I love a spooky story, and always did as a child and that had a strong influence on the kind of stories that I write now. I was drawn to atmospheric stories that got under your skin and created that feeling of delicious creepy potential. I like to say that my book is about the world out of the corner of your eye, the world that just might exist if only you could see it.
After my book (Brotherhood of Shades) was published I started doing school visits and festivals and in my presentations I talked about how much I loved "real" ghost stories. I spoke of how I collect those FOAF (Friend Of A Friend) stories, and IHTM (It Happened To Me) stories and I talk about how much I enjoy visiting haunted places.
I always ask if anyone has any ghost stories of their own, and as soon as I say this, a hundred hands shoot up as they all want me to hear their spooky tales. I've heard all of the tales of doors that open by themselves, floorboards that creak when no one is there, tapping on thrid floor windows and whispered voices in empty corridors, but one visit was not quite the same as the others.
Last Halloween I did a small event at my wonderful local library in Huntly, Aberdeenshire. Huntly is a small town of around 5,000 people and the nearest school is the wonderful Gordon School. They brought a class to the library and I did my presentation and my talk about ghost stories and, as I always do, I asked if anyone knew of any ghost stories. Every single hand shot up without hesitation, that surprised me as most young people take a moment of conspiratorial whispering before the hands fly skywards.
I was taken aback, and looked over to the teachers who were smiling. I asked the children if they thought they all had the same ghost story, and they all glanced at each other and nodded so I picked a quiet looking one to tell me about it.
He smiled and coughed a little and then softly said "Leith Hall."
These words caused a murmuring to break out in the gathering as everyone, including the teachers, tried to tell me about the ghosts of Leith Hall.
Leith Hall is a large country house in Kennethmont near Huntly and it was built in 1650 on the site of a medieval castle.It is (apparently) richly haunted with one of the Lairds wandering the corridors with bloody bandages hanging from his head, a little girl who weeps as she runs from room to room, and the creaking of those hanged from the Dule Tree that stands in the grounds. The children told me of things that they'd seen and heard at the house and in the extensive gardens that surround it.
The children all told me that I HAD to visit and so I cleared a day and took myself out there. As I've mentioned, it was late October and so the house was closed for the season and there was no one else there. I arrived late afternoon and the only sign of the modern world was a sign outside and a leaflet stand for the National Trust and I could not go in to the house and instead walked around the grounds and gardens.
It was a beautiful and sunny Autumn afternoon and the whole place was very peaceful and lovely. The gardens were gorgeous and the house was stunning and so I took dozens of photos. I didn't see another person all afternoon and had the place to myself. I found the Dule Tree (supposedly the site of a number of hangings, and it is an ancient sycamore tree with a perfect branch for hangings) and took photos and sat underneath it - but no dark shadows and no soft weeping.
I left feeling slightly disappointed that I hadn't seen (or felt) anything and set myself plans to go back when the house was open so that I could see what it was like inside.
I got home and flicked through my pictures and was texting my daughter telling her about my day and I sent a photo to show her what I'd been up. She immediately replied - "What the hell! That is the spookiest picture ever!"
I was a bit baffled and asked her what she meant.
"If that house is empty, who the hell is the little girl peeking out of the window?"
Now....I'm still not a true believer, but I love the possibility of there being something more than this, something beyond the bricks and stones of the real world. I know that this shadow in the window is probably a statue, or a pot standing on a table, but that doesn't matter. When I use this photo and this story in my school visits I can guarantee goosebumps on everyone in the room. For those few seconds when that picture first appears on the screen everyone in the room believes in the possibility of something beyond the solidity of our reality.
I love those few seconds because in that one moment the world seems vast and unknowable. For a few seconds before our powers of reasoning kick in, the world suddenly is one of infinite possibilities and our cynical natures are pushed to one side. That's why imaginations are important, and that's the real power of a good ghost story.
Written by Dawn Finch
Author of Brotherhood of Shades
School Library and Literacy Consultant and Vice President of CILIP