I am the Ghost - Dennis Hamley

How lovely it is to have sudden and unexpected new experiences! I often work with Cherry Mosteshar's agency, The Oxford Editors. I write reports on  manuscripts from new authors, which often spill over into a mentoring relationship. On two occasions, rather to my surprise, I've actually put a couple of complete books onto Createspace for authors (not in AE!) who seemed afraid of doing it for themselves, thus being paid for what, to me, was still a learning experience. Still, they seemed happy  with the results and duly paid up.

But I never expected the latest assignment which Cherry offered to me. Someone wanted a ghost writer for a whole novel. I gulped at the enormity of such a task, but then, intrigued, I thought 'Oh what the hell' and said yes, of course I'd have a go at it. And it has been - is still being - a fascinating  project. I'm helping someone produce a worthwhile result and have a learning experience which I hope and think will serve him well in the future. And at the same time I'm learning  a lot about  my own writing and also about a process which, after over forty years, I thought I had pretty well sussed.

The writer in question, who has given me full permission to write this blog, has published two books already, with Olympia Publishers. His writing name is Joe Valks. His books are both children's stories. One,  The Phantom Dog , is short, hardly ten thousand words. The other, The Last Tiger, is much more substantial. Joe has a special interest in animals and wild life. His ambition is to own a wildlife forest of his own!

A first-person narrative about a boy and his dog. I think this is a beautifully written story about  losing and finding. Meanwhile, a reputed half dog, half ghost, locally called 'Bigfoot', is said to stalk the fells, an ever-present danger .

Storm, a young tiger, watches his parents trapped and killed by humans. He starts on a quest, accompanied by his friend Lani, a monkey, to reach a Convention held in a human city to decide the fate of the forest and plead for it to be spared. It is a difficult quest, fraught with danger, but the animals of the forest help them on their way. They reach the Convention, Storm makes a passionate speech and the forest is saved.

I read them, was impressed and wondered why he thought he needed a ghost writer. He sent me a statement of what he would prefer, a narrative of about 25,000 words. He said he wanted a third-person point of view and referred me to The Last Tiger for the style and idiom he would prefer. He sent a detailed synopsis and also a short story exploring it  – which he said (and I had to agree) – didn’t work (in fact, his description was ‘disastrous’, which I thought something of an overstatement!) However, it did have vivid scenes and effective passages which I thought should appear verbatim in the final result.

The story is called Hunter's Moon. I found the synopsis fascinating and challenging. It’s certainly not an animal story. It has an ambitious time-slip - even dimensional-slip - structure. There is real force and imagination in the cumulative episodes. The central character has a terminal disease and the main concern for the reader is if he can somehow avoid this inevitable early death.. The present-day story is set around  Cumbria and Northumbria, which Sue Price has fixed for ever as Reiver country.  The main location is an isolated boarding school, Ridley Hall (I think there is negotiation needed about this as it seems there is in fact a real Ridley Hall).

The school is close to the reputed site of a huge battle between the indigenous people and the invading Vikings, in which the slaughter was terrific. People say that the cries of the dying can still be heard. It is a place few wish to visit.

This sets the time-slip period at between 800 and 900AD. However, there is little reference to it in the synopsis, because the scene-shifting is not back in time but to a completely different dimension. The central character (always, in both the synopsis and the short story, referred to as ‘the ill boy’) actually finds himself transferred into Norse mythology. He ends up in Valhalla no less, and he has been brought there to perform what looks to be a pre-ordained but impossible task.

Back in the school, a big project on Vikings is going on. However, it’s turning out to be no ordinary project. Strange things happen as it progresses, inexplicable phenomena occur, angry and livid skies appear overhead: it is as if another world is trying to  break in to the present. The ill boy has a terrifying dream – or is it a dream? It seems to him like an actual event he is forced to watch. A young Viking prince is flung into a snake pit and dies a horrible death.  Why, why, why, the ill boy  cries, should he be shown this?

Yes, the synopsis is certainly powerful, so much so that I nearly interpreted my task as merely to fill it out into a connected narrative. It would have been a pretty good story as it stood, though I doubted that it would make 25,000 words, or anything like.  But I soon realised that that wouldn’t do.

