Two writers describe their latest books… and their own approach to the supernatural:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a child in search of a jolly good read turns often to tales of the supernatural.
I have a theory about why this is so. It’s because ghost stories are a comfort. Real humans have proved themselves capable of everything. Everywhere you look, there is unhappiness: cruelty, war, torture, pestilence, hunger, poverty, betrayal, sorrow. The Four Horsemen are galloping roughshod through the world. In such a universe, headless coachmen, chain-rattling spectres and transparent nuns are a positive relaxation. There is also an element of safety about a ghost story. At least this particular thing isn’t happening (could never happen?) to me. Part of the attraction of the ghost story is its un-truth. All fictions are in some sense lies, but the ghost story has the added ingredient of complete impossibility. There, it’s out. I don’t believe in ghosts. Please, do not write and try to convert me, because although I don’t believe in ghosts, I do believe in other things, viz:
I believe that things which have happened in the past cast their shadows over the present and the future.
I believe events that occur in a certain place affect the atmosphere in that place. Everyone has experienced this. There are some houses we are comfortable in and love to visit and others which we are only too glad to leave.
I believe in the boundless strangeness and unpredictability of the human imagination. Scientific advances have shown the brain to be capable of amazing things, and what we do know is only a fraction of what we still have to discover.
I also believe in trying to extend the boundaries of the ghost story. Ten years ago, Hamish Hamilton published a collection called Letters of Fire. My aim in that book was to release ghosts from their Gothic sets and costumes and relocate them in the modern world. Also, because I have never understood why every single spirit has to be a Baddy, some of my apparitions are very pleasant.
In A Lane to the Land of the Dead once again I have a unifying theme. All the stories are set in Manchester, the city and its suburbs. For lazy people like me, locating stories in places you know best means a minimum of research.
What I discovered was this: Manchester is the ideal place for ghost-story writers. The city is seriously haunted by its history as the centre of the Industrial Revolution. The streets are thronged with phantoms: Mrs Gaskell, Friedrich Engels, Charlotte Bronte, John Dalton, L S Lowry, the dead of the Peterloo Massacre, the cotton workers, the mill owners, the rich merchants who built their mansions to the south of the city – oh, they’re a classy lot of spectres and no mistake! They also go back a long way. On the wall of my local library a blue plaque announces that this was the site of a Royalist camp before the battle of Marston Moor. I’ve used this information as the basis for one story in the new book, and the others equally have their beginnings in small things. For example, there really was a junk shop called J F Blood. I passed it on bus journeys for more than 20 years, and knew there was a story there somewhere. The derelict crescents of Hulme (now being demolished) have been the background for much that is worse than anything you’ll find in a ghost story, and the Arndale Centre, with its lack of real air, just cries out to have some strange things going on in it. Also to be found in A Lane to the Land of the Dead are nightclubs, playgroups in church halls, big houses in the suburbs, Affleck’s Palace (twice) and assorted bits and pieces of my immediate neighbourhood.
There are, these days, various questions asked about ghost stories. Could they possibly be dangerous for children? Could they really terrify? Induce nightmares and psychological traumas? I suppose they could, in some people, because almost anything could. Everyone has his or her particular bugbear, and if a writer happens to tap in to that, it’s unfortunate, but I don’t know how it could be avoided. At least in my stories you will not find anything truly revolting. Entrails, decaying flesh, disembowellings, evisceration, slimy unspeakable substances, etc, are conspicuous by their absence. Some of the tales, indeed, are positively cheerful (‘The Phantom of the Library’) and end happily (‘Burning Memories’). What I hope everyone will find in them is a creepy atmosphere. I would like to create gooseflesh, raised hairs on the back of the neck, a certain frisson. I should also like to emphasise that these are stories for older children. As all readers of BfK know, `teenage’ books are routinely read by much younger children, and I don’t think any of my stories will do a younger child any harm, even if she/he may not fully understand all of them, at least on first reading.
More than anything, I’ve tried to bring to each story its own particular architecture and imagery. I’m very keen on narrative having a structure, and even if no one else can see the shape that it is, I know it has one. As a lover of Edgar Allan Poe, M R James, E F Benson and the great stylists of the sinister tale, the other thing I try to do is describe and evoke the setting and the details as well as I can. What I call, in a kind of shorthand, the ‘set, costumes and props’ of a story are important in every sort of fiction, but in a ghost story they are what makes the difference between the merely routine and the really memorable.
