Kate Murray-Browne recommends her favourite ghost stories
Author of The Upstairs Room Kate Murray-Browne shares why she has always been fascinated by ghost stories and her recommendations for the supernatural tales you should be reading this October.
I grew up with ghost stories. My grandmother and great-aunt were great believers in the supernatural, and stories about premonitions or mysterious figures crossing the room at night were part of my childhood. I sought out these stories but with a fascination mired in fear: for a long time, I was more afraid of seeing a ghost than almost anything else.
When I decided to write The Upstairs Room, my novel about an uninhabitable house, I gritted my teeth and turned back to spooky stories, from old favourites and classics to more peculiarly unsettling novels. To mark the approach of Hallowe’en, here’s a selection of the books and stories I was thinking about as I wrote.
‘O, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’
M. R. James is the master of the short, pure ghost story and ‘O, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ is one of his creepiest. I first read it when I was little and was chilled by the indelible final image – the ‘face of crumpled linen’ – long after I’d forgotten the rest of the story. Reading it again, I was struck by how cleverly James plays on the reader’s imagination. From the ‘ill-defined’ figures stalking the protagonist to the things he ‘could not or would not tell’, what is left unseen or unsaid is the most sinister of all.
The Woman in Black
Susan Hill’s classic is in some ways the opposite. The horror is almost baroque: a woman with a wasted face, a house separated from the town by a causeway, a rocking chair with a mind of its own – and a ghost with genuinely evil intent. But Hill elevates these tropes to much more than the sum of their parts and the subtle touches are equally brilliant: the eerie names (Eel Marsh House, Crythin Gifford, Jennet Humfrye) and the ever-so-slightly-off toys in the nursery (‘a monkey made of leather and a cat and four kittens knitted from wool, a furry bear and a bald doll with a china head and a sailor suit’).
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson’s deeply unsettling novella starts with a trip to buy groceries – and the darkness in the mundane and domestic (from Merricat’s strange ritualistic objects to the arsenic in the sugar bowl) continues throughout the novel. Jackson perfectly captures the very specific fear embodied by ordinary things and uses levity and comedy to devastating effect.
The Little Stranger
I first read this novel on holiday, in possibly the least frightening setting of all time – a time-share apartment in Mallorca. It was the exact opposite of Hundreds Hall, the ancestral home slowly killing its inhabitants, and yet I still remember lying awake at night thinking about the moving shaving glass. Here, the possibility that the psyches of the inhabitants are actually causing the strange events, rather than inventing them, is entertained, along with more rational and more ghostly explanations – and Waters keeps them all in play perfectly until the very end.
The hint of the supernatural in Tana French’s detective series is so artfully woven in, the two genres come to feel like a perfect fit. The crime scene in Broken Harbour – a suburban house on an unfinished estate outside Dublin – has an atmosphere as oppressive as any haunted house, the peculiar noises in the attic are just as chilling and what French leaves unexplained is as disturbing as the grisliest post-mortem.
The Turn of the Screw
I read this many years ago in an attic room in Cambridge, and the memory of just one image (Miss Jessel sitting in the governess’s chair) frightened me more than the children in peril. It now strikes me as very Jamesian to invoke such terror with the subtlest infringement (is this the most benign, civilised thing a ghost could do?) It was also the first unreliable narrator I’d encountered in a ghost story. Hilary Mantel argues that all ghost stories need a ‘blunt literalist’ to provide ‘the voice of scepticism’, but a narrator with questionable sanity can be useful too: were the ghosts real or was she (it is often a ‘she’) going mad?
'The Yellow Wallpaper'
This question is perhaps least ambiguous in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – the narrator tells us she is suffering from ‘nervous troubles’ right from the start – but in a sense it doesn’t really matter. The wallpaper, ‘a smouldering, unclean yellow’, and the malevolent shapes it harbours (‘the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down’) aren’t any less frightening for being the product of someone’s disturbed mental state.
These supernatural reads were chosen by Kate Murray-Browne. Kate's debut novel The Upstairs Room, is available in hardback and ebook now.
If you're a fan of the atmospheric writing of Sarah Waters, Susan Hill and Shirley Jackson, The Upstairs Room is the book you should be reading this Halloween.