The first question was – why had a boy with a terminal illness, a brain tumour or an aneurysm, been shoved into a rough-as-guts old place such as a boarding school filled with screaming kids, even though girls were now admitted, and with no particular medical facilities? He surely wouldn’t last ten minutes. That had to be explained. As a temporary working solution I re-invented the old wicked step-father cliche, who wants the boy out of the way and forgotten, so he could be alone with his mother. Not good enough, but it set things in motion.

But what about this snake pit?  It had to have a real-life counterpart and I must find it. It was here I realised I was very close to something that has concerned me about the nature of stories ever since I started writing them.  No, I think it was earlier than that. It was when I started reading them.

Four years ago I chose twelve ghost stories I’d written since 1984 and put them in a collection called Out of the Deep, on Kindle and also in paperback on  Createspace. For each story I wrote a postscript, showing what triggered the writing process, what sort of ghost inhabits the story and where it may sit in the great pantheon of this mighty genre.

I have very definite ideas about ghost stories. I know that some people tell me they don’t agree with them but I remain stubborn. In one of the postscripts I try to illustrate them in a very cheeky way, by taking a swipe at one of the great classic ghost stories, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad by M R James.

       The ghostly pursuer is a very traditional figure in ghost literature, usually as an agent of revenge,     evil intent, fate, nemesis. It’s a staple of ancient Greek culture, most importantly in Sophocles’Oedipus Rex and the Orestiea of Aeschylus. As a concept it’s probably far older.  Why?           Because it’s an archetypal human feeling, an image of fear as well as a desire for justice which,           if humans can’t bring it, must be left to the gods.       
      In more modern times, MR James depicted the ghostly pursuer in “Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad.”  This is marvellously atmospheric, with another staple of supernatural stories, the “power object”, in this case the whistle which can summon up the pursuing figure. 
       But in spite of the suspense and terror James, as always, depicts so brilliantly, I can’t help finding this story unsatisfactory.  I know that we mustn’t expect everything to be explained in ghost stories: that would defeat their whole purpose.  But in the end, the ghostly pursuer is arbitrary: it has no physical or emotional connection with Professor Parkins, the unfortunate picker-up of the whistle on the beach.  The professor begins the story ignorant and ends it terrified and mystified. The Colonel’s function is not that of the wise guide who understands but the person with enough knowledge to know that there are things here that no mere human should tamper with.  That’s fair enough I suppose, but for me it doesn’t go far enough.  I want to know more about the scary tattered figure.  I want him significant, not just something to frighten the horses.  “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio” is, it seems to me, all right for metaphysical speculation but not, I submit, for satisfying narrative.  And I am NOT talking about neatly tied-up, formulaic plots.  Satisfying narrative is part of the essence of literary form.

This led me on to something which, as soon as I first read it very many years ago, seemed so exactly right as to not need further argument and which I’ve tried to embody in all my writing.

TS Eliot believed that strong emotion expressed in literature cannot be arbitrary. It must be justified by the facts as we are given them, otherwise it's just emotion expressed for its own sake. He called this justification the objective correlative. I really do think he's right, even in ghost stories. I don't think there's a sufficient objective correlative in Whistle and I'll come to you, my lad to justify any emotion except terror, nor is thee in a lot of Victorian ghost stories.

So that was it. Hunter’s Moon needed an objective correlative. The narrative as it stood seemed to me to depict the world of Norse mythology trying to burst through into our world. Why? I had to find out.

There are some things I pride myself on knowing a lot about, Gilbert and Sullivan operas for instance, or locomotive superintendents on the railways of Britain from 1829 to 1948. But I can’t say I’m an expert on Norse mythology. Help! I needed to be, quickly.
Well, here’s the difference between academic research and research for a book. I've often quoted      the great remark of Martin Amis’s, ‘the art of being a novelist is to appear to know a lot more         than you actually do.’ Perfect for the writer, death for the scholar. Now was the time to put it into operation. And here came a marvellous phenomenon which I’ve often noticed when  researching for a novel. If you are looking for something specific the answer tends to come almost at the moment you seriously start to look for it. It rises out of the ruck,  gleaming, smiling and ready for use. For me, the prime example of this was when I wrote the 6-novel sequence The  Long Journey of Joslin de Lay. I started in a rush, full of stories I couldn't wait to get started on. I had already decided that in each book Joslin would find himself surrounded by murder in every town or city he fetched up in on his journey - except for the last, which would deal with his own mystery. So I began leaving tantalising clues about what this last mystery might be, mainly spoken by his murdered father in his very last, indistinct words. Sadly, I had no idea what they were supposed to mean.

