Tag 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

Spooky Stories…

As you will all know tomorrow is Halloween which is one of my favourite days of the year. I think it comes second to Boxing Day, seriously these are both above my birthday and Christmas in terms of times of cheer and joy for me. Anyway, it will be Halloween and I don’t know about you but I am in just the right mood for some spooky stories and tales of terror. Which ones to read though?

Well, funny you should ask that as I have made a little selection of potential books which I thought I would share with you in case you need inspiration, though I would love more recommendations from you below…

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Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman – Recently republished by Faber & Faber, this second collection of Aickman’s ‘ strange stories’ is supposed to be one of his creepiest, weirdest and most chilling. I am really looking forward to reading these, they also happen to be my latest choice for Hear Read This when we record in a couple of weeks so I hope they are in Gav’s suitcase while he travels around America.

Say Her Name by James Dawson – I have been meaning to read this for ages, James is now the ruling Queen of Teen and should really be the Queen of Scream as his wonderful novels are like better written Point Horrors for the current generation – and I love Point Horrors! I feel especially bad for not reading this sooner as I challenged James to write this one as I said modern ghost stories can’t be scary. This will definitely be my next creepy read.

The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill. I think Susan Hill is a legend at ghost stories, well I think she is a legend in all the forms she writes in. This is one of the few of her ghostly tales that I haven’t read and is guaranteed to give me the chills. Delightful. It has also reminded me that I have an anthology somewhere of ghostly tales chosen by Hill, that could be another addition. I am currently reading one of the Simon Serrailler series of crime novels by Susan and it is marvellous.

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah. Sophie Hannah is most well known for her psychological thrillers (which I often find spookier than ghost stories as I mention on this episode of The Readers) and also for recently writing a new Poirot novel. Last year she wrote this spooky tale for the newly reinvigorated Hammer Horror imprint. It is another book I cannot believe I haven’t read yet, mind you like Susan Hill I am very behind with Sophie’s series. Shame on me.

The Mistletoe Bride and Other Stories by Kate Mosse. I have yet to read any of Kate Mosse’s novels. I tried reading Labyrinth when it came out in paperback and wasn’t in the right mood for it. I actually have this collection, subtitled ‘haunting tales’, and the equally creepy sounding The Taxidermists Daughter high up on my TBR. I sometimes like a short story collection as a way into a new author, and also ghost stories can be particularly spooky or chilling in the shorter form.

I know I have recommended it endless times but if you fancy a fast an chilling read do grab The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Oh and I also must recommend Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. I will also have a ghostly tale up for discussion on the blog tomorrow. So which books will you be curling up with on Halloween night? Have you read any of the books I have selected? Which books would you recommend?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales

I have often said that to write a really good ghost story in a modern setting is almost impossible. However a recent collection of five wintery ghostly tales The Longest Night by a collective compiled of authors Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth seems to have proven me wrong. Whilst I read each of these tales, which are designed to emulate M.R James’ tradition on Christmas Eve (so very apt today) of meeting with friends to exchange tales of the supernatural, I found that I often was either chilled, shocked or felt the hairs on my neck slowly begin to rise as I read on.

Curious Tales, 2013, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 88 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

The Longest Night isn’t a collection of stories designed to revolutionise or modernise the ghostly tale, as what each author does rather marvellously is give the tale a truly Victorian feeling yet very much in a modern setting. If you are wondering what on earth I mean by that, I mean that the stories feel very traditional with modern twist. We have old haunted houses, slightly scary children who might be possessed or at least can speak to the dead, ghostly ladies returning from the grave and of course the wonderful scares a telephone can provide. Why is it that the simple telephone can be so bloody unnerving? All these tales also have the feeling of you being told the tale firsthand, as Stephen Volk (who created the cult show Ghostwatch) says in the introduction of ‘No listen. This happened to me…’, a celebration of the oral tradition of the ghostly tale. In fact, frankly, I wanted to be sat by a roaring fire with a mulled wine being told these tales by the authors themselves – which if you pop to the site you will see they are doing, well in bookshops anyway. I feel slightly cheated I have missed out.

