Friday, 6 December 2019

Ghosts of Future Past

In my second December ghost story blog, I’m looking back at another panel from the recent UK Ghost Story Festival. Entitled History in the Making, this one compared and contrasted classic ghost stories with the modern form, and asked not only where the ghost story is headed in the future, but whether it’s even relevant to modern audiences.

(Like last time, I’m incorporating a summary of the discussion into my own thoughts on the topic, so a big shout-out to fellow panellists Laura Purcell and Paul Kane for their insights, and to our wonderful chair Sophie Draper for her thought-provoking questions.)

Sophie asks an inciteful question,
while I make my serious pondering face.
Any discussion of the modern ghost story should probably kick off with a look at the current masters of the form. For me, Michelle Paver and Adam Nevill are really excelling right now. John Connolly’s Night Music collections are truly superb. Meanwhile, aforementioned panellist Laura Purcell, along with Alison Littlewood, are proving that the long-form supernatural novel is very much thriving.

When you look at how the modern ghost story compares to the classics (M R James, Walter de la Mare, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc.), the parallels are really clear. In form and structure not a lot has really changed, and that’s probably due to the shared origin – those fireside tales I talked about in last week’s blog still form the basis of the

From left: Me, Laura Purcell,
and the greatest picture of Paul Kane ever taken.
traditional spooky story. What has changed, however, is the subject matter. The old clichés are generally best avoided (unless they can be subverted in a surprise twist). That’s not the same as conjuring a sense of the nostalgic, however – the Gothic form still thrives because its tropes are so familiar to the reader, and reading a good, slow-burn Gothic ghost story can be like slipping into a comfortable pair of slippers, voluntarily subjecting oneself to what M R James called a ‘pleasing terror’.

One thing that has changed, however, is the form and nature of the ghost itself. These days we find malevolent spirits inhabiting social media accounts, transmitting themselves like viruses, etching themselves onto old VHS tapes, or communicating through white noise on an untuned TV. It’s hardly surprising – what’s scarier than having your everyday life invaded by a malign presence? M R James said that a feature of the successful ghost story is that the spirits themselves are contemporaries of the protagonist. In the essay ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’, he said the modern idea of the ghost story had ‘setting and personages of the writer’s own day’. He was generally against ‘ancient’ ghosts – if a ghost ‘resembles a man in a pageant’, he didn’t think it was very scary.

Something we are seeing in the modern age, however, are new and interesting ways to tell a ghost story beyond the traditional printed or spoken word. The formalised short story is still pretty popular, but it’s being slowly superseded by things like creepypasta. Viral ghost stories – often manufactured, like Slenderman – have had a huge cultural impact. The ipad/monitor is the new fireside – kids are still scaring each other silly with ghost stories and urban legends; they just don’t have to contain it within their circle of friends any more. We tell ghost stories to strangers on the internet rather than to our family on Christmas Eve.

I think we’re going to see more interesting uses of modern technology and the ghost in the machine. Perhaps more of the blurring of lines between SF and the ghost story (I really like Adam Christopher’s the Burning Dark, which is really a ghost story set against the backdrop of an interstellar war). We’ve already seen lots of overlap between transhumanism and horror – the idea that we can transplant our consciousness into a server to live on after our bodies die (but then, is the mapped program really us? Does it contain our soul? Have we literally just turned ourselves into ghosts?) – these sorts of hyper-modern concepts are taking the ghost story to new places. After all, the ghost story has traditionally struggled to deal with modern technology – ghosts are less scary if you can take out your mobile and call for help, so storytellers used to simply use locations with no data or wifi. Oh no! But increasingly I think we’re seeing the ghosts actively using tech like phones to scare the pants off people. That text you received telling you to go to the spooky old house wasn’t really from your friend… There’s a bit of a primal fear attached to communication devices, where I suppose making a simple phone call could be a bit like conducting a séance – you never know who, or what, is on the other side.

Even this isn’t a new idea, of course – the Victorians were using electricity to commune with the dead 150 years ago. Parapsychologists use gadgets to detect and monitor ghosts, so why shouldn’t the ghosts use them back? Even my own story, One New Follower, features a ghost that used to get about when people saw it, then advanced to photography, and finally embraced the freedom granted by the Insta generation. Ghosts gotta move with the times.

