Thursday, 27 July 2017

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories

With stories by Kate Clanchy, Mark Haddon, Andrew Michael Hurley, Stuart Evers, Max Porter, Sarah Perry, Kamila Shamsie, Jeanette Winterson and an introduction from Andrew Martin.
In the winter of 2016 English Heritage sent some of the UK's finest contemporary writers to stay at different sites of historical importance across the UK. From Max Porter at Eltham Palace to Mark Haddon deep in York's Cold War Bunker their experiences informed their chilling creations. Eight authors, eight ghost stories, eight unsettling, supernatural creations set loose in time for Halloween.
With a foreword by Andrew Martin and fascinating background detail on English Heritage sites and their supernatural legacies, this is a book to be savoured - and read aloud - as the nights draw in this winter.

Not giving up the ghost story … Audley End House, in Essex, which inspired Sarah Perry’s story. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

'A genuinely disturbing place': England's spookiest sites inspire new ghost stories from top writers

The likes of Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon and Sarah Perry have penned dark tales of ancient houses and hauntings, spanning the country from Audley End in Essex to York Cold War Bunker

Danuta Kean
Wednesday 19 July 2017 14.55 BST Last modified on Wednesday 19 July 2017 15.58 BST

Beneath Dover Castle, an imposing Gothic bulk atop the chalk hills of the English port, is a labyrinth of tunnels. Dug in the 18th century for troops garrisoned there as a first line of defence against revolutionary France, the tunnels have recently developed a ghostly reputation.

Once a month, English Heritage, which manages the site, evacuates the tunnels for staff to perform sweeps, searching for any of the mysterious figures that tourists have reported seeing. In one report, a heavy door slammed shut and a stretcher trolley, part of a wartime exhibit, raced along the corridor as if pushed by a violent force. In another, a stranger in wartime fatigues approached a small boy asking for his help to find “Helen” (neither man nor his quarry were found).

With such tales coming out from many of its historic sites, it is a little surprising that English Heritage felt it needed to recruit authors to invent new ghost stories. But the charity has commissioned eight – including Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon and Sarah Perry – to contribute to Eight Ghosts, a collection of spectral tales set in some of its spookier sites, including Dover Castle, Hadrian’s Wall and Audley End.

Ghost stories and the gothic tend to have a resurgence in the aftermath of periods of rationalism and scientific advance
Sarah Perry
“The castles and stately homes of England have long inspired ghostly myths and legends,” says English Heritage editor Bronwen Riley. “After all, white ladies, cursed souls and headless apparitions all need somewhere fitting to haunt.”

Some of the authors did not have to travel far from their own geographical origins. Glaswegian Kate Clanchy chose Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, while Perry chose Audley End in Essex, which she visited as a child. Others chose more unusual settings: Haddon used the York Cold War Bunker – described by English Heritage as its “most modern and spine-chilling” site – while Jeanette Winterson selected Pendennis Castle, Cornwall.

 Ruins of the barnsUNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 15: Ruins of the barns, Housesteads Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall (Unesco World Heritage List, 1987), Northumberland, England, United Kingdom. Roman civilisation, 2nd century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Location is vital to a good ghost story, and ancient houses and abandoned barracks are standard tropes in a genre that has deep roots in English architecture; from Mr Lockwood’s bedroom in Wuthering Heights to the Dartmoor manor in Catherine Fisher’s Chronoptika series. As Andrew Michael Hurley, author of horror novel The Loney and, in Eight Ghosts, a story set in the dungeons of Carlisle Castle, says: “Buildings, like ghosts, are things that endure beyond the usual human span of life. They are the theatres in which the past may be replayed.”

Kamila Shamsie saw the ruins of Kenilworth Castle as “like a bombed-out building”, making them a perfect backdrop to her tale of the castle’s night security guard, who has arrived in England from an unnamed war-torn country and is facing the horrors of his past through the prism of a night in which the events may be real or imagined.

“I drew very much on the ghost stories that the English Heritage staff at Kenilworth told me – stories of voices from behind locked doors, presences felt in the kitchen,” the Burnt Shadows author says. A specific architectural feature of the building niggled her imagination, she adds: “I noticed that the guidebook kept referring to unusually large windows built into Kenilworth Castle through the centuries – it raised the question: did they want to let in the light or were they afraid of something in the dark?”

 Elizabethan Gardens Open At Kenilworth Castle After ReconstructionKENILWORTH, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Historic interpreters Hilary Janewood and Charles Neville re-enact a meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester in the new Elizabethan Gardens in the grounds of Kenilworth Castle on April 30, 2009 in Kenilworth, England. English Heritage has reconstructed the pleasure gardens created by Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester which he built to impress and court Queen Elizabeth I over 400 years ago. The garden has painstakingly been re-created with the aid of archaeology and historic notes and cost over GBP 2.1 million. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Historic interpreters re-enact a meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester in the grounds of Kenilworth Castle. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The architecture of ghost stories is based in the landscape of memory, whether real or imagined, which often means they contain a dreamlike quality – think of the nightmarish glimpse of the sheet-wrapped ghost in MR James’s Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad. Perry, who visited the Great Hall at Audley End for the first time in 20 years for her story, had this uncanny feeling while gazing at the Jacobean splendour: “I thought I’d forgotten it all – but there was the yew hedge looking like black stormclouds, and the fire buckets hanging from the ceiling, as if I remembered it all from a dream.”

There are creepy exceptions to the gothic homes and castle ruins: the York Cold War Bunker may be a modern structure, but Haddon calls it “a genuinely disturbing place … It was in use during my lifetime in the expectation that the majority of the human race might be burned from the surface of the earth,” he says. “You don’t get that kind of frisson at Kenilworth Castle.”

 York Cold War Bunker was in active service from the 1960s-90s and was designed as a nerve-centre to monitor fall-out in the event of a nuclear attack.

York Cold War Bunker was in active service from the 1960s-90s and was designed as a nerve-centre to monitor fall-out in the event of a nuclear attack. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The popularity of ghost stories has been tied to societal change: in Victorian times, with their servants suddenly popping out of hidden passages around their creaky, gaslit houses, and spiritualism coming into vogue, the middle classes marvelled at the ghostly possibilities of new technologies such as radio and telephones, setting new parameters for what was possible. Their popularity today, Perry believes, reflects the insecurities of our age. “Ghost stories and the gothic tend to have something of a resurgence in the aftermath of periods of rationalism and scientific advance, as if the reader sighs and thinks: wouldn’t it be nice if there was more to it all than this?” she says.

Haddon believes this hunger, for something beyond what is provable, is what drives writers to the genre. The self-proclaimed “ardent materialist” says: “I think a lot of literature is driven by a desire to find some kind of doorway into that other place. To look at it another way, isn’t the function of all fiction to bring the dead to life?”

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories is published in October 2017 by September Publishing.

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