Now you may have noticed that I am being rather vague, or actually haven’t really mentioned, about what lies in wait within each of the tales. This is because as they are all rather short, again the traditional and best ghostly tales are short sharp shocks, and so I wouldn’t want to spoil them. I think I can get away with saying that Alison Moore (who wrote the brilliant The Lighthouse) and Tom Fletcher’s stories are probably the most traditional in terms of setting and sensibility, both set within empty houses; one the former estate of a famous author, the other a new house in the middle of nowhere where a house husband starts to feel something not quite right is going on and seems to be linking itself to his young daughter. I loved these as they felt like the sorts of tales that Arthur Conan Doyle and M.R. James would indeed write now.

I also greatly admired the three tales by Ashworth, Hirst and Unsworth as whilst each one of them had the traditional feel, they also had something of the urban legend about them mixed in and probably most importantly they had the evocation of modern human base fears mixed in with the supernatural. In each tale there is an underlying completely natural fear be it grief, loneliness or madness. With those feelings we all know so well plus the sense of unease and fearful trepidation they all had a horribly, yet brilliantly, heady mix of the fearful running right into every part of their structure and it was really deftly done.

All in all a marvellous, very well written and indeed incredibly unsettling collection of modern winter ghostly tales which I think would have gladly given the contemporary ghost writers of the past a real case of the shivers. I am hoping this becomes a yearly fixture as I could do with a decidedly chilling evening in the pre-Christmas madness once a year, or more often frankly.

For more information about the last few available copies and indeed where the authors will be reading in the New Year head to the Curious Tales website here.

Which are your favourite ghostly tales for the perfect darkened evening with the roaring fire (I don’t have a roaring fire here, which along with the lack of a bath has confirmed in my mind I need to have moved by next winter just for reading purposes alone) be they new or old? Do you think the Victorians did it best? Have you any other modern ghostly tales that will continue to prove my thoughts on the modern ghost story wrong?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Richard Hirst, Tom Fletcher

Printer’s Devil Court – Susan Hill

So I thought as it is Halloween and now here in the UK it is all dark and the witching hour approaches I would give you a second special rather apt post about ‘Printer’s Devil Court’, the latest ghost story from Susan Hill. I am sure many, many, many of you will have read ‘The Woman in Black’, which is one of my favourite ghost stories of all time, and then possibly gone on to ‘The Man In The Picture’, ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ (which I have yet to read), ‘The Small Hand’ or ‘Dolly’. Well unlike those other novellas, ‘Printer’s Devil Court’ is rather different as it is a Kindle Single, yes I have finally gone and bought an e-book… I know! More on that later, let us get to the ghostly tale.

Long Barn Books, 2013, Kindle Single, fiction, 44 pages, bought by my good self

Long Barn Books, 2013, Kindle Single, fiction, 44 pages, bought by my good self

As the short story opens we are greeted with a letter from a solicitors to the step son of the late Dr Hugh Meredith containing a manuscript he had written before he died, it is this that makes the tale of ‘Printer’s Devil Court’. It seems Hugh, who had become a country doctor had started his medical learning and career in London sharing  accommodation with James, Rafe and Walter in Mrs Ratchet’s lodgings of ‘Printer’s Devil Court’. Rafe and Walter are a rum pair, Hugh not knowing whether to trust them of not, one night however in trying to bond Rafe and Walter start to discuss doing some extracurricular experiments and research and in a bid to be more popular and liked Hugh foolishly decides to help, the consequences of which will change his life forever.

We have all seen it – the deep coma resembling death. People have been pronounced dead and taken to the mortuary or even to the undertaker and consigned to their coffin, only to have woken again.

I won’t give away any more than that small hint of what may or may not happen as I think it is well worth you going and discovering (especially on a dark night at a mere 99p) yourselves. Obviously it is a ghost story and all I will add is that it uses a rather well documented type of apparition and why such a spectre might appear.

I mentioned in a post earlier today that I love a ghost story that is short, sharp and builds on tension and chills rather than on blood and guts and gore. This is one of those kind of ghost stories, one that slowly chills you as you read and is also both slightly shocking and also quite sad too. I always think ghosts either haunt (yes I do believe in them) because they really loved somewhere or because they simply can’t rest which to me is rather sad. For me it also had elements of ‘The Woman in Black’, the initial solicitors letter, tales told of a night, the unascertainable time period which feels Victorian but could be anytime and the uneasy feeling that builds as you read on. Lovely spooky stuff.

