Thursday, October 29, 2009

What are You Reading Thursday - Ghost Stories

It's the season of ghosts and ghouls - so columnist Kate Walker takes a look at some reading that really fits with the spirit(s) of Halloween.

Is the ghost story coming back to haunt us?

It’s October 29th and that means that it’s heading up towards Halloween. In the shops, witches’ broomsticks and cauldrons, plastic bats and skulls with glowing eyes fill up the shelves and children are planning costumes they will wear to go out Trick or Treating. Halloween has origins in the ancient celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sau-an) which is derived from Old Irish and means roughly "summer's end". The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the "lighter half" of the year and beginning of the "darker half".

The celebration has some elements of a festival of the dead. The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family's ancestors were honoured and invited home whilst harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces.

And of course at this time, everyone talks about ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. Films like the Blair Witch Project, The Others and the new Paranormal Activity have frequently been made, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. And programmes like Most Haunted and Living With The Dead carry out paranormal investigations in houses and ancient sites up and down the country. I’ve even been involved(indirectly) in the making of one of these when the Babe Magnet was a consultant on Derek Acorah’s Ghost Towns (Halifax).

But for a long time the real old-fashioned ghost story has been out of fashion. When I was growing up in Yorkshire - not very far from the moors where the Bronte sisters lived and where Wuthering Heights was set - I used to love to settle down on a dark winter’s night beside a fire, with the wind ‘wuthering’ around the house and curl up with a book of ghost stories. There was a big old volume on the family bookshelves – 100 Greatest Ghost Stories or something like that and I loved to lose myself in it and scare myself silly. Much to my mother’s disapproval. She had grown up in a small village in Ireland, in a house that was out in the country at the end of a long, rutted lane and she used to frown disapprovingly when she saw me with a ghost story and say ominously ‘If you knew what the dark was really like then you wouldn’t mess with things like that.’ A warning that my sisters and I never heeded, with the result that we had many sleepless nights hearing strange noises that we just couldn’t explain. (The house we lived in was built in 1870 so it was probably just the floorboards creaking.)

Many of the best – and scariest - stories in the 100 Greatest Ghost Stories book were written by the ‘master’ of antiquarian ghost tales, M. R. (Montague Rhodes ) James. I can still feel a shiver run down my spine simply at hearing the title of one of his most famous tales Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad which was made into a Ghost Story for Christmas – a great tradition that I used to love but that sadly is no longer made. By the time I was grown up and married, the ghost story seemed to have died a death. No one was publishing them – or even writing them – any more it seemed. Working as a Children’s Librarian, I found a few books in the children’s/young adult market – The Ghost Of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively and some of the books by Robert Westall went some way towards filling the gap in my reading life but there weren’t many really good supernatural stories.

The problem was that the horror genre took over from the traditional ghost story and horror isn’t what I want. I want old houses surrounded by mists, dreadful warning , things that go bump in the night and a slow creeping sense of horror – not blood and gore and special effects. The late 1980s and early 90s provided me with some great ghostly reading – Susan Hill’s two classic stories The Woman in Black ( now also on stage) and The Mist in The Mirror had that understated sense of something dark and dangerous just out of sight – and Jonathan Aycliffe’s Naomi’s Room had me sitting up late at night transfixed by a few words at the end of a chapter. Like Whistle and I’ll Come to You, ‘ It was Naomi’ still makes me shiver when I remember that Naomi was the narrator’s daughter, kidnapped and murdered at the beginning of the book. Jonathan Aycliffe is a pseudonym of Daniel Easterman who now writes thrillers.

I’ve tried James Herbert but his Haunted and other books just don’t work for me. The idea of ghosts interacting so easily with the living – and with the hero even sleeping with one of them, not realising she is in fact dead, just doesn’t work for me. So for a while I’ve had to be content with the investigative programmes and the Hauntings in Yorkshire/Lincolnshire/Dublin collections of real-life ghost sightings that my husband has published. But just recently there seems to be a revival in the ghost story as a fiction genre and as I’ve just finished my latest novel and have a change to catch up on some reading time, I’m really glad to see it. I just hope the new crop of books are better than one I tried recently – The Birthing House which had a lot of potential but, for me, became too much of the horror tale and not a ghost story.

But Sarah Waters has published The Little Stranger that is described as : A chilling and vividly rendered ghost story set in postwar Britain. Audrey Niffenegger, author of the bestselling Time Traveler’s Wife’s latest story is Her Fearful Symmetry which is set in and around Highgate Cemetery . And my son has just given me a copy of The House of Lost Souls by F G Cottam which isn’t quite a ghost story but he says he found it scary – so they will all go on my Halloween reading list.

