The typical (M R) James ghost story kicks off when someone discovers an old manuscript or a valuable or rare book, often with a religious connection or theme. Having seemingly set up a scene of remarkable dustiness, it turns out that evil resides in the pages, or lurking behind a dark corner of a church, waiting to manifest itself and reduce the unfortunate antiquarian to a wreck. (“Canon Alberic’s ScrapBook”, the first story in the collection, in which a drawing of a demon comes to life, is a good example of this, and an early collection of James’s stories was called Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.) You have to wonder what it was in James that inspired him to do this. He knew what he was talking about when he described the business of going through ancient collections, and he grew up in an ecclesiastical environment, so knew an apse from a chasuble; but why he found fear in these elements is something of a mystery in itself. It certainly adds to the plausibility of the stories, however, and their wide and enduring popularity. It also takes quite a talent to get a shiver from, say, an unconventional dating of a prayer-book, as he does in “The Uncommon Prayer-Book”. HP Lovecraft, who was probably about as far in temperament as you could get from James, wrote a long essay on supernatural fiction in which he described James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank”, and in Darryl Jones’s introduction to Collected Ghost Stories we are given a vignette of how James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows. Who might also, I was surprised to learn, have been uneasy at James’s fondness for the card game “animal grab”, which descended into impromptu wrestling bouts that would leave his opponents with “torn clothes” and “nailscored hands”.

Nicholas Lezard
Collected Ghost Stories by MR James – review
The Guardian, Tuesday 1st October 2013

I grew up with a love for the Surrealists which has never faded: in particular, the works of Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Hans Bellmer, and Paul Delvaux, along with those adopted by or close to the Surrealists, like Edward Burra, James Ensor, and Frida Kahlo. Graphic artists like Piranesi, Dürer, Escher, Bellmer’s pen-and-ink work, Mervyn Peake, Tenniell, and so on, are influential. As to modern comics and graphic art, I admire David Sandlin, Charles Burns, Kim Dietsch, Julie Doucet, and Chris Ware; from the post-punk comics underground, Burne Hogarth; and more mainstream British children’s comic artists like Ken Reid. I draw myself, pen and ink stuff, often illustrating my own stories.

I was always into everything to do with sf, fantasy, horror (as well as things set under the sea, which, along with dinosaurs, is honorary fantasy). I grew up on children’s sf by people like Douglas Hill and Nicholas Fisk, as well as horror comics, which were, in retrospect, deeply odd and unpleasant. Michael de Larrabeiti’s BORRIBLES books [The Borribles (1976), The Borribles Go For Broke (1981), and Across the Dark Metropolis (1986)] were massively influential. When I was a kid I read pretty much any sf I could get my hands on, so there was a lot of good pulp along with the classics—people like Lloyd Biggle, Jr. and Linsday Gutteridge — and that reveling in genre influenced me a lot. I read a review of Perdido Street Station which said that for a Clarke winner it’s surprisingly unashamed of its roots, which I take as a massive compliment. Overall, though, what I liked best was the aesthetic of alienation, of the macabre and grotesque, so I preferred New Worlds-type stuff to American Golden Age: Aldiss, Harrison, Moorcock, Disch, Ballard, and the like are all heroes of mine.

I still find myself riffing off books from my past constantly, sometimes without remembering what I’m basing my writing on. New Crobuzon [the setting of Perdido Street Station] is highly influenced by Brian Aldiss’s The Malacia Tapestry [1976] and Tim Powers’s Anubis Gates [1983], but they’d permeated me so deeply I was initially less conscious of them than of other influences. The very first (never-ever-to-see-the-light-of-day) New Crobuzon story I wrote was about the invention of photography in a fantasy city—which is precisely the plot of Aldiss’s book. I’d forgotten that I was remembering it. I’m still scared of inadvertently ripping people off.

I always loved classic ghost stories, like Henry James’s and Robert Aikman’s. I liked Lovecraft, and then maybe eight years ago I started getting very interested in early weird fiction: Arthur Machen, Robert Chambers, E.H. Visiak, William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith, David Lindsay (though he’s not in quite the same tradition, there are shared aesthetics). There were two things I found particularly compelling about this work. One was the peculiarities of pulp style. If you look at the way critics describe Lovecraft, for example, they often say he’s purple, overwritten, overblown, verbose, but it’s unputdownable. There’s something about that kind of hallucinatorily intense purple prose which completely breaches all rules of “good writing,” but is somehow utterly compulsive and affecting. That pulp aesthetic of language is something very tenuous, which all too easily simply becomes shit, but is fascinating where it works. Though I also love much more minimalist writers, it’s that lush approach that I’m drawn to in terms of my own writing, for good and bad.