Of Dooms and Death (The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay Book 1) by [Hamley, Dennis]

Here's where it started

This was the beginning of a large project. I had a lot to get on with and felt I couldn't afford the time to work out what all the dying father's gnomic hints might mean. 'The Blessed St Ursu . . .' Why did I choose that particular saint? She cause me a lot of trouble. Who was the mysterious stranger who dogged Joslin's footsteps all the way? Why did an embassage of English lords come to a castle in France for a conference when the two countries were fiercely at war with each other?? I had no idea and, as I ticked the novels off, 1, 2, 3, 4 ,5, I was beginning to have real fear about number 6.

Well, the fifth was finished and there was no escape. I looked at all these questions, saw no rhyme or reason in them and despaired. Then, out of the blue, my son Peter asked if I had read A Distant Mirror, by Alison Tuchman. No, I hadn't. Well, he answered, you should.

So I started this marvellous panorama of the 14th century, which centres on the life and family of Enguerrand de Coucy, an influential French knight who seemed to  have a finger in every fourteenth- century pie going. And, as I read, I found the solution - a ready-made story with an identifiable historical character as the mysterious follower and a perfect explanation for the purpose of the English lords coming to France to discuss something which concerned them both deeply. And St Ursula? I reread the accounts of the legend - and suddenly her significance in the story was clear. Nothing to do with Roslin Chapel  or any other edifice, whether in Scotland, Wales or anywhere-else. The story I wanted - needed - was there, waiting to be found, with proper historical warrant and a provenance I could never have expected, though should have been able to work out for myself.. And also, in Eliot's terms, a complete objective correlative for the whole of the structure of six free-standing novels as part of an overarching story. If I hadn't found it, the whole project would have failed. But also, the fact that I had as little idea as Joslin about what I was in for until it actually 'happened' to me gives the whole sequence any merit in may have.

The False Father (The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay Book 6) by [Hamley, Dennis]

And here's where it finished.

My next project to do with my own writing, by the way, is to put the whole sequence back into paperback.

Now the question was, would I be able to find a convincing back-story to act as the objective correlative to the events in Hunter's Moon?

It seemed to me that the first thing I needed to do was to run the snake pit to earth. So I googled ‘snake pits in Norse mythology’ and found myself directed to Wikipedia and the information that, in about 865 AD Aella, king of Northumbria, captured his greatest Viking enemy, Ragnar Ladbrok, and had him thrown into a pit full of snakes. King Aella of Northumbria. Who could have guessed that? How perfect for my purposes. And a year afterwards, Ragnar’s sons, Halfdan and Bjorn, brought the great Army of the Heathen over to Northumbria to take revenge for their father and in a huge battle the two armies pretty well destroyed each other. So there we have the haunted battlefield close to Ridley Hall. Yes, I know this is legend. But for my purposes it became true. Except for the fact that Ragnar may have escaped death after all

And once I had got that, the rest, like the story behind Joslin.  came so quickly. They almost seemed to act out James's own title - 'Whistle and I'll come to you.' I whistled and they came. Now I knew the ill boy. His name is Davy. Yes, he was sent to the school by a wicked stepfather who wants rid of himbut there’s a lot more to it than that. There is real evil behind this stepfather.  Like so much in the story, he is not what he seems. There’s a back story which involves revenge lasting over the millennia. Aella’s wish for earthly revenge on the (possibly) escaped Ragnar is  taken over for their own purposes by the gods and the jötunn (such as Loki, the shape-shifting mischief-maker). Humans, both present-day and Viking, gods and jötunn,  walk together in our world. Miraculous-seeming events in the synopsis become explicable in terms of Norse mythology. There is narrative logic for Davy’s appearance  in Valhalla and a conclusion which, in TS Eliot’s words, I hope justifies the facts as we have them - the longed-for objective correlative.

