Because of this I don't necessarily expect a ghost story to scare me. What I do expect to get from it is a sense of the uncanny- a sense of one state of existence bleeding into another, of mystery, of things not fully explained or understood.
The golden age of the ghost story coincides with the golden age of realism in fiction. This is no accident. The ghost story bounces off the realist novel. "You, Mr Trollope, Miss Eliott," says the writer of ghost stories, "are telling us the world is all about wills and arranged marriages and young men on the make, but I'm saying there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy." Without realism- its bracing, unfriendly framework- the ghost story would be just a fairytale and in a fairy tale the most outlandish goings-on are commonplace. Only by embedding your spook story in the conventions of realist fiction can you give weight to a response such as that of the character in Kipling's Madonna of the Trenches who says, "If the dead do rise- and I saw 'em-why- why anything can 'appen." For a thing to come across as uncanny it has to be embedded in a canny world- and the more canny that world the better for the ghost story. A gothic mansion on a deserted moor is already halfway to fairyland and had better be avoided. The challenge for the serious writer of ghost stories is to introduce ineffable things into a world of familiar, everyday things- anti-macassars and gaslight and trams rattling past the door...
...And not be absurd. It's a tall order. Most ghost stories fail. Most of the ones in the big Oxford anthology I've been working through- supposedly a creme de la creme- are very so-so, But then the anthologists didn't include anything by Margaret Oliphant, so what do they know?
The ghost story has to start in one atmosphere and transport us to another. It is usual to do this by degrees- and it helps if the pov character is someone who has been loosed from their moorings- and has come to a place where they are not quite au fait with the customs of the country. "The room at the end of the passage? Oh, nothing to see in there. You don't want to worry about it." (Long pause) "Besides, it's locked." Make him a traveller, make her a governness settling into a new position, make them the new owners of the old house. Let them be innocent, unaware- and unwisely curious. In Margaret Oliphant's The Library Window the setting is as rock solid as they come- a street in the lightly disguised university city of St Andrews in Fife, but the pov character is a young girl, a visitor, convalescing in the house of an elderly aunt and seeing only members of a set of very old people- some of whom drop hints. So we are slowly prepared, keyed up, to the thing that is going to happen. Would it work if the intrusion of the supernatural was entirely unexpected, if everything were going along in a jolly fashion- music on, conversation flowing, everyone happy and then suddenly- without a hint of its approach- something in a bluidy sheet stood gibbering at the door? I can't see it myself. And I'm not sure it's ever been tried.
Very few great stories have a character be haunted in the comfort of his/her own home. There's The Monkey's Paw, A Christmas Carol. I can't think of any others.
Plausibility in the ghost story is terribly important. You want your reader to follow you all the way- and if you casually break the laws of physics you risk losing them. I'm thinking here of E. Nesbit's Man- Sized in Marble in which two stone figures come alive, cross a marsh and scare a young woman to death out of sheer meanness- which is just plain silly. Also, just in case you have psychic researchers among your readers, you don't want your ghost to be doing things that real-life ghosts (and we've agreed there such things, right!) have never been known to do. Personally I get exasperated by stories in which ghosts kill people- because in real life that hardly if ever happens. I know my ghostlore and I can't think of a single instance. Again, it's unusual for ghosts to scare people for the sake of scaring them- mostly because they're far too absorbed in their own affairs- looking for that lost will or unfaithful lover- to even notice they're being observed. But I mustn't push this too far or it would cast MR. James beyond the pale and he is, after all, one of the masters. The ghost is non-material- at best ectoplasmic- and in real life its interactions with the world of matter are feeble. Some of them move objects around and sometimes throw them- but hardly ever hit a human target. And that's it. It's almost as if there's a law that says they're forbidden to hurt the living. I've always thought it a real blot on The Turn of the Screw that the little boy dies at the end; it almost negates all the subtlety that has gone before. But Henry James is like that. He can be eye-wateringly subtle for hundreds of pages, then stun you with a banality. (H.G. Wells likened him to a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea.) Another story which manages things quite subtly, only to throw it all away at the climax is the movie Ghost- where the spectral protagonist starts beating people up.
I love subtlety- and most of the stories I really rate manage to get from beginning to end without resorting to old rawhead and bloody bones popping up from behind a gravestone. One of the chillyest stories I know- and one of the very few to have really scared the bejasus out of me- de la Mare's Seaton's Aunt- turns on the merest suspicion that a batty old lady may be moonlighting as a necromancer. In what I rate as the greatest story of them all- Mrs Oliphant's Library Widow- the most sensational event is that the window of the title gets opened. Such stories succeed through a slow build up of atmosphere, by suggestion, by hinting, by turning the screw. Few of the best stories are simply about ghosts- they're about psychology and theology- about love and redemption and the workings of conscience- and they move us with emotions other than fear (though maybe that as well). If I don't put MR James at the very top of the tree it's because his stories are just machines for delivering a frisson- and nothing much more.
I'm a believer, but I quite like there to be a way out- by which I mean a rational explanation- so that sceptics can play along too. This is another way in which the ghost story is realist. It challenges a purely materialist vision of the world, but never negates it. It is happy to live with uncertainty. More than happy.
"That's impossible." "But it happened." "Are you entirely sure?"
We all like lists, so lets close with one. Here are my top ten. I'm letting authors have more than one entry (because best is best even if it means Buggins not getting a mention) and I'm not grading in order of merit- though number one would get my personal gold cup. Also I'm being fairly strict in my definition. Sometimes things pass as ghost stories which aren't. For example I own a collection of so-called ghost stories which includes Wilkie Collins' Terribly Strange Bed- which sounds like it should be a ghost story but isn't. All the stories in my collection are certified to contain ghosts- actual or implied.
Here's my top ten:
1. Margaret Oliphant: The Library Window.
2. Walter de la Mare: Seaton's Aunt
3. Robert Aickman: The Houses of the Russians
4. Margaret Oliphant: The Door in the Wall
5. Rudyard Kipling: The Wish House.
6. Sheridan le Fanu: An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street.
7 Robert Louis Stevenson: Thrawn Janet.
8 Robert Aickman: The Cicerones
9 J.M. Barrie: Mary Rose (it's a play but- thanks to Barrie's luxuriant stage directions- can be read as a story)
10 Hilary Mantell: Beyond Black (it's a novel- but deals with ghosts all the way through, which few novels can manage successfully.)
Oh bother, I didn't find room for The Signalman, though Dickens needs no boosting. And here's an odd thing: all my stories are in English- and the authors are English (4) Scottish (3) and Irish (1) while the American Mary E Wilkins nearly made the cut. Are there no ghost stories in French? In Spanish? in German? Surely there must be German ghost stories- what with the Erl King and all that- but I don't know of any. The Japanese have a lovely line in traditional spook stories- but it took an American- Lafcadio Hearn- to write them down. Is the ghost story a peculiarly Anglo thing? If anyone knows of any first rate ghost stories in a foreign language I'd be glad of the recommendation.