Monday, 2 November 2015

Things that go bump in the night, by Mari Biella

c/o Fred Goldstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos
It’s that time of year again, when pumpkins are carved out, horror films dominate the TV schedules, and kids don Frankenstein masks and flit around their neighbourhoods asking for sweets. Well, technically speaking, I am of course a few days late, but my AE slot falls on the second of the month, which means that – curses! – the coveted Halloween spot will never be mine. Neither will that of April Fool’s Day, which I miss out on by just one day. That particular splendid opportunity goes to my esteemed colleague, Valerie Laws. Ah, well: better late than never, I suppose.

Ghosts. Whether you believe in them or not, they continue to haunt us. They have, so far, proved remarkably resistant to the silver bullet of science. You can’t get away from them; you might not have seen a ghost, but ask around in your social circle and the chances are that at least one person will claim that they have. Even if you never encounter a spook in the real world, that still leaves the fictional world; indeed, several of us in AE write ghost stories. How to account for the phantom’s enduring appeal?

c/o Wikimedia Commons

Do ghosts exist? The question misses the point, perhaps. Ghosts can be said to exist simply by virtue of the fact that people – people of all cultures and times, people who have no apparent reason to lie – consistently report encountering them. The question, really, is what we think they actually are. Are they hallucinations? Unusual brain activity? A natural phenomenon that we don’t yet understand? Or are they genuinely paranormal or supernatural?

Somewhat to my disappointment, I haven’t seen a ghost, or at least not one that I recognised as such. I’ve had the unnerving feeling that I wasn’t alone, that I was being watched by someone unseen. I had one frightening experience in the Edinburgh Vaults, when I heard a loud thumping noise. I was with a tour group, but none of the other visitors were responsible and the remainder of the vaults were apparently empty. I was scared at the time. Later, my rational mind kicked into gear and began to supply explanations. The vaults are in the middle of a major city and, being underground, probably have strange acoustic properties. I could have heard a sound from outside, perhaps – traffic going past on the road above, or a distant door being slammed – which echoed down in the vaults, and was distorted and amplified. Add a touch of imagination, and you can see what might happen.

A book that I remember with much affection...
I don’t know why I’ve always had this fascination with hauntings. There’s nothing in my childhood, as far as I can remember, that obviously accounts for it. I do remember that, when I was about six or seven, I belonged to a book club organised by a teacher in my school. Every so often we were able to order a discounted book from a small catalogue. I ordered Scottish Hauntings by Grant Campbell, despite the fact that I’m not Scottish and hadn’t, at that stage, ever even been to Scotland. The book duly arrived, and I spent a few happy nights reading it in bed by torchlight, thrilled by the eerie illustrations and even eerier stories. Not only was it spooky and compelling; it was (I can imagine sceptics rolling their eyes at this point) intelligently written, never once patronising its young readers but trusting them to form their own ideas. It supplied mundane rational explanations – that the Eilean Mor mystery might have been due to nothing more than a freak wave, for example – and allowed room for doubt to creep in, as when the author pointed out that eyewitness testimony tends to become less reliable over time. Yet that keen intelligence, lightly worn, never threatened to dim the sense of mystery, which is the thing that I remember most about Scottish Hauntings. In a fit of nostalgia, I looked it up on the internet, and there it is, available for the princely sum of £0.01.

I grew up largely in Wales: not in a particularly picturesque or romantic area, just in an ordinary small town on the edge of the South Wales coalfield. Yet still it seemed that an ancient, Celtic mystery seeped through the fabric of everyday life and appearances. From an early age I sensed that there was another world, running alongside this one perhaps, mostly hidden from us and encountered only in the form of fleeting sensations and impressions, but sometimes there, visible and real, to anyone lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I gazed wistfully at a fire-damaged old farmhouse and mill as I passed them on the way to and from the local shops, wondering if I might glimpse or experience something...

I never did, sadly. Perhaps it really is a question of being in the right place at the right time. In one of my favourite creepy films, The Others, ghostly encounters are portrayed in this way. The living and the dead are treading different but strangely parallel paths, and sometimes – due to an unplanned, unforeseen, random collision of circumstances – those paths briefly cross. They never did for me, regrettably. My encounters with the spirit world seemed destined to be confined to the pages of books.

c/o April Turner | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Not that that was a bad thing, necessarily. I began to devour ghost stories, discovering some all-time favourites in the process: The Lady’s Maid’s Bell by Edith Wharton, The Fire When It Comes by Parke Godwin, Somerset Maugham’s A Man From Glasgow. I discovered M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and Harry Price’s (supposedly factual) account of the Borley Rectory case in The Most Haunted House in England.

The progression from reading ghost stories to writing them seemed a natural one. What I discovered, though, in those early, faltering attempts, was that the ghost story, if it’s to be done well, is a surprisingly tricky form to master (I’m not sure I’m halfway to mastering it, even now). It calls for the evocation of atmosphere, the slow building-up of tension, and releasing that tension at the right moment, and in the right way. It relies not upon garish shock-and-awe tactics, but upon mood and setting.

I’m still fascinated with ghosts. Some would say that, at my age, I really should know better. They’re right, perhaps. But some things are stronger than we are, and my fascination with ghosts is one of them. I’m still waiting. Perhaps, one day, I’ll have a genuine brush with the supernatural...

My ghostly novel, The Quickening, is for a limited time being offered for FREE to subscribers to the Authors Electric newsletter. To claim your copy, please click here or go to the sign-up form in the top right-hand corner of this page. Happy reading!

