‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.
Arthur Conan Doyle, one of my heroes, was spot on re imagination. My friend and I saw Paranormal Activity IV at the weekend, and agreed that the most frightening things are those which are not seen. This is why The Others frightens me a lot more than Hostel (that just sickened me), and fiction stays with you much longer than film. Ones worst enemy is ones imagination. I remember a few years ago staying at a friend’s house in Portugal alone. During the day, when it was sunny and bright, the light felt it would go on forever, and there was not a cloud in the sky, I foolishly read a book about Jack the Ripper. I then watched a film about Nazi Zombie Killers in the evening. And then went to bed. I was utterly alone.I lay very still and very quiet, not wanting to lie facing the door in case I saw whoever it was Coming In, but at the same time not wanting them to surprise me. Every creak was Jack tiptoeing up the stairs. Every tickle of tree branches at the window was a zombified Nazi clawing at the glass. I have learned my lesson (more or less), and try to alternate between good light-hearted reading material and embracing my darker side, but I just like frightening myself too much!
The Mitford Girls is one of my ‘lighter’ reads and I am enjoying it immensely. The book is very well written, as if you are chatting to an old friend, but it’s also searingly honest, making it clear that, popular and fascinating as the girls were, they were human, and not without their faults. It is most amusing in places, particularly in some of the things Sydney (their mother) says: “Ovaries? I thought one had 700 or so of them, like caviar.”
However, of course, as we approach Halloween, which is possibly my third favourite night of the year after Christmas Eve and my birthday, I am thinking of spine-chilling books, and want to share them with you, mainly because some of them are not terribly well known. At school, I raided the library for John Gordon, Aidan Chambers and Dennis Hamley. Our primary school was tiny, probably 40 pupils max. The library was, of course, my favourite place: a tiny corner in the corner of the ‘big class’ with dark shelves of rather old, tatty books covered in plastic. I could quite happily curl up on one of the little, hard-backed wooden chairs and spend hours. The books smelled of hundreds of pre-readers. I loved the way the pages were marked by blobs of Ribena or the occasional tiny squashed spider. It showed that someone had been there before me, and enjoyed them.
I recently tracked down, and bought, a variety of these story compendiums on Amazon. They are very simply written, and utterly chilling. Reading them again, 17 years after I first opened them, I felt that delicious silver shiver go down the back of my neck and tickle each vertebrae. They were quite hard to find – I remembered the title of a few (who could forget a book called The Shirt Off A Hanged Man’s Back?) but for some I simply had to Google lines I remembered from stories, and hope that the volume came up. It took a little digging, but I’m really pleased that my ghost story collection has grown to include these gems which I recommend for children aged 8 up, or from adults who like to curl up when the wind is howling down the chimney with a hot chocolate, a slanket, and cold fingers tiptoeing their way down your spine…
My favourite collection is Shades of Dark, by Aidan Chambers. Many of these stories I could recite word for word. I tried to order it from WH Smith years ago (before the days of Amazon) and was gutted when they told me it was out of print. Discovering it in a second-hand book shop in Cheltenham was possibly one of the most exciting days of my life, tragic as it sounds. It’s a real gem. I am infuriated that it took me some time to find it as that bloody 50 Shades is top of the list grrrrrr…Another very good compendium (all her own work) is The Shadow Cage by Philippa Pearce. These are SERIOUSLY creepy, highly original, stories, none of them without the ‘happy ending’ which one could really do with from a ghost story in order to tuck down and get a good night’s sleep. Fans of Tom’s Midnight Garden and A Dog So Small will know Pearce is one of the superior children’s authors, but she needs to be recognised for her chilling talent, as well.
Ramsey Campbell is another writer I really like for unusual fiction which leave sa bit of a nasty taste in the mouth.The last book of his I read, The Grin of the Dark, was not as good as I expected, but it hasn’t stopped me enjoying his old stories. Most recently I have enjoyed Dark Matter by Michele Paver – a darkly original tale set in Alaska, and of course, possibly the best ghost story ever told: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Don’t go to the book expecting the film, and don’t watch the film expecting the book: they are different to each other but I think this is the best way of doing it as the film shocks the reader, and the book the viewer.
I may well come back to this post and update it as I think of more strictly supernatural scribblers to share – M R James and Edgar Allan Poe are of course pure gold – but if anyone has any others to contribute I would love more recommendations.
I have written my own supernatural stories – a collection of very odd little tales I wrote when I got bored during my GCSEs, some based on dreams (I do my best work when I sleep, obviously!) and a couple which I wrote for competitions. I don’t think my story about a man haunted by the death of his best friend was quite what Gloucestershire Libraries were looking for but it was a damn sight more interesting than the soppy romance wot won, and I am quite pleased with it. I’m not putting any of them up here, because they might get stolen and published for millions, or (more likely) you will all go “Yeah. Nice work” politely and then never bother reading my blog again.
I am skipping out now – for a ghost walk, of all things! Let’s see what Cheltenham has in store. I had a lovely drive home last evening, just as the light started to fade. The trees either side were golden brown (texture like sun) and the road dusted with leaves.
I wonder if, like a leaf, I will be possibly most beautiful when I am dead. That would be just my luck!