Adele Geras’s A Lane to the Land of the Dead is published this month by Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 00214 1, at £8.99.
Building a Castle
When I was very small I had great need of a ghost; I don’t mean an imaginary friend whom I could call up or banish at will, but rather someone who lived in my house, someone I could hear and often glimpse going about their business: a comforting presence. And, perhaps because I believed in him utterly, he was there. We moved house when I was seven and the ghost was left behind.
In Griffin’s Castle, Dinah Jones has need of the supernatural. The real World has been found wanting. Although her mother has never abandoned her, she has been continually uprooted; she has lived in squats, in damp bedsits, in hostels and in care. Dinah is exceptionally gifted, a condition that isolates her as much as a learning difficulty can isolate the children who are struggling to keep up with their peers – not because they are rejected by other children, but rather because there is no shared experience, no level at which they can easily communicate.
In Dinah’s case her early maturity is beginning to distance her from her mother. They have reached a stage where they are both aware that their relationship is about to change irrevocably; henceforth they are inevitably bound upon separate courses. The realisation is painful for both of them. To make matters worse they are living in a house that is due for demolition; the floorboards are rotten, the walls crumbling, the electricity supply erratic and dangerous. But Dinah sees the house as it once was, a fine building furnished, curtained and carpeted in gleaming antique colours, a castle to be defended at all costs. At 11 years old she has decided she cannot exist without a place to call her own, a place of safety.
The animals on the wall outside Cardiff Castle are startling to anyone who comes across them for the first time. To someone like me, in search of a story, they were a gift; a perfect link between Dinah and the supernatural. When the stone lioness leaps over the traffic to Dinah, it is a repetition of the flight the animal took in my imagination, in the dusk of a winter’s afternoon.
Children often turn to animals for comfort when they feel betrayed and insecure. The presence of a being that accepts them, listens and never censures, is infinitely reassuring. Dinah wants a real animal but as this is impossible she chooses the stone creatures. There they sit, regarding her from the wall, waiting for life. It seems inevitable that she should give it to them.
Three of the fifteen creatures answer Dinah’s call: the lioness, a bear and a wolf. The animals, luminous replicas of the stone images, come to inhabit Dinah’s garden at night. They are the barrier between her and a World she has ceased to trust. But like many metaphorical walls that desperate people build around themselves, Dinah’s animal wall becomes too strong, too real, and she finds she cannot escape from it.
Lonely children are often more sensitive to things running just below the surface of normality. And this is the case with Barry Hughes and Jacob Rose, both of them loners in need of a friend. It’s their craving to understand Dinah that plunges them into her mysterious Other-world, the world that her extraordinary energy has conjured up.
It has been said that the supernatural is a ruse, a device to make a story out of a routine event; but I see it as the very fabric of a story. The oldest tales in the World deal with the supernatural. They would not exist without it. The precise meaning of each tale has probably been lost, but we do know that they represent the everlasting human struggle to bring about a better World, the battle between good and evil, They are tales of wonder and imagination and they liberate us from our often troubled existence, and allow us to hope.
Children often receive a bad press these days, but there are thousands who should be applauded for their courage, energy and determination. Dinah is such a child. She became very real for me. Through her I was able to acclaim all those small brave fighters, who deserve better than they get and, if they read Griffin’s Castle, allow them to hope.
A deep and often neglected human instinct is the wish to belong, to be part of a tribe that we can recognise, to know where we came from. In Dinah, because she’s never had a home or been welcomed by her family, the wish to belong becomes overwhelming. Having nothing, she is too proud to accept the hospitality Jacob and Barry offer her, she is searching for something older and deeper, a link with the past, and a place that she can claim as her own.
The greatest bonus for an author, it seems to me, is freedom to choose our protagonists’ fate; we can reward, elevate, punish, humiliate and even kill off, should the story require it. I relished the rewarding of Dinah Jones. Perhaps I only built the wall that threatened to extinguish her, in order that I could rescue her, Although she was in thrall of the supernatural, she is saved by a real and predictable event, and it is a real, albeit damaged and forsaken, animal that leads her to the person who we know will keep her safe. So the reader cannot say, ‘This happy ending couldn’t happen. It’s fantasy.’ It could. Dinah is rewarded because she is brave, thoughtful and determined – human characteristics that we all possess.
Jenny Nimmo’s Griffin’s Castle was published in September by Methuen, 0 416 19141 X, at £9.99.