The other thing I liked about weird fiction was its location at the intersection of sf, fantasy, and horror. Lovecraft’s monsters do magic, but they’re time-traveling aliens with über-science, who do horrific things. Hodgson’s are similar (though less scientifically savvy). David Lindsay’s “spaceship” travels back to Arcturus by totally spurious—and not even remotely convincing—science, but it masquerades as sf. I find that bleeding of genre edges completely compelling. There’s been a (to my mind rather scholastic and sterile) debate about whether Perdido Street Station is sf or fantasy (or even horror—it made the long-list for the Bram Stoker Award). I always say that what I write is weird fiction, in that it is self-consciously at the intersection.

Some writers loom in my consciousness for single works, some for their whole oeuvre. M. John Harrison I consider one of the greatest living writers in any genre, and his influence on me is immense. Mervyn Peake, for his combination of lush language and aesthetic austerity; Gene Wolfe, for oddly similar reasons; all of Iain Sinclair’s books, but particularly Downriver [1991]; Alasdair Gray, especially Lanark [1981]; Russell Hoban, especially Riddley Walker [1980]; a book called Junglist by people calling themselves “Two Fingers” and “James T. Kirk” [1997]. I find Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre [1847] continually astonishing.

I love short stories, and there are writers like Borges, Calvino, and Stefan Grabinski whose short work is a constant reference, but there are others who loom large for me on the strength of a single piece: Julio Cortazar’s “House Taken Over,” E.L. White’s “Lukundoo,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Saki’s “Sredni Vastar.” I just finished Kelly Link’s collection Stranger Things Happen [2001], and can already feel her influencing me. Writers I’ve come to more recently include John Crowley, Unica Zürn (Hans Bellmer’s partner), Jeff VanderMeer, and Jeffrey Thomas.

The biggest recent influence on me, though, is not an sf writer: it’s the Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, who died fourteen years ago. I first read him a decade ago, but came back to him recently and read all his published work. He’s quite astonishing. His influences are radically different from the folklorist tradition that one often associates with African literature. He writes in the tradition of the Beats, the Surrealists, the Symbolists, and he marshals their tools to talk about the freedom struggle, the iniquities of post-independence Zimbabwe, racism, loneliness, and so on. His poetry and prose are almost painfully intense and suffer from all the problems you’d imagine—the writing can be prolix and clunky—but the way he constantly wrestles with English (which wasn’t his first language) is extraordinary. He demands sustained effort from the reader, so that the work is almost interactive—reading it is an active process of collaboration with the writer—and the metaphors are simultaneously so unclichéd and so apt that he reinvigorates the language. The epigram to The Scar is taken from his most obscure book, Black Sunlight [1980], and he is a very strong presence throughout my recent writing.

China Miéville
Interviewed by Joan Gordon, November 2003

ghost stories

December 30, 2019

Writers of ghost stories today are at a disadvantage compared to their predecessors — and the situation is getting worse. That is of course because, as with ‘westerns’ or other ‘genre’ fiction, there are a strictly limited number of plots and incidents possible. Ghost behaviour is ‘old hat’, and the writer seeking acceptance today needs to come up with something a bit original or different.

David G. Rowlands
Introduction to: The Executor and Other Ghost Stories

Anxiety: A Ghost Story

October 31, 2019

We have got to talk about the kids
in all those Goosebumps books.
For example,
if your family vacation
is to an amusement park
called HORRORLAND,
and your station wagon explodes
in the parking lot upon arrival,
maybe
shrugging it off,
buying an extra large popcorn,
and heading straight for
The Deadly Doom Slide
is not your best possible
course of action.

Or,
if you steal a weird camera
from your creepy neighbour’s basement
and every picture you take
shows bad things happening,
like decapitation
and Tofurkey,
and then all the bad things
from the pictures
start happening,
Stop Taking Pictures.

Or,
if you move into your new house
and there are a bunch of small children already living in your bedroom
that your parents cannot see,
maybe,
don’t just grab a juice box
and go play in the cemetery
that
is
in
your
backyard.

Or,
when I tell you of the ghosts
that live inside my body;
When I tell you
I have a cemetery in my backyard
and in my front yard
and in my bedroom;
When I tell you
trauma is a steep slide
you cannot see the bottom of,
that my anxiety is a camera
that shows everyone I love as bones,
when I tell you
panic is a stubborn phantom,
she will grab hold of me
and not let go for months–
this is the part of the story
when everyone is telling you to run.

To love me
is to love a haunted house–
it’s fun to visit once a year,
but no one wants to live there,
and when you say,
“Tell me about the bad days,”
it sounds like all the neighbourhood kids daring each other to ring the doorbell,
you love me
like the family walking through Horrorland holding hands–
You are not stupid,
or careless,
or even brave,
you’ve just never seen
the close-up of a haunting.

