Sometimes I wish I didn’t believe in ghosts.
The Boogie Man. The monster under the bed. The Banshee. The thundering hooves of the Puca. The witch coming down the chimney. The fairies coming to take you away. Somewhere, inside us all, there’s a four year old that can’t help but believe in, and still be chilled by such things.
As writer of paranormal fiction, the task I set myself is to somehow reach out a bony finger and poke that Boogie Man awake again; to appear from under the bed and shout ‘Boo!’; to make a reader run away, screaming in terror. And then make them come back again, and again for more. To me, there is never a time when the old chestnut ‘write what you know’ is more apt than when you tackle the subject of fear. Not everyone can do it or, indeed, wants to. But I like to think I can because I am, what they call, a gutless wonder. I spent my childhood in an old house, looking over my shoulder at mysterious noises and experiencing feelings of being watched. Then on to boarding school – dark corridors, silent nuns and grim religious iconography. I have spent my life as a whole fascinated by the idea of life after death, submerged in the fiction of Stephen King, James Herbert etc.
But what frightens me rigid is those tales that reach me second or third hand through people I know and trust. People who have had ‘experiences’. Rational people. Sane people. Everyday people, just like me. Who have all experienced the unbelievable. The inconceivable. The unknown.
Experiences that might just be true.
To write frightening fiction, I try to stay close to that truth. I flick through anthologies of real-life ghost stories; loiter on websites dedicated to spooky tales, my eye primed for something that sends a shiver up my spine. I glance at ‘ghost’ photographs. The extra child on the school bench; the group shot that includes a soldier who never made it back from war. So, this is what a ghost would look like….
Ghosts are a fantastic fiction tool. Good ghosts don’t die happily in old age, surrounded by loving family. A good ghost has a gripping backstory, a grisly death and a lust for revenge, or they long to say goodbye or send a message to a loved one. And that’s all just a little bit scary, isn’t it?
So when I sit down to write something to chill a reader, I frighten myself. Because you can’t write fear, without feeling frightened.
To me, we are most frightened when we are vulnerable so I attempt to get my readers to know my characters well and hopefully care about them a little. And then I put those characters in danger. But first, I put them at a disadvantage.
Being alone is obvious. Not fully alert. Maybe with a physical impairment of some sort. Dozing in a bath taken to ease a twisted ankle, for example, with a child asleep in a room a few doors away. Feeling nervous?
Then maybe there’s a sudden sound – something that warrants investigation (I long for my readers to shout; ‘don’t go there’!) somewhere unwelcoming or unknown. And while all of this is happening, I live what my character is living in an effort to keep it as real as possible. In my mind’s eye, my own heart is racing – what’s that shadow? What made that noise?
I picture my location as clearly as if I am there and I take the reader through it, step by step. And I dissect how I am feeling. When I get a shock do I go hot or cold? Do I tremble?
And then I reveal. Sometimes it’s frightening to do it a sentence too late – there’s nothing behind the curtain, phew! But..hang on…there is something behind you.
Or better still, a sentence too early – when the reader is least expecting it.
I reveal what frightens me. For some that might be a ghastly clown. For others, a bloodied, maggot-infested corpse. Maybe a shape glimpsed at the end of a long passageway in a flash of lightning. Or far too close for comfort. Like on the pillow next to you.
Whatever you reveal has to be whatever floats your boat. Or rather whatever sneaks on board in the middle of a power cut, with a slow leak in the prow, miles and miles from shore, and uses its unseen hand to chuck the lifejackets overboard.
It can never be something that doesn’t frighten you as a writer, because while the smell of fear is bad, the smell of a wordy description trying to pass itself off as fear is far, far worse.
So when I get an email from a reader saying that they slept with a light on, or that they spent a few days looking over their shoulder – and that they loved it – then that’s what floats my boat. And that’s when I’m ever so glad that I believe in ghosts.