If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll know the drill by now: it’s December. That means I’m about to start obsessing over ghost stories, because in my weird ol’ head, ghosts and Christmas go together like… well… like Scrooge and Marley.
What follows is a summary of the discussion, and my personal takeaways – big, big thanks to fellow panelists James Everington and Alison Littlewood, and our excellent chair, Sophie Ward (aka Rhiannon Ward).
So: why is the supernatural so effective in its shorter form?
The ghost story comes from the oral tradition (fireside tales). In this respect, we could say the shorter the better – as an evening’s entertainment, everyone sits around the fire and tells a story, and tries to terrify their companions. Variations on this theme used to be the kick-off point for many a tale – just look at the Carnacki stories. It’s also the setup for The Woman in Black.
Let’s delve into the classics of the form. My first ever experience with ghost stories was the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories – 1972 edition. I read it when I was far too young, and it gave me nightmares… but turned me into the man I am today (i.e. a weirdo). This book contains two of the best short stories ever written IMO: The Voice in the Night (Hope Hodgson), and Seaton’s Aunt (Walter de la Mare). These led me to track down more of the classic writers, and that’s when I found M R James, who remains my main influence. I also love really weird, ambiguous stuff – like Robert Aickmann’s The Inner Room, which I’ve read about five times, absolutely love, but have no idea what it’s about…
Fast forward to the present, and I think Michelle Paver and Adam Nevill are at the top of the tree right now. Dark Matter is astonishing. Adam doesn’t write a lot of ghost stories per se, but there are some absolute corkers in his short story collections, notably Florrie.
The pitfall of the short story though is clichés – they can be really hard to avoid when you don’t have many words to play with. Things that were scary to Victorians and Edwardians have now been done to death (excuse the pun). So we have to look at new ways to frighten, while still avoiding what M R James would call ‘gory excess’. Tastes change. You can’t get away with hanging a story around a bloodstain that won’t go away until the body of the murdered maid is found – it was identified by Dickens in the mid-1800s as being a common type of story still in use. It was becoming cliché even then, so now you need an extra twist if you’re going anywhere near that device. And those twists are what really help short story writers today. By all means take a cliché or trope, but subvert it. The reader will be drawn in by the nostalgic air of the familiar, and still be surprised and delighted (and, hopefully, terrified) by a clever twist.
A good ghost story should have a solid resolution at least for the characters involved, but might not ever explain the nature of the supernatural – after all, we only fear that which we don’t understand…