In my early teens I went through a craze for reading ghost stories by torch light under the bed covers, long after the rest of the family had fallen asleep. I don’t remember much about those short stories now, what I remember is the effect of them, and how when I was alone in the house, or baby-sitting on dark nights, the atmosphere of them would creep up on me until I had to rush for light switches. Then, even after I had closed the curtains and checked the locks, how I would be straining not to hear the noises you only notice when you are alone.
The stories that I have not forgotten are two of the older ones,The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs and The Amorous Ghost, by Enid Bagnold. What’s interesting about them, from the writing point of view, is how little ‘ghosting’ they actually contain.
Take, The Monkey’s Paw. Strictly speaking, this is as much horror as ghost, but it’s often anthologised in ghost collections, so who am I to be picky? What I’m interested in is why this 1902 story has endured. Rereading it I’m always surprised by the events described. It turns out to be, largely, a domestic story.
There are few graphic descriptions of the supernatural to make our flesh creep. Here, instead, is a character study. The horror evolves naturally when the dynamics of a close family are tested.
Jacobs opens with the classic, ‘dark and stormy night’. That’s a tricky one to carry off successfully, but he does it economically, neatly demonstrating what is meant by show don’t tell.
After that, tension is raised gradually. We are not left room to disbelieve, but the characters are:
“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”
There are no coincidences in this story. Every event builds on from the previous one, apparently naturally. From the moment the three wishes are mentioned, our sense of the inevitability of their journey towards darkness is established. One wish leads to another, despite the warnings about interfering with fate, and despite the examples of what happened to the previous owners who ignored them.
This is good story telling. Dialogue and description, action and report are interwoven so neatly that the story races along. My mind shouts no, don’t, but they do, and I turn the page, and then another. And the real horror? It’s not in the writing at all, its in my mind.
The ending is the final touch of genius with this story. I dare you to read it and not be affected.
On the other hand (no pun intended), once you begin to look at how the structure works, doesn’t it make you feel that it might be fun to try and write one for Halloween? There should just be time to come up with something suitable for a candle-lit reading.