This December, my novel Spectre of Springwell Forest is released by Dragon Soul Press. A chilling and mysterious ghost story, this adheres to supernatural horror genre traditions, whilst exploring certain corners that are (I think) unique to me. However, I would be foolish to deny being influenced by the greats, and in that spirit, here are my top five ghost stories, in no particular order of merit:
A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) – What is often forgotten about Dickens’s tale of Christmas cheer is just how bleak and scary much of it is. The appearance of Jacob Marley is particularly bone-chilling, as is Ebenezer Scrooge’s vision of the future, when the final spirit shows him what will happen if he doesn’t mend his ways. Yes, it all ends happily, but for me, the horrors of “Ignorance and Want” linger long after the triumphant resurrection of Tiny Tim.
Don’t Look Now (Daphne Du Maurier) – John and Laura Baxter visit Venice in an attempt to recover from the death of their daughter. Here Laura meets two psychics that believe they are getting beyond-the-grave messages from her departed child. This is only a ghost story in the loosest sense, but it is, above all, a profoundly chilling study of the way grief can tear people apart. The Nic Roeg film is justly famous (and adds/changes a few key elements), but Du Maurier’s original text is equally startling, and if you’ve only ever seen the film, I urge going back to the source material.
The Ash Tree (MR James) – Everyone has their favourite MR James story, with Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad proving particularly popular. I’m going with The Ash Tree for this list – a truly unsettling tale about a vengeful woman who was accused of witchcraft and executed. Exactly how her revenge is administered in subsequent generations forms the backbone of the plot. The denouement sends a shiver down my spine whenever I read it. (“There is something more than we know of in that tree, my lord. I am for an instant search.”)
The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) – If this isn’t on the list of everyone’s favourite ghost stories, there is something seriously wrong with the list. Memorably adapted as The Innocents for the big screen in 1961, the original text is nonetheless worth revisiting time and time again. The plot concerns a young governess who comes to believe her charges are possessed by departed spirits. However, many readers have since questioned whether the supernatural elements of this tale are all in her mind, thus creating one of the great debates of the genre. Are the ghosts real? Or is she insane? The ambiguity is the story’s greatest strength.
The Woman in Black (Susan Hill) – This giant of the genre was probably the biggest influence on Spectre of Springwell Forest. Solicitor Arthur Kipps is menaced by a vengeful ghost in a haunted house by the sea, resulting in a famously bone-chilling tale that has been memorably adapted in television, film and a long running stage show. However, the original prose remains unsurpassed, particularly in the vivid descriptions of the remote Eel Marsh House, and the spine-freezing finale, which I find infinitely more disturbing than the altered ending in the film. I particularly love the Hill’s terse final sentences: “They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.”
Spectre of Springwell Forest is released on the 20th of December, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon Kindle here (in the UK) and here (in the US). Paperbacks will also be available soon.