When I was a child, we lived in a 1920’s house in Sydney that though not all that old, unlike our ancient house in France, had a kind of elusively sinister atmosphere, complete with creaking woodwork and sudden shadows glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. At night, sometimes, I would lie there and imagine those scary characters in the ghost stories I’d just read coming up the stairs, and pinned to my bedclothes in sheer fright, would tell myself I would never read another ghost story again! But I did, of course, drawn to the form by its addictive combination of sharp precision and high-stakes atmosphere, and stories like WW Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw and F.Marion Crawford’s The Upper Berth stayed in my reading memory for good.
As an adult, I still enjoy reading–and very occasionally writing!–ghost stories, but the genre does not allow for mistakes and meandering, and it’s not often that you come across really satisfying modern examples of the genre, accomplished in both story and style: such as the novellas of the modern doyenne of the ghost story, Susan Hill, and the Gothic-flavoured genre-benders of John Harwood. But recently, on Amazon, I discovered the work of Benedict Ashforth, an English writer whose elegantly creepy, chillingly atmospheric, precisely-told ghost stories and novellas offer an intriguing blend of the classic and the contemporary; the gruesome and the melancholy; the sinister and the sad, allied to a strong sense of place which is characteristic of the well-turned ghost story. Intrigued by the stories, I wanted to know more about the writer behind them, and this fascinating interview is the result.
I write about ghosts because I know that they exist. I know because I have seen one. I did not imagine it. Someone else was with me and she witnessed it too. Sceptics would argue that it is possible for two people to imagine the same thing, but I would not. As clearly as I see the page on which I now write, I tell you that we saw another person that night, in that room, who had no absolutely no right to be there. I recognised him immediately – I had known him well, before his sudden death six months earlier. The person with me did not recognise him. She had never met him, but she saw him all the same. How did I know that she had seen him? She was screaming just the same as I was. How do you explain that? There’s an old adage amongst authors that you should write about what you know, and I know ghosts. Whilst I might not always tell the tale exactly how everyone would like it told, at the very least I can tell it with authority because I know that it can happen.
It was the most terrifying experience of my life, but also the most enlightening. It was no longer a matter of belief or disbelief. It was a matter of certainty and fact. We are not always alone here, however much we like to think that we are.
I have always loved writing. I began with short stories and had some success getting in print in anthologies created by small publishing houses. I began writing Abbot’s Keep around five years ago but then shelved it because I couldn’t make it work. When I revisited the project three years later everything fell into place and I had what I thought was a decent little ghost novella. It seemed to be well received and this encouraged me to write more.
You write within the classic tradition of the English ghost story, yet you have placed your stories very firmly in contemporary times, unlike, say Susan Hill or John Harwood, who situate theirs in the past. How do you combine the traditional and contemporary in your work?
I am always trying to drag the classic English ghost story from the past, into a more contemporary world, without breaking the form. I like to write in an era prior to the technological boom that changed the way we communicate. By doing so, I hope to create an ‘old school’ feel to the material before then reaching further back into the ancient past. I especially like the 80’s because this was the era that saw Hammer brighten our screens with wonderful technicolour.
I also try to combine the traditional and contemporary by setting the correct tone in the writing. By emulating a Victorian/early Edwardian prose style, I could write about almost anything but the reader will still know, hopefully, somewhere deep inside, that he or she is reading a ghost story.
Ghost stories are nearly always short–either novellas or short stories–and yours are no exception. What in your view is the reason for that?
Traditionally, ghost stories are told in an old house in front a glowing fire. Shadows dance and stretch about the walls like wretched souls. The tale cannot overstay its welcome but instead must be factual and to the point, building the atmosphere at the outset before gradually sucking the audience into the darkness. It cannot be too long, else the next person will not have their chance to tell their tale. I believe it is the same on the page. The expectation is that fear must be induced gradually but within a reasonable timescale.
The other factor here is that, as an author, you only have a certain length of time in which to suspend the reader’s disbelief. I might well be wrong about this and I probably am given that some ghost stories are full length novels but, from a personal viewpoint, the best ones that I have read are nearly always the shorter ones.