So if you are looking for a quick frightening fix for Halloween or indeed just for the darker nights of you fancy a chilling thrill, then I would advise you to get your hands on ‘Printer’s Devil Court’. I am really hoping that Susan Hill will now release a few of these over the forthcoming months/year and then, and here I might have to cross my fingers for a very long time, we might just get a collection of Susan Hill’s ghostly tales in the years to come. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

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Filed under Kindle Single, Long Barn Books, Review, Susan Hill

What Makes a Great Ghost Story?

I do love a good ghost story, though I have to admit I don’t read enough of them. What better time of the year, well here in the UK, is there to read them? No, not just because of the obvious fact it is Halloween today (Happy Halloween). It is autumn, my favourite season of the year as the nights are drawing in and there is a certain chill in the air. Delightful.

Of course today is Halloween and whether you celebrate it or not you simply cannot miss the ghosts, witches, monsters and gargoyles in your local shops (and no I don’t mean the other punters). Naturally for a bookish sort this will lead to thinking about supernatural reads. Or even to Ghost Huntersthe not so bookish as I mentioned the other day that it seemed the supernatural spirit (see what I did there) took over The Beard and two new spooky tales came home from the super(natural)market. I am on fire with puns today, like a witch on a stake. I am currently devouring ‘The Ghost Hunters’ by Neil Spring, all about the infamous Borley Rectory, and its very good. I am most impressed at how in such a long book he keeps the spooky suspense going as I normally like a shorter sharper shock for a ghostly tale. Which of course leads us to today’s (first, there will be another later when it goes darker) post as I was wondering what makes a truly great ghost story?

You see for me ghost stories are a tricky bunch. I am much more of a ‘chills and suspense’ kind of reader than I am a ‘blood and guts and gore’ kind of reader. As I mentioned above I tend to like a sharper ghostly tale, short stories in the main or novella’s maximum, as I find that prolonged tension doesn’t really work as well. For me. I also find ghostly tales set in modern times just don’t work. You can all too easily whip out your mobile phone or some gizmo and the fear vanishes, a good Victorian ghostly tale tends to tick all my boxes. (I actually threw a gauntlet down once that modern settings for a ghost story don’t work and guess what James Dawson was inspired to prove me wrong, this was confirmed from his own mouth!)

So to investigate what I think makes the perfect ghostly tale, whilst also using Neil Spring as a good example of a longer tale, I picked four titles from my newly restructured shelves that I thought I would dip into over this Halloween and autumn too…

Ghostly Tales

Alfred Hitchcock loved a good spooky/horror story and this collection is of some of his favourite ‘Stories Not For The Nervous’. This appeals to me immensely as I love being made to feel nervous in fiction (not in real life, in real life nerves destroy me) and I think these twenty tales and three novelettes which are included will work wonders. Next up is a selection of ‘Ghost Stories’ chosen by Susan Hill (who to me is Queen of the Ghostly Tale) which features my favourite Mr Wilkie Collins and more surprisingly, to me at least, Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Wharton. ‘The Conan Doyle Stories’ are one of my most prized possessions in the world. My Great Uncle Derrick would memorise these and tell them to me when I was very young on walking holidays, ten miles a day roughly, and Gran always said she would desperately try to keep up with us so she didn’t miss the endings. I haven’t read these for ages and should. Finally a renowned author of all things horror (and quite weird), yet new to me, H. P. Lovecraft. I have no idea if I will love these or not but it will be fun finding out.

So before I head off and start reading these dark delights, and hopefully scaring myself silly, I wondered what it was that makes the perfect ghostly tale for you all and what ghost stories you would most recommend?

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Ghostly Tales, Can They Still Scare Us?

Happy Halloween one and all! I hope you have something suitably spooky planned for your evening? I don’t know if I have mentioned this on the blog before or not, but Halloween is one of my very favourite days of the year. I think the mixture of the legends and folklore and my secret belief that maybe there are witches, ghouls, vampires and werewolves out there somewhere and the fact its just a really dark time of the year for us in the UK makes it very atmospheric. So naturally my plan is to curl up with a good ghostly tale, ‘Dolly’ by Susan Hill since you asked, but I do wonder if ghost stories still scare us like they did in times of old and if they do scare is it easier to do it set in the past than in modern times?

