Footsteps in an Empty Room - Griselda Heppel considers the best way of giving readers the shivers

That sort of thing
Photo by 
cottonbro from Pexels
ged 11, I went through a (very brief) interest in horror stories. Tales of travellers arriving at lonely hostelries on Dark and Stormy Nights, maggots crawling over skulls, baths full of blood, that sort of thing.

I stopped reading the genre pretty quickly, not so much out of fear – though that may have played a part – as out of physical revulsion. There must be better ways of giving readers the shivers than all that dismemberment and bodily fluids, I thought. 

Instead, I moved on to ghost stories, finding them to be a completely different kettle of fish, or bath of – never mind. Because the best kind of ghost story doesn’t hit you with horrific images from page 1; in fact, there will be no horrific images at all. Just a couple of things that don’t feel right. 

A rocking chair in a empty room
Photo by Mateusz Dach from Pexels
A breeze down a windowless corridor. Footsteps in an empty room. A nursing 
chair, rocking by itself (a nice image from Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, possibly inspired by the rocking horse in L M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe).      

These details, minor in themselves, build up an atmosphere of uncertainty around a story’s main character and before you, as reader, know it, your heart is beating as hard as theirs is, as they try to understand what’s going on.
Great writer of ghost stories,
M R James

One of my favourite ghost stories is The Mezzotint by the great M R James (1862 - 1936). I am vague as to what exactly a mezzotint is, beyond being a kind of print. In this case, it’s a picture in the hall of the house that the hero is visiting, a likeness of the house itself. Quite good, considers the hero. A slight shadow in the foreground puzzles him but he thinks no more about it. Passing the print later in the day, he notices that the shadow is bigger than he thought. Ah well, he must have remembered it wrong. But a last look before bedtime reveals the shadow as bigger yet, of a monstrous figure approaching the house and – the hero nearly dies of fright at this point – a ground floor window of the house in the print is shown to be wide open….. aaaaaaaaaaaggghh that’s enough for me.
Illustration by Charles Keeping for The Mezzotint
by M R James (Folio Society, 1973)

No bones, daggers dripping with blood, skeletons rattling chains… just a rather dull, framed print becomes the vehicle for a terrifying sense of menace. 

It’s this masterful gliding from the ordinary to the extraordinary, with mysterious happenings being explained away until the evidence has piled so high they can’t be any longer, that I’ve tried to emulate in my latest children’s book.  The Fall of a Sparrow is a kind of thriller with a supernatural touch, and while nothing like as dark as M R James’s work – I don’t want to give my young readers nightmares! – there is meant to be something chilling about the strange, awkward little boy who follows Eleanor around, from the moment she arrives at her new school.
The Fall of a Sparrow by
Griselda Heppel

Clearly the small son of one of the teachers; odd that he should take such an interest in her, though. Odd, too, that the other girls pretend not to notice him hanging around. If they are pretending, that is. 


FINALIST in the Page Turner Awards 2021
by Griselda Heppel, author of 


Umberto Tosi said…
Nailed it. Big differences between mystery, suspense and horror. Like you, I prefer the former, but to each his or her own...
Peter Leyland said…
Great Griselda. Like you I had an interest in horror when I was younger. Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination is a gory memory. My grandson engaged with The Fall of a Sparrow but by the time I saw him he had already moved on to something else. I will have to read it myself! You will have to tell me how you put such great pictures in your posts as I'm looking for a way to improve my scanning method.
Sandra Horn said…
Oh yes, exactly - I remember reading a Maupassant mystery called in translation 'It' (I think - it was so very long ago)in which there just seemed to be something there; nameless, invisible. It stopped the protagonist from sitting in a chair, for example, as 'It' was already in it. Thinking about it still gives me the shivers, as does Cathy tappin g on the window in Wuthering Heights. No need for blood and guts.
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you all for these great comments. I don't know that Maupassant short story but must look it up. Boiling a sense of dread down to something ungraspable, invisible, but there... brr. Genius. Oh and yes, Cathy tapping at the window in Wuthering Heights - still gives me the shivers.

Delighted your grandson gave The Fall of a Sparrow a go, Peter! As to scanning pictures into my posts, it's very hit and miss and I spend ages trying to get the sizing right. They often show better than the Preview suggests, which is a relief.

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