Writers Discuss Favorite Haunted Tales Dec 23, 2013 18:49:48 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Dec 23, 2013 18:49:48 GMT -5
Ghosts, ghouls and demon lovers: writers on their favorite haunted tales
John Boyne. My favorite ghost story is “The Signal-Man” by Charles Dickens, which was first published in his periodical All the Year Round in 1866. It uses a classic structure to form the narrative – in a remote, isolated setting a tale is told to an audience of one, who in turn recounts the tale to us – and with each revelation, the sense of trepidation increases. The story opens with a shout down to a signalman working near a tunnel entrance, whose response to the initial cry of “Halloa!” is unsettling to say the least. It’s obvious he’s terrified by any approach by strangers, but why? He quickly recovers his senses and recounts how two separate disasters have taken place recently, both of which have been precipitated by warnings from a ghostly presence. A third warning has been issued and the signalman is now filled with fear for what might be about to take place. The narrator is skeptical – narrators in ghost stories always are, until they too become victim or prey – but of course, the signalman was right to worry, as evidenced by how the story is resolved. Dickens had a keen interest in the supernatural and, as a great performer of his own work, caused more than one of his more sensitive readers to faint or run screaming from the building when he read this piece aloud.
Jeanette Winterson. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill remains the most impressive modern haunting, and still the scariest night at the theatre. I admit I am very fond of JK Rowling’s Moaning Myrtle in the U-bend in whatever Harry Potters she’s in, and I think she should have her own ghost-world along with Peeves. But the 19th century is especially thick with formidable ghosts. My favorites are: Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” – what happens when nouveau Americans take up in ye olde England? Very funny. And A Christmas Carol by Dickens. I read it every year starting on Christmas Eve and lying in bed for the finale on Christmas morning.
Helen Dunmore. The most frightening ghosts are perhaps also the most intimate. They know our ways, and so they understand how to haunt us. Elizabeth Bowen’s short story “The Demon Lover” is set in a landscape already possessed by death and destruction. London in wartime was a place and time that brought forth some of Bowen’s finest fiction. She stayed in the city throughout the Blitz, working as an air-raid warden as well as for the Ministry of Information, and from this experience she crafted an unforgettable vision of London’s jagged, gap-toothed streets, half-deserted and shorn of landmarks.
Where there has been so much death, and the dead have been so suddenly and violently wrenched out of their lives, there may also be ghosts. In “The Demon Lover,” memories of the First World War bleed into the second. Kathleen Drover is now a 44-year-old married woman, mother of three young sons, whose “most normal expression was one of controlled worry but of assent.” She has come to fetch a few things from her London house: her family is living in the country for the duration of the bombing. But in the dusty, boarded-up house, there is a letter waiting for her on the hall table. Someone whom she has long wanted to forget has not forgotten her. Once, long before she was Mrs. Drover, she was a girl saying goodbye to a man she had promised to marry. It was August 1916, and such promises, all too often, could not be kept. This ghost is a figure of breathtaking audacity and menace, and yet he is also woven into the fabric of a sunlit street full of prams and buses. The apparent normality is a façade. With brilliant artistry, Bowen turns wartime London into a shape-shifter. As the city changes, so do its inhabitants. After nightfall, these half-empty streets will be alive with searchlights, ack-ack and the heavy drone of bombers. By day, Mrs. Drover is a middle-aged mother whose pearls are loose on her thinning neck. When darkness comes, where and what will she be?
Penelope Lively. After reading MR James’s “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” it is not possible to sleep alone in a twin-bedded room. It may be ponderously Victorian in tone, but its ingredients are inescapably chilling: the pursuing figure on the lonely Suffolk beach, the face at the window that is not “a right thing,” that crumpled bed. The protagonist is a professor of ontography – and no, I had never heard that term either, understandably, because it seems that MR James made it up. He was provost of King’s College, Cambridge, a medievalist, and his Professor Parkins – young, pompous, stridently rational – is perhaps a send-up of some colleague and of tiresomely esoteric areas of study. In the story, rationality is sent packing, as a golfing holiday becomes a gathering nightmare when Parkins’s casual delving into the site of a community of medieval Knights Templar produces an ancient whistle, with which Parkins experiments. He survives, with shattered nerves; “he cannot even now see a surplice hanging on a door quite unmoved.” The period style, for me, adds to the story’s power – elaborate, even cumbersome at points, but cleverly refined when immediate effect is needed: the figure, that face. If you don’t know it, read it, but avoid Suffolk inns thereafter, especially those with twin-bedded rooms.
Source: The Guardian, December 22, 2013.