What makes a good ghost story?

There is something magical about a really good ghost story, one which truly touches the senses and makes the reader believe in another world. There are so many different ingredients which make up the tasty recipe of a cauldron of frightening delight. In this blog I would like to identify what these ingredients are. At times they can be difficult indeed to attain but when they are achieved a whole new exciting experience is opened up for the discerning reader.

I believe the truly best ghost stories emanate from a different age. I don’t mean by this that one must go back centuries to find ghost stories which truly excel. No, the finest practitioners of the art of ghost stories hailed from the early 1900s. I have touched on one of these writers in one of my book reviews on this site. This is Algernon Blackwood and his book entitled ‘The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories.’ Blackwood was an astonishingly good ghost story writer, but there were others of that ilk from the same period. M R James, H R Wakefield and Margery Lawrence were all superb ghost story writers and brought so much that was fresh and alive to the genre. I have ghost story collections by all three of the last-named writers and they are a wonder to behold and provide perfect late-night reading! I might well write some book reviews of these collections and post them on this site. So, look out for those.

But back to the premise of this blog. Why are the ghost story writers I have mentioned so good? What sets them out from the pack and puts them on a pedestal few can attain? Well, I think it comes down partly to the time period they wrote in. For some reason the early 1900s brought forth ghost story writers of incredible talent. Their tales give every indication that these writers were born to write ghost stories, that they had it in their DNA. It was just part of them and who they were. But what was this something, this indefinable quality which all four of these writers possessed along with many other fellow writers too numerous to mention? What made them so special?

I have always believed that the best ghost stories possess an atmosphere about them which almost creep into the reader’s soul. This atmosphere appears to take on a life of its own almost apart from the story. It makes the reader believe in the reality of the story and everything which goes on throughout the tale. It is as if the reader has become a part of the action on the printed page. Whatever the characters in the story are going through the reader is experiencing as well. A sense of unease takes a firm hold of him and holds him in its grip from that point onward. A mixture of feelings then come over the reader. Chief amongst them is fright, wondering what horrors lie in wait for the unsuspecting souls in the story who are experiencing supernatural phenomena. But there is also a level of excitement which is invigorating. The reader is then possessed of a pressing need to find out how the story will play itself out.

Pacing is important in any ghost story. Shorter sentences should be brought in when some urgent and exciting action is afoot. But this needs to be balanced out by longer sentences which denote a slight lessening of the tension, a time perhaps when the main characters in the story are taking note of all that has happened so far and readying themselves for what lies up ahead.

Twists in the tale can be important ingredients to any ghost story of note. Throughout the story the reader has been viewing the events in a certain way and then he is asked by the story’s end to look upon all he has previously read in a very different context. Surprise endings like this can stay with a reader long after the story has been read and resonate in his mind. This is the beauty of the best of ghost story writing: the ability to make the reader ponder over all he has read and to think more deeply about the world he sees around him, and, of course, the world which is to come.

The writing of ghost stories is a difficult art to master. The author has to fit a lot of action and a lot of emotional content into a short space of time. The story has, by its very nature, to be fast-paced in the main but as I have stated earlier this can be balanced out by quiet interludes. It may be an odd admission for a writer of horror fiction to make but I have only written a very few ghost stories in my time. One of them is ‘Heaven Can Wait’ which can be found in the Ghost Stories section of this site. Much of my time has been occupied in writing horror novels. I prefer to operate on the larger canvas which novels provide. But I have been thinking lately I would like to delve into ghost story writing again. This has probably been given an extra sort of definition following the writing of my ‘Cornwall Ghost Story’ which is actually a novel. Excerpts and character profiles of this novel can be found elsewhere on this site.

I will certainly be taking as my inspiration the likes of Algernon Blackwood and Margery Lawrence when I come to write some more ghost stories. When I do, you can be assured they will be appearing on this site. Towards this end I have started re-reading Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories’ to see how a true master of the sphere does it. There is much to admire in this sort of writing. After all, who doesn’t like a really good ghost story, one which can curdle the blood and set the pulses racing? It is one of the true joys of reading and has proved its undeniable magic over the course of time.

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