This is something I have been discussing on and off for weeks but actually a lot more due to The Readers and recording the Halloween Special and talking to both Gavin, as always a joy, and Jeremy Dyson who has scared hundred and thousands of people with the stage show ‘Ghost Stories’ (which I saw and really scared me) and is hoping to do so again with ‘The Haunted Book’ which I will be telling you all about tomorrow. He is a firm believer that modern ghost stories can still scare you, however myself and Gavin both remained a little more sceptical oddly. I think me personally though much more than Gavin to be honest.

Why is this? Well I think first of all I simply don’t find werewolves and vampires scary anymore. With series like ‘Twilight’ and ‘True Blood’ vampires have become much more sexualised, not to mention glittering like diamonds, and sadly this has taken the fear factor out of them. This doesn’t stop me from wanting to watch the movie or TV shows but I am not covering my eyes in fear when I watch or when I have read some of them. The same applies, only I think it is a million times better written, with Glen Duncan’s novel ‘The Last Werewolf’ (which I really recommend as a Halloween read) it’s a gripping and fast paced thriller and full of sex, violence and gore but I was much more thrilled rather than scared. This leads to another issue, I don’t really ‘get’ gore in books.

I discovered this when I was reading Adam Nevill’s ‘Apartment 16’, the atmosphere and everything was brilliant and there were some really creepy going on until it all suddenly went too far. There were blood soaked people screaming out of walls and half centipede half humans running around hallways, the spell broke for me it was too visual. This is fine in films, though I am the sort of person that laughs their way through a Saw film, but for me to be really scared things need to be much simpler. It is all about unease, too much gore and freakish sights and it falls into ‘camp’ for me or gorey for the sake of it, if I just get that slight sense of unease tingling down my spine giving me a quick shudder and chill then I am sold.

This is why I think that older ghost stories, like the amazing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Tales of Mystery’ etc, or modern novels set in the past, like Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’, work the best for me. Part of it is that in the olden days, pre the 1950’s really, I think it’s easier for the atmosphere to be created better. You don’t have the internet and mobile phones, in fact in some of the best ones a lack of electricity helps, and so the world seems more other worldy from what we know now and yet we recognise it. It is that unknown and uneasy element in what we know that tends to scare me a little bit more. It is also harkens back to our base instincts, we see things out of the corners of our eyes and in the depths of the shadows. For me really, what is better than a big old mist encompassed spooky manor house?

So what about you? Which books really have had you spooked be they at Halloween or any other time of the year? What ghostly or supernatural tales would you recommend? Are you planning on a night with a ghostly tale or two tonight and if so which ones?

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Dark Matter – Michelle Paver

I love a ghost story; I also think that they are one of the hardest types of books to get right. If the author puts a foot wrong, or even a word wrong, at any point the uncomfortable becomes the unconvincing and suddenly the spell is broken because the fear has gone. It was therefore with much interest, and rather a lot of hope if I am honest (as this was a lead up to Halloween read), that I picked up Michelle Paver’s ‘Dark Matter’ which even comes with the subheading ‘a ghost story’ on the cover, a lot to promise before a page has been turned.

Orion, paperback, 2011, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Dark Matter’ opens in January 1937 as we meet Jack Miller, the narrator of this tale through his very diary entries, as he agrees to take part on an expedition to the Arctic. This is a mission of hope for Jack who is finding his life rather lacklustre to say the least. He is very poor, lives in one of the unfashionable parts of London (on a personal note I will say that Tooting was much nicer when I used to live there) and though he is studying he doesn’t feel like has any prospects. To his mind this could be a great adventure and change his life forever, even if he doesn’t really like the ‘posh boys’ who he will be travelling with.

The arctic is a brilliant place to set a ghost story. Not only is it an area that remains a vast area of land with no one about it is also a place that is remote and hard to get in reach of, especially in those times within which the book is set when a boat would take a good three days from the mainland, it is also a place of some mystery and wonder. It is a great place to set up and build upon feelings of unease, which Michelle Paver does exceptionally throughout, along with so much open space and yet no where really to run.

