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How to write a really creepy ghost story
Do you know your spirits from your revenants? Is Deadly Nightshade juice the perfect substitute for ink? Jonathan Stroud, author of our July Children's Book of the Month, Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase, shares a few tips for budding writers on spooky stories.
The Traditional Method
1. Get the correct equipment. You need a quill pen, plucked from the backside of an owl as it roosts in a midnight graveyard. Sharpen the end with a hangman’s knife. For ink, use Deadly Nightshade juice, but be careful not to breathe in the fumes. Bottled blood is an optional alternative. For parchment, you’ll find that the stretched, cured skin of a murderer is ideal, but also quite tricky to obtain. Failing that, just buy an A4 pad of lined paper at the newsagent.
2. Dress correctly. The best ghost stories are written by people wearing a grave shroud, preferably stained with mould or gore. It’s a bit niffy, but it gives the correct ambience. If a shroud’s hard to come by, an old bed-sheet will do quite well. Ketchup or brown sauce both make excellent stains.
3. Think gloomy thoughts. It helps to surround yourself with objects that provide the right atmosphere. Choose one or two of the following: (a) a skull; (b) a vial containing a residue of dried ectoplasm; (c) a crucifix; (d) a piece of coffin wood; (e) an eerie photo of a Victorian child, slightly smudged by rain. Place your selection on your desk, roll up your shroud and dip your owl’s feather in the ink. You are now ready to begin…
Actually, hold on. There must be easier ways to write a ghost story. This is all a bit old-fashioned, and you’re quite likely to make yourself ill hanging round graveyards at night, particularly if you’re not wearing anything under that shroud. But fear not. There is an alternative, namely:
The J. Stroud Foolproof Creepy Tale Creator ©®™ (Patent pending)
All you need is a pencil and some paper. Simply follow the steps below to create a perfect tale of terror.
1. Choose a location. Where will your ghost story be set? Traditional places include spooky mansions, graveyards, deserted asylums etc. These are all good, but 21st-Century locations can be even more effective. For Lockwood & Co., I often put my ghosts into ordinary semi-detached houses, suburban gardens, shopping malls and car parks. Using everyday places – which we normally take for granted – makes the supernatural events even scarier.
2. Select your ghost. The three basic categories are: (a) spirits; (b) revenants; and (c) poltergeists.
Spirits, being made of ectoplasm, are see-through and insubstantial. They can drift through walls and creep up close without being seen. Their main power is that of frightening the living.
Revenants are more solid. They are a bit like zombies, but have intelligence and purpose (see 3, below). They can touch the living and cause physical harm.
Poltergeists have no bodily form, but they can move objects around and knock you on the head with sofas and things, which is always irritating.
Within these categories, there is an endless variety of phantom. They can be old or young, look very alive or very dead. Many have a special trick or visual trademark. Japanese movie ghosts are often young girls with really long hair. The great English ghost story writer M R James created a spirit that was formed of nothing but crumpled bed-linen. Create something that you find terrifying.
3. Give your ghost a purpose. All good ghosts return from the dead for a reason. For some, it may be a longing to make amends or to fix something left undone. A miser, for example, might come back to reveal the location of his hidden gold. For others – murder victims, especially – it is the desire for justice or revenge. In Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase, I feature the spirit of a murdered girl. She’s particularly grumpy.
4. Isolate your hero and your reader. Ghost stories are scariest when you have a single, isolated, protagonist. Perhaps it’s a man whose car has broken down outside the haunted mill. Perhaps it’s a girl who’s just arrived at boarding school, and has to sleep alone in that strange little room in the attic. Either way, they don’t have any friends to turn to when the ghost comes calling, and this means the reader will feel isolated too.
5. Start slowly. Don’t show the ghost too soon. Begin with some rumours that your protagonist might hear. Perhaps there are stories of a terrible event that happened years ago at your location. Maybe someone disappeared in mysterious circumstances and was never seen again. When your hero arrives at the place, spend a bit of time creating the right atmosphere. Just a few details are needed. What does it look like? What can be heard? What’s the temperature? How does it smell? Once you’ve established all these things, you can start to distort them as the ghost draws near.
6. Build up the tension. Creepy tales are as much about suspense as anything, and the best ones slowly create a feeling of wrongness as the hero wanders about the location. It could start subtly: maybe the temperature begins to drop, maybe there are distant knocking noises… Then things begin to gather pace. The atmosphere alters. Objects start to move, pictures drop from walls; footsteps are heard in an empty corridor. Perhaps a dark shape is seen out of the corner of the eye… The hero, who is getting more and more panicked, rushes to leave – but the door is jammed! They can’t get out! And then –
7. The ghost arrives. Give us a short, but powerful description. Not too much. It’s often best to mention just a little horrid detail (pale clasping arms, cobwebby eyes, sharp teeth) and then let the reader’s imagination go to work. By now they’ll be so jittery you won’t need to spell everything out.
8. Wrap it up fast. All you have to do now is figure out how the story is going to finish. Will your hero escape, or come to a nasty end? Either way is fine, and either way it’s best to finish crisply. One of my favourite writers, Ruth Manning-Sanders, told a ghost story about a dishonest valet [a servant] who steals something from the grave of his dead mistress. This is a big mistake, as proved by the very last sentence of the tale: ‘And the lady came up from the grave, took hold of the valet, dragged him under the ground, and ate him up.’ There. If you finish your creepy story with something like that, your readers aren’t going to forget it in a hurry.
Now you’ve got the foolproof formula, why not get writing? If you need inspiration, a laugh or just a straightforward fright, you can take a look at my latest book Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase. And if you write a scary story inspired by my tips, let me know on @JonathanAStroud or www.facebook.com/jonathanstroudauthor or www.lockwoodbooks.co.uk.
Jonathan Stroud, for Waterstones.com/blog