the idea that, if you believe something, it sort of makes it real.
Let’s turn to your recommendations. You’ve selected five of the best ghost stories for us, so we will look briefly at a collection where one might find each of these stories, and the stories themselves in more detail. First of all, you wanted to discuss ‘The Same Dog’, by Robert Aickman. It’s published in the 1975 collection Cold Hand in Mine.
Faber & Faber reissued most of Aickman’s stories a few years back, and they are all worth reading – although there are a couple of vampire ones in there, and I find vampires very dull!
Aickman is, rightly, lauded, although he was forgotten for a while. The introduction to this edition is by Reece Shearsmith, from The League of Gentlemen. Aickman is very dear to The League of Gentlemen, you can see that; they both deal in sort of uniquely English nightmares. Aickman’s got a very precise, polite way of writing. I mean, he’s funny as well, but he’s quite snobbish, too. Despite that precision, at the heart of his best stories is something unresolved and unpleasant. ‘The Same Dog’ is the best of all. It doesn’t admit of an easy interpretation.
Yes, Shearsmith writes in his introduction that “every story you read by Aickman has something lurking within it that will stay with you long after you have finished reading.” I think Aickman himself preferred to refer to them as, simply, ‘strange stories’.
Yes, that very much applies to ‘The Same Dog’. It’s about Hilary Brigstock, a boy from a long line of boys. His mother’s dead, so he’s got his father and two much older brothers, who bully him. There’s no female presence in his life. He goes to some sort of prep school – because this is Robert Aickman – and there he meets Mary Rossiter. Immediately, they have a connection. She’s slightly older than him and, although there’s no doubt that they love each other, they’re just friends. I don’t think you read about that often enough in literature: close male-female friendships. They’re really close friends, this relationship is everything to Hilary. And he loses her halfway through, which is heartbreaking.
So the main thrust of the action centres upon an afternoon when they are walking in the woods, and they stumble upon this walled-in, maybe haunted, house.
And they see a dog there. They see a horrible dog that they don’t like. It looks diseased. At one point Aickman calls it “blotchy and draggled”. It’s not a pleasant dog. The dog seems to have a weird connection with Mary. Spooked, they leave the house.
As they walk away from this ruined house, Hilary turns around, and for half a second, he sees a man – a bald, slender man – rising up from behind the wall. And it’s implied that the man is naked – which is another weird detail, strangely sexual. But Hilary doesn’t ever reveal this detail to anybody else.
They go home, and afterwards, Hilary never sees Mary again.
Right. It’s an almost trivial event, but the children are frightened at first – then Mary isn’t – and everything is different afterwards.
Well, no, not everything, that’s the thing. Like all good ghost stories, you can read it in any number of ways. Either reality has fundamentally shifted, which we know is impossible, or possibly it’s a screen memory for some awful event that happened to them, that they can’t quite recall. One of them could have been molested. That’s sort of implied, but also isn’t.
I want to avoid spoilers where we can – given that ghost stories so rely upon big ‘reveals’ – but I think it’s fair to say that the ending throws everything up in the air, and shifts it into the realm of the ghost story.
Objectively, none of the story makes any sense, and as such feels like the kind of thing that you wouldn’t tell people about if it happened to you, because it would drive you mad if you even acknowledged its reality. And the story’s just so powerful for that. I love that it’s a sum that doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense unless you consider something absolutely beyond normal cognition. I think that’s such an achievement when it’s told so naturalistically. It’s not strictly a ghost story. It has the logic and the mechanics of a ghost story, but technically there’s no ghost.
I can see why this book appeals to Reece Shearsmith, as the tone reminded me quite a lot of the television series he created with Steve Pemberton, Inside No. 9. It’s interesting that this might be scary, when most – if not all – the unpleasant activity takes place off-screen, so to speak. Do you think that’s what makes ghost stories and horror so effective – the unspoken implications?
