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The Great British Ghost Story

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October 31st, 2012
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A sensation prickles at the hollow of your neck; cold embalms your limbs. The book slips from your rigid fingers. Reading can be dead scary. Shaking the cobwebs off the covers of some of the best supernatural fiction for All Hallows’ Eve, this is the Great British ghost story.

‘Ghost stories are as old and older than literature’ wrote the late Julia Briggs. But the short story form really came of age in the late nineteenth century. The golden age of the ghost story tapped into something primitive at a time when spiritualism – communicating with the dead – was colliding with scientific endeavour in the public imagination. ‘Something plucked at my heart and made me feel afraid’ Algernon Blackwood recorded in his story The Willows. These are psychological thrillers with physiological effects – making for teeth-chattering, jowl-trembling, toe-curling narratives. And they produced spine-tingling sales for their publishers. Victorian Britain was a haunting ground for ghostily good fiction.

‘If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained’. Those words appear in Montague Rhodes James’ preface to Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary. Believing this to be an ‘old-fashioned’ genre at heart, the author would read supernatural stories aloud to a circle of friends by candlelight. Having finally been persuaded to put pen to paper, however, he went on to publish four collections in his lifetime. In them, the cumulative effect of a malevolence stirring with each turn of the page makes for compulsive reading. M.R. James writes in a dusty fashion. Stoppering up the claustrophobic worlds of respectability and scholarliness within his books, they become quintessentially British.

Dickens, too, liked to ‘haunt [his readers’] houses pleasantly’. Articulators of bones, hangmen, body snatchers, grotesques, undertakers, and – that horror of all horrors – bumbling beadles, materialise in his pages. David Copperfield, the author’s ‘favourite child’, is also a ‘posthumous’ one. An orphaned Pip conjures up his parents’ appearances from that of their tombstones. This Victorian writer championed the ghost story. One of his creepiest has to be The Signalman. Encouraging a ritual of reading, he assembled supernatural stories in the magazines that he edited. Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story for instance, which was published in Household Words, is eerily effective.

Whilst not strictly a ghost story, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White nevertheless experiments with madness, incarceration and ghostliness. In 1859, the book was a sensation. Readers clad themselves head-to-toe in Woman in White bonnets and perfume, named their children after the protagonist Walter, and even called their cats after the dashingly villainous Count Fosco. The inscription ‘author of ‘The Woman in White’’ appears on the writer’s tombstone today.

‘I decided to try and revive the ghost story and make it full-length again’ Susan Hill revealed in We Love This Book. Following in this tradition of ghostly writing, the author’s own stories have played a significant role in her success. The Woman in Black was published in 1983.  Here, a family sit by the fireside to tell of ‘dripping stone walls in uninhabited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards, of […] insubstantial spectres and sheeted creatures, vampires and bloodhounds, bats and rats and spiders, of men found at dawn and women turned white-haired and raving lunatic, and of vanished corpses and curses upon heirs.’  The sentence is crammed to the hilt with horror.

The book believes that everybody has a ghost story in them. Arthur Kipps certainly does – ‘a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy.’ Hill’s little story breathes down the reader’s neck. Her words have a cold pallor all of their own. Random House is another publisher to have wised up to the appetite for petrifying fiction. In 2011, they began publishing a new list in association with the legendary Hammer Films. Reviving Hammer’s literary legacy, their ambition is to publish new novellas as well as old classics. Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat, for instance, was recently praised by The Independent as ‘a perfect ghost story’.

And where better to curl up with one than in the most haunted city in England, where new supernatural scares are hiding down every snickelway? They’re great, they’re British, and they’re scarily good.

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