How To Creep Someone Out

Reading & Writing, The Arts

Nycto cover

Can we still believe in ghost stories?

That was the question uppermost on my mind as I finished the final draft of my supernatural thriller ‘Nyctophobia, out next year from Solaris Books.

I wasn’t sure if it worked; I thought it did, but needed feedback. Usually publishers and agents are polite and practical, but this time I think I succeeded in creeping them out.

My film agent said; ‘I unwisely read it under the covers in the small hours. It would have creeped me out in broad daylight, but reading it like this has never made me so glad to see the dawn. It cast an effective sense for foreboding over the days I was reading it, too.  A wonderful book with fantastic twists to the story.’ And my publisher commented; ‘Wow! I utterly love it. Scary, twisty-turny, brilliant characters, people you generally care about, superb pacing.’

So now I’m excited, because I trust them. Let’s hope it has the same effect on you.

I recently re-read the best of MR James, and started watching the BFI box-set of the James ghost stories that the BBC used to broadcast every Christmas.While the stories are still superb the TV versions have to fit an hour and most of the older ones feel agonisingly slow. I still have one more disc to get through, but so far I can’t help feeling that what once disturbed me now finds me unshockable.

In particular, the James stories filmed in the seventies fare poorly, perhaps because of that decade’s flat visual styling. The most successful was the quirky, confident 1968 version of ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’ with Michael Hordern. A recent (2010) modern-day version of the same story starring John Hurt suffered from throwing away its central image of a ghost rising from a bed, but worse still, it gave this tale of a haunted academic an entirely different and over-explanatory psychologically-correct backstory that didn’t work at all.

I can see why the adaptor was tempted to make the changes; the tale does not suit 21st century temperaments, but if you start providing reasons for ghosts you undermine the irrationality of fear. However, this irrationality needs to be balanced with the sense of satisfaction a reader demands from a good story well told. All ghost stories have an element of mystery, and if it is over-revealed, as it was in the latest version of ‘The Lady In Black’, you spoil the lasting sense of disturbance that we strive so hard to create.

The creepiest ghost story, for me, is ‘The House On The Borderlands’ by William Hope Hodgson, although arguably it’s not a ghost story but rather a fantastical tale of demons. ‘Nyctophobia’ was tricky because I walked a tightrope between revealing and hiding the truth, and when we get to the final edit I may remove a few more lines that might, I feel, throw a little too much light on the story. When Joan Lindsay wrote ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ her editor supposedly encouraged her to leave off the last chapter in order to make the story more ambiguous and intriguing.

I may yet do that. Meanwhile, I’m pleased that I have been able to provide its earliest readers with some sleepless hours.

(This image is taken from an early rejected rough)

14 comments on “How To Creep Someone Out”

  1. andrea yang says:

    I’ll be looking forward to reading it. By the way, you say the image above was rejected but i would definetly have picked up a book with a jacket image like that.

  2. Janet Wilson says:

    I love to read ‘true’ ghost stories- meaning, whatever you believe to be the explanation, the teller truly believes that they’ve had some sort of strange encounter. The most chilling are those where you’re left thinking, ‘Why would anyone make THAT up!?’ Difficult to achieve in fiction, where the more bizarre the entity, the more forced the effect can seem. Less is definitely more.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    I agree it sounds like a great read. Ambiguous is often good. Hell House for me suffered because it had a how-it-all-was-done ending, so as I recall, the whole frightening story turned out to be a sham.

  4. Ken Murray says:

    If I remember correctly one of those James tv versions was about a railway signalman, played by Denholm Elliot? It was the dread and foreboding elements that made it really work for me.

    Though I must admit I have a soft spot for raiilway themed ghost stories. It’s probably a childhood thing, as I remember watching heaps of old movies as a kid, and two of my favourites were the The Ghost Train and Will Hay’s Oh, Mr Porter!

    Incidentally, if you ever get the chance to stand next to a stationary steam train, it actually sounds as if it is a living entity.There is this strange phenomenon where the steam makes the engine pant and sigh as if it is breathing.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    That’s true, Ken. You feel as if you are standing beside a very large creature, perhaps an elephant or dinosaur.

  6. Jo W says:

    Yes, Ken. That story of the Signalman is one of Charles Dickens ghost stories. Definitely creepy.