One theme that has remained surprisingly strong in the ghost story is religion. In some respects, it’s understandable – after all, the ghost story really exists to help us wrestle with the big questions about the soul, and life after death, right? But society is growing increasingly secular, so it’s a big leap for most people to thing you can call a Catholic priest to exorcise the ghost. What if you don’t believe? What if the ghost doesn’t believe? Hollywood in particular seems to have an obsession with exorcisms, and the laying of ghosts by Christian priests and ministers, and we kind of accept that as a plot device. I do think we’re seeing less of that in British and world fiction. As soon as you can fix any haunting by calling a priest, you take away the spirit’s power. However, most people who read and enjoy ghost stories, and are scared by them, don’t really believe in ghosts any more than they believe in a god. So if you can suspend disbelief long enough to get scared, I guess you can handle the old consecration cliché.

(Speaking of belief, the panel was asked if we’d ever had a ghostly experience. We all had, in one form or another. I always say that I’ve seen enough to not rule anything out, but not enough to be sure of anything… the perfect amount to freak myself out).

I think the future of the ghost story is pretty healthy. It’s such a part of traditional storytelling in so many cultures around the world, that our grandkids will be telling them, and their grandkids, and so on. Will they be told in the same form? Well, I think a lot of that will depend on the creativity of the writers, and the power of changing trends. But our love of the pleasing terror isn’t go away any time soon.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Scary Ghost Stories and Tales of the Glories…

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll know the drill by now: it’s December. That means I’m about to start obsessing over ghost stories, because in my weird ol’ head, ghosts and Christmas go together like… well… like Scrooge and Marley.

This year I got a head start, because on November 30th I attended the first UK Ghost Story Festival in Derby. It was a really great event, and I was fortunate enough to be invited onto two panels, and attend several others, chat to readers and fellow aficionados, meet social media friends in the flesh, as well as catch up with some lovely fellow writers who I really don’t see often enough. Most importantly, though, I got to hear about and talk about one of my favourite subjects: ghost stories!

I figured my panels would make great blog fodder, as well as give you a taste of what you missed out on if you couldn’t attend (it’ll be back next year, bigger and better!). So this blog will look at ‘supernatural shorts’ – this was a lively discussion about the short story format, and why it’s particularly great for ghost stories. What follows is a summary of the discussion, and my personal takeaways – big, big thanks to fellow panelists James Everington and Alison Littlewood, and our excellent chair, Sophie Ward (aka Rhiannon Ward).

From left: Sophie, Ali, James, and me!
(Thanks to Sophie for the pic)
So: why is the supernatural so effective in its shorter form?

The ghost story comes from the oral tradition (fireside tales). In this respect, we could say the shorter the better – as an evening’s entertainment, everyone sits around the fire and tells a story, and tries to terrify their companions. Variations on this theme used to be the kick-off point for many a tale – just look at the Carnacki stories. It’s also the setup for The Woman in Black.

Let’s delve into the classics of the form. My first ever experience with ghost stories was the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories – 1972 edition. I read it when I was far too young, and it gave me nightmares… but turned me into the man I am today (i.e. a weirdo). This book contains two of the best short stories ever written IMO: The Voice in the Night (Hope Hodgson), and Seaton’s Aunt (Walter de la Mare). These led me to track down more of the classic writers, and that’s when I found M R James, who remains my main influence. I also love really weird, ambiguous stuff – like Robert Aickmann’s The Inner Room, which I’ve read about five times, absolutely love, but have no idea what it’s about…

Fast forward to the present, and I think Michelle Paver and Adam Nevill are at the top of the tree right now. Dark Matter is astonishing. Adam doesn’t write a lot of ghost stories per se, but there are some absolute corkers in his short story collections, notably Florrie.

M R James wasn’t keen on long-form horror. He described Dracula as being too full of excess – it contained good ideas, but the ‘butter was spread far too thick’. He described Maturin’s Melmoth as ‘long – cruelly long – and we must keep our eye on the short prose ghost story.’