“We’ve been so busy that at times I’ve hardly noticed our surroundings. But sometimes I’ll pause and look about, and then I’m sharply aware of all the busy creatures – men, dogs, birds – and behind them the stillness. Like a vast, watching presence.
    It’s a pristine wilderness. Well, not quite pristine. I was a bit put out to learn that there have been others here before us. Gus found the ruins of a small mine on the slopes behind the camp; he brought back a plank with what looks like a claim, roughly painted in Swedish. To make the beach safe for the dogs, we had to clear a tangle of wire and gaffs and some large rusty knives, all of which were buried under stones. And there’s that hut, crouched among the boulders in a blizzard of bones.”

It’s also a place where for some of the year around you go from having 24 hours of daylight to 24 hours of darkness, and this is what Paver uses very much to her advantage. As the amount of hours of sunlight lessens the tension heightens and stranger things start to happen. Yet as things start to happen, and I won’t give away any specifics, you begin to wonder if it is Gruhuken as a place itself that is haunted, or if it the minds of those staying there in such conditions. We all know the mind can play tricks on us when we are in the comfort of our own homes on a dark and chilly night, imagine then what pitch darkness in freezing temperatures with little company could do to you.

Not only was I genuinely scared in parts of ‘Dark Matter’, which is the aim with every ghost story and in which I think this succeeds, I built a real bond with Jack (whose story with his lead Gus has an additional excellent twist, which I won’t say more about here but would love to discuss in the comments) a narrator and I think that was because of the book being written in his diary entries, as well as some of the others he spies on, throughout. You get a real sense of the emotions and internal processes of the situation that they find themselves in.

The atmosphere that Paver creates is fantastic and you do actually feel the chill in the air and the oppression of the endless darkness. It has certainly made me want to run and read anything else that Paver has written before whether it is ghostly or not. I have to add I think the pictures in the paperback edition combined with Paver’s prose, and setting of atmosphere, really added to the experience.

‘Dark Matter’ is a wonderful, chilling ghost story. It is also just a completely brilliant book regardless of that tag. It takes you on a journey with some people you feel you really build relationships with, grips you, thrills you, scares you and might just break your heart too. I cannot recommend this novel enough, especially in these dark nights, you will certainly get more than you bargained for. I did.

I have to say I now want to binge on arctic based novels, with ‘Dark Matter’ recently and reading M. J. McGrath’s White Heat’ and ‘Last Rituals’ by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (review to come soon) plus Frozen Planet on the telly at the moment I seem to just want to emmerse myself in that world which seems so distant from my own… even though Manchester is bloody cold at the moment. Ha! Has anyone else a little arctic obsession at the moment, maybe I should plan a little ‘reading expedition’ out there and see if any of you want to join me? In the meantime if you have read this, do let me know your thoughts.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Michelle Paver, Orion Publishing, Review

The English Ghost – Peter Ackroyd

Happy Halloween to one and all! I think this might actually be one of my favourite days of the year, yes even more so than Christmas, because I really do love all things spooky that go bump in the dark. I am a Most Haunted addict; love a good horror movie that makes me jump and love curling up with a good ghost story too. With the dark and chilly autumnal night’s drawing in (even more since the clocks changed yesterday) I am in my element curled up late at night with the curtains open in my warm room, wanting to be lost in a terrifying tale. Therefore I thought that I would really enjoy ‘The English Ghost’ by Peter Ackroyd, and in many ways I did. Yes, you are right, there is a ‘but’ coming.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2011, non fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Because of Peter Ackroyd’s reputation for fiction as well as non fiction preceding him before I had even read a word I had very high expectations from this book. I wanted a really interesting and eye opening dialogue with Peter about the ghost stories that he had collected all over the UK and why indeed the British Isles seems to be a place where hosts are seen far more than in any other country in the world. I did get this… in the introduction, which I loved.

The problem was that from then on we simply had a collection/anthology of all the ghost stories that Ackroyd had found, and while I happily admit I enjoyed them I did want something more. The more I read the opening words in each tale like ‘the following letter by…’ or ‘the following report appeared in the ‘X’ newspaper’ the more I was thinking ‘hang on, is this a bit of a cut and paste job. Is this all research and no real revelation or conversation?’ It was a conversation with Ackroyd about the ghost stories and the facts and people involved with them that I wanted not really an encyclopaedia.