I think it’s intrinsic to certain kinds of ghost stories, which are a different discipline to horror stories. With ghost stories, there’s more of an opportunity to explore the mind. To explore people’s relationship with death. Because ghosts are liminal creatures. It’s not like horror, with a giant spider, or something clearly not of our world, like Stephen King’s It. That’s a different thing to the ghost story where ghosts occupy this weird space in our real lives. In daylight, we all know they don’t exist… but we’ve all stayed somewhere we didn’t like. We all know someone who’s experienced something weird. So it’s at the borders of what we understand to be real. It makes for a more interesting story, one that could conceivably happen in our world.
Let’s talk about Shirley Jackson. You’ve picked out her collection Dark Tales, from which you want to recommend the story ‘Home’ in particular.
It’s about a woman called Ethel Sloane and her husband Jim, who have moved into what is called ‘the old Sanderson place’. The story starts in a nearby hardware shop, as Ethel talks to the clerk, who advises her not to drive the road to the house when it rains. She ignores him, and on the way back comes across an old woman and a child who are presumably waiting for a lift. She stops and picks them up – they’re bedraggled and smell of rain, and it’s all a bit uncomfortable – then when she gets to the house, she turns around and there’s no one in the back seat. That’s the beginning of the story.
“When she gets to the house, she turns around and there’s no one in the back seat”
It’s a very odd inversion of the usual rhythm, because usually you’d put that at the end. But she’s Shirley Jackson, and she’s brilliant – she’s much more interested in what you might do if this thing happened to you. And Ethel is immediately overjoyed, because now she has something in common with the people in the town, something that they can share. She sees it as currency for establishing herself in the town, but later, where the story ends, she can’t bring herself to mention it. She has fitted into the town – but only by understanding that fitting in here means shutting up about this awful thing and never mentioning it. That’s really interesting. It forces you to consider what happens when you bury something like that.
What’s great, too, about the ghosts in this story is that they are really solid, not made of shadow like usual ghost story ghosts. Ethel mistakes them for real people. It’s only when they vanish that she realises.
What I really like about Shirley Jackson’s writing is that her characters are always so complicated and unattractive, not entirely likeable. Ethel is like that. She’s patronising and sort of shameless. She’s got her own agenda.
Yes, I love that, too. I think that’s very timely; that’s the element of her writing that really stays. My favourite book of hers is Hangsaman, which I think is a masterpiece. Nobody ever really talks about it.
I heard about this book only the other day. I’ve read her most famous novels – The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle – but not Hangsaman. I think that I might make it my Halloween read this year.
It’s magnificent. Just a really brilliant book. Also, Jackson is really interested in these very unique women, with unique minds. So you have Eleanor, in The Haunting of Hill House, who is possibly psychic, possibly mad, but clearly very sensitive. Then you have Elizabeth in The Bird’s Nest – although I found that hard going – who has multiple personality disorder. Then, in Hangsaman, there’s Natalie. She’s just very bright – that doesn’t make her singular, but she’s trapped in a world where that’s not really allowed. That’s fascinating.
Returning to Dark Tales: do you enjoy the collection more generally?
Yes, I do. The stories are self-consciously supernatural. I should probably point out that it doesn’t have ‘The Lottery’, in case people are expecting that.
If people haven’t read that, they must. That short story might be more famous than all her novels put together, because it upset so many people when it was first published. It’s published by Farrar, Straus & Giraux in the US, and by Penguin Classics in the UK. It’s also available to read and listen to for free on the New Yorker website.
The other standout story in there is ‘All She Said Was Yes,’ which is fantastic. It’s about a nosy neighbour talking about next door’s daughter, Vicky, who turns out to be not only psychic, but infallibly psychic. She can predict everything that happens, and it’s a real curse and burden for her. But the narrator of the story just doesn’t understand it, and can’t see it, even when Vicky gives her a notebook filled with her predictions. “The child had been amusing herself writing gossipy little paragraphs about her neighbours and her parents’ friends…” And then the notebook ends with an atomic war. And the narrator just ignores it! She just says, ‘I threw the little book in the furnace.’ There’s so much to enjoy. I like the idea that if you were unerringly psychic, you’d still have to deal with really awful people. The whole collection is great, but I really like ‘Home’, because it’s so striking to have such solid ghosts.
M. John Harrison’s You Should Come With Me Now is the third collection that you want to recommend, and particularly his short story ‘Animals’.