Stairway to Valhalla - If you want to get to Valhalla, you have to walk the path.:

Stairway to Valhalla

Well, perhaps. It might all be a dismal failure and I’ve made a grievous miscalculation. When finished, the story will max out at about 35,000 words, more than Joe wanted. Joe will be the first judge. We’ve worked well so far. Joe has made many extra suggestions, including the idea for one new episode which went straight in to the story and which I think is brilliant. I’ve incorporated them all. I now have a nearly full working copy, complete except for the last two, perhaps three, chapters, which I shall ask Joe to shred to pieces if he thinks fit. So far he’s only had the story in bits to comment on.

The missing chapters are more or less there in draft but there’s more work to do on them because they recount big, significant, even extreme, events and they have to be got right. And I’m still at the stage of thinking, ‘Does this work? Have I missed a trick? Will my rickety structure fall to pieces as soon as it’s touched?’

Well, who knows?  The whole project is something I never expected  to be asked to do. And I’ve found it sometimes frustrating, sometimes elating, always fascinating and perhaps at the end I can say I’ve done adequately what I was asked to do.

And all I can say now is that I’ve found the task of trying to bring someone else’s ideas to fruition very satisfying.

And humbling too. ‘Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.’

Out of the Deep: Stories of the Supernatural:



Jan Needle said…
Bloody hell, Dennis - you're meant to be ill! Fascinating story, and another new direction; you'll never stop surprising me. Being a ghost writer seems possibly harder than being a bog-standard writer, though. Good to mention Wikipedia. Surely the greatest reference library ever invented. I send them a cash contribution every time they ask.
Dennis Hamley said…
No, Jan, I have made a miraculous recovery, akin to that of Lazarus (you'll find out all about him in Wikipedia of course). Yes, actually being a ghost writer is hard work. I admire Andrew Crofts more than ever. And it still might not work! By the way, when I referred to a 'rickety structure', I meant my contribution, not Joe's
Bill Kirton said…
What a pleasure it was to read this, Dennis. It opens up so many interesting points about the whole creative process. We've probably all experienced the sort of Eureka instants you describe, but you’ve identified so clearly the different forces and structures at work as a narrative tries to accommodate them. Two story-tellers, a free flow of ideas, new directions and discoveries, all feeding and stimulating one another – they make the job so exciting, don’t they? Thanks for a stimulating start to the day.
Jan Needle said…
Lazarus? Wasn't he the dude that Obama killed with his health care bill but good old Trumpie brought back to life again?
Susan Price said…
Great to hear from you again, Dennis. And I'm well acquainted with what you describe - the detail added to a plot without thought which later turns out to be a carefully placed plot point. And the vital information you need to know which suddenly seems to come at you from every side, in every programme you turn on, every book you pick up.

About Ragnar...Something you might be able to use. After Aelle's killed him, he thinks, 'Lumme, what have I done?' So he sends an extremely diplomatic mission to Denmark, to inform Ragnar's three sons of their father's unfortunate accident in the snake pit. The two youngest sons are furious, swearing revenge, blood and fury.

The eldest sits on his father's throne, holding a spear and hears the messenger very calmly, speaking him fair and making some very cool arrangement about blood-payment for their father. (I think it's about a number of hides of English land, which seems a very small payment for a dead father and king.)

After the messenger's gone, the younger sons turn on their elder brother. How could he be so calm, how could he fix such a paltry price?

The eldest son then puts down his spear, revealing that his clenched fingers have bitten deep into the ash-wood shaft. He orders a fort built on his hides of English ground, where he lands his fleet when he brings the Great Danish Army to England. He takes Northumberland (which then included Cumbria) as his blood-price. H intends to take the whole of England, but Alfred happened.

Andrew Crofts said…
Welcome to my world, Dennis. Very brave of you to start with a fictional project - much the hardest to get right, I always find. It's hard enough doing justice to the ideas in your own head, never mind those in someone else's. Everything comes down to the rapport between ghost and author in the end, which is often as much a matter of luck as judgement.
Anonymous said…
Thank you Dennis! NOW I understand not only what T S Eliot meant by the Objective Correlative, but why I too find O Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad ultimately disappointing, much though I admire M R James.
This sounds a terrific story with the Great Unknown still to be revealed... why does someone who has such creative ideas not want to write them down himself?

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