Ghost stories on the radio, and the page.

I listened to three ghost stories on BBC Radio 4 last week. A new decade was beginning, and I was tuned in to three fifteen minute stories that were over a hundred years old. They may have been the best bit of my radio week.

This wasn’t just about the excellence of the stories, or of the actor reading, it was a clever piece of programming that began in the Radio 4 soap opera, called The Archers. The edges of this fictional village have often blurred and blended into the real world. In its early years, this was deliberate.

The soap was developed in collaboration with The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Then, it was billed as an everyday story of country folk.

These days The Archers is billed as, a contemporary drama in a rural setting. It’s set in a fictional village called Ambridge, in a fictional county called Borsetshire, which is somewhere near Birmingham. The story plays out in fifteen minutes slots on weekdays, with an omnibus on Sunday mornings.

As autumn 2019 drew to a close, several Ambridge residents began to ask who would volunteer to organise the village panto. Several characters were approached, but – ‘Oh no, they wouldn’t.’

Tension in the village, and amongst the listeners, mounted. Ambridge theatricals have often been broadcast by Radio 4 as a spin-off, over Christmas. Surely this tradition wasn’t going to be cut?

Not so much cut, as transformed, thanks to a Halloween episode. Jim Lloyd, a retired university lecturer, seriously spooked Robert Snell, another character, by repeating a Victorian ghost story he knew, as they were sitting in an isolated bird-watching hide. By December Jim had been persuaded to tell similar stories to a bigger audience as a Christmas Show.

We listened to fragments of the rehearsals in his performance place, the attic of a local stately home. He clashed first with his stage manager, then his artistic director. While they thrashed out artistic differences, for this listener, the surroundings became clear, even tangible.

It would be almost dark. The attic debris has been cleared to the side of the room, and seats added. It’s a place of shadows, of objects laid aside for decades: random and the once valued. Above are rafters, dusty and cobwebbed. The floor is bare boards. Jim is seated in an armchair, with his book, facing his audience.

On opening night tension mounted. Curtain-up time approached and only four people had arrived. Maybe the premise was too unusual, the setting too odd… Jim was talking of calling it off, when a busload of listeners trooped in.

The show was, of course, a smash hit, a sell out. Other characters discussed it, raved about it, regretted failing to get a ticket.

I now know what they missed, because Jim’s tales went out in that separate slot on the schedule. The first one, broadcast on December 30th, was The Room in the Tower, by E.F. Benson. It’s a 1912 story. Lost Hearts, the 1895 story by M.R. James went out the next day, and The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, published in 1902, on New Years Day.

The long cold nights of winter are, of course, the ideal time for ghost stories. I first read tales like these in traditional teenage fashion, under the bed-covers, with a torch, when I was supposed to be asleep. I can still recall being aware of every sound, as the house cooled and settled into silence, and menace.

John Rowe, the actor who plays Jim Lloyd, paced his reading carefully, convincingly. His was the voice of someone recalling something they are still struggling to understand, it was perfectly suited to the confessional tone of these beautifully designed story openings: ‘It was when I was about 16...’; ‘It was in September of the year 1811…’; ‘Without, the night was cold and wet...’.

Many turn-of-the-century authors wrote as if their story were being spoken. Some actually described the family and friends at a fireside. We imagine the flickering of the gas or candle-light, turned down so that it fails to quite reach the corners of the room. Notice how those shadows are inclined to dance…

The broadcast stories needed no sound effects. They were abridged, by Jeremy Osbourne and Jeremy Howe.

John Rowe, an actor, playing a character who is taking on the voice of another fictional character, read all of the necessary voices beautifully – chillingly.

Are you thinking of writing something for Halloween?

Aside

Detail from 'The pit and The pendulum', by Arthur Rackham

Detail from ‘The pit and The pendulum’, by Arthur Rackham

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.

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

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.