Ghost stories are my favourite genre of book. Ever since I can remember, "ghosts" were the first thing I looked for on a blurb. I had a huge collection of Goosebumps when I was young, closely surrounded by various "Point Horror" publications and ghostly "true stories" fact books. I thrilled in making up my own ghost stories at sleepovers - huddled under duvets with friends - torchlight in our faces like we'd seen in films. Not only would I scare my friends, but I would petrify myself, too! Even now, ghost stories are like the last drink at the party you don't say no to. The extra spoonful of custard at dessert. I know the ill effects of reading them, but I just. can't. stop.
I guess it must be the same thing people get for horror films, or whiteknuckle rides, or... bungie jumping... No matter how much blood tormented your dreams that night, or how sick you felt on the rollercoaster drop, or how close to dying you got jumping from a bridge; you'd do it again. In a second. Of course you would! It was GREAT! And so the same can be said for me and ghost stories. Here's why:
I'm very particular. I like my ghost stories old school: haunted houses, victorian era, kids, maybe a governess thrown in. I like them subtle, and lingering, and moody - probably set in England where it's cold and grey. Because (and here's where a book beats any ghost film) books can't make you jump. They can shock you, they can make you gasp and your heart beat faster, but they cannot cause physical surprise. And so ghost stories, to me, have become the epitome of scene setting, tension building and making my mind feel like it's about the buckle under the weight of suspense. A well written ghost story pulls me so deeply into the world of the book that it's easy to get lost in it. Usually, ghost stories are set in one location and you get to know it intimately as you spend time there amongst the chapters. You feel, by the end of the book, that you can almost taste the air. The microcosm a haunted house etc. provides, helps the reader fall into the stories trap. And if you're reading a book, why would you not want to be taken so wholly along for the journey?!
Ghost stories take your everyday, your daily routine, and they make you question it. They make you nervous of it. Beyond late-night creepy doll stories at sleepovers, I am no longer fearful of ghosts. However, they do affect me. When I have finished a book or a film involving the whispy white dead, I actually tense before looking in mirrors, unsure of what I'll see. I begin to run from the bathroom to my bed when the light's out, not wanting to linger in the shadows for too long. I wonder why I'm suddenly cold at night.
I think a lot of it is to do with the fact that although I may or may not believe in ghosts, I definitely believe in their possibility. I don't believe that they're "horror story" devices - I don't think they will jump out and attack me and scream and wail - but I do begin to imagine them just... being there. I begin to think that one day I might turn round and *BOOM* there it is: a ghost. Just there. Lingering. Light-mongering. Whatever they do. And what would I do? What would I say?
Ghosts appear in your every day life, and in books they usually use the most normal of things to communicate: breath on cold glass, trembling water, reflections, temperature. Suddenly your morning cup of tea becomes an invitation for paranormal activity.I might actually pitch that one to Paramount...
One of the things I love most about ghost stories is that very often, the ghost is not the threat - it is the living characters, and their reaction to the ghost, that is dangerous, and yet we all fear the apparition more. Ghosts simply represent a wrong-doing in the living. However, I'm still scared to see a ghost - not because I would fear the ghost, but because of what that ghost might mean! ... which leads on to my next point quite nicely!...
A genius of a literary device
Often in stories, ghosts simply represent a secret or a desire of the character that sees or fears them. Ghosts are often nothing more than literary devices: symbols, masques, redherrings and lies. But they become these in such an affecting way. They are the human element of all the "evil" in their reason for being. They physically hold and embody pain, suffering, betrayal, loss, loneliness, wrong-doing. Sometimes, they do this almost beautifully - and sometimes, they do this in loud, house shaking, window breaking sorrow. You never see a ghost who just hung around to drink tea, do you? (discounting Harry Potter ghosts here!)
Ghosts are great. They make for great mysteries, great character development, great atmosphere, great denouments and great emotions. There is nothing bad to a ghost story. Nothing at all. Unless it's a teen romance... ;)
Here are my top five favourite ghost stories, if you would like to try some for yourself:
- The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James
- The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
- The Signalman - Charles Dickens
- The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
- Florence and Giles - John Harding
(Special mentions to "Second Glance" by Jodie Piccoult and "Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger too, for using ghosts so endearingly)