Friday, May 17, 2013

Scared? You will be. I hope so, anyway...

As you may know, last night I took part in a ghost story evening at the wonderful Innerpeffray Library near Crieff. The event was part of the Museums At Night initiative which runs from 16th to 18th of this month.

I'm hard put to think of a better place to hold a ghost story evening than Innerpeffray Library! The very first time I visited the library, I thought to myself, wow, this is like stepping into an M.R.James story. Stuffed with antiquarian books, it has all the atmosphere of a country house library of a century ago.

Lara, the Innerpeffray librarian, had added to the atmosphere of the event by lighting it with electric candles. I'm not euphemistically referring to modern lights here - these really do look exactly like candles but they have tiny bulbs instead of a naked flame. Ghost stories by candlelight is a super idea but inadvisable when there are thousands of antique books piled up on all sides!

The evening kicked off with tea, coffee and biscuits and an introduction by Lara, who said some nice things about my work that I would not have liked to say myself. Then I talked for a little while about the perennial attraction of creepy stories. I'd backed up my ideas about this with some quotations from the American mystery writer Arthur B. Reeve; rather amusingly, Reeve asserts in his introduction to The Best Ghost Stories (1919) that people can be divided into psychics and non-psychics by getting them to close their eyes and saying "horse" to them. If they immediately visualise a horse in their mind's eye, they are more likely to be psychic! I tried this out on the audience and one lady declared that she had seen part of a horse! Perhaps this makes her a little bit psychic...

Given that I had been talking about the appeal of creepy tales throughout history, I then handed over to Lara who read a selection of antique ghost stories from the library's collection. The sources included the Treatise of Specters, a great favourite of mine - basically a kind of anthology of spooky stories dating back to classical times in some cases. Some excerpts from the Treatise have previously appeared on this blog.

Next, I talked about the supernatural tales that had inspired my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, set in the real town of Bad Münstereifel, where we used to live. The folk legends of the town were collected in the very early 1900s by Father Karl Krause, the parish priest in the nearby village of Eschweiler, and published in the newsletter of the Eifel Club. Some of these tales are retold in my novel, and woven into the plot. I read the one about the Eternal Huntsman who is supposed to ride out of the ruined castle on the Quecken hill and roam the forest around Münstereifel; I then read from the later scene in which Stefan, the heroine's friend, goes to the old castle on Walpurgis night to see if he can discover anything. Of course he does see something terrifying - but is it the Huntsman?

After that, I handed over to Innerpeffray volunteer Bill, who read a story he had written - with a codicil that made everyone gasp! I'm not giving any spoilers though, in the hope that Bill can be induced to read it again at future events. He also read a wonderful poem he had composed in Scots dialect, about a church mouse who sees something terrifying in the graveyard after dark. I was very impressed with the poem and I do hope that in due course it will reach a wider audience. 

The rest of the evening was taken up by my reading two of my own ghostly short stories: The Game of Bear and Nathair Dhubh. Both of these appeared in my recent collection The Sea Change

The Game of Bear is an unfinished fragment of a story by the great M.R.James, with a completion by myself (there are also other endings in existence by other authors) and published by kind permission of N.J.R.James and Rosemary Pardoe, who transcribed the fragment from the manuscript in King's College, Cambridge library. 

I chose Nathair Dhubh as my other story to read because it is actually set in Scotland in 1938. When I wrote the story, some years ago, I wanted to set it in Scotland because it is all about climbing, but not being a Scot myself I was not confident of writing a Scots character with Scots dialogue, so I made the narrator "Jim" a Scot by birth who had moved away in his late teens and now had a Northern English accent instead. Of course, this still left me with the slight difficulty that "Jim" is in his 80s and North English and male, and I am in my 40s and Southern English and female! But the audience had to live with that..! It is a curious fact that although my novels to date are all written with a female voice, in my short fiction I often fall naturally into a male narrative voice. It seems "Jim" wanted his story to be told, even if it had to be told through the medium of a female reader. 

This was the first time I had ever read any of my ghost stories in public, and I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the experience. When reading from a novel, you are naturally required to choose an excerpt, and it can be quite hard to create a satisfying reading experience, since you inevitably have to stop somewhere in the middle of the action. I very much enjoyed bringing these tales to a proper conclusion. Also, it is alway fun of course if you get to a particularly nasty bit and see the looks on people's faces!

I hope to do another ghost story event at some future date, perhaps Hallowe'en, so keep an eye out for details, which I'll post on this blog as well as Goodreads and my Facebook books page

Meanwhile, a very big thank you to Lara for organising this event, to Bill for taking part alongside me, and to everyone who attended for listening. 

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