The phantom premise
Mslexia 50, summer 2011
Like the spectre in M R James’s The Mezzotint, ghost stories have crossed the literary landscape and passed through genre boundaries to become the fastest rising trend. In five years, what started as a trickle of work by a handful of skilled novelists – including Susan Hill and Kate Mosse – has turned torrential.
The new ghost stories, epitomised by Michelle Paver’s period set piece Dark Matter (Orion, £12.99), Audrey Niffenegger’s twinset horror Her Fearful Symmetry (Vintage, £7.99) and Cecelia Ahern’s magical romance The Gift (Harper, £7.99) are not siblings of Stephen King or James Herbert, but of romance and literary fiction.
Trade insiders dispute what is driving demand among readers: theories range from the obsession with genealogy and materialism to taboos surrounding death. Author Caitlin Davies sums up the one thing that all agree: ‘At the moment there is such an obsession with the past, it is fertile ground for ghost stories.’ The Bookseller has tipped Davies’ The Ghost of Lily Painter (Hutchinson, £12.99) as a summer bestseller.
Davies experienced first hand the genre’s rapid rise in commercial respectability. ‘Three years ago when I wanted to put “ghost” in the title, I was told not to, if I did the book would not sell,’ she recalls. ‘That was with my previous publisher. But that isn’t an issue now because there has been such a resurgence in interest.’
Jade Chandler, an editor at Orion who worked on Paver’s Dark Matter, regards ghost stories’ dual ability to defy genre and carry big themes within a familiar format as key to their ressurection: ‘Readers will always want to read a good ghost story because they tend to have emotional resonance and page-turning qualities wrapped up together. Sometimes that can be tricky to achieve in other genres.’ She cites Beloved by Toni Morrison (Vintage, £7.99) as showing ‘how the ghost story can support hugely significant and horrifying historical themes in the most poetic, yet compelling manner’.
The diversity of writers entertaining spectres is not explained by commercial demand alone. In 2009 Sarah Waters was shortlisted for the Man Booker with The Little Stranger (Virago, £7.99), a literary ghost story. Later that year, Kate Mosse published the taut fireside chiller The Winter Ghosts (Orion, £7.99). In December Susan Hill returned to the genre that made her famous with The Small Hand (Profile, £7.99), a story with the tension and menace one expects from the author of The Woman In Black. Meanwhile cult thriller writer Sarah Rayne has embarked on a new ghost series with Severn House.
‘Ghost stories license the author to deal with things that aren’t understood,’ theorises Andrew Taylor, who wrote The Anatomy of Ghosts (Penguin, £7.99). ‘If you write other sorts of fiction, you have an implicit compact with the reader that your fictional construction makes, on some level, a coherent whole with an internal rationale. With a ghost story you are allowed to blur the edges.’
Ghost stories also allow writers to play with readers: indeed literary critic and blogger Suzi Feay suggests they are a metaphor for the relationship between the phantom presence of the author in the imagination of the reader. ‘The ghost really is an image for the author haunting the reader,’ she says. Echoing Taylor, she adds: ‘In these stories the author can expand the narrative beyond the boundaries of an ordinary novel.’
What makes a great ghost story? Are there, as M R James claimed, rules? Yes, says Michelle Paver. As well as the Jameses Henry and M R, she cites short stories by Edith Wharton, E Nesbit, Fay Weldon and A S Byatt as essential reading for writers before they dip their pen into the genre.
These writers helped create a template for Paver’s novel. ‘The setting must be realistic but atmospheric: people will believe in a haunting more easily if this extraordinary thing is happening in a place with which they identify,’ she explains. ‘And the ghost must have intention – there is a reason for the haunting – and it must be malevolent.’
Also vital is tight plotting, says Amber Caraveo, editorial director at Orion Children’s Books. Caraveo’s authors include Cliff McNish, author of the critically acclaimed Breathe: A Ghost Story (Orion Children’s Books, £6.99). ‘Don’t give away too much too soon.,’ she explains. ‘A great ghost story is all about building atmosphere and suspense and drawing the reader into your fictional world, so seed clues to intrigue the reader, but make sure you are keeping enough back to give the story an exciting and revealing climax.’
A good end is always important, but in ghost stories an anti-climatic ending will undermine the whole work. Orange nominated Liz Jensen, who has made a career genre-busting since her 1995 début Egg Dancing, is writing a ghost story, The Unquiet Ones, due out from Bloomsbury next year. ‘All stories of suspense share the same basic structure.’ she claims. ‘But in a ghost story, the ending is best left open.’
Why this is, says Jensen, is reflected in Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that the best sex scenes are played in the imagination. As with sex, so too with fear: the emotional charge of a ghost story resonates, because it exploits our imagination. ‘It’s the reader who writes the last page,’ she says. ‘When she is filling in the gaps, she fills them with what scares her most. It’s the same principle as Orwell´s Room 101.’
© Danuta Kean 2011