It’s Halloween, and minds turn to ghost stories (or they should – this is the day where the dead rise from their graves and walk the earth. The sweeties are just a distraction). There’s many ghost stories out there, some good, some magnificent, some awful. It’s not easy to tell why some stories work and some don’t. Here are five of my favourites.
The Woman In Black by Susan Hill. I’ve read this over and over again, and it scares me every time. The young man, all alone in the scary house – it’s a standard form of ghost story, but it’s the haunting itself that lingers. Always silent, always at a distance, always there. You end up looking over your shoulder as you read to make sure she isn’t behind you. If you want to see an adaptation, don’t see the film. See the stage play. It’s truly chilling.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. A young woman participates in a scientific experiment, staying in a supposedly haunted house with several other people. Again, terrifying. But it’s the main character that catches my attention – terrifying as Hill House is, she welcomes it as an escape from her suffocating life. You sympathise with her. And, not to mention this book really pulls off the idea that houses can be evil. Again, if you want an adaptation, don’t watch the recent movie. Watch The Haunting, made in the 60s.
The Signalman, by Charles Dickens. Everyone wrote ghost stories in the Victorian era, and this is Dicken’s best. The Signalman, spending day after day in that lonely box, out of the sunshine, constantly listening for the faint signals, knowing lives depend on him, his only human contact the trains dashing by. No wonder he believes himself haunted. The ending was not what I expected, and it’s all the better for it. The BBC did a very good adaptation of this.
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. I picked this up because I’m fascinated by Polar exploration. What I got was a ghost story so gripping, I swear I held the book so tight I left marks on the cover. A man, alone in an observation station, comes to believe that something is out there….Solitude can be terrifying if you have no way out of it, and snow can be terrifying too – anything can be if it doesn’t behave like you expect.
The Turn Of The Screw. Henry James’s go at a ghost story. One governess, two disturbing children, and other visitors – possibly. The argument still rages over whether the ghosts are real, or whether it’s all in the governess’s mind, or the children or…This has inspired several good adaptations.
The best for last. Whistle and I’ll Come To You by M.R. James (known as The Master of ghost stories). A professor who does not believe in ghosts finds a whistle on a beach and blows it. Guess what happens next. The glory of the story lies in the fact that we, the reader, do believe in ghosts (for the purpose of the story, we are reading a ghost story after all) so we know he is being haunted whilst he appears oblivious until that final moment. This is my favourite ghost story of all time. Not a lot really happens, but the atmosphere is chilling. If you want an adaptation, try the BBC Jonathan Miller black and white one, which really catches the atmosphere.
So there we go, my favourite ghost stories. What do they have in common? Well, there’s solitude, if not actual physical solitude then solitude of the soul. A good setting, haunted houses and deserted beaches. Good characters too. And a ghost that never explains, rarely talks, but never stops neither.
One more thing – they’re all short. Two short stories and three novellas. It’s not easy to sustain terror over a full-length book.
Happy Halloween, and good reading – just don’t look behind you. Goodness knows what you might see in the darkness just beyond the lamplight….