The Haunting Season's Authors Recommend Their Top Ghost Stories
As the weather takes a decidedly autumnal turn, we are thinking about the season ahead, about Halloween and dark nights snuggling up with a ghost story or two. We asked the bestselling authors of The Haunting Season about their favourite ghost stories and those that have inspired their own interpretations of the genre.
My favourite ghost story is ‘Notes from the House Spirits’ by Lucy Wood, a brilliant short story narrated from the perspective of a house. I read it in the annual BBC short story anthology when it was shortlisted in 2013. In a clever take on a ‘haunted house’ narrative, the tale is tender rather than terrifying as the house watches, and feels affection or resentment towards, its inhabitants over the years. It picks paint from the walls and loosens the batteries in clocks. It feels the tilt of paintings or the unloosening of bookshelf screws. I moved house earlier this year, and while my mother sees homes as ‘mere bricks and mortar’, I am a lot more sentimental. I became very fond of our old flat – the parties and arguments and quiet moments it had witnessed – and I rather like the idea that it was looking out for us, too.
The ghost story that crowns all the rest for me is ‘The Chrysanthemum Vow’, by Akinari Ueda. It’s from eighteenth century Japan, but it could have been written yesterday. It’s about an impoverished gentleman who rescues a sick traveller on the road, and looks after him until he’s well again. They soon become devoted to each other. The traveller is a young knight who’s bound up in the politics of the aristocracy, though, and his duties call him away; but he promises to come back on a particular date. When he realizes he can’t return, what follows is an unexpected, eerie-beautiful ghostly happening.
I love this story because it isn’t at all about ghosts being frightening or creepy; it’s a love story, and for me, it shows the versatility of the whole genre. Ueda is one of the kings of the Japanese Gothic, and anyone who likes ghost stories should definitely have a look his collection, Ugetsu Monogatari. There’s a great translation called Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Anthony H. Chambers.
E. Nesbit is best known for her children’s books, but her story ‘Man-Size In Marble’ is a gem. In it, two newly-wed aspiring artists set up home for the first time, revelling in their picturesque cottage with its (ahem) strangely low rent: but as the fateful date of Hallowe’en approaches, they are warned about an ancient evil which animates the stone effigies in the church, and makes them walk ‘man-size in marble’. That image – and the tombs left flat and empty, as their inhabitants stalk towards the unsuspecting heroine in her rose-covered cottage – is a truly haunting one. But I also love it for its evocation of a pastoral idyll, with a lush summer garden, a sunset through the latticed windows, a moonlit country church … it has a chocolate-box loveliness which provides a perfect counterpoint to the creeping horror of approaching calamity.
The first ghost stories I heard were told by family members and there were some great storytellers among them. So, I love a sense of a storytelling voice, a narrator that leads you into a world. The preconditions for reading a great ghost story are, of course, a roaring fire, wild weather at the window and friends and family huddling round, wide-eyed with pleasant terror. But the best ghost story writers will give you that lovely creepy feeling even on a rush-hour Tube. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu does just that in the marvellously named ‘Narrative of a Ghost of a Hand’. What’s more he sets up that reciprocal relationship between the teller and the told, I’ll give a clear account if you kindly suspend disbelief. What follows is ‘an authenticated mystery’ for the reader to solve, even if the narrator has failed to. Like all good ghost stories, this haunting is riveted to place, the reliability of witnesses touched upon, circumstances surrounding the haunting of a house presented, without stripping the essential chill. ‘Under all this smoke,’ urges the narrator ‘there smouldered just a little spark of truth.’ The star of this story is the slightly absurd but nonetheless sinister manifestation itself.
Andrew Michael Hurley
Ambiguity in the ghost story can be incredibly potent. It’s a device used expertly by Elizabeth Jane Howard in ‘Three Miles Up’ (1951) which has troubled me ever since I first read it. In the story, two friends, Clifford and John, find themselves lost on a remote stretch of canal at dusk. This is disconcerting in itself, especially in such an ominous place where “the light drained out of the sky into the water and slowly drowned”. But it is the subtlety with which the uncanny takes over that gives the story its power. The deeper the two men guide the narrowboat into the wilderness, the further they drift from reality. They find a strange girl sleeping on the banks and take her aboard. The little houses on the canalside disappear overnight. Time stretches and reverses: the elderly man with the scythe who gives them directions to the village “three miles up” they meet again further on as a little boy. When Clifford and John eventually emerge from the thickets of reeds, they find themselves in an “infinity of water”. The way back has disappeared along with their mysterious passenger. It’s an unconventional ghost story, one in which we’re never quite sure if the landscape itself is haunted or if the horror is psychological. Either way, the creeping sense of eeriness and menace is far more unsettling than a “boo!”
‘The Monkey's Paw’ by WW Jacobs is a favourite of mine. I love the sinister simplicity of this tale, which warns you to be careful what you wish for. The characters even try to moderate their first wish, to avoid being too greedy, but are unable to avoid the tragic consequences. Sight of the 'ghost' is narrowly avoided and only adds to the tension; the reader's imagination paints a grizzly picture of its own. I am really drawn in my own work to the idea of idea of people causing terrible harm with the best of intentions.
Imogen Hermes Gowar
I've always loved a ghost story, and cut my teeth on Joan Aiken's ‘Humblepuppy’ or ‘Watkin, Comma’ before moving onto Elizabeth Gaskell's brilliantly devastating ‘The Old Nurse's Story’. This last has a lot to say about women's freedom and punishment, which inspired my approach to ‘Thwaite's Tenant’ (my short story in The Haunting Season), but it's also characteristically Victorian in its ghosts' urgent desire to communicate with the living. The story I'm recommending today is nothing like that. ‘Phantoms’, by Steven Millhauser, documents the haunting of a modern American town through case studies and anecdotes: everybody has their own story to tell, but what's unsettling is that the ghosts couldn't care less about the living. They turn away after a single glance "variously described as proud, hostile, suspicious, mocking, disdainful, uncertain; never is it seen as welcoming". This is a story that still has the power to make us shiver, but it also provokes us to ask ourselves what we want from ghosts. What do they mean to us? Why can't we stop seeing them? Do they need us, or do we need them?
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