I’m writing scary stories at the moment. (I was meant to have written one scary story, but the characters kind of ran away with me and now I feel a novel coming on.)
My stories are the tales of a Victorian ghost hunter. Now, if you’re writing Victorian ghost stories, the master is MR James. ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad’ and ‘Casting the Runes’ are probably two of the greatest ghost stories in the English language, and if you haven’t read them, you should. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is available on Gutenberg or as a free download on Amazon.co.uk at the time of writing. Go on, get it.
James is a master of classic Victorian sinister trappings – the ancient tomb, the crumbling manuscript, the faces in the yew trees. But an awful lot of his worst horror comes from very domestic details. The thing in ‘Oh Whistle’ has ‘a face like crumpled linen’. Effectively, it’s a haunted bedsheet. It’s terrifying. In ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ the haunting comes through the pattern of the curtains. (Laugh it up, till you read it, and then decide to replace all your curtains with blinds, just to be on the safe side.)
The most sinister line James ever wrote is in ‘Casting the Runes’, where the pursuing force finally catches up with its unfortunate victim. He puts his hand under the pillow in the dark, and finds
a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it
That’s all. No long bloody passages dripping with gore, no mutilation, no vampire spider death cults, just a mouth, with teeth, and hair, under your pillow. It’s one of the most frightening stories you’ll ever read.
Talking of terror, here’s a passage from E Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. This is a children’s book, but don’t let that stop you from feeling utterly unnerved by it. Statues walk the castle grounds at night, and there is a magic ring so sinister that you’ll be looking around hopefully for a giant eagle to fly you to Mount Doom. In the most memorable passage of this extremely memorable book, Gerald and his sisters have made a set of guys out of old clothes, broom handles, pillow cases, with painted paper bags for faces. Unfortunately, the creatures come alive (the ring again). And this happens:
. . . the hall was crowded with live things, strange things all horribly short as broom sticks and umbrellas are short. A limp hand gesticulated. A pointed white face with red cheeks looked up at him, and wide red lips said something, he could not tell what. The voice reminded him of the old beggar down by the bridge who had no roof to his mouth. These creatures had no roofs to their mouths, of course they had not. “Aa oo re o me me oo a oo ho el?” said the voice again. And it had said it four times before Gerald could collect himself sufficiently to understand that this horror, alive, and most likely quite uncontrollable, was saying, with a dreadful calm, polite persistence: “Can you recommend me to a good hotel?”
I read this thirty years ago. It terrified me then and it terrifies me now. And the reason it is so terrifying is that this creature, made of stuff lying around the house, behaves just like a normal person. If it was roaring and trying to rip Gerald’s head off, we could cope with that. The request for a hotel – a good hotel, mind you – is what makes the horror so dizzying.
Because, like so much else, fear begins at home.
I grew up in a house with a cellar. There was a door that I could see, out of the corner of my eye, from my seat at the kitchen table. The handle was a little loose. Sometimes, if my siblings were running down the stairs, it rattled, just a bit. There were eleven stone steps down to the hard-packed floor, and you had to turn round them to get to the far corner and the freezer. Which meant, in order to take anything from the freezer, you had to turn your back on the door. You could leave it wide, prop it open, but that didn’t alter the fact that you had to turn your back.
I knew that one day I would turn back and the door at the top would be shut. I knew, when that happened, it would not reopen. And if I ever return to that house, I can promise you I won’t be going into the cellar.
(There is a scene in The Magpie Lord where our heroes are thrown into a cellar to wait for death. I didn’t describe that cellar in the book, but believe me, I could draw you a picture.)
Not to say fear always has to come from the mundane. I like a good monster or a haunted-house tale with special effects as much as the next woman (my first ghostly story, The Caldwell Ghost, features a full-on haunting). But when I came to write my second ghost-hunter tale, I started with the most harmless thing in the world: a simple butterfly. Because it’s the little, innocent, normal things that get you in the end.