Darling,
this love will not cure me.
And this love will not scrape
the blood from the baseboards,
but it will turn all the lights on,
it will bring basil
back from the farmer’s market
and it will plant it in every windowsill,
it is the kind of love
that gives me goosebumps,
when you say to the ghosts,
“If you’re staying,
then you better make room,”
and we kiss against the walls
that tonight are not shaking,
so we turn the music up
and we dance to Miles Davis,
and you say,
“My god,
this house.
The way that it stands
even on the months
that no one goes into
or comes out of it.”

How reckless, the way that I love
like the first chapter of a ghost story.
Like the gentlest hand
reaching out of a grave.

Brenna Twohy

True Ghost Story

December 10, 2017

Floris M. Neusüss

As a teen, my friends and I would sometimes spend evenings on Dundry Hill – a large area filled with farmland and small village homes. At the top, past a few cow fields, was a small pit used for fires and barbecues. We spent many summer evenings there, staying out until the sun had gone and the embers flew into the air to join the stars. Once the fire had burned out we all made our way home together in the dark, drifting off one by one as we approached home.

On one of these evenings, I was staying with a friend of mine and so rather than heading off to my house, we turned towards hers.

Ten people became five, became two.

We walked alone, in the dark, down a road lit with street lamps. Talking quietly, happily, as teenage girls do. To our left was a small field. It was there we heard it first.

A young girl’s laugh.

This was odd, certainly, but it was an area with a lot of children. Near a school. It was ten o clock at night, sure, but it was still an explainable event. We didn’t even acknowledge the sound, we only kept walking.

We moved past the field, down a small alley that took us through a cul de sac. We went through a small gate and heard it again. This time we looked at each other, quickly. You heard it too, the wide eyes said. But we brushed it off. Continued our talk.

We saw nothing, heard nothing, until we were back on the road.

To our right, a garage.

Again, the laugh.

The same pitch, the same tone, identical in every way.

People roll their eyes at children in horror, it’s so overdone it’s become a cliche. But when you hear a child laughing on a deserted street in the dark, it is the scariest sound you could ever imagine.

We looked at each other again, eyes wide. Both realising what we had heard. Both unsure of what to do. The sound had followed us, but there had been no way to move from the field to the garage without being seen.

It was not explainable. Not to us.

The laugh.

Again.

To the left.

Louder.

We ran the short distance back to my friends house, almost laughing with fright as if unsure what else to do.

We slept with the lights on.

And we never heard the sound again.

An unsatisfying ending to a ghost story, perhaps. But a real ending to a true story.

Baylea Hart
My True Ghost Story

A ghost walking

December 9, 2017

silent darkness

Everyone has a ghost story. It might be a schoolyard tale whispered under the slide, or that time your dog howled before you found out your grandmother died. It might not even be your story, but an urban myth that made you scared to drive down the lane, walk past that house, or look in the mirror in candlelight. The point is, we all have stories that have crawled into the deepest parts of us and never let go. If you’re very lucky, this happens when you’re young, before you’ve thrown up your defenses of cynicism and doubt.

Some stories are universal, variations on a theme that act as modern day fairy tales — warning us against irresponsible behaviour or sexual “deviancy.” What is the Bloody Hook story — where teenagers on Lovers Lane rush home after hearing of an escaped, hook–handed serial killer only to discover a bloody hook hanging from their car door — other than a cautionary tale against teenaged sexual experimentation? My own childhood ghost story, assuredly handed down by an older sibling, is pretty easy to parse. After all it was the 1970s: there was nothing more horrifying in white suburbia in the 1970s than an unwed, pregnant teenage girl on drugs. But none of that mattered to eight–year–old me. I hadn’t yet built any walls of cynicism. All I knew was every few weeks, we would gather our courage, hold hands, and creep closer to the fence. Maybe the story wasn’t true, we told ourselves. Maybe there wasn’t a ghost walking through the woods. But what if there was? It was scary and unknown and the very idea of it thrilled us to our toes.

Deborah Stanish
Everyone has a ghost story

When Dennis Wheatley was at prep school in the early 1900s he was convinced he saw a ghost on the staircase one day. In an era when spiritualism was in vogue and Ouija boards were taken seriously it was not unusual for a little boy to be superstitious. The significance of Wheatley’s encounter with an apparition was that it sparked off a lifelong fascination with the occult that spawned a series of bestselling novels with titles such as The Devil Rides Out and To The Devil A Daughter…

Dominic Midgley
Master of the Macabre
Daily Express 18th October 2013

Ghost trains

October 18, 2017

Hearing ghost stories in a heatwave especially lends the experience a dreamy indistinctness, a sensation of journeying back in thought, images muted with heat and distance, with lobed sun flecks and patterns of greenery. Until, as (Algernon) Blackwood puts it, “a sudden darkness comes, taking the summer brilliance out of everything”.

Antonia Quirke
Algernon Blackwood’s Ghost Stories and why horror is better in the heat
(New Statesman)