How To Creep Someone Out
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)