10 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

Fascinating as ever, Mari, especially as I've spent far more years than you trying to find something on the page that scares me or makes that other world plausible. Without flattering you, I confess that 'The Quickening' was one of the best approaches to the issue that I've read. The trick is to make the haunted person a sceptic and create a context and a set of experiences which offers no solutions but leaves that chilling ambiguity (and therefore the possibility of ghosts) unresolved. I will review it, I promise.

Jan Needle said...

well i've jumped through the hoops, and now i'm waiting for the free ebook. will it arrive? or does it, in fact, NOT EXIST...

Only time wi

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Excellent post, Mari. I've always loved ghosts and ghostly stories as well and have written a few myself, but one day I'll tackle something longer. I think The Quickening works wonderfully well. I can probably date my own fascination from various events in childhood, one at least connected with the radio. I remember hearing the start of some long ago dramatisation of Rebecca - the 'last night I dreamed I went to Manderley...' opening lines. Young as I was - much too young to understand the story - I was still old enough to be aware of just how much that wonderful spooky opening drew the listener in, the magic of it. And later, when I wasn't even into my teens, reading Wuthering Heights, and the passage where Lockwood dreams about the long dead Cathy at the window with all its intimations of loss, sorrow, raw passion and obsession, one of those passages in fiction that even now, in memory, can make my spine tingle! My own ghost was much more prosaic and ordinary - an old man walking down the village street. It was getting on for twilight but not so dark that I couldn't see him clearly, and the dog I was walking could see him too, because she pulled me across, wagging her tail at him. Then he disappeared. Like somebody switching off a television set. I felt very foolish, but when I later described him to my husband, he knew exactly who it was. I think there are different kinds of ghosts and some of them are just imprints, images left behind. I think that's what I saw.

Susan Price said...

Ooh, I love 'The Others' too! I don't think any other 'ghost' film I've seen comes near it. And I can only echo the others in saying that 'The Quickening' is a wonderful, eerie book.

Catherine, I love your ghost story. It has that randomness, that 'we exist, so deal with it,' note.

I think I was drawn to ghost stories because I already loved the idea of ghosts, though to say why, exactly, I find difficult. Even harder to say why, now, when I no longer have much belief in anything that's oddly termed 'supernatural.' (Odd, because if something exists,then by defination it's natural, not above, beside or outside the natural.)

I think, possibly, that I tell ghost stories now as an expression of the melancholy, of things lost or never within reach

Dennis Hamley said...

I too am fascinated by ghosts. The ghost story is a genre which I love, which goes right back to the very first days of storytelling and certainly satisfies a primal human need. I've written so many in my time - and, yes, just once, I think I experienced a real supernatural experience. I blogged about it on AE many years ago now, before, Mari, I think you were a member. I was definitely visited by Emily Bronte. Or was it Charlotte? Or even Ann. Who cares? It was definitely a Bronte (not Branwell though; that was my son's cat), with a specific message for me in a specific place and at a specific time.

Mari Biella said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone - and thanks to Bill, Catherine and Susan for the compliments! I love your ghost story too, Catherine.

Jan - I can't find your name amongst the subscribers to the list. Did you subscribe some time ago? There's a double opt-in process (Mailchimp insists, so that we don't fall afoul of anti-spam laws), so you do have to jump through a few hoops. It might be worth checking in your spam/promotions folders, just in case there's anything there. If you do find the November newsletter, there's a section in it that explains how to get hold of the book.

If you've only just signed up (i.e. in the last few hours), when the process is complete you should get a welcome email which also directs you to the free book.

If you have no luck, it might be worth trying to subscribe again. If nothing at all works, drop me an email (mari.biella@gmail.com) - I should be able to help.

Lydia Bennet said...

Great post Mari - I've had several 'paranormal' experiences myself, and so have people close to me - as a scientist I look for every possible explanation, but don't find it illogical that 'ghosts' might be real (in the sense of not purely in the mind of the beholder) or at least some of them. I don't find telepathy, for example, to be at all far-fetched though I do find the experiments done to investigate it to be unscientific and pointless. It could be that we pick up on electromagnetic signals left by others in the past. We certainly emit brain waves all the time, I've seen them from rat brains in the lab. It might also be that humans have sacrificed some ancient survival abilities to our use of language, and remnants of these might explain some of the experiences so often reported. I enjoy your ghostly writing very much so you clearly have the right balance of scary, sad and subtle. I thought The Others was very scary, I also love the original film of The Haunting (of Hill House), which has some terrifying sequences and is also sad: does anyone else like this one? the modern remake was awful, they had clearly visible cgi ghosts which of course just look like, erm, cgi ghosts.

Lydia Bennet said...

Also Mari, if you like, and remind me nearer the time next year, we could swap one time so you can do April Fool's Day!

Mari Biella said...

Thanks Valerie - and it's nice to have some input from a scientist here! The original film version of The Haunting of Hill House was sublime; why they had to ruin it with that awful modern remake I'll never know... I'll have to see if I can come up with an April Fool's Day prank, though forewarned is forearmed, I suppose.

Umberto Tosi said...

Fascinating post, Mari. A ghost haunts our abode. Maybe. We joke about it, like we don't really believe in such things, choosing to define those peripheral wisps and blurs as power of suggestion, as imaginary. A fellow died in our building garage back in the 30s of carbon monoxide poisoning. Maybe he passed out drunk with the engine running, door closed on a cold night, or maybe it was a suicide. No one seems to know. The ghost won't tell us, but real or imaginary, ghosts make great characters, as you so well know, along with the Bard.