  7. Bob Low says:

    The Ghost Story will continue, because it’s almost infinitely adaptable. I remember how delighted I felt-as well as scared!-when watching the original ”Ring” film for the first time, in recognising distinct elements of M. R. James in the basic set-up of the story. I’ve just read an absolutely brilliant ghost story, in issue 35 of Black Static, called ”Men Playing Ghosts, Playing God” by Steven Dines, which demonstrates that a clever writer can still produce original variations on old ideas-and scare the pants off the reader in the process. Admin’s new novel sounds great, as well. Long Live the Ghost Story!

  8. Ken Mann says:

    I recall reading that The Signalman was made as a cheap replacement for what should have been the next James adaptation. The script for Count Magnus turned out to be unaffordable. It still lurks, waiting to be filmed…

  9. snowy says:

    I shall unfold my tale in reverse, for reasons that I hope will become apparent.

    I wound up looking at books produced by the Spectral Press, they published ‘The 13 Ghosts of Christmas’ which was well received. And have plans to release another for this year.

    This is where my tale ended, it began as many of these things do with entering an un-important query about some trifling matter into a search engine. Buried on the third page was a result that wasn’t really relevant, but some how intriguing.

    It was for a novella called ‘The Nine Deaths of Doctor Valentine’. Which may appeal to a number of people here.

    To say too much would spoil what is a quite short novella, [only 83 pages].

    Police are alerted to a burning body swinging from a bridge, dressed in a gorilla costume. Slightly odd even for Bristol, but it’s only when the next victim is discovered does it became apparent that there is maniac out there with a passion for classic horror films.

    I’ve NOT read either yet but I am quite intriqued by the idea.

    Cheapest bought as a Knidle ebook, if you don’t have a Knidle there are free viewers for Mac, PC, and both the fruit and robot based telephones.

    First person to identify the film reference will get a shiny star like this one ★.

  10. Janet Wilson says:

    Ooh ooh ooh, please Mr Snowy sir, is it Masque of the Red Death? (Akshly not 100% certain, but sure it’s thereabouts, so haven’t cheated by searching.) Many creepy spots in Bristol, both obvious (Arnos Vale, ginormous gurt Vic cemy barely a mile frm me) and less so (the Camera Obscura nr Clifton bridge.) One of the most bizarre tales in Peter Ackroyd’s ‘The English Ghost’ is from 19thc. Hotwells- I haven’t dared attempt to locate the spot- and again barely a mile from my tippety-tipping finger tip is a splendid 1870s office interior that I was once told was haunted by half a dog! (Back end.) Bristolians like to present themselves as sceptical and materialistic, with a pretence pricking sense of humour, and certainly there’s far more ghostlore in Devon, where I grew up, and in Kent where I lived when young ( ‘as overpopulated in death as it is in life’, I believe some wag once said), but over the years I’ve become tuned in to the Weird West that your author obviously knows of.

  11. snowy says:

    A star was promised, and a star it is:

    [The bridge the unfortunate wearer of simian guise was hanging from was the Clifton, but unless people know the area or are fans of IKB [and I know at least one other here], it wouldn’t work as a reference point.]


  12. Janet Wilson says:

    Smug beam. 🙂 I praps had unfair local knowledge advantage, but balanced out by probly having seen far fewer horror movies than some lurkers in these shadows!

  13. callum says:

    Creepiest story I ever read was The Moustache by Emmanuel Carrère. But it was what happened afterward that was really creepy. I read it on holiday in Cairo back in pre-internet days, and left the book behind in some sleazy no-tell motel I’d been living in. Back in the UK I tried to get hold of a copy to pass on to a friend and so I made a visit to WH Smith – they didn’t have it, in fact they’d never heard of it. So I went to Waterstones… who also had no record of this book. Odd, I thought. I hit another few book shops… no trace anywhere. Like it never existed. None of which is that creepy, UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT THE BOOK IS ACTUALLY ABOUT. Then it is totally bizarre and caused me no end of psychic distress at the time.
    Of course, turns out that it totally does exist. Well worth a look.

    Also, I thought you might like this, a couple of secret London cafes

  14. Fiona says:

    Picnic at Hanging Rock was always one of my favourite films and I grew up in the belief it was based on a true story! That always added to the intrigue as I like a mystery (of course!). I enjoyed reading the book though.

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