Yes. I think M. John Harrison is one of our best living writers. He’s underrated because he works in genre fiction. This is the highest quality volume of stories he’s ever produced. They’re not explicitly about ghosts; they’re often just ideas – sometimes sketches, sometimes a paragraph, sometimes a page – which have this kernel of bitter humour and unknowability in them. Then in the midst of them there’s this almost-straight ghost story, ‘Animals’, which is probably my favourite.
It’s about a woman called Susan, who is staying in a holiday let in Pembrokeshire – which is kind of a classic M. John Harrison doorway to a nightmare, really, as he delights in the most painfully realistic settings possible. But the trick that he does here – and it’s a brilliant trick, I don’t know anyone who does it quite so well – he has a way of making our world seem alien and strange. Everything he describes seems odd. In his science fiction, he describes all these different planets in this sort of matter-of-fact, clipped way, as if they’re not really that interesting, whereas our world is much more richly realised, in terms of the light and the smells, details like that. He seems to realise that the moment we are living in now is always fascinating.
Anyway, Susan in ‘Animals’ is staying in this holiday let, and after a couple of days this couple… comes to her attention. It’s very ambiguous – maybe fifty-fifty whether she’s imagining them or not. And she starts to imagine them going about their mundane business. They smoke a lot, they talk about books, it’s all very dull. And they start to impinge more on her consciousness. The longer she’s there, the more weird and violent their story becomes. Again, nothing adds up. It does everything it can to dislocate you in time.
“In the handwritten manuscript, an unseen hand starts to write messages”
There’s a bit when Susan’s looking out over the sea, and there’s a sand bar. She says that it’s ‘the same colour as the coffee in the Tudor Rooms.’ You read it and think, ‘okay, is this a reference I should get?’ then some time later she goes to the Tudor Rooms, apparently for the first time. It’s that way of introducing things in a nonlinear way. It starts to make you doubt Susan’s narration. It’s hinted at, rather than made explicit. But it’s such a clever idea, and a very odd way of doing a ghost story. And a beautiful story, because it’s beautifully written.
Harrison is clearly enjoying himself in this collection, its unmistakeable in the writing. And there are lots of stories that are much funnier in here. There’s one about a man who goes missing inside his own house. They’re funny and tragic. He’s unfailingly honest about people and their limitations. This particular story does have a sort of kick in the guts at the end, but it’s done so beautifully – and even then, that might not be the correct interpretation of what’s happening. It stands up to being read again and again. I read it twice this weekend. I just really like it.
Okay, next in your selection of the best ghost stories is Margaret Irwin’s ‘The Book,’ which we can find in The Virago Book of Ghost Stories.
It starts in classic ghost story territory. Like W. W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, we start with a happy family, so you know it’s not going to go well. It’s about the Corbett family: Mr Corbett and his wife and their three children. It begins with Mr Corbett finding an odd gap in his bookshelf, which his kids have also noticed. Then he finds this ancient handwritten volume, which he becomes fascinated by. He reads a couple of pages of that, and then – most delightfully, for anyone who’s ever done an English literature degree – the book starts to poison his experience of reading any other authors.
So he tries to read Charles Dickens, but “beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering.” Later he tries to read Stevenson and detects, he says, “self-pity masquerading as courage,” and in Treasure Island “an invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality.” He says Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte are “a prying, sub-acid busybody” and “a raving, craving maenad seeking self-immolation on the altar of her frustrated passions.” Almost as if the book is jealously protecting itself by slighting its rivals.
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Mr Corbett is a financial speculator, and in the handwritten manuscript, an unseen hand starts to write messages, which he then interprets as ways to invest money. And of course, they all pay off. He realises that he has to start obeying these cryptic suggestions to the letter, but he doesn’t know who it is who is writing them.
That central mystery doesn’t seem like it should sustain the whole story, but it really does. As his relationship with the book grows, he learns more Latin, because a lot of it is in Latin. The book seems to be the record of some kind of magus or magician, who was clearly doing something dark and evil. The manuscript says that “it wasn’t finished in my lifetime… the work is never ending.” So all the hints are there. And then the instructions begin to get more explicit.
Let’s say things escalate quickly.
