Sunday, 3 April 2011

There Goes the Fear

Picture this: a bitter night in January, and outside the hospital, it’s lashing it down as usual. I was reading a ghost story. This particular tale was a novella written by an author who already had two weighty bestsellers to their name. It was one of those books whose design and layout felt good. I was spending a lot of time in waiting rooms, corridors, shabby canteens – so this volume was going to be my companion for a few days, and I was looking forward to it.
It was a first person narrative. I mention this because I often find myself pondering the extent to which a first person narrator should deliberately compromise the quality of the writing. I’ve argued before now, for example, that Robert Harris’ thriller The Ghost is deliberately sparse and workmanlike in its style precisely because the narrator is a ghost-writer. He’s no great novelist – even though Harris is. When he’s on form.
Anyway, the guy narrating this ghostly tale to me was no accomplished writer either, so that might go some way to explaining the prose on offer. But when he hears a ghostly voice call him through a snowstorm, he reports:
“My heart skipped a beat.”
One chapter later, his heart skips a beat again, when he assailed by more spooky events. The precise sentence is repeated. And in a chapter towards the end of the book –
“A shiver ran down my spine.”
I don’t consider myself to be pedantic or picky when it comes to matters of style. But surely resorting to cliché so speedily compromises the potential power of the tale.
Here’s a thought experiment we can try together. Visualise the last time you had that genuine lurch of terror you get when something threatens you. Imagine it. Now; where, biologically speaking, does fear breed? It’s not the spine, I can offer that much. Neither is it, in my experience, the back of the neck – and it won’t surprise you to learn that the hairs do indeed rise on the back of our narrator’s neck at one point.
The power of fear is that it’s something animalistic and instinctive inside us buried way down in the DNA; something tribal, pre-civilised, that fight/flight dynamic which has kept us alive. That’s what a ghost story needs to convey. By choosing cliché, we deny the real power of fear and we tame it; civilise it – wrap it in something comfortingly familiar.
So I missed out on my chilling winter’s ghost story this January – I picked a dud. Where to start in my search for a replacement? I want a writer who can really scare their protagonist – and in turn me, not someone for whom a shivery spine is a sufficient indicator of terror.
Suggestions gratefully recieved.


  1. Suggestions: 'Don't Look Now' by Daphne Du Maurier; Stephen King -lots esp 'Misery'; Susan Hill's 'the Man in the Picture'; M.R.James - just some who do it well.

    Enjoyed the post - yes, no excuse for cliches.

    Like the new look - tho' the previous one was good too.

  2. Hi Anne -

    You're right about The Man in the Picture. There's a scene where a face appears at a window overlooking an Oxford quad. Man, that was scary. I swear - a shiver ran down my spine as I read it... (ho ho)

  3. Thanks everyone for all your Twitter suggestions for genuinely scary ghost stories. Winners emerging are;

    Don't Look Now - Daphne Du Maurier
    Heart-shaped Box - Joe Hill

    One I've read - one I haven't, so I'm looking forward to finding out more.

    Cheers all.