For well over a year now I’ve been writing a ghost story aimed at a younger audience, though I also believe that readers of any age would enjoy it. Although the story came to me in a sort of vision at my in-laws home in upstate New York, I have done a lot of research on the genre in order to write the story. This includes reading as many ghost stories I can get my hands on. In the past few months I’ve read three authors, all of whom do the genre justice.
The first is the most exquisite little ghost story by Susan Hill and it’s titled The Small Hand: A Ghost Story. Some of you may know that Hill is the author of several ghost stories, most notably The Woman in Black, which was recently made into a film starring Daniel Radcliff of Harry Potter fame. Profile Books out of London published The Small Hand in 2010 and you would be hard pressed to find it on the shelves of American bookstores, even the bigger ones. That’s a shame, because readers have missed out on a suburb story.
The novel tells the story of Adam Snow, and antiquarian bookseller who, while visiting a client, stumbles upon a derelict house. While there he feels the hand of a small child grip his, attempting to lead him towards the garden in the back of the house. As Snow goes about his daily life after this event, he begins to unravel mentally, feeling the hand grip his leading him to danger.
The story has all of the elements of a great ghost story: atmosphere, suspense, unanswered questions, and just the right amount of information to keep the reader hooked. What I liked best about the novel was the fact that it could be read in one sitting. A word about the cover: the cover to A Small Hand is beautifully done. The cover, designed by Peter Dyer (I’m sure no pun was intended here), depicts a small child surrounded by an intricate flowery design. The cover resembles a woodcut and is quite effective.
The second book is Mrs. God by Peter Straub. Straub is a best selling author, perhaps most know for his novel Ghost Story that was later made into a film staring Fred Astaire and John Houseman. Mrs. God is a novel following Professor William Standish as he travels to England on the very rare “Esswood Fellowship.” The fellowship gives scholars an opportunity to work in a secluded house in the English countryside that was once visited by such famous writers as T. S. Eliot. Ford Maddox Ford, and Henry James. While there Professor Standish begins to fall into an alcoholic daze that brings about a kind of breakdown. Or is it?
Straub’s novel also contains those things that make a good ghost story. There is, however, not much substance in this novel, and while one can read it in one sitting, the novel is mediocre at best. The writing is not as carefully composed as Hill’s but it may be worth a look for those who enjoyed Straub’s collaborations with that other giant of horror, Stephen King. Perhaps most strange is Straub’s choice of title, Mrs. God, which does not exactly roll off the tongue, nor is it essential to the novel.
The third author is Muriel Spark. I’ve been reading her collection, entitled Ghost Stories, and find them to be masterful. In this slim collection of eight stories, most of which contain a twist at the end, Spark gives us a master class on the composition of the ghost story. Spark manages to combine elegant writing with an uncanny ability to frighten. In fact, Spark’s writing raises the ghost story from its seemingly lowly place as a fictional genre to pure literary fiction. Although this collection is slim enough to be read in one sitting, I suggest that it’s best enjoyed over a weekend, preferably with the rain falling and a fire going.
One does not have to believe in ghosts to be scared by a good ghost story, and I would argue that reading is a much more effective way to be scared than watching a film. Too often Hollywood confuses horror for a good ghost story. These three writers mentioned above in no way give into the cheap tricks of horror and gore. They are, quite simply, suggestive atmospheric pieces that have the capacity to makes us afraid—even if it’s not dark.