Thursday 19 December 2019

The End of the Year as we Know It

This year’s Lost Victorian Christmas card was designed by Jon Hart 
(check out #jonhartsart on Insta and Facebook).

It’s become a bit of a tradition that I write one final blog post near the end of December, and this year is no different.

It’s been a funny sort of year. I think I’ve been busier than ever since I started going freelance, but everything I’ve worked on is either top secret and under wraps, or not out for a while yet, so I don’t have much to show for my efforts. All of this groundwork should come to fruition in 2020 though, which will be a relief!

So what’s happening? Well, on the tabletop gaming front, the third edition of the Batman Miniature Game is about to hit the shelves. I’ve been working on the English translation and editing flat out for a few months. Knight Models are also continuing monthly releases for the Harry Potter Miniatures Adventure Game and the DC Universe Miniatures Game, so expect more stuff for those games very soon. The New Year will see the release of my biggest project of the year, The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms. This was a huge endeavour, starting out as a simple port of the Fallout: Wasteland Warfare system, but growing into its own beast of a game as the development process went on. In other news, I’ve just finished not one but two standalone board games, both top secret licences, which will hopefully launch next year. More news as it happens. Finally, there’s some really exciting stuff coming up for The Walking Dead (both Call to Arms – yes, the other one – and All Out War). To find out what it is, you have to listen carefully to the whispers…

From left: Sophie, Ali, James, and me!
(Thanks to Sophie for the pic)
The fiction front has been ominously quiet, and I do apologise for that (both to my readers, and to my long-suffering agent). I made a decision about 18 months ago to try something new. Something… gasp… not Victorian. In that time I’ve been working on a fantasy book, which is not only taking me absolutely ages, but has been suffering a bit as I’ve toiled away on the aforementioned games. It will be finished early next year, and then comes the task of finding a publisher! I’ve managed a few appearances this year, however, from seminars to panels. Staying in touch with the wider writing network is helping keep me sane.

It’s not been a great year for many people, and I’m sure lots of us will be glad to see the back of 2019. On a personal note, this was the year the gaming community lost Gustavo Cuadrado, my friend, and creator of the Batman Miniature Game, and that came as a suckerpunch. Political upheaval has made the world seem a bit grim at times. As much as I love a good social media rant, I am resolving to try to do a bit more good in the world next year, from charitable donations to simple acts of kindness. I don’t try to moralise too much, because I’m far from perfect, but when times are hardest, I think it’s more important than ever to grasp the nettle and help each other out: be excellent to each other, as two very wise men once said.

Which is a good place, I think, to end this post with a simple wish: that you all have a very merry Christmas (and/or non-denominational seasonal holiday), and a very happy new year.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Ghosts, Treat Them Gently

In blogs of days past, I’ve talked about ghosts on film, Christmas ghosts, and various weird tales. A few times, I’ve promised to write up a blog about my favourite spooky stories, but never really got round to it. Until now… (Dun… dun… DUUUNNN!)

It’s December. It’s my favourite time of the year, and I’m reading loads of short horror fiction. I’ve even done a stint at the UK Ghost Story Festival, where the following question was put to various panellists several times: What are your favourite ghost stories?

(Note: I’m looking primarily at stories about ghosts and malevolent presences here, not more broadly at horror and weird tales. That’s for another day…)

I’ve found it really hard to put together a top 5, and to be honest if you ask me on another day, you might get a different list. But as of now, here are the stories I would recommend to anyone wanting to scare themselves silly on a cold winter’s night.

The Woman in Black
Susan Hill
A modern classic, which has been turned into a stage play and two decent movies (one of which spawned a mediocre sequel), The Woman in Black is the quintessential ghost story. It’s told in the style of the masters (notably M R James), and follows many of James’s rules of the ghost story. It’s a short novella, so it just about qualifies for my list of short fiction, and it’s brilliant.

