The Haunted House in Horror Fiction by John Travis | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | The Art of Description
Eloquent Years of Silence

John Travis

How to Build a Haunted House

If you write horror fiction – or even if you don’t – there’s a fair chance at some point you’ll have a go at writing a haunted house tale. As my fiction leans closer to horror than any other genre, I’d already written a few ghostly short stories. But after a while I wanted to try something longer, something that contained everything that interested me about them.

The two things I like most about spectral fiction are the atmosphere it creates and the protagonist’s reaction to what’s going on around them. I’m on the fence as to whether ghosts exist or not; I tend to hold with Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a ghost as ‘the outward and visible sign of an inward fear’. I’ve had a few experiences that could be classed as spooky, but they’ve always happened when I’ve been alone, not at my best mentally or physically, under significant stress and sleep-deprived. If I ever hear of someone seeing a ghost on a sunny day on a busy street when they’re in a good mood, I might change my mind. But for all that, I can’t help but wonder.

Beside my own few murky experiences, I’ve been influenced over the years by two of the greatest practitioners in the field of Weird/Horror fiction – Robert Aickman and Ramsey Campbell, both masters in detailing possible supernatural happenings and psychological collapse. In terms of atmosphere, the thing that interested me was the undeniable pull of old and decaying buildings, and their almost welcoming gloom. I’m not alone in this; I’ve yet to meet a writer of macabre fiction who isn’t fascinated by empty or derelict buildings, finding them intriguing instead of repugnant; perhaps even beautiful. Both these elements – the psychological and the atmospheric – are in perfect synch in my favourite supernatural tale, Oliver Onions’ stunning novella ‘The Beckoning Fair One’. Another influence was Peter Medak’s film ‘The Changeling’, which as well as atmospheric and psychological depth has an intriguing mystery element, a feature that was becoming more prominent in my own fiction.

But how to tie all this together in one story?

First, I needed to look at the ideas I had and find their correct order. Then I needed to see how they related to my title.

I found this in the sleevenotes of the collected works of avant-garde musician Edgard Varese, who I was listening to at the time. Never a prolific composer, years would often pass between new works emerging. But when they did, to quote Professor Chou Wen-Chung, here were ‘fruits of those eloquent years of silence’.

Deciding my ideas and title fitted together well, I felt I was ready to start.

My central idea revolved around an incident in the house I grew up in until I was three.

Our house was on the end of a terrace row, and beside it stood a wall. Between the two was a narrow gap, large enough only for perhaps a cat to get through. As a result, over the years the gap filled up with rubbish and fallen leaves, and nobody could get in to clear it out. One morning, when my mum brought me and my sister down for breakfast, she found the living room covered in fungus; the rotted mess had pushed up through the wooden floor, gone up around the living room wall, and even up the staircase. Luckily, a friend of my dad’s knew someone in the building trade, and the rotting floor was replaced with concrete. For a couple of months, this was okay; until one day the fungus came back, breaking through the concrete.

At this point, Rentakill were called, and the mess was again cleared out and refilled with concrete. But not before the man in charge, who gave lectures on the effects of dry rot, took some pictures – apparently, nobody ever believed how invasive fungus could be…

This bizarre occurrence chimed with a question I had about ghost stories: why, generally, do ghosts in fiction haunt large houses? What if one were trapped in a smaller space? And what if, like the fungus, it managed to break free – what would happen to the ghost then?

From this point the story began to build up its own weird momentum, and a few real-life incidents around this time found their way into the narrative: one was finding a dead crow upside down on top our dustbin, an incident bizarrely repeated a couple of days later; another was watching two men arguing as they faced each other astride a wall they were demolishing, both armed with lump hammers. Then, like some uncanny coincidence from a Penny Dreadful (and the sort of coincidence which seems to crop up regularly whilst writing fiction), I found out a house my sister was due to house-sit wasn’t just in the same area but actually on the same terrace. Unfortunately I had no recollection of the fungus, but I did have other memories from that time; and visiting my sister a few days later, it was fascinating to look round a place so similar to our old childhood home. And besides bringing a few old memories to life, it gave me an even better perspective on the place I wanted to describe.

Even with all these lucky breaks, writing-wise the story proved to be the usual wrestling match as they nearly always are, and the whole thing took about three months to complete. Eventually it was accepted by the very enthusiastic Jess Jordan at Vulpine, and between us I think we knocked it into the best shape it could be, and the finished product looked gorgeous. The response to it has been pretty good, although I’ve been a bit surprised by how often the word ‘surreal’ has cropped up in reviews. Maybe my attempt at writing a conventional ghost story is a little wide of the mark.

But then again, when have ghosts ever been conventional?

(c) John Travis

Find John on Facebook: @JohnTravisWriter

About Eloquent Years of Silence:

Eloquent Years of SilenceIt seemed like an ideal situation to Bundrick: a couple of months house-sitting for friends just as he was about to become homeless. He was even okay with the fact that the house next door had been the scene of a strange death a few months earlier – because, for the first time in his life, Bundrick, however briefly, would have his own place.

But when strange noises start coming from that house, noises that shouldn’t exist, that simply couldn’t have been heard, Bundrick’s curiosity leads him down into the dark cellar. Discovering the wall separating his house and the empty house has collapsed, it’s almost as if it were inviting him in…

Order your copy online here.

About the author

John Travis is the author of four books—a short story collection, Mostly Monochrome Stories, and two weird crime novels, The Terror and the Tortoiseshell and The Designated Coconut.
John has been published nearly eighty times in various anthologies and journals. He’s also had his work praised by TED Klein and David Renwick, and had an invisible poem read out on Radio 1 by John Hegley.
Living mostly in his head but occasionally venturing beyond it, his undersized physical form resides in the north of England.
His novella Eloquent Years of Silence was released by Vulpine Press.
Find him on Facebook: @JohnTravisWriter

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