THE UNEXPECTED GHOST

overworkedIt was not a day on which I was expecting to meet a ghost.  I know I write books with slightly eerie settings and incidents – also outright, unashamed ghost stories – but I don’t actually expect to actually find myself in one of those settings.

It was, in fact, a perfectly normal working morning.  There was a chapter of my current book to get into shape, and it was going to contain an interesting, not too taxing, scene, describing how the main character was singled out by a lady as being a very desirable property.                                                           Actually, I had singled him out as a very desirable property, as well.  It’s a sad fact of life but writers are fickle and heartless – in love with the current hero (sometimes also the villain), for as long as the book lasts, then on to the next one.  Asked about a previous hero or heroine, they’re apt to say, ‘Who?’, struggle with memory for a moment, and then, with supreme indifference and even a touch of promiscuity, say, ‘Oh yes. That one.  Yes, of course I remember that one.’

I described this particular hero as being in his early thirties, with john-m-h-copysoft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie, and cotton shirt.  Rather like my beloved Victorian actor-manager, Sir John Martin-Harvey, whose photograph has hung above my desk ever since I can remember.  Sir John played Sydney Carton, (for me, the all-time romantic anti-hero), in his own stage version of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. I’d have to admit Sir John’s brooding countenance has launched at least half a dozen of the characters in my books.

I re-read the scene with critical suspicion, convinced myself it might scrub up reasonably well, then went off to collect some shopping.

And in the supermarket checkout, two customers ahead, was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie…   I watched, transfixed, as he put items into a plastic bag – pasta, wine, cheese and fruit.  (If he had been buying the cut-price ready-made spaghetti bolognaise I would have had to abandon the entire chapter and re-think the seduction scene planned for Chapter Eight.)

groceryshoppingHe went out with his shopping, and I half fell through the check-out after him, scattering assorted items en route.  Somebody helped field the tinned soup but the muesli had to be swept up and I don’t think they ever did find the scouring pads.  But eventually I reached the car park, which by then was awash with torrential rain.  Visibility was on a par with a Victorian London pea-souper.
And by that time, whoever he was (whatever he was), my dark-haired, green-jacketed man had melted into the mist.  But I prowled hopefully round the car park anyway, peering into likely-looking cars, heedless of the melting bag of frozen carrots, never mind the CCTV.

I’d like to think he had gone quietly back to the netherworld of ghosts and fictional beings thuntil wanted again (in Chapter Eight), but logically it’s more likely he had simply driven back onto the main road and gone home to cook his pasta and drink his wine.
I do know that the sensible explanation is that I had seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion and subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it…

victorian-writerBut I have never been able to rid myself of the sneaking suspicion – and the hope – that he had stepped, however briefly, from the pages of my own imagination, and that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.

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THE BIRTH OF A SERIES

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The haunted house series, featuring Michael Flint and Nell West, was born several yearsahh-2 ago, when I was asked to write and present a ghost-story evening at a local historic house.  There were so many legends attached to the place it was almost a question of auditioning the resident spooks to decide which to use. (‘No, sorry, we can’t have a headless horseman because of Health & Safety regulations…’ ‘Chain rattling is fine, though, providing you keep the noise down…’)

Tales ranged from spectral footsteps to an old lady in a rocking chair, and the amiable figure of a shopkeeper, apparently waiting to serve customers with a variety of goods. In the psychedelic 1960s a séance was held in the house, but the findings were ambiguous. (Reports of a cavalier appearing during the séance were never considered reliable, largely because he apparently winked at one of the female ghost-hunters.)  I took two or three of these tales, stirred in a couple of my own, and presented the result as a series of diaries ‘found’ during renovations of the house. Spooky music, operated from a portable stereo behind a curtain, lent a touch of eeriness.

Since then I’ve repeated the performance in various venues. A marvellous Victorian theatre redolent of gaslight and Henry Irving… A delightful old bookshop, where Pepys might have browsed…

We do not need to dwell on the night the stereo jumped forward to a recording of The Archers that had been inadvertently left on it.  It was unfortunate, though, that instead of spectral midnight chimes from an abandoned church and the mournful hooting of an owl, the all-too-recognisable Ambridge theme music romped rollickingly in.

And it’s always interesting and fun to research ghost tales within the different places, and adapt the original setting to the locality. Because is there a town or village in the UK – in the world in general – that doesn’t have its own ghost legend?

For Property of a Lady, which was to become the first of a series, (although I didn’t know that at the time), I disinterred these diaries, hoping they could be used as a base. There are many downsides to ghosts, but there are also a few advantages, and a large advantage is that they don’t date.

But if the ghost who walked through those pages was still credible, the diaries themselves needed a modern-day frame.   They needed modern people to find them, read them, be affected by them.  So, strongly aware of treading in the steps of the incomparable M.R. James, but hoping to print new footsteps of my own, I created an Oxford don – Michael Flint – as reluctant hero.
As for the house – the ‘Property of a Lady’ of the title – I moved it to the Shropshire borders, and summoned up a house with a dark reputation and lingering remnants of a strange legend – the legend of a nightmare figure carrying a grisly lantern.  A figure that wandered the countryside, and sometimes got inside the house itself, and that chanted eerie lines from an old country rhyme as it went:

‘Now open lock to the Dead Man’s knock,ingoldsby-1
Fly bolt, and bar, and band!
— Nor move, nor swerve
Joint, muscle, or nerve,
At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand.
Sleep all who sleep!– Wake all who wake!-
But be as the Dead for the Dead Man’s sake…’

For that beautifully macabre verse, (of which I’ve included only a fragment here), I’m hugely grateful to the Reverend Richard Barham and the marvellous Ingoldsby Legends. In particular, I’m indebted to him for the macabre tale of the Hand of Glory.

In Property of a Lady the house is called Charect House – according to the dictionaries also pronounced CARECT – which is a very old term for a charm: a spell set down in writing. Literally in characters – to ward off evil.

In 1749, a charect was apparently found on a condemned murderer in Chichester Gaol – he had it smuggled in so he could cheat the gallows. And the eerie thing is that he did cheat the gallows. While he was being measured for the irons in which his hanged body would later be displayed, he expired on the spot from sheer terror. Which perhaps goes to prove the old saying that the devil never honours his side of a bargain.

Did the long-ago owners of Charect House give it that name to ward off evil? If so, did it work? Well, it’s all in the book – the first of the series.

Ghost stories should be listened to or read in complete safety. They require a warm room – firelight – curtains drawn against the night, doors locked. All the things that reinforce security, so that you know the ghosts can’t get you.
Or