Alas poor ghost, by Dennis Hamley

          Someone once said that the invention of electric light spelt the end of the ghost story.  And I see what she or he meant.  After all, the invention of the mobile phone has led to a significant increase in the number of fictional locations where you can't get a signal.  Progress seems inimical to fiction.

           I used to write a lot of ghost stories.  People actually used to refer to me as 'Ah, Dennis Hamley, the ghost story writer.' It's the genre which taught me how to write short stories.  The light was definitely switched on as I wrote them but then there were no mobiles to make what was a 'present day' story when I wrote it, credible for today's readers.  Even so, I'm making an ebook selection of those of mine which I think may be worth resurrecting. They appeared in a variety of books, starting with a collection The Shirt off a Hanged Man's Back, published in 1984, for which I still have a great affection.  It was about then that I began to be asked by editors for stories for their own collections.  I did lots, several of them for the OUP collections edited by Dennis Pepper, and mainly of a ghosty type.  Then I put some of them in my own collection, Coded Signals, published in 1990.  And there have been several since for various editors.

The very first

          What's the attraction?  When I was a kid there were lots of 'ghost' stories around in annuals and comics.  They had a common formula.  There was a 'ghost' which  scared the locals away. ' Oo no, I dursn't go down there of a night.' The 'ghosts' were invariably a cover for some evil criminal project.  The investigators, usually two very resourceful boys, sussed out what was happening, whether the 'ghost' was a horse painted luminous white, a translucent monk projected by a hidden film projector, once even an insect trapped inside a headlight casting terrifying shadows on the chalky side of a cutting.  The boys sized up the situation, phoned the police and the baddies were all arrested.  But the locals still 'dursn't go down there of a night.'  Scooby-doo carries on this noble tradition.  I liked those stories then and, in an odd sort of way, still do.

          But I had no idea when I was very young that the ghost story is a genre with a long history.  It is as old as storytelling itself and satisfies a deep-seated longing, even instinct.  There are particular structures which keep recurring.  

          One I especially like is where a person comes to warn against some terrible danger and afterwards it's found that it was a revenant who died at the same moment as the warning.  When I first read a story like that I was disappointed.  It had been done now and that meant I couldn't do it myself.   But then I found the story again, in a different guise by a different author.  And again.  I kept finding it in odd places. It's in medieval ballads. I think Homer and Virgil use it.  So I did write it after all.  And again.  And again.  Shamelessly.

          Why should this particular form keep recurring?  I think because it satisfies something very deep down in us. It has a ghostly frisson sure enough but it's also comforting that there are those now dead who are still looking out for us.  And that's what we would all like to think.

          So I came to look at the ghost story less as a scary manifestation, though it always should be, and more as an important literary metaphor - and, if you like, a convention to cut out an interminable amount of research  by the human characters to discover something buried deep in the past.  The ghost is, if you like, a messenger.

          When I've done Authors in School visits, kids often ask me whether I believe in ghosts.  I usually say 'Not really' in an apologetic way (though veteran readers of this blogspot may remember that once I said it was otherwise.  Yes, I did hear a Bronte sister crying).   But I do tell them that there's one ghost I really do believe in, have seen many times and who still makes me feel a bit scared.  The ghost of Hamlet's father.  He is the perfect ghost.  He appears from nowhere, magnificent and frightening, lays bare a secret from the past and then goes.  When he appears again it may be just a guilty hallucination.  But he's definitely there the first time.

         Guilty hallucination?  In Macbeth, that's how Banquo is usually presented. Only Macbeth sees him.  But I remember the Old Vic production with John Neville in the 60s, in which Banquo's ghost actually appeared, blood-boltered and threatening, moving slowly up onto the stage towards his allotted chair at the feast.  I really felt physically frightened - no, worse, the living crap was being scared out of me. I felt I  really was in the presence of the supernatural.  Magnificent.  Shakespeare can do this to you.  Modern producers who just have an empty chair are, to my mind, wimps.

          So that's how most of my ghosts work.  They aren't on general display: they have a target audience and lay bare an old secret, the ghost's unfinished business,  which the people in the present are charged to complete.  These stories appear in many time periods, locations and guises.  They are, I hope, all very different.  But that's their regular deep structure.

          For me, though, there's one big exception and it's the best example I have of writing as therapy.  Some of you know that in 1983 I was taken suddenly and completely unexpectedly ill and bundled off to Harefield Hospital for an emergency heart by-pass.  Its odd that my memories of that time are really rather pleasant - in fact, just as the moment of truth arrived, funny - because the actuality was that at the time I didn't think I was going to come out alive.

          But the operation was good and thirty years later I'm still here and going nowhere.  However, when I came out of Harefield I was in a strange emotional state, completely unable to understand what had happened to me and not able to come to terms with it.

          And it's odd what scale of values we have at such times.  A few days before I was ill I'd been asked to write a story for an anthology with the general title Outsiders.  When I came out, I remembered this and was seized by a sort of panic.  I had to write this story because if I didn't I'd be regarded throughout the book world as unprofessional and nobody would ever ask me again.  But I was in no state to write a story because the only subject I could think of was my operation and the only place was Harefield Hospital.  Who'd want to hear about them?

          But something odd happened.  Into my mind flashed a picture of a boy, about 14, lying in a bed waiting for a heart operation.  I'd seen him already, flat on a trolley, unconscious, with an oxygen mask over his face, and the image stuck.  But I took him off the trolley, brought him back to consciousness and put him back in his hospital bed.  Then he finds there's another boy in the next bed.  And there's something rather strange about him.  What is it?

