The short days and chilly weather tell us that we are well into winter. Halloween and Guy Fawkes night have been and gone, but don’t give up on all things spooky just yet, because Christmas is the perfect time for a ghostly tale or two.
Pick your setting. If you are going for the authentic Gothic/Romantic undertone, an ancient country house complete with inglenook fireplaces, set in eerie woodland is perfect. If you don’t have access to such a property, your need for research is a great excuse to soak up the ambiance of a country pub or hotel with a pint of real ale by a roaring wood fire.
As you set the scene and tell your story, take the normal and make it seem threatening; is that the sound of a roe deer in the woods or something infinitely more unsettling? Think of the natural sounds that may seem supernatural when one is in the woods alone at night.
Choose your narrator / protagonist. If you follow in the tradition of classic writer MR James, he will be an educated and inquisitive single young gentleman. However, we are living in the twenty-first century, so if you want to make your hero a sassy, sexy heroine, nobody will hold it against you.
James’ construct usually entails the discovery of a book or relic that prompts the visitation of a wraith. Maybe a ‘ouija’ board session could be the trigger. There is usually a back-story to the haunting; some misdeed of past times. The usual motivations for such bad behaviour are easy to come by; money, love, jealousy, revenge.
As most towns have their local ghost legend with a back-story of their own, why not do some local research? Particular favourites of mine are story of the ‘sightless spectre’ of Brighton’s Old Steine and the tale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s headless phantom haunting a churchyard in the town where I grew up in South London.
As you weave your tale, be sure to raise the tension. Being followed by the sound of footsteps from an unseen pursuer is always fun, as are disembodied voices. Now debunked, the story that terrified me as a kid was the purportedly true haunting of Borley Rectory. This case had it all; ghostly writing on the wall and a mournful looking phantom Nun who supposedly disturbed the Rector and his family at their mealtimes. You might want to include some poltergeist activity for good measure.
When your story reaches its climax, just spooking people may not be enough, some tales have the ghost physically assault the hapless hero. Some years ago, I remember reading a short story by the Vietnamese-American writer Robert Olen Butler in which a Vietnamese girl-ghost eats her victims. The folklore of how phantoms behave varies around the world and it appears that ghost stories have been around at least since ancient Babylonian times. Therefore, there is a rich seam of information to mine.
Your narrator will usually be speaking or writing in the past tense, so you will need to work out how he/she gets away from the situation and lives to tell the tale with his sanity intact.
Don’t forget to tie up loose ends and finish in such a way that your reader will be back in the present moment, but looking under their chair or over their shoulder for the rest of their evening. If nothing else, it will get them to bed early!
Have a creepy Christmas