It's Octobrrrrrr and the season of witches and spooks is here. It's time to draw the curtains, edge closer to the fire and get your nose stuck into a ghost story or two. For my money, those which are short stories work best and there are some great ones out there - tales which get it just right, scaring the pants off you and haunting you for years after, jumping out at you from dark corners of your memory at unexpected moments, and without ever needing to overstep the matter and descend into horror and grim and grisly goriness to achieve their effect.
If you need some classic examples, there's our own Sue Price's Overheard in a Graveyard for starters: it's right up there with that master of Halloween eeeek Ray Bradbury's story The Emissary from his collection The October Country.
And there are of course other masters of the sort of short story which raises the hairs on the back of your neck and make you want to keep glancing behind you - Poe, Saki, James, Aiken to name but a few of my favourites.
Of course, not all ghost stories need to be out-and-out scary: some manage to be both chilling and also humorous at the same time. In my own humble offering, Haunting Hounds, I've tried to be a little tongue in cheek, but while researching it I came across a few reports which really did make me feel edgy - the Newgate hell hound for example, and the tale of Nigger, the Dambusters mascot dog ...
But do ghosts really exist?
Here's a brief extract from my introduction to Haunting Hounds:
"It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it."
Ghost stories have been doing the rounds since times immemorial, and aren’t confined solely to human apparitions – it would appear that there are any number of spectral dogs too.
Some are based on folk memories of long ago, or are attempts to explain natural phenomena not properly understood at the time: other hauntings were intentionally invented by smugglers to discourage closer investigation of any strange lights or sounds. Other incidents might be attributed to wishful thinking or a trick of the light: but even when all these are discounted, there are many encounters that seem to have no obvious or straightforward explanation.
Some years ago, while staying overnight at a friend’s house, I ended up sharing the bed with an invisible but determined phantom hound. Every time I dropped off to sleep I would be woken some time later by the feel of a dog’s body pressed against my legs and pushing me towards the edge of the bed. If you've ever shared your bed with a dog, you'll know that sensation: it's quite unmistakeable. Switching the light on revealed that nothing was there: but the moment I dozed off again, the whole performance was repeated. In the end I resisted the pushing, and having made my point, it stopped and simply became a comforting pressure and I finally managed a few hours of undisturbed slumber.
In the morning I mentioned this strange experience to my hosts. It turned out that it was a fairly regular occurrence. In the early hours of the morning they would often be woken themselves by their ghostly canine resident pushing their bedroom door – always left slightly ajar – further open: having greeted them, they would then hear the click-click-click of his toenails as he made his way down the uncarpeted stairs and off in the direction of the garden where he presumably then spent the rest of the day.
I’ve thought many times since then about my invisible doggy bedfellow: was it really the ghost of a dog which had previously lived there? Or a very vivid and reoccurring waking dream during the night?
I still can’t quite decide.
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