The English countryside is brimming with history, both modern and ancient. I’ve always been fascinated with what lies just beneath the surface. Whilst Abbot’s Keep is a fictitious Tudor house nestled deep in Berkshire countryside, the actual setting is real enough. I grew up there. Furthermore, there really is a local legend that gold is buried in that area, hidden by an abbot during the Reformation shortly before he was hung drawn and quartered at King Henry VIII’s request. And so whilst Abbot’s Keep is predominantly a distant homage to MR James’ The Treasure of Abbot Thomas it is also a story that grew from a local history and geography.
The other element I find inspiring about the English countryside is its loneliness. Whilst it is beautiful and green and unmistakeable, it does bring with it a sense of isolation. Again, hopefully this worked well in Abbot’s Keep. I wanted the bleak and remote location to reflect the main characters loss and loneliness. In my ghost story, VERONA, I wanted Dorset’s Jurassic coast to bring with it a sense of ancient history. There really is evidence of a Roman settlement in that area.
The English ghost story is far and away the most developed in the world. Do you think there’s a reason for that?
The ghost story has a tangible and well deserved place in English literature. Even Dickens couldn’t resist it. Its form has developed and altered over the years but it always possesses the same emotion and tone. Aside from anything else, I think that the quiet, slightly proper and very English logic, juxta positioned against the, some might say, illogical concept of ghosts creates a unique concoction on the page.
Old sins casting long shadows, buried secrets coming back to haunt and someone hell-bent on finding the truth: the ghost story and the murder mystery have several things in common, yet one major difference of course is that there is no real solution to the central issue in a ghost story, and no order being restored. These days, there’s a lot of murder mysteries but not so many ghost stories published– why, do you think?
In simple terms I believe there is a bigger market for murder mysteries. But it shouldn’t be too much of a leap. As you say, ghost stories and mysteries are inseparably linked. I would love those readers who hardly ever read ghost stories to read more.
By bringing the ghost story into a more contemporary world, I hope to achieve this, although I know it is a very long way off. The massive success of Susan Hill’s Woman in Black has helped to bring ghost stories to the fore once again and if I can ever achieve half of what she has I would be forever happy.
What have the reactions of readers been like? And on a practical level, as an independent author, how challenging–or not!– has it been to get the books noticed?
The reaction of the readers has been incredible. The amount of reviews, both good and bad, means I get a very clear and unbiased opinion of the work. As authors we all like a ‘good’ review, but in reality it’s the critical reviews that have had the biggest impact on my work. I read every single one and take something from it. I think you only get better when people are brutally honest in their views. I encourage every reader to review the work – whether it’s positive or negative – I want to hear it.
It is immensely challenging to get your work noticed but it is rewarding if you get it right. I send paperback copies everywhere I can for review. I find that it’s pointless sending electronic copies. They hardly ever get read. I send something that the reviewer can touch and see. Hopefully, the recipient might just open and start reading and, even more hopefully, he or she might just like it enough to finish the book and even say something about it.
I was lucky enough to be picked out for Kindle Singles for both VERONA and Abbot’s Keep and that has certainly helped my work to reach a wider audience. I will be looking for an agent shortly, once I’ve finished my debut novel, No Contrition.
Who are your favourite writers, whether classic or contemporary, in this genre? And your favourite stories?
In my view, MR James set the standard for storytelling in this field, using England’s rich history and abundance of ancient locations to best effect. His stories were mysterious and intriguing, building a sense of dread without giving too much information and letting the reader conjure the nightmarish detail in his or her mind. I especially love Casting the Runes.
Jonathan Aycliffe is also brilliant and has been a great inspiration. My favourite of his stories is Whispers in the Dark. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter is also superb as is the work of Ramsey Campbell, Roald Dahl, Adam Neville, Susan Hill and Graham Masterton to name just a few. I also loved Paul Torday’s The Girl on the Landing. That is a brilliant book.
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