More by this author: Susan Hill has written a series of ghost stories now, some more successful than others. If you liked this, you’ll also (probably) like The Small Hand, and The Man in the Picture. (Maybe steer clear of Dolly and Printers’ Devil’s Court though. Even a writer of Hill’s quality can hit a dud.)

Image from the 1966 film adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You,
directed by Jonathan Miller who sadly passed away this year.
Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
M R James
Regular readers will be aware that I love M R James stories. It’s unhealthy. I re-read a bunch of them every year, re-watch the excellent BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, as well as the dramatic readings by Nunkie Theatre (do check those out if you have chance). His most famous story is Oh, Whistle, and with good reason. An all-time classic, cautionary tale, that’s perhaps rather too obvious for a top 5 list…

More by this author: There’s very little by James that wouldn’t make recommended reading, to be honest. I could well have picked The Tractate Middoth, the Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, Number 13, or the Treasure of Abbot Thomas in place of Oh, Whistle. Just grab one of the many collected editions (except that 150th anniversary edition I previously reviewed, with its shlonky editing) – you won’t be disappointed.

All Hallows
Walter de la Mare
Walter de la Mare takes some getting into if you aren’t used to the vernacular, because his prose is poetic and florid (probably because he was mainly a poet…), and his stories are almost all ambiguous to a fault. All Hallows is no exception. I’ve read this story dozens of times, and there’s no ‘true’ reading of it. Are there any ghosts in it at all? I think so, but it’s hard to tell. What you have here, then, is a masterpiece of atmosphere and sustained tension. The titular cathedral certainly leaves an impression, even if the spooks lie low.

More by this author: Another de la Mare story that doesn’t technically feature a ghost (but I which the characters are certainly haunted), Seaton’s Aunt is rightly regarded as one of the finest, most unsettling short stories ever written.

Dark Matter
Michelle Paver
Swiftly becoming regarded as another modern classic, and without my favourite ghost story of the last decade, this has all the elements of a really great unsettling story: incredible location, brooding atmosphere, isolation, tension between a closed circle of protagonists, and a really terrifying ghost! This tale of arctic exploration gone wrong is novella-length, but never drags, and includes some real heart-in-mouth scenes rendered vividly. Highly recommended.

More by this author: Michelle Paver is also responsible for Thin Air – a ghost story of a similar length, swapping the desolate Arctic Circle for a mountaineering expedition. For me, it’s a tad too similar to Dark Matter, and I found myself comparing the two a bit too often. I have no such qualms abour recommending Michelle’s recent full-length novel, Wakenhyrst, however. A ‘proper’ Gothic novel, with brooding locales, family secrets and malevolent forces at work – a real gem.

The Upper Berth
F Marion Crawford
The only thing I like better than polar exploration settings is seafaring stories. I’m an absolute sucker for them. The Upper Berth is one of the very best (and even recommended by M R James, which is how I originally came to read it). Sure, the scares might seem thin on the ground by today’s standards, but the pacing is fantastic, the setting wonderfully rendered, and the narration about as evocative as it comes.

More by this author: F Marion Crawford wrote several great ghost stories, most of which can be found in the usual anthologies of great Victorian stories. Of these, a special shout out to Man Overboard!, which was one of the stories that inspired The Lazarus Gate (in a roundabout sort of way), and The Dead Smile, whose resolution seems ridiculously clichéd today, but features some incredible lyrical prose.

Honourable Mentions
Just because I can never get my lists down short enough, here are the stories that almost made the top 5, and probably would on a different day!
·       The Signalman, Charles Dickens (what a denouement!)
·       The Inner Room, Robert Aickmann (none more ambiguous)
·       The Gateway of the Monster, William Hope Hodgson (one of Carnacki’s best cases)
·       The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (I mean, come on, it’s amazing)
·       Florrie, Adam Nevill (a genuinely original take on the ghost story).

(Wow, ten writers, and I didn’t even mention D K Broster or Henry James…)

And, naturally, if you find yourself in agreement with my choices, you might rather like my own novelette, The Ghost Writer, as well as the stories in the anthology Phantoms (including my own modern ghost story, One New Follower).

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…