This makes me sound really ungrateful I know, and I did actually read it in just a few days because it is great to dip in and out of. I should have just thought ‘wow, what a collection of tales from the infamous Borley Rectory, to smaller unknown stories’ (I was excited that the Blue Bell Hill story was included as my Great Aunty Pat told me that tale as a kid as she knew the people involved) and some of the stories are genuinely unnerving (weirdly the more modern ones) as from the witness accounts you know several people saw these events happen and it does make you ponder on what on earth is really out there. I did also really like Ackroyd’s retelling of the stories when there were no ‘official’ accounts too, I just wanted more dialogue with him, more banter. There isn’t even an afterword or really any note on why he wanted to do this particular paranormal project.

I am aware this is rather a short set of book thoughts, and one I feel I have come away doing Ackroyd a slight disservice in writing. If you want a collection of true life, well it depends on what you believe – but I do, ghost stories then this would be an ideal read for you. If you are looking for a book that tells the tales and discusses why these might have happened or any other subjective thoughts and reasoning’s you might want to try elsewhere. I liked ‘The English Ghost’ a lot, I just expected more, so maybe the fault lies with me?

If you are hankering after more ‘spooky shenigans’ then do pop and listen to the ‘spooky special’ fourth episode of The Readers here. Me and Gav are in halloween costumes and everything!

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Filed under Non Fiction, Peter Ackroyd, Review, Vintage Books

The Small Hand – Susan Hill

The problem with a self imposed book buying ban is that you forget that some of your favourite authors might have books coming out. Imagine how my initial excitement about ‘The Small Hand’ being Susan Hill’s latest ghost story and coming out this autumn (the perfect time for ghost stories) and then the frustration of knowing I would be unable to get my mitts on it. Imagine then my puzzlement when I received an email from the Book Depository thanking me for having ordered it! Was this some ghostly small hand of fraud at work? No, it was The Converted One who had put my email address as a contact when secretly ordering this treat.

Adam Snow, an antiquarian book dealer, narrates the tales of his dealings in ‘The Small Hand’ after one night journeying back from a client he decides to take the back quieter routes ‘through the Downs’  on his commute back to London only to discover himself completely lost. Eventually he happens upon a drive way and a sign saying  ‘garden closed’ and knowing there must be some kind of large house he decides this would be the best place to find directions. The house he discovers however is in a mild state of dereliction yet it seems he is not alone for as he turns back to the car a small hand takes hold of his only no one is with him.

After his first bemusement to what takes place and dismissal as his imagination due to the atmosphere things start to take a turn for the more sinister when Adam starts to become gripped by fear for no apparent reason. Initially thinking this must be some kind of series of panic attacks he becomes more concerned when on a trip abroad he starts to see things and a presence seems to be dragging him closer and closer to danger when ever it can find opportunity. I shall leave it there because if I give any more away I would say too much and part of the joy of this book, and the chilling factors too, is the fact that things happen when you aren’t expecting them too and there is an interesting back story and good few twists that all add to the experience it wouldn’t do to ruin.

You might have guessed that I did really enjoy this book. I curled up with it on a Saturday evening when it had gone dark and I had the house all to myself. I can report that it had the desired effect too as the random house noises I don’t normally notice started to make me jump.  I think it’s in part the fact the story is in first person and so you read on as if it is happening to you. In the main I think it’s all down to Susan Hill’s writing and the atmosphere she subtly builds as the story goes on. Its not a book that scares you like a sudden ’BOO’ would, its one that initially chills and then builds and builds on that. I also loved that in making Adam Snow an antiquarian book dealer books feature heavily and for a book lover that’s an additional bonus.

A book that will: make the perfect companion for a dark autumnal night, especially if you are all alone. 9/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill – This to me is still my favourite of Susan Hill’s ghostly tales and one of my all time favourite ghostly tales and books in general.
The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins – I can’t quite believe I missed this out when I was talking of great ghost stories the other day. This is a brilliant dark Victorian ghost story with some wonderful characters and a brilliant villainess.
   

