On a whim I bought this on holiday, and have just finished it in time for Hallowe’en. It’s a great idea: English Heritage asked eight well-known writers to write a short ghost story inspired by one of their properties, and this book is the result. Proceeds from the book support English Heritage, and (perhaps even more importantly) the stories made me really want to visit the places I didn’t already know. And if you do know the place (for me, only Pendennis Castle, below, which I know well), the the story is all the spookier for familiarity with the setting.
The authors of the stories are: Mark Haddon, Jeanette Winterson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sarah Perry, Stuart Evers, Kate Clanchy, Kamila Shamsie and Max Porter; all writers whose work I am familiar with, and all of whom do something very different with their ghost, while conforming, broadly, with the traditions of the ghost story. After all, ghosts are what old buildings are known for: it doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in ghosts, because somehow a ghost story – atmospheric, spine-chilling, historic – is always enjoyable. There’s nothing cosier than a creepy tale to read by the fire on a cold evening as the nights draw in, as writers have known for well over a century, and these stories fit the bill perfectly. A ghost story has to be rooted in history, with something unresolved which makes the ghost contact the living, whether that is a mystery, a desire for revenge, or something more complex. The writers have clearly visited the sites, and while not all of the stories are based on the extant tales of hauntings, the sense of place is apparent in every story. That matters, for ghost stories: you might not believe in ghosts but you do need to believe in the story, and factual details which pin the supernatural events to a recognisable place really help. All the stories are located in the present, with characters including conservators, security guards and couples getting married at the venue, but history creeps in to reshape the present and colour it with the past – which is, in a way, what a transformative historical experience should do, whether it is an encounter with a ghost or a visit to a beautiful place untouched by time. I’m not interested in ghosts, really, but I’m interested in ghost stories, because of what they tell me about our preoccupations with the past and the present, with life and death, with love, hate and fear. In Jeanette Winterson’s ‘As Strong as Death’, a tragic love story from the past underlines and reinforces a loving relationship in the present; in Kate Clanchy’s ‘The Wall’, an encounter with the past is rather different to the other stories, but it is restorative and affirmative. Some ghosts, such as in Stuart Evers’s ‘Never Departed More’ and Max Porter’s ‘Mrs Charbury at Eltham’, want something particular from the people they haunt. A couple of the stories – Sarah Perry’s memorable ‘They Flee From Me that Sometime did Me Seek’ and Andrew Michael Hurley’s ‘Mr Lanyard’s Last Case’, are particularly sad, with the echoes of past pain and hatred which linger on in the readers’ mind. Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Foreboding’ plays around with time and haunting, as does Mark Haddon’s ‘The Bunker’, in which we are unsure what is real and what isn’t. There’s a great range here, with the classic tropes of ghost stories mixed in with some new and sparkling ideas. And it’s for a good cause: a good Christmas present, perhaps.