Why write ghost stories?
Amanda Mason, author of The Wayward Girls, explains the haunting pull of the supernatural for writers
I’ve always loved ghost stories, even when I was a small and rather timid child. I don’t know why – maybe it’s the shiver of anticipation I’m addicted to; or perhaps being timid, a ghost story allowed me to control my fear, to walk around inside it for a while, to play with it.
As readers we know what we’re getting into when we pick up one up, and there’s a comfort in that, a familiarity, that allows us to surrender to the events we’re reading about, to give in to sensation – like the girls in Northanger Abbey, delighting in the fiction that is ‘horrid’. And it’s this sensation I’m interested in. People do like to be frightened and I write ghost stories because I want to play with that, to draw you close, to tell you a story, whisper it softly in your ear, and make the skin prickle and rise on the back of your neck; I like the intimacy of it.
As readers we can play at being afraid for a while, we can even enjoy it because we know we can close the book, mark the page and – if the circumstances demand it – hide the book in the freezer until we’re ready to pick it up again. But a good ghost story has more than simple thrills, it has breadth and depth. It can start with something simple, a flickering candle, a half-glimpsed figure melting into the mist, a knocking in the walls; but as the story unfolds, universal, primitive fears can give way to the examination of more personal terrors: things that are harder to escape once you’ve closed the book.
Grief, loss, loneliness, rage, desire, the lies we tell ourselves, that nagging feeling that we’ve lost our way, and failed to do the right thing; all of those wrong turns, those missed opportunities, the difficult dreadful bits of being human that we struggle with, hiding in the dark, just out of sight.
Ghost stories have their tropes, but I’ve no patience with the notion that they’re old fashioned. A good writer can take those conventions – and apart from anything else they are conventions because they work as storytelling devices – and use them. They speak to the reader, people are willing to engage with them, they function as an invitation to play.
Our heroine is in a house, say, an old dark house, a house with a past, and she wakes in the night, and there’s something wrong, she lights a candle and …What happens next is the unravelling of the mystery, the balancing of sensation with understanding. The eventual resolution of the plot may not be completely happy – and there is, I think, an argument to be made that the best ghost stories should leave the reader just a little unsettled – but there is a resolution of sorts.
We can substitute a modern house for a mysterious mansion, should we wish to, and give our heroine an iPhone instead of a candle, because when it comes down to it, it’s the idea that our home has been invaded, that we are no longer safe in the one place we are supposed to be safe which is – and always has been – truly terrifying.
The trappings of a ghost story can be put on or off, according to the style and interests of the author - very much like a Halloween costume – but the bones of the story, the things that truly scare us, never really change. They remain reassuringly human. Of course ghost stories reference the past – that is after all the nature of a ghost, it’s a memory, an echo, but that past always collides with the present. And once your reader has accepted the invitation to play, that collision should be visceral, shocking.
In the end, it doesn’t matter that we live in a brightly lit, constantly connected, instant access world, full of over-sharing, live streaming, breaking stories and fresh content. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated we think we are. There will always be a point where we have to put the screen down, when the battery fails, when the Wi-Fi disconnects, when the lights flicker and eventually we – you- will be alone in the dark.
And then the ghosts will start to crowd in.
The Wayward Girls by Amanda Mason is out now in hardback, ebook & audio (Zaffre)
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