…Scary Reads for Winter Nights.
I do enjoy a fright! I love ghost stories (but not horror, I am not keen on blood and gore). What I delight in is an encroaching sense of unease and doom. Whatever you may like to call it M.R. James called it ‘a pleasing terror’, and who am I to argue with the master?
I can frighten myself quite easily. In my own house – which makes some peculiar noises despite being built in 1967, proving peculiar noises are not confined to the truly vintage house. I’m lucky enough to live behind a woodlandy kind of nature reserve and have been woken in the past by the screams of godknowswhat (foxes?) and barks of deer (or werebadgers?) at 3am. It takes the brain a while to catch up…just long enough for the fright responses to kick in, before I realise it’s an animal in the garden, not a presence in the room. An evening walk in the countryside can be super spooky, especially if you have an over-active imagination. However, although I do quite well on my own, it is always lovely to read a fantastic ghost story, and here are just a few of my favourites – two by writers who are now ghosts themselves (maybe) and two from writers very much still alive.
M.R. James – Ghost Stories
Montague Rhodes James is acknowledged as the master ghost story-teller, Provost of Kings College Cambridge, many of his tales were written to tell to the ‘Chit Chat Club’ at Christmas evening get togethers. A number of his stories are very well-known from BBC adaptations – these I admit have become entwined in my mind with the written stories. This is particularly the case with Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad, which still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I read it, helped by the image of the scariest dirty sheet ever from the Jonathan Miller BBC adaptation. All the stories are truly spooky, I think it’s helped along by the way they’re written – this is late Victorian English, it has a particular rhythm, it feels old. At the same time, in amongst the terror, James is also fond of a comedy servant/bystander/yokel (it is in that way of its time) so the writing is far from stuffy and not without humour. If I were to recommend any to readers new to James, I’d say ‘Oh Whistle…’ (be careful what you do with things you find in sand dunes) ‘The Ash Tree’ (witch trials, a malaise, and really scary spiders) and ‘Lost Hearts’ (nefarious goings on in a big house) are great.
Although we associate James’ stories with winter, many of them actually take place in summer – during the long vac, when his academics always seem to go exploring old churches and getting into strange situations. I suppose they would come and report back in the winter terms and I think, for the full Jamesian experience, if you can read the stories on a frosty night in the nearest thing you can find to book-lined study, with a roaring fire and glass of port, that would be excellent.
By the way, There’s a brilliant podcast – A Podcast to The Curious – on the works of M.R. James (and other spooky writers). The hosts, Will and Mike, clearly love their subject – and they invented the brilliant term ‘Jamesian Wallop’. It’s well worth a listen. You can read many of M.R. James’ stories at https://www.thin-ghost.org/ (and other websites). Some of the film adaptations can be found on YouTube.
Various Authors – Eight Ghosts. The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories
New ghost stories, each inspired by an English Heritage site, from Sarah Perry, Max Porter, Andrew Michael Hurley, Mark Haddon, Stuart Evers, Jeanette Winterson, Kate Clanchy and Kamila Shamsie. Each author was given access to the site after hours, to immerse themselves in the atmosphere, history and rumoured hauntings. The stories are as excellent as you’d imagine from the list of writers involved.
I’m going to pick out just one though, as it’s stayed lodged in my mind since I read it about a year ago. Mark Haddon’s ‘The Bunker’ is inspired by the York Cold War Bunker. I just read it again to make sure I wasn’t adding to it in my imaginations. It’s a massively unsettling story – this may be a generational thing; those of us who were teenagers in the 1980s were fairly convinced we’d die in a nuclear holocaust any day, and as Haddon said in a Guardian interview it is “a genuinely disturbing place … It was in use during my lifetime in the expectation that the majority of the human race might be burned from the surface of the earth,”. The Bunker throws us into a nightmare almost from page one. It’s a chilling tale set I’m not quite sure when (the bunker was in use from the 1960s-90s) about Nadine; we live through her very strange experiences. This is not a ‘normal’ ghost story; there are twists and turns, I think wondering what on earth is happening to Nadine is as unsettling as the story itself, which is very unsettling. It’s an excellent, tense and discomforting piece of writing.
E. Nesbit – The Power Of Darkness, Tales of Terror
Yes, that E Nesbit – of The Railway Children. The Phoenix and The Carpet and so on – also wrote tales of terror. Nesbit’s writing is similar in tone to James, they were more or less contemporaries. Man Size in Marble (included in the edition I have) and featuring creepy statues, is perhaps Nesbit’s best known scary story. There’s also ‘The Viloet Car’ which must have been very modern at the time of writing, and features a malevolent vehicle a whole century before ‘Christine’ rolled inot anyone’s driveway.
Many of the tales feature ‘returns from the dead’, and one of the shorter tales in this particular collection – Hurst of Hurstcote – has it all; a young dead wife, the friend’s visit to the distraught widower, a crypt – it is fabulously gothic. The unquiet ghost is an extremely old motif in ghost stories, and one of my favourites – whether in strange tale or folk song form.
Thinking about it, Nesbit’s childrens stories were pretty dark sometimes; being forced to move hundreds of miles away from your comfy London home after your father’s been arrested for suspected espionage is pretty grim (but at least Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter got to move to Yorkshire).
You can find E. Nesbit’s ‘Grim Tales’ at Project Gutenberg
Michelle Paver – Dark Matter
Set during an arctic expedition in the late 1930s this is one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read. I do most of my reading at night, in bed…I had to get up and put the Big Light on in the middle of this.
The expedition does not go well. All the Oxbridge polar explorers suffer calamities, and in the end Jack “a grammar school boy with a London degree” is left on his own, with the dogs, at the hut in the middle of the Arctic wasteland. He has the wireless to communicate with for a while and Bjorvik, a local hunter, visits, but something lurks outside. Bjorvik won’t say what happened at this place. Starting with Jack’s outsider status from the off, Paver explores the experience of ‘otherness’ much, much more in this story. The Arctic solitude, the cold, the darkness, what is real and what is not – Jack is a scientist, and tries to rationalise events. Jack is terrified (and so are we).
Dark Matter is a masterpiece of suspense, and – I think – short enough to read in one go, which is probably the best way to do it for full immersion in Jack’s frightening, ice-bound, world.
If you too enjoy being pleasantly terrified I hope you have time over winter for a few spooky nights in with a haunted book…which are your favourite scary tales?