Who am I to argue with the master? So I’ve tried to identify the elements of the successful ghost story. I think we can all agree on these three: Atmosphere; tension; suspension of disbelief. I add a fourth: Ambiguity. (MR James says the best stories give us ‘plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but when the climax is reached, allow us to be a little in the dark as to the workings of their machinery’). These elements are very difficult to maintain for a full novel, but can provide chills aplenty in a short story.

If you look at the classic long-form ghost stories, they’re really not as long as you think: The Turn of the Screw is only 43k words. Wilkie Collins’ The Haunted Hotel is described by M R James as a ‘short novel’ (also, cheekily ‘by no means ineffective; grisly enough, almost, for the modern American taste’). The Woman in Black, a modern classic, is really a novella.

The pitfall of the short story though is clichés – they can be really hard to avoid when you don’t have many words to play with. Things that were scary to Victorians and Edwardians have now been done to death (excuse the pun). So we have to look at new ways to frighten, while still avoiding what M R James would call ‘gory excess’. Tastes change. You can’t get away with hanging a story around a bloodstain that won’t go away until the body of the murdered maid is found – it was identified by Dickens in the mid-1800s as being a common type of story still in use. It was becoming cliché even then, so now you need an extra twist if you’re going anywhere near that device. And those twists are what really help short story writers today. By all means take a cliché or trope, but subvert it. The reader will be drawn in by the nostalgic air of the familiar, and still be surprised and delighted (and, hopefully, terrified) by a clever twist.

In a similar vein, we can use setting to do a lot of heavy lifting in a short story. I think short stories thrive when you don’t have many scenes, and ergo not many locations. If you can put a spooky twist on something familiar, that also helps – that way you aren’t spending ages describing a gothic castle or whatever – you’re picking something everyone can easily visualise, like a boring stretch of motorway or a bedroom in the family home, and playing up the differences (you’re surrounded by an unusually dense fog, or there’s a strange, slender figure standing by the roadside, etc.). Finding the unsettling in the mundane is pretty effective, and it saves the precious word count. My last ghost story (One New Follower) had: the pub, a muddy field, and a living room.

Finally, think about the ending of the ghost story. It doesn’t always have to be a huge twist (sometimes that in itself is contrived and expected). I always go back to that point about ambiguity. Ghost stories aren’t often tied up with a neat bow – ghosts are scary and confusing. They’re usually inexplicable, and while a character might turn to a priest or even a local pagan group to come and exorcise the ghost, there’s no earthly reason why this should actually work. A good ghost story should have a solid resolution at least for the characters involved, but might not ever explain the nature of the supernatural – after all, we only fear that which we don’t understand…

Thursday, 8 August 2019

In Memoriam: Gustavo Cuadrado

I lost a friend this week.

It’s weird how hard it hit me. We were colleagues really, and distant ones at that, but in this solitary line of work you form unlikely bonds with people you might not ordinarily have met. And so it was with Gustavo Cuadrado.

I first met Gus maybe four years ago in Madrid, but we’d been working together on and off before that. He was the designer of the Batman Miniature Game, before I ever even came on board with Knight Models, and he was my principle contact with the company. We always found it funny that his spoken English wasn’t great, and my Spanish was terrible, and we both found it easier to email each other than talk face-to-face. That’s language barriers for you. But when I flew out to meet the Knight Models team for the first time, we hit it off. It didn’t matter that sometimes we talked at cross purposes, or I said something stupid while trying to order food at a restaurant, or he completely misunderstood me when I tried to explain an idea for Line of Sight rules. When the fluent English speakers had gone home, it was Gus who came out for drinks with me at a local bar or at the hotel so that I didn’t feel lonely in a strange land. Sounds daft maybe, but it mattered to me.