It’s just so much fun. Like in Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley, where a character buys a false beard and becomes a different person, a much more confident person because of this false beard… It feels like this strange book allows Mr Corbett to become a terrifyingly bold financial speculator, and he’s suddenly respected. It gives him courage, but also starts to feed on his darkest desires. At that point, it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a real ghost, or all in his mind – the effect is the same. I find that interesting. If someone has moved out of a house because they believe it to be haunted, it doesn’t really matter if it’s really haunted. The net result has been the same. Houses have been demolished because they’ve been presumed to be haunted. So it was real to someone, real enough to have effects in the ‘real world’.
Yes. No part of me believes in ghosts, at least in the scary-story sense of what a ghost might be. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not frightened when I’m on my own in the house and I hear noises in the attic. I still have the same psychological wires to trip.
Yes. The one place in this world you know is definitely haunted is your brain.
Maybe this brings us to the final pick on your list of the best ghost stories: ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ by H. Russell Wakefield, which can be found in the Oxford Book of 20th Century Ghost Stories, among other collections.
This one is very well known, but I included it because I think it has the classic rhythm of a ghost story: in act one, somebody transgresses – they do a forbidden thing. In this case, it’s a young man called Mr Cort, who buys a house – I think it’s called Lorn Manor – and although a local tells him not to go there after dark, he drives out to see it. He goes to the manor and opens the door, and inside it’s pitch black. He walks inside and the door slams behind him.
Even thinking about the next bit makes me shiver. It really taps into something very primal that affects all of us – fear of the dark.
It really does. This is almost like an Edwardian found-footage story, because we are totally in the story with him. So: the door slams behind him, and he’s in. And the interior topology of the house starts to break down. It doesn’t make any sense. He seems to be trapped in this recursive loop; he’s in the same passage, with the same chair, wherever he goes. And he can feel – something – slipping by him in the dark…
And this thing in the dark gets bolder and bolder. It’s such a simple idea. And there is not a wasted word. The story is only four pages long. It’s fantastic. The great thing about it is that you are in that trap with him. I mean, he’s called Mr Cort – it couldn’t be more obvious! So you realise that you are trapped with him at the same time that he realises he might not get out, and he makes an attempt to stay calm and to control his panic. It’s so tightly controlled and so effective. I don’t think I’ve come across a ghost in all of literature as malign as this, so unknowable. It’s a creature of pure darkness.
It appears also to be amorphous. At one point, two or three people seem to be present, having a whispered conversation. At another, point, Cort feels something cold and wet pressed to his forehead, like a hand. I mean – who knows? It’s the mystery of it that’s so terrifying. I’ve read a lot of H. R. Wakefield, but this seems to be the high point.
The recurring character – if I can call it that – of the haunted house is so interesting. This idea that an inanimate object or setting might be malevolent. We saw it in ‘The Same Dog’. And, of course, in Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is an interesting example. It’s there in the opening paragraph: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within…” It’s built at strange angles, so nowhere leads quite where you expect it to lead. It’s physically uncanny.
Peter Ackroyd, in London: The Biography, talks about St Giles being a place whose history has always been one of sorrow and loneliness, as if the place itself ferments these emotions; there’s a similar strand in Iain Sinclair’s work, where he discusses certain places accruing bad energies. Psychic faultlines in cities, where the emotional character of a location marks it out as a bad place. And, honestly, I think that’s something you learn instinctively as a child. It may be irrational, but it doesn’t really matter. Some places have an atmosphere that’s not pleasant; they feel like they don’t want you to be there. That’s all coming from you, of course. But I like that idea: haunted space.
It was so much fun to write a ghost story, because it’s territory that I love. I’ve been immersed in ghost stories my whole life, and I wanted to write one that wouldn’t disappoint, because there’s quite a high level of disappointment in ghost stories – especially in anthologies. Because if there’s a reveal when the character is a ghost, and the story is in an anthology of ghost stories, then it’s useless – you’ve just been waiting for that other shoe to drop. The best ones, like the ones we’ve talked about, appear to have something unresolvable at their heart. And so I wanted to do something where I, as the writer, knew all the answers, but people could read it and come away with their own interpretation.
With thanks to Tony Way.
Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor
October 30, 2020
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