Tuesday 18 February 2020

I see dead people - by Lu Hersey

This is a post about exploring eerie settings, evoking an atmosphere and trying to describe the inexplicable in your writing. I did see a ghost once, but it's not entirely relevant, so I'll save it to the end.

Whether you're writing a ghost story, a book with an element of otherworldliness, folklore, magic, or anything spooky, your aim is to write something that will stay with children for years to come. I still remember the feeling I got from the reveal in Tom's Midnight Garden (an all time favourite) decades after I read it, and that's the kind of 'feel' I strive to achieve in my own writing.

For many years I worked for a publisher in Bristol that specialised in producing local non fiction books. One book I wrote (or wrote most of) for them was on the subject of local ghosts (ironically I was writing as a ghost writer - the credited authors were celebrity ghost hunters). Research involved visiting a number of haunted venues and interviewing people about their personal encounters with ghosts, and so I learnt quite a lot about the subject on the way.

If you want to spook your reader, it can really help to find an environment with the right kind of ambience. Direct experience of your setting is often key to unlocking a story, so put yourself in a suitably haunting place. When writing the ghost book, I discovered the most popular ghost hangouts include the following:

  • Castles. Castles ALWAYS seem to have ghosts. A visit to a castle can give you a real sense of eeriness. The musty smell, dark cellars, ancient tapestries and walls covered in portraits of dead relatives. Some, like Berkeley Castle, even have a history of regicide, and you can inspect the glory hole where they cast Edward II before killing him brutally (won't go into details, but you can easily find out), and a blood stain that can't be removed from the floor in one of the rooms. Many castles lie in ruins, and have a different feel, especially at dusk or on a gloomy day, when jackdaws squabble high on crumbling battlements. For the ghost book, I talked at length to one of the staff at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, who related all kinds of really hair-raising experiences she'd had (which sadly I wasn't allowed to include because the owners didn't want the castle getting a reputation - but the castle is open to the public, if you want to investigate yourself....)

  • Graveyards. Graveyards are wonderful. Gravestones can tell you so much about a location, and though cemeteries are generally peaceful places filled with the quiet (rather than unquiet) dead, they have very distinctive atmospheres, and you can pick up some excellent story ideas by simply visiting them. Many of the characters in my books have names I found on gravestones. I recommend Highgate Cemetery if you've never been, or Arnos Vale if you live near Bristol - but any graveyard surrounding any church in the country will have an atmosphere of its own.

  • Hotels. The number of haunted hotels around may surprise you - practically every town can boast at least one. Click here for a list of the seven of the reputedly most haunted hotels in Britain. There's nothing like a big hotel with too many rooms and winding corridors to give you nightmares, so maybe go and stay in one...

  • Asylums. Not so easy to visit, but there are places like Glenside in Bristol, now converted into a museum, that provide a chilling history of the appalling way we've treated people with mental health issues in the past. It's no wonder these places are so often reputed to be haunted. If you can't face a real life visit, you can find plenty of pictures of abandoned asylums online - just take a look at Pinterest. 

  • Old orphanages and former workhouses. Also places that tend to have terrible histories and are not easy to visit, though weirdly quite a few have now been converted into luxury apartments. Again, take a look online for images to give you the creepiest ideas.

  • Haunted houses. Believe it or not, some people actually WANT to live in a haunted house, so there are specific online property searches for the creepiest currently available on the market. If you're really keen, you could make the effort to view one, or just click here for a quick look.

  • Misty moorland. Folk tales abound with misty moorland settings - and there's nothing like a good mist to set your imagination free. It doesn't even have to be moorland. Sea mist, London fog - all kinds of things can be hidden out there. Next time there's a mist close to home, venture out in it for a while to find out how mist muffles sounds, and experience how very different everyday things can look. (But watch out for ghost dogs, obviously. You don't want to end up in Grimpen Mire.)

Even if you don't write ghost stories, it's worth experiencing the atmosphere of some of these spooky places. They can conjure strong emotions, and add spark to your writing. Who knows what new ideas will come to you?

So to finish - about the time I saw a dead man walking.

For 20 years, when my children were growing up, we lived in the same house. Across the street lived a very unpleasant old couple and their two nasty sons, who were both middle aged, unmarried, and had never left home. I referred to their house (the biggest by far in the road) as the Bates Motel. Fortunately my kids didn't get the reference until they were much older.

This family were challenging neighbours. Always starting disputes and goading others - including me. They flattened my car tyres on two separate occasions when I dared to disagree with them, and called the police on me when I confronted them about the 'anonymous' poison pen letters they posted through my door (the foul language, written all in capitals, shocked even me). The police told me I wasn't the first, but since I couldn't prove anything, it would be best to simply avoid them.

So I did. But of course I knew them well by sight and saw them in passing most days. They never spoke or acknowledged me (or anyone else) in the street unless they were sparking a new conflict. The old man had a strong, unwashed smell about him.

Anyway one day the old man had a heart attack and died, and it was the talk of the road. My neighbour Marlene had the decency to put a condolence card through their door, even though they'd constantly made racist remarks to her face and even to her two young children. The psycho sons tore up the card and posted it back through Marlene's letterbox.

Then about a week after he died, I was really surprised when the old man passed me on the pavement outside my house. No wonder they tore up Marlene's card I thought. He looked directly at me and said hello. He'd never said hello in all the years I'd lived there, and I was so surprised I said hello back.  I only realised afterwards, when neighbours assured me I couldn't have seen him as he was definitely dead (they'd seen the funeral hearse) - that there wasn't the usual smell about him. But he looked exactly the same as he always had, and it was broad daylight. Which is probably the least scary ghost story you've ever heard, but it's true. Direct sunlight, no mist, no castles, not even a spooky atmosphere.

In the end, all I can say is we may enjoy the eeriness of haunted places, and they may help us with our writing - but in reality, sometimes death improves people.

Lu Hersey
website luhersey.com
twitter @LuWrites


Susan Price said...

Lu, I think yours is one of the best ghost stories I've ever been told! Write it up as fiction before someone else does!

Enid Richemont said...

Long out of print, but available as an ebook, try meeting the ghost in my Y/A novel, WOLFSONG (Walker Books.) The characters I thought I'd made up went on haunting me, and still do, and the house in Brittany, where I set the story, and which I knew, became a character of its own, standing firmly through the Revolution, and only recently meeting a fiery end. Chanteloup didn't go quietly.

Ann Turnbull said...

I agree with Susan (and she's someone who certainly knows how to tell a good ghost story!)

LuWrites said...

Oh thanks Susan and Ann! Usually feel embarrassed to relate my ghost encounter because there are no nuns, monks or women in crinoline dresses - and it was in the middle of a sunny day! Didn't even get any chills - well, not until later when I found out he was absolutely, definitely dead anyway! :)

LuWrites said...

And Enid your book sounds seriously spooky! Will look it up!

Katherine Langrish said...

Terrific post, Lu! Thankyou! And I agree with Sue.

Hilary Mckay said...

Best last line of a ghost story ever.

LuWrites said...

Katherine and Hilary - thank you. You have made my day.

Enid Richemont said...

What happened to the psycho sons? There's a lengthy and complex novel in this, LuWrites.

Anne Booth said...

That was such a good ghost story. I love the line about death improving some people!

LuWrites said...

Thanks Anne! What I realised from this post is how much interest there is in ghost stories. It's got me thinking - I'm obviously writing in the wrong genre! And Enid, the psycho sons still live there - all the curtains in the house still drawn, as ever.