In fact if Susan Hill ever reads this could I please request that the next ghost story or the one after that is a Victorian tale with a truly wicked villainess set in foggy London? Ha, ha, can you imagine it?  It would be amazing! So which of Susan Hill’s ghostly tales have you read? Has anyone read ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ it’s the only one I haven’t gotten around to yet, though will now have to savour it. Which other ghostly tales do you love? Anthology recommendations would be wonderful to find out about – hint, hint!

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Filed under Books of 2010, Profile Books, Review, Susan Hill

Ghost Stories

I know its not Halloween yet but I thought today I would mention Ghost Stories and spooky tales today, which seems a slightly spooky coincidence as when I was looking for perfect images on the internet I noticed that it would be Mary Shelley’s 213th Birthday today which I didn’t know. Ooooh spooky!  Anyway, today is less about horror and more the chilling which has come up in conversations and the like a lot of late. I always think if a good few people are talking about it then it must be something in a few peoples consciousness, then when it comes up on a podcast and in my weekend reading I kind of think its worth bringing up.

Actually I think ghost stories have been on my brain subtly for a month or so since I went and saw the brilliantly jump-out-of-your-seat scary ‘Ghost Stories’ in the West End a while back. I haven’t been that scared in a theatre since the first time I went and saw ‘The Woman in Black’. I was talking with my friend Vicky, who I went with and is also a big reader, afterwards and we were saying how rare it is a book can scare you. It isn’t on the whole a medium (no pun intended) that can make you jump out of your seat, or look over your shoulder when you are reading alone at night, or is it?

 

‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James tends to be a book that everyone mentions if you talk about ghostly tales. I am going to admit to you all I didn’t really like it. I read it a while back (I think from the small review you can tell I was trying my hardest to be nice, hence minimal) with Polly of Novel Insights and I just remember feeling really underwhelmed. Having said that, a scene with a face at the window did make me jump, it’s just a shame the rest to me was a bit boring with rather melodramatic peaks now and again (I have nothing against melodrama but I do tediousness).  

In a big emailing conversation last week I asked the other judges of The Green Carnation Prize one of the judges started talking about Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (for reasons I cannot explain yet) and so the subject of ghostly tales came up. Apart from the mention of M.R. James and Mary Danby classic ghost tales aren’t that easy to come across, they tend to be in anthologies and most of those are sadly out of print. In fact Paul Magrs himself has done a great post on the wonders of a selection of second hand ‘Pan anthologies’ which look to be exactly what I am on the hunt for. Drat’s and bother to book buying bans.

I then listened to the Guardian Book Club podcast and who should be on it but Sarah Waters talking about ‘The Little Stranger’. Now that book, which has grown on me over time, sadly didn’t scare me or thrill me in the way I hoped it would, but her discussion on old ghostly tales and the state of the modern ghost story interested me because really modern ghost stories do seem to be thin on the ground don’t you think? Supernatural is incredibly popular, you can barely move in a book shop without seeing a vampire (on the shelves rather than in the aisles looking for prey) but these books aren’t scary (sparkly vampires for example), and horror as a genre has never really chilled me. A ghost story is less about blood and gore and much more about atmosphere and suspense.

In fact apart from Susan Hill, with ‘The Woman In Black’, ‘The Man in the Picture’, ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ (which I haven’t read yet) and the forthcoming ‘The Small Hand’ which looks like it could be amazing, I am struggling to think of any modern authors who write brilliant ghostly tales. Oh, apart from Michelle Paver whose forthcoming adult novel ‘Dark Matter’ sufficiently scared me this weekend, but as its not out until late October I shall say no more till then. I can say its put me in the mood for more things that go bump in the night in my fiction.

So where are the best modern ghost stories, and again I mean chilling rather than a horror blood fest, do you know of any? I have heard Paul Torday’s ‘The Girl On The Landing’ is quite spooky, has anyone read that? What of the golden oldies, who haven’t I thought of? Which tales have genuinely chilled and scared you? What are the best anthologies?

I have just realised I could have made this into a problem for The Prose Practise! Oh and if you want some fabulous old 70’s (I think, maybe 80’s) chilling viewing today then take a look at what I found.

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Filed under Book Thoughts