Category Archives: Ghost Stories

The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories – Sophie Hannah

There are three types of stories that I love in the autumn and winter months; gothic tales, Victorian sensations and ghost stories. It is the perfect time for all three in my opinion. I especially love a short sharp ghost story to unsettle me just before bed (I am not a believer that ghost stories are just for Halloween) which is possibly a bit weird. Sophie Hannah’s new collection The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories is the perfect fodder as I discovered when I read a story a night a few weeks ago.

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Sort Of Books, 2015, hardback, ghost stories, 96 pages, bought by myself for myself

In her (brilliant) crime novels Sophie Hannah usually sets out to find a seemingly impossible crime and, after covering up her tracks cleverly, making it all too plausible by the end of it. In this collection of four ghostly tales she uses that deft touch to make the everyday and the ordinary unsettling and rather chilling. This might mean that these tales won’t have you jumping out of your seat screaming in fear (but not many ghost stories do it is not their intention) instead each story disturbed me, and stayed with me, because it was in many ways conceivable and because of the atmosphere and twist in each tale. How to explain this without giving each of the endings or twists away is going to be bothersome in a whole different way.

 In the title story, and indeed the opener, The Visitors Book a woman goes to her boyfriends house for the first time where upon he becomes insistent that she sign the visitors book that he has in the hall, the more she refuses the more intense he gets. In The Last Boy To Leave a woman holds a party for her child only to discover that afterwards one of the children, who she hadn’t really noticed, hasn’t been picked up by his parents. All the Dead Mothers of My Daughter’s Friends sees motherly competition at the school gates take on a whole other meaning and in Justified True Belief someone has started seeing ghosts in the street, the question is why?

The second thing I notice about the woman waiting to cross the road is that the roots of her teeth are visible and blackened where they meet the gum. I see them clearly as she talks; dark flashes in her pink mouth. She hasn’t noticed that the green man is illuminated. Her friend has, but doesn’t want to interrupt. Both are smartly dressed, with laminated name badges on strings around their necks. I can’t read their names. The friend, the listener, is considerably more attractive. How could she not be, when the speaking woman is a ghost?
Which was the first thing I noticed about her.

What I loved about this collection, and what I think makes all great ghostly tales a perfect thrill, is that in none of the four did I even guess the way that it was going. Somehow in a condensed space of words Sophie Hannah manages to take you in one direction before pulling you down a dark alley you hadn’t even noticed ahead of you, it was just out the corner of your eye right in your blind spot. This is as deeply satisfying, entertaining and thrilling as it is in her crime fiction.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…
Manderley, in the novel, is a vast country estate. Would Rebecca have become a classic if Maxim De Winter had lived in a two-bedroomed terrace in in Walthamstow? No, it would not. Mrs Danvers would have had to sleep in the second bedroom. A stone’s throw from the first; she’d have heard her boss and his new wife having sex through the partition wall.

I used the above quote for two reasons, well three as naturally if any book mentions Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca it needs to be acknowledged and gives me the chance to remind you that if you haven’t read it then you really should. Anyway, where was I? Yes, the quote… What I thought this highlights is twofold. Firstly, it shows both Hannah’s wonderful sense of humour which I like, sprinkled with a hint of sauce, and Hannah’s nod to the gothic greats. Secondly, I think Du Maurier could make a classic tale set in a two bedroomed semi detached in Walthamstow  if she had been given a chance, and Sophie Hannah certainly could as she makes the domestic and the ‘normal’ somehow very other, it is the strength of the whole collection.

If you are after a thrill and chill or two then I would highly recommend The Visitors Book and Other Stories, it is a slight and solid spooky selection that I think would be a wonderful addition to your autumn or winter reading – or even better as an extra gift in someone’s stocking for a festive fright or two.

