[The following contains spoilers.]
In the dying days of 2019, Robert Spalding got going a new WordPress blog called “A Ghost Story A Week.” Spalding’s bargain with the reader is that he will publish a ghost story every Sunday, across the whole of 2020. So far, he has delivered – twelve weeks in and there are twelve ghost stories. To me, such stamina is enviable and worthy of further study.
Regular readers of Tychy will know that I always write a ghost story to celebrate Halloween. By around the end of August, I am beginning to worry that I do not have any ideas yet for the year’s single ghost story. I usually manage to scrape something together, but each year it seems to get harder. If I lived a lifetime of Halloweens, I doubt that I could ever complete fifty-two ghost stories. If I can speak about my own brain so disrespectfully, I am not sure that there is much more blood to be squeezed out of the stone.
Were I in Spalding’s circumstances, I would be in constant mental pain. I can picture myself, once the enormous relief of Sunday has dissipated, sitting down gaunt and scared to the Monday morning brainstorming session. “Okay brain,” I would say nervously, “it’s time for you to spit out the lucky storyline for this week. You’ve done it before – you can do it again.” I would be panicked by the consequent impression of light pouring through bare draughty rooms, with not even the faintest of activity scurrying in any of the corners. Curses often feature in Spalding’s writing but to me the format of his own blog appears to turn this table on himself. In being required to issue one story per week, he has become just as condemned as any white lady who has to ritually walk the same circuit around some manorial gardens.
For here’s the thing: the ghost story is one of those genres in which ingenuity, or the coining of fiendish new scenarios and twists, is most prized. In a way, the pressures that are put upon the ghost story often force it to become more keenly imaginative than science-fiction. An unoriginal ghost story will look far more clichéd than a flat piece of science-fiction, because science-fiction can always disguise its lack of energy behind the ropography of far-flung galaxies or the technologies to come. In the ghost story there is no hiding place. In order to be frightening to us, the ghosts have to realistically join us in our own suburban households.
Spalding’s stories are set mostly amidst the parishes of West Sussex. The church that figures in two of the tales, St Mary’s, is borrowed from the real village of Clymping. So far, Spalding has taken just one holiday into science-fiction, with “The Witness Gallery,” a startlingly claustrophobic piece that I am not certain ever actually reneges on its status as a ghost story. An intergalactic transport goes haywire and accelerates into deep space. Its colony of over ten thousand humans has been put living in the tomb, with Ramon Pena, the particular character that the story hones in on, sharing a name with a real-life brand of tinned sardines. Nonetheless, ground control continues to intercept messages from the stricken craft. In receiving tidings from the dead, this space-agency programme becomes in effect a massive ersatz séance.
Spalding is on such a roll with his ghost stories because, rather like E.F. Benson, he can stray freely between different moods and genres. Both “The Baker’s Wife” and “The Underpass” are classic “bogeyman” tales, which place adults in scenarios that vividly reconnect them with the rawness of childhood terrors. In “The Baker’s Wife,” Gavin spends most of the story being chased by the witch; in “The Underpass,” Vicky has to avoid the dark lonely area where the bogeyman lives. Yet Spalding is equally at home in stories that are pleasant or affectionate.
In keeping with the bogeyman imagery, the characters in “A Knight in the Garden” are terrorised by a monster that “looked to be made of darkness,” but the sun never really goes in. “They Wait For Us” is a lovely, uplifting yarn about an elderly man who dies alone. The cheerfulness of the ghosts unexpectedly dispels its dread, transforming the story into a rejoicing. “Maurice and Joan” is a handsome tale about years of loving friendship. Although happy ghost stories are about as palatable as warm ice-cream, this one is so slyly written, and so skilfully shaped, that you do not, in the end, feel hard done by.
Benson was fond of poking fun out of spiritualists and a little of this mild satire is stirring in Spalding’s own “Ghostpuncher.” Reg Carroll is the sort of medium who advertises in the local paper, except that his own modus operandi is to beat up the earthbound spirits and to chuck them out of life like a bouncer at closing time. The joke is implicitly at the expense of shows like Most Haunted, in that it invites us to picture their dignified professional psychics behaving like this. But there is also a tender little touch that makes the story more than just knockabout:
With a final, wistful look around his home, Harold nodded before strolling forward, opening the door and stepping through. As always I smelt a hint of honey and saw the colour of a beautiful summer sky. Then the door shut and vanished. Harold was gone.
Death is never a significant problem in these stories; indeed, there seems to be some genuine satisfaction on Spalding’s behalf with the prospect of a rosy afterlife. It is not that the ghosts are mindless and predatory whilst the living are simply terrorised. The ghosts can evince human qualities such as kindliness whilst the living are eternally a source of evil.
The random behaviour of the cokehead Frank in “Unwed Mary,” and his breezy acceptance of the ghost, makes him greatly more unnerving than the bogeyman (it’s another chase story). Similarly, the creepiness of “Just A Bit More” is indirectly steepened by the stiff talk that is given to Brenda by her brother-in-law David. His reasonableness is as comfortless as the ghost’s evil and he is even more physically remote than the ghost, in getting through to Brenda only by telephone. David epitomises a world of closeted-up suburbia, where relatives go for decades without speaking honestly to each other and their attempts to do so come decades too late.
My favourite story, “Jenny O’Plenty,” invents a whole new incantation. This is potentially somewhat perilous, in that spells such as the Three Kings ritual and the Elevator Game have been dislodged from their fictional, or at least not very earnest, origins to become DIY activities for masses of teenagers on social media. To summon the witch Jenny O’Plenty you need a bathtub full of cool water, in which you should simulate your own drowning, wobbling orgasmically on the cusp of death by candlelight. If this ever became as popular amongst teenagers as the Three Kings, I can foresee years of interesting lawsuits against Spalding, from furious bereaved families. Needless to say, the ritual does not appear to have been in circulation prior to his story.
As with “A Knight in the Garden,” “Jenny O’Plenty” involves a certain temporary switching of places. It is the depleted adult, Eliza, who participates up close in the childlike spell to summon a witch, whilst her small child Sally remains passive, disapproving, and shut out:
“What did you do to Mr Fluffybins?” her daughter demanded.
Eliza’s mind went blank, how could she explain this away. “Mummy was being silly last night. I’m sorry. I’ll make sure he gets dried and put his eye back in.”
The soaked bunny was thrust into her arms “See that you do.” Sally told her, in an imperious tone she couldn’t help but smile at.
The bogeyman is probably summoned so disastrously in “Jenny O’Plenty” because Eliza never confides in her daughter. Sally would have brought some of her small-child’s levelheadedness – as well as the scandal of a small child whenever rules are not correctly obeyed – to the sloppily-prepared ritual. Still, “Jenny O’Plenty” confirms that ghost stories become more frightening and more real the nearer that they can approach that lost time when we were once truly spooked by ghosts. Those days of urban legends, creepypasta, and candlelit rituals – of Bloody Mary and Jeff the Killer. We might neglect to see that throughout “Jenny O’Plenty” Eliza is considerably more scared of debt collectors than she is of the witch.
Spalding is not a meticulous writer of prose, but there is an agreeable flow to his narratives that often makes them ring in your brain as if they are being read aloud to you in a clear and steady voice. “A Ghost Story A Week” will be enthralling to follow – for one thing, I doubt that any writer has undertaken such an experiment before. Will the stories get stronger or weaker – more muscular or more repetitive – as the weeks progress? Will the summer prove a desert for ghosts and the darkling autumn much more hospitable? Will Spalding struggle to make it through to Christmas or will he find it impossible to stop once he is there?