Saturday, 10 September 2011

A Drunken Conversation about Ghost Stories...

I was talking to some of my non-reader friends in the pub the other night (non-readers are people too, apparently) and the somewhat boozy conversation got round to hobbies, and while I don't view it as a 'hobby' I told them about the stories I'd written. It was the first time I'd mentioned the subject to them, and they naturally asked what my stories were about. So I gave them a rough synopsis of the plot of my forthcoming novella The Shelter and a few stories from The Other Room...

"What? You write ghost stories?"

I was a bit taken aback by that shocked "you". Why shouldn't I write ghost stories? I asked what they meant by that comment, and amid the general beer-confusion I got the answer out of them: they wouldn't expect someone like me to believe in ghosts.

Well no. I wouldn't expect that of someone like me either. I can be pretty scathing toward people who believe in mumbo-jumbo, good-luck, or attributing significance to coincidental oddities. I can't stand people who argue by constructing straw-men or from conflicting premises (hello, internet discussion groups!). As well as fiction, my bookshelf comprises of non-fiction works of popular science, philosophy and logic...

So for the record: no, I don't believe that ghosts, or any of the other supernatural gubbins in my stories, actually exist.

I guess this a statement that only horror stories would routinely have to make. For realistic fiction, the question doesn't generally apply. For the other kinds of speculative fiction, fantasy and sci fi, the tendency is for the author to build a whole world - internally consistent but not mimetic. Horror is the only genre which generally strives to create a realistic view of the world, but then introduces a single unrealistic element into that world.

Neither of my drunken companions continued the conversation beyond this point, but if they'd been sober I suspect the natural next question would have been, "Okay, so why do you write ghost stories then, if you don't believe in such things?"

Good question.

There's a somewhat trite assumption that the creations and monsters of horror are just analogies for our real world fears - vampires = fear of sex; zombies = fear of plague; and so on. But I don't believe that equations apply to literature, or that the complexity of a great story can be reduced to a mere binary relationship with a small part of the real world. But removing the over-simplification, there's some truth to the idea that horror fiction plays on what we find disturbing, on things that we find creepy or just, somehow... wrong.

If I look back at the science and philosophy books I proudly displayed as evidence of my rationalism above, I find I'm fascinated by all sorts of oddities, paradoxes where logic seems a flimsy construction. Schordinger's Cat and Hempel's Ravens. Fascinated, and maybe just a little... scared.

And I find this same sense of rationality being more flimsy than we'd like to think in the best horror stories: in Call Of Cthulhu and the elder gods lurking out there somewhere; in The Turn of The Screw and the ambiguity of not knowing whether the ghost is real or not (by which I mean real in the context of the story); in stories as different as The Stand and The Summer People where society and its conventions are shown to be paper-thin; in stories by Ramsey Campbell where even descriptions of the mundane seem to convey a hazy sense of menace...

Capturing that feeling - that's why I write ghost stories. (And thinking up blog posts like this is why I drink beer with my non-reader friends in pubs.)

Am I alone in this - other horror authors, do you believe that the things you write about could actually exist? Or are your views like mine, or somewhere else entirely?

8 comments:

Iain said...

Great post, and agree completely - it's precisely because I don't believe that I enjoy reading and writing this kind of fiction so much.

If you do believe, and something weird and eldritch pops in for a cuppa, then terrifying though it may be (do demons prefer sugar or sweetener?) it's also in keeping with your perception of how the world is.

Whereas if you are a confirmed rationalist, and know that such things cannot be, and yet the world unhinges all of a sudden, and things that can't be are...that's far more frightening. It's like a form of madness.

Cathy said...

Weird. I wrote a ghost story but it didn't occur to me whether to even think if I believed in ghosts or not. It was just a ghost story.

Kate Monroe said...

Very thought-provoking! As it happens, I do 'believe in ghosts', for the purpose of this discussion. I'm open and willing to accept the supernatural.

However, as you say, I don't think that even matters. Literature is, in its purest sense, escapism for both the reader and the author.

If you can immerse yourself in the story that you are writing, then surely it takes no great leap to suspend your disbelief and write about something that you don't actually believe in.

I certainly don't think that a belief in the supernatural is a pre-requisite for writing horror!

Alain Gomez said...

I like love writing creepy stories. I think on some level it's somewhat therapeutic. You have to not only embrace but fully explore in your mind what scares you.

Jason White said...

Great post. I love a good ghost story, but I don't think I believe in them. That makes me sound indecisive.

What I mean is, I've seen and experienced some things in my life that I cannot explain. But I know that they could have been hallucinations. If they were not hallucinations, then that doesn't mean that the things I've seen were ghosts. I don't think we can know for sure until science proves it, or more than one person actually talks to a ghost at the same time.

James Everington said...

Thanks for all the comments - as I'd written a post asking for comments at the end, I'd look a right knob if no one actually had...

Nice that we've got the full range in the comments, from sceptic Iain, through ghost-agnostic Jason, to beleiver Kate. Good comments all. I've never agreed with the facile assumption that horror stories can't be discussed intellectually on occasion, along with all other literature.

Cathy - is the ghost story you wrote available anywhere? The world demands to know!

Alan Ryker said...

I don't believe in nuthin.

You already know that we share a lot of views about what makes horror good, so I'm with you.

One thing I like best about horror is what you pointed out: the rest of the world is mimetic with one twist. I think it allows for a much greater focus on character than other spec fic. Even the twist--if it's used as an experiment to see how real humans would react to some extreme situation and not just as a thrill inducer--is about character and exploration of the human condition.

Andre Jute said...

In vino veritas.

The suspension of disbelief is an attribute of the constant reader, difficult to explain to non-readers. You should try it on your mates sometime, preferably when their understanding has been greased by ingesting the fruit of the hops.