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Filed under Ghost Stories, Review, Sophie Hannah, Sort of Books

Poor Souls’ Light; Seven Curious Tales

Almost a year ago I told you about a collection of short stories entitled The Longest Night; Five Curious Tales. These were just the right sort of ghostly tales you need around Christmas and saw some authors I love such as Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth who collectively self published it and went on spooky nights here there and everywhere telling these tales and discussing ghost stories. Well guess what? It has only come back for a second year. Last year it was five tales in homage, of sorts, to M.R. James; this year it is seven tales in homage (again of sorts) to Robert Aickman. Now as you know I have some issue with Aickman’s tales, so when I realised that I did a small wince before getting going…

Curious Tales, 2014, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 140 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

Having read Aickman I can see how the stories by Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Johnny Mains, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Emma Jane Unsworth and M. John Harrison are all inspired by his works as they all have elements of the supernatural and the ‘weird’ about them. If, like me (as you may have seen recently), you find Aickman and the ‘weird’ a little too, erm, weird then fret not.

Even when the element of the strange rather than supernatural or ghostly is there, even in the most Aickman like tale Blossom by Mains which really plays homage to The Hospice the story of Aickmans I most loved, it never goes to the point where the plot is spoiled by the weirdness or the reader feels somewhat played unfairly by the author. I admit there was a scene in Blossom which had me thinking ‘WTF?’ yet Mains handles it really well and the plot gets even darker after with a real sting in the tales tail.

The rest of the tales veer more to the traditional edges of the ghost story. For example with both Alison Moore’s The Spite House and M. John Harrison’s Animals deal with haunted houses though in very different ways. One is very much about a house haunted by its past and something it lived through, the other is very much about how a house feels about someone who returns to it and the imprints of how those who lived in it felt about the returned person. I enjoyed both of these especially the element of the house as a character within the narrative, or almost with its own narrative itself.

The cottage could be quiet, especially in the early evening, when the lane, with its fringe of trees against the setting sun, filled up with shadows. She heard what she thought were movements, half drowned by the sound of the radio she kept in the kitchen, even in the day. ‘It must be the central heating,’ she thought, but soon it became clear that these sounds were actually voices. Whatever room Susan was in, she heard them somewhere else.

Emma Jane Unsworth’s Smoke takes on the tale of someone becoming haunted by something, indeed something that follows them afterwards wherever they go. I am not being funny but the idea of seeing something ghostly and then it following you to the ends of the earth/your bed, or in this case around Europe, is something I find truly creepy and Unsworth nicely plays with that primal fear. Tom Fletcher also plays with the primal fear of being followed yet in The Exotic Dancer it is the case of a stranger following you with their eyes and their intent. Fletcher’s tale too is incredibly creepy and the setting of an old canal tow path and the industrial edge of a town/city is spot on. It has reminded me how much I want to read his novels.

In a collection where there isn’t a dud note you shouldn’t really have a favourite, yet I had two. As you might have guessed I really enjoyed them all, Richard Hirst’s and Jenn Ashworth’s tales just edged it; I think Ashworth’s in particular should be put forward for every short story award going. Now both of them have a couple of twists so I don’t want to spoil them so I will tread carefully. Hirst’s And The Children Followed is set around evacuees in one of the World Wars, it is vague about which not that it matters, as a recently bereaved (and going off the rails) young woman grieves for a sibling. I will say no more than that on the plot but as the tale goes on and the dread and horror mount I was instantly reminded of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, you will gasp at the end. Ashworth’s story I actually want to say almost nothing about, other than it will turn a ghostly tale on its head for you and have you asking all sorts of questions. That is all, oh and it’s bloody marvellous with the games it plays and how she cleverly lets it unfold and toys with the reader in the best o f ways, marvellous.

I embrace her but she only shivers and pulls away to turn all the radiators on the house onto their highest setting. I wait for her in our bedroom, worrying about my cough and my breath, which is starting to smell like mushrooms, even to myself. She will not come up, but begins again to scrub the kitchen floor.

All in all a great collection again from the Curious Tales crew/collective, one that I would heartily recommend you get your mitts on and get reading over these dark winter nights. I have often said that I think modern ghost stories are very difficult to get right, this collection proves me completely wrong and I am thrilled.

If you are looking to get a copy you best hurry as there is a limited run of just 500 of them in print. I am not sure what the plan is on eBooks. For more info and to buy it head to the website here where you can also find out about some live events ahead this month and next – erm, massive hint guys bring it to Liverpool at some point or else, I know just the place! Now I am in the mood for more ghostly tales, so which ghost stories and collections would you recommend I go and hunt down?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Ghost Stories, Johnny Mains, M. John Harrison, Review, Richard Hirst, Short Stories, Tom Fletcher