          I took the plunge and started writing, very quickly, expecting any moment to give up, crying 'I can't do this.'  But the story grew. Although I say it myself, it's quite scary. And it wasn't until I was half way through that I realised I was retelling my own experience - but distantly, detached, dramatised.  When I finished I read it through - and felt more than the usual satisfaction on completing a story or novel.  The Bed by the Door. I was happy.  I was through the experience.  I'd distanced it, come to terms with it, understood it, expressed it.  I could now recover.

          Wonderful. I owe it to the writing process. And, of course, the ghost.

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CallyPhillips said…
Exellent post Dennis. Look forward to the ebook (and it's festival appearance/launch?) and while not generally one to be 'spooked' I think that bed by the door story will be one I'll read WITH THE LIGHT ON OUTDOORS IN THE HEIGHT OF SUMMER!!!
I also have seen Banquo's ghost 'live' onstage and can concur with your comment. Ditto about Hamlet's dad! As Jan Needle would say 'he's not a bad lad that Shagspere'.
Bill Kirton said…
I must have a dodgy fear chromosome because, while I've always wanted to be scared by ghost stories and I've always read them (and still do), I usually enjoy the read but they don't scare me. I still live in hope, though.
I had my own heart op last November and (again probably because of that chromosome) it didn't prove to be traumatic.
On the other hand (and this probably reveals something about my psyche which I'd rather not know), having been unimpressed by Susan Hill's 'Woman in Black', I went to see the stage version of it and it scared me out of my wits.
I haven't yet read any of yours, Dennis, but I will now.
CallyPhillips said…
That's because the play's the thing Bill!!! Fear in the theatre looms large. Believe me, having spent a vast percentage of my life in one theatre or another I can confirm this. However, I have to say that on reflection it's the backstage 'stories' that sit best in my memory. Although, I have to say, Richard Harris doing Pirandello's Henry IV was a truly scary experience. I thought he'd actually lost the plot several times and was about to come and lynch those of us in the front row! Happy days. I will not see their likes again. I now habituate libraries instead of theatres. How life changes. That Hamley's got me on the serendipity groove now.
Dennis, I love ghost stories - I've written a few myself - and must read yours. M R James's stories still scare me. Especially O Whistle and I'll Come to You and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. (But are they ghost or lurking horror, that's the question?) And I like many of E F Benson's ghost stories. They're readable and definitely give you the odd frisson. My favourite two ghost stories are both by Margaret Oliphant: the Library Window which is deeply atmospheric, especially if you know St Andrews,and The Open Door which didn't so much scare me as make me weep, horribly. In fact even thinking about it now brings a tear to my eye. I tried for years to get them to let me dramatize it for radio but they wouldn't - I eventually figured it was because it's in many ways a 'woman's' story and the slot editor just didn't get it. The haunting is entirely sound based and wrings your heart, so it would have been wonderful.
madwippitt said…
Arrrr Cally, Richard Harris live on stage was a marvel ...

Dennis, are you planning on ebooking the Hanged Man collection?
Lydia Bennet said…
ghost stories can be fabulous though if they do have an effect on me it's usually to make me sad for the poor ghost... not often scared by them. But that old 'haunting of hill house' film I did find scary, the original version. I think cgi has spoiled film ghosts as directors succumb to temptation to show the whole ghost and it's so obvs cgi. it's easier to believe in a live blood-bolstered man walking onstage, only visible to one man there! I've studied NDEs with a neuroscientist and had an article published on the phenomenon in Neuroquantology, and there's a related phenomenon called 'near death coincidences' where someone else sees the dying person at a distance or gets some other strange signal from them. I've experienced similar myself but it depends on consciousness being possible outside the physical brain which is yet to be explained or shown to be possible - though quantum processes may be involved.
Dennis Hamley said…
Bill. we must exchange heart op stories. I wasn't so much scared by the operation - in fact I welcomed it and it was a good experience. It was what might have happened if I hadn't had it - and why on earth was I in there having it anyway? The morning they came marching up the ward to tell me they were going to do it at once was actually hilarious, gives me one of my very warmest feelings and still makes me laugh out loud. A straight talking Australian registrar made the morning for me. But the night before, when I nearly snuffed it, lives with me as well.
Catherine, I don't think it's the ghost stories themselves which scare me - with the possible exception of MR James, who, if he hasn't had a psychoanalytic study done of him, certainly should. It's more the narrative tension they engender, of which fear is, I think, only a small part. But now I have to read Mrs Oliphant! Mad W, I'm ebooking five of the nine stories in Hanged man, including the title story. Val, I wonder if the NDE is at the heart of the ubiquitous story structure I mention? Actually, Cally, there are bits of Bed by the Door which do still scare me a little bit, even thought they wouldn't scare anybody else. I wish I'd seen R Harris as Henry 4. I hadn't thought of launching the collection for the festival. Now you've mentioned it it's obvious. It#s evening now and we've only just come back from the Lake district - but our trip was mainly an elopement because we took a day out to get married at Gretna Green.
julia jones said…
I have never understood why MR James just doesn't do it for me at all. Overheard in a Graveyard by Our Sue has some properly creepy moments however. Like your hospital story Dennis - that's properly pro.
Dennis, I'd love to know your response to The Open Door. You may disprove my theory about it appealing to women more than men! All I'll say now is that it has one of the most satisfying endings of any story I've ever read. Even though I cried.
julia jones said…
Well stap me vitals - that Dennis, he's a cool one! Took a day out to get married, he says. Well, CONGRATULATIONS sez I.
Elizabeth Kay said…
Congratulations, Dennis! Delighted for you.
Lydia Bennet said…
I like the way you sneaked the getting married bit in at the end of a comment,Dennis! it's been a very delayed bombshell among us at AE, thanks to Julia for pointing it out and many congratulations to you both!x

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