So what about you? Do you just go Trick or Treating at Halloween of do you like to turn off the lights, light a candle, sit round the fire and tell spooky stories until you’re afraid to go to bed? Do you have any great ghost stories (fictional) that you’d recommend I try? Or maybe even a real ghost tale to tell. I’d love to know about them if you have. My mother would definitely not approve but I really do love being scared!

Kate's latest book - Kept for Her Baby - is on the bookshop shelves right now in America where it's published in Presents EXTRA. It's also out in Australia. And it's still around in the Modern Romance edition too. No ghosts, but it's getting a reputation for reducing readers to tears - so you have been warned!


  1. I'm with you, Kate. I love ghost stories, but not horror. You've mentioned a lot of my favorites, but have you ever read "The House Next Door" by Anne Rivers Siddons? I'm not sure if it's still in print, but my mother read it years ago and raved about it. I haven't read it, but it might be worth a try. My mother said the book was very different from the women's fiction that Anne Rivers Siddons went on to become famous for.

  2. As you know, Kate, before I was a published romance author I wrote ghost stories - one of my published ones was based on a true ghost story told to me by my mother. When she was a student nurse, she had a patient who was on morphine, and an older nurse was very helpful. But when Mum tried to find her to thank her at the end of the shift, she couldn't. And when she described her to the matron... yup. It was their ward Grey Lady, who lost a patient on morphine, and subsequently haunted the ward whenever they had a patient needing that kind of pain relief...

    Other good ones - AM Burrage, E Nesbit, and John Dickson Carr (the latter wrote one called "Smee" that's particularly good). Any anthology edited by Hugh Lamb (a mate of mine and a real ghost story aficionado) will be excellent. Or Richard Dalby (biased here as he published me a few times!).

    Will look out for the Cottam story - that cover's fantastic.

  3. Hi Kate. Great blog. I love a good ghost story. But I don't read them. Why? I live in a church house next to a graveyard and if I read ghost stories I would spook myself senseless!! Unsurprisingly we don't get any trick or treeters here either... Take care. Caroline x
    p.s Kate's true story sent a shiver down my spine!

  4. Hi Kate,
    I don't read a lot of Ghost Stories because I'm just not 100% positive that I don't have to worry about them being real! No, I don't love being scared, lol.
    That said, I loved The Time Traveler's Wife so much I'm planning to pick up Her Fearful Symmetry knowing it's ghosty! This time of year I like Vampire stories (Lara Adrian current fave) for a paranormal fix that doesn't give me nightmares!

  5. Totally with you on the Birthing House. Thought it was going to be great as the blurb on the back had really hooked me in, but the reality was quite different and much more horror than ghost. Really looking forward to Her Fearful Symmetry as loved Time Travellers Wife and am going to start scouring the internet for the old 100 ghost stories you mentioned - my boys would love that!

  6. Great blog Kate. If I'm reading a ghost story it has to be in daylight because my imagination just runs riot and before I know it I'm hiding under the bed (and there's so much junk under my bed that's not a good place to be). I have Her Fearful Symmetry on my TBR pile too.

  7. Sorry to be late answering everyone but I've spent the day in York - now there's a place with some ghosts and Clifford's Tower just gives me the creeps

    Jill The House Next Door sounds fascinating. I checked and there was a paperback out in 2007 and that's still on Amazon - so maybe we can both read it! I see they say that Stephen King thought it was an amazing book - now that's a recommendation.

  8. Hi T'other Kate - that real ghost story is such a good one. And I know we share this fascination. I must look out for some of the names you recommend.

  9. Hi Caroline - the place you live sounds like the perfect background for a ghost story. I know when I visit Haworth and the Bronte parsonage is overlooking the graveyard there, I can just imagine unquiet spirits walking . . .

  10. Mira - I share your feeling. If I was convinced there was no such thing as ghosts then the stories wouldn't be scary. But I'm not totally sure . . . and that leaves an edge of apprehension. I think Her Fearful Symmetry sounds intriguing - but it will have to be brilliant to catch up with all the interest in Time Traveller's Wife

  11. PS Mira - I should have said Congratulations on selling your book!

  12. Hi Susan

    I'm glad you agreed with me on The Birthing House. It had a lot o potential and then - for me - just disintigrated into blood and horro - yuck - a real diappointment.

    I'm tring to remember if that book really was called 100 Ghost Stories - it might have been 100 Best Ghost Sories or somehting like that. My sister would know - she took it to Australia with her. If you find it, let me know

  13. Hi Sarah - I know the hide under the bed feeling. But I can't even get unde ours as there are drawers there so I can't hide. But I love that scary feeling when I'm reading. Hope Her Fearful Symmetry lives up to the advance hype