A Ghost Story Is Not A Horror Story
It’s that time of the year again when I get invited to read something spooky in a wing-backed armchair beside a crackling fire. Actually, one year I did that in Black’s Club, but this year we’re in the National Liberal Club, a grander and far chillier environment for the annual Hallowe’en reading, and I’ll also be reading at the British Library. I usually select a ghost story with a fantastical edge, and as much as I’d like to read an excerpt from ‘Nyctophobia’ it wouldn’t be fair – it’s better to tackle something complete.
A ghost story works best when it holds implicit horror that can only be seen to its fullest extent after the story ends. They rarely contain scenes of actual physical horror. As noted in the story course on this site, Henry James’s ‘The Turn Of The Screw’ involves possession and madness, ghosts and suicides, sexual perversion and child cruelty and even, possibly, pedophilia – but you won’t find any of this on the surface of the story. It’s not until you think about it afterwards that you realise just how depraved the hidden tale might be, and it can also be read as a case of Victorian hysteria over morality. It’s probably the reason for ‘The Others’ being made, with its not-dissimilar set-up, but the effect it produces – one of melancholy calm – is very different. ‘Julia’s Eyes’ and ‘The Orphanage’ did the same thing, the latter balancing the tragedy of things lost with moments of fear.
Awful realisations of what has been done often feature in ghostly tales, and reconciliation is sought, while horror ends badly. Horror are stories often set in motion by revenge while ghosts seek atonement. But although ghost stories lack hard shocks and appear initially milder their outcomes can have more devastating effects. So you could sum up the difference as follows; ghost stories set out with an out-of-balance situation in which something must be put right, and work toward a conclusion of equilibrium which may prove fair or unfair, while horror stories start out in balance and work toward disorder and chaos; one being an inversion of the other. Ghost stories are implicit, horror stories explicit.
When writing a ghost story it’s worth first reading through some of the old Fontana Books of Ghost Stories, of which there were many volumes. For horror,the Mammoth Books of Horror and of course the classic Pan Books of Horror still provide good templates.
Any favourite ghost stories, short or long, from readers?