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Rebecca Netley on the difficulties of writing ghost stories

Rebecca Netley on the difficulties of writing ghost stories

As a long-time lover of supernatural and ghost stories it had always been my burning ambition to write one. My first book had been a thriller and I hadn’t anticipated the particular difficulties that might confront me when moving to this particular genre.

I am in complete agreement with Susan Hill who famously said of writing ghosts stories: ‘Less is more.’ Greater fear is generated by suggestion and ambiguity than by a fully-formed apparition – the shadow behind the door, the singing tones of a ghostly child, a rocking-chair moving on its rockers with no apparent cause and footsteps in an empty room. Once you present the ghost, although the moment should be fear-inducing, it is actually the instant when some fear is dispelled.

One of the reasons for this is that an effective ghost story is very much a collaboration of the writer’s skill and the reader’s imagination and in all those passages before the ghost is revealed, the reader’s will most likely conjure something far more terrifying than the ghost itself. It is in this space between knowing and suspicion where much of the tension rests. This is why those most chilling of ghost stories rely so heavily on atmosphere and why an appropriate setting is crucial to place the reader on the right journey. Many traditional ghost stories use wild and remote locations, a crumbling mansion with shadowy passageways and plenty of inclement weather. Once the stage is set, it is then only necessary for the writer to conjure a stormy night, take a match to a wavering candle and the reader is already halfway there.

One of the more problematic elements of writing ghost stories is this need to delay, to some extent, the full force of the terror. A story that reveals all the horror at the beginning will rob the reader of anticipation and therefore it is necessary to present the haunting in a way that will allow much of the suspense and disquiet to grow from small beginnings. And how will our main character manage the almost unmanageable degree of fear and still appear to have rational responses?

This is often successfully achieved with the use of the unreliable narrator whose voice we are not sure we can trust. Once again, the tension rests in that space of partial disbelief – is it, isn’t it? Often, we as the reader are told the truth before the character and this adds a delicious layer of tension.

Although any ghost story must necessarily feature ghosts as a main theme, in novel-length fiction particularly, it is necessary that there must be an entirely separate though sympathetic story allowing the opportunity for character development and to produce satisfying character arcs.

And as for the ghosts, they too should have their own tale and this works best when there is a resonance between the main story and the ghost story. At the end of the day, writing a ghost story is a little like dueling with a ghost itself.

The Black Feathers by Rebecca Netley is published by Penguin Michael Joseph on 12 October 2023

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