27 September 2022
Alex Davies runs through why a little scepticism never hurt anyone (right?)
This November sees the first running of Winter Haunts, an online day focusing on ghost stories, Gothic and supernatural fiction. Running on the 6th November, the event draws together a superb line-up of speakers, including Sarah Waters, Paul Tremblay, Dacre Stoker, Stephen Volk and many more. With interviews, workshops, panels and talks, this promises to be a must-see event for readers and writers in the genre. You can find out more here.
To celebrate the event, we’ll take a look at the ghost story in a number of special articles from event organiser – and Writing Magazine's speculative fiction expert – Alex Davis.
I’ll begin by saying this – I’m a firm believer in ghosts, at least in some form. I can’t quite decide whether that’s as a true, conscious manifestations of the departed or not – I’ve always been drawn to the idea of ghosts as a sort of ‘negative’ of the past, imprinted in one place, repeating loops from the dim and distant past. But there’s no doubt in my mind that ghosts are real. I’ve never seen one – and despite my love of the ghost story as a form I think the experience would deeply affect me – but that strong belief is there regardless.
Which, of course, would make me a laughably bad main character for a ghost story.
Why so, you may say? Well, the answer in many ways lies back in the roots of the ghost story as we know it now – MR James. It’s hard to avoid getting into the ‘Jamesian’ tradition when talking ghost stories, so let’s get it out of the way early. The atmospheric, slow-build, late-reveal brand of ‘pleasing terror’ that the ghost story is so renowned for is largely traceable to Montague Rhodes himself, and if you’ve never dipped into a collection of his work you should rectify that some time very soon.
What I personally find fascinating about James is that he was a scholar and an academic, and yet became most famous for writing stories about ghosts – which many scholars and academics, people of logic and science, might debate against existing at all. But for me that put him in the perfect position to write these sorts of tales, because the protagonists that he created were equally disinclined to believe in the supernatural.
Why is that such an important qualification though? Why is it often better for our lead characters to be sceptical of what they may see and hear? For me, the answer is twofold.
Firstly, it has a lot more impact on the character that way. You could write a ghost story centring on a crew of ghost hunters, for example, but the sights and sounds of a spirit are unlikely to rock them to the core. Scare them, maybe even terrify them? Sure. But a sceptic will likely find their whole world view changed by the sight of that ghost, and find that visitation a point of no return for how they used to understand life and death itself. It provides an immediate character arc, and the tension between the character’s disbelieving nature and the ever-increasing proof of the supernatural around them can be integral to the story itself.
Secondly, it can do a great deal for dramatic irony, which is a highly effective device for ghost stories – and ultimately horror in its much broader sense. Put simply, dramatic irony boils down to the reader knowing something the character doesn’t. It’s often used in comedy, where miscommunications between characters can lead to hilarious situation – provided the reader knows what has been misunderstood. The same goes for the ghost story – as a reader in the form, we assume that we are going to see at least some ghostly goings-on, but our sceptical character may ignore the evidence under their very nose, or blunder into situations of terror and danger that a person more willing to believe would never dream of. Much tension is born here – in horror, you might see another example in characters exploring ‘that noise in the basement’ – as a reader you know that noise wasn’t something falling over, but some sort of hideous monster or deranged murderer. But if the character knew – or thought – that, then why would they go down there in the first place? As such, disbelief is key to driving dramatic irony.
So whatever your own stance on the existence or non-existence of ghosts, writing in the form is a time to celebrate the sceptics!