The other weird thing was that he was a fan of mine. This is a client who’d already risen from freelance designer himself to a senior role at Knight Models. He helped run things in the studio, and between us Jose (the owner of Knight), Gus and me would thrash out all sorts of ideas for new releases and crazy games. I think some of those games might never see the light of day, because they were very much Gus’ babies, and that’s such a crying shame because man, they were out-of-this-world ideas, full of ambition and love for the hobby. But this is a guy who’s about the same age as me, and he was already doing great work in the industry. He stopped being a fan and became a peer. We’d bounce ideas off each other, correct each other’s mistakes. He knew his stuff.

Gus had real integrity, and humility. He wasn’t in this for any kind of fame or glory. He was in it for the love. He didn’t care if his name was in a book or not. When we worked on Harry Potter in the early days, I flew over to help with a bunch of promo videos. He was behind the camera feeding me lines while I sat there in a wizard’s robe doing interviews and playing games (getting all the rules wrong). He designed the game, but he wanted me to be ‘the face’ of it, maybe because he didn’t think his English was up to it, but really because he didn’t care for the spotlight – he literally only cared that people played his games and had a good time doing so.

Just over a year ago, I went back to Spain to talk about future freelance projects. In a quiet moment, Gus took me aside and told me the news, that he’d been diagnosed with cancer and was about to start his treatment the very next day. He was practical and pragmatic in his outlook, as he always was about everything. He was due to get married and go on honeymoon just one month later. Talk about timing. The wedding went ahead as planned. Gus’s wife is a treasure – that’s love, right? I can’t imagine what she must be going through if someone like me, a British guy who only met Gus four times, is literally crying at the loss.

One year. That’s all it took to go from diagnosis, to chemotherapy, to realising the treatment wasn’t working.

He got in touch with me a fortnight ago to tell me he was dying. He’d come off the treatment so he could stop feeling sick, and maybe just have some peace in his final weeks. And all he wanted to do was talk about games. He was fascinated by my latest rules. He was reading new rulebooks on his sickbed instead of novels or magazines. He was absolutely dedicated to the hobby industry right to the end.

Less than two weeks later, I get a message from Knight Models with the worst possible news, asking if I could write an obituary for social media. It’s not because I knew him the best, or loved him the most, but because I’m their words guy now that Gus is gone. That hit hard. I shed a few tears and then had to write some words on behalf of all these guys who were his friends, who’d known him for years, and worked with him every day.

My thoughts are with those guys right now, because they have to carry on, and do so with the legacy that Gus left behind. When you play BMG or DCUMG in particular, you can really see Gustavo’s own design style and ethos, because he threw himself into his work with real passion. Now the torch is passed on, and it’s our job to continue what Gus started. I find it weird to talk about that – distilling this tragedy into ‘the job’. But at the same time he was completely devoted to this crazy industry, and the best way we have to keep his memory alive is to keep his games alive.

Right now it feels raw, and I don’t even know where to start. So I think I’m just going to step away, and think about Gustavo, the man, not the games designer. About what a great dude he was, and how he was taken way too soon.

Adios amigo mio, te envío un fuerte abrazo y mis pensamientos estan con tus seres queridos.

Gustavo on the far left; our first meeting. Rest in peace, buddy.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Answer the Call to Arms!


For the last year or so I’ve been hard at work with the guys at Modiphius Entertainment on a very special project, and it’s been hellish trying to keep it a secret! Well, I no longer have to, as today we’ve finally announced my latest tabletop miniatures game – The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms.

You can read the official press release here.

My relationship with the Elder Scrolls goes back a long way. I’ve played every version of the game since Daggerfall, and I count Skyrim in my top three games of all time (right up there with System Shock 2 and Paradroid, if you’re interested). I did a bit of work on Fallout: Wasteland Warfare with Modiphius, focusing more on planning and rules feedback rather than design, and when they told me they had the TES licence I basically harassed poor Chris Birch (owner of Modiphius) until he gave me the lead designer gig.

What you have here is a classic skirmish game, marrying all the elements of customisable group-building and dynamic actions that (hopefully) you’ve come to expect from my games, with the strong sense of narrative and progression that Modiphius pride themselves on. There’s even a solo and co-op mode!

Lots more details and reveals to come in the next few weeks. But for now, feats your eyes on the Dragonborn, and prepare to write your fate in the Elder Scrolls!