My second guest to the slumber party is my good friend Nat. Nat writes horror, fantasy, and science fiction as N K Kingston, and romance, erotica, and erotic horror as Mina Kelly. She has published stories in several anthologies, as well as an m/m erotic fantasy novella, Tease. She’s currently working on an erotic sci-fi novella set in space, and she runs the space, feminist, geekery, and more space themed Tumblr It’s a Space Romance. She’s also knows more about ghost stories than I ever will, so her contribution nicely fills out a niche in this blog.
What makes a good ghost story? According to M R James it boils down to three things: the atmosphere, the climax, and a realistic enough setting that puts “the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’” All solid advice, but for, there’s one more ingredient to a truly great ghost story: Death.
Morbid, I know. But death is important to a good ghost story; it raises the question of life after death. Most ghost stories revolve around hauntings – repetitious phenomena that build to a crescendo – that can’t be reasoned with. Even if a figure is seen, it cannot be asked to stop. Whatever survives post death is not a continuation of the being when it was alive, yet excludes the possibility of that being moving on wholly to another place. The narrator cannot finish the tale post mortem.
The best way to bring the point home and really get a reader shivering is by using the first person, but traditional stories struggle with this. First Person Present can pull readers out of the story (as a friend put it, “how is he finding time to type?”) but you can’t kill your narrator in First Person Past without some kind of “telling the story after death” reveal, which undermines the whole horror of killing them in the first place. Ghost stories are often told at one remove, instead. “My professor told me this tale” or “I recollect a friend of mine”, but it still doesn’t solve the problem: obviously your professor survived to tell you the tale.
So your old school short story turns to letters and diaries, a return to an even older school form of the novel. The main character usually finds these documents by chance and usually has no more connection to the characters within than the reader does. They will grow more invested, sometimes adding comments of their own or doing a little investigation to pad the tale out. And then they reach the end, but the tale isn’t resolved. Did the writer survive the final encounter? Doubtful. The lack of resolution is part of what makes death frightening.
Sheridan Le Fanu’s collection ‘In a Glass Darkly’ follows this format, at least at first, the narrator a medical secretary sharing unusual case notes. M R James uses it in ‘The Story of an Appearance and a Disappearance’ in which a friend who knows his interest in ghost stories sends him the letters.
When ghost stories move into television and film they struggle with the issue again. On the one hand, it’s possible to do away with the narrator altogether, which means you can kill pretty much anyone off, but on the other hand it’s still got this cosy fictional feeling. You lose M R James’s third ingredient – the sense it could happen to you – in a list of acting credits and special effects budgets. Without a narrator film can scare in ways fiction can’t, revealing things to the audience that the characters can’t see, but it doesn’t always manage to bring the horror home.
And then came the mockumentary. BBC’s Ghostwatch takes famous presenters and a very typical council house, and aired an hour and a half of terror in an era when TV didn’t rewind and the programme guide was something you got in your newspaper. A lot of viewers missed the fact it was fictional. The Blair Witch Project takes it a step further by removing the professionals. With handheld cameras becoming increasingly affordable suddenly anyone can be haunted. And the best part is the camera can keep on filming after its owner passes on, breaking from being a tool of First Person narration into Third.
We move from handheld cameras to camera phones to smartphones, and suddenly it’s very easy to upload footage to the internet. You get a kind of hybrid format: video diaries on youtube. But the internet also allows for text based story telling as well. Where before you had diaries and letters now you have blogs and emails. Some of the best stories use all of it. Hell, some of the best stories use you, the reader.
Ted the Caver is a relatively early example from 2001. It’s simple but effective, using an angelfire website as a blog (and seriously, check it out now, because who knows how long angelfire will stick around!). The Dionaea House combines multiple blogs and sites, encouraging readers to explore it in their own way. It has issues with spam in the comments now, but still packs a punch. Candle Cove began as a straight forward narrative, but some smart cookie put the episode in question up on youtube. Then there’s the various Slenderman videos. Most are ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) which mean not only are you usually following them over multiple platforms, but often viewers/readers will be encouraged to join in on some level. How’s that for making you feel like it’s actually happening to you? Personal faves are Marble Hornets and Everyman Hybrid, though both can eat up several days of your time to catch up on, and both are still running.
A lot of readers see elements of House of Leaves in Dionaea House, but to me that suggests an unfamiliarity with the genre: haunted houses are nothing new, and nor is telling a ghost story through diaries and letters. House of Leaves brings us full circle, back to a First Person ghost story told with diaries and letters, but the complexity it brings to the narrative by alternately drawing attention to its fictiveness and distracting the reader from it make it one of the most haunting reads I know.
In a lot of respects the Internet makes it easier to tell ghost stories; you can have your First Person narrator and kill them too. House of Leaves shows you can take the lessons learned from there and translate them back on to the page, and the whole is scarier than the sum of its parts. You can close the book, of course. You can turn off the TV, unplug the modem.
But you can’t quite shake the feeling, can you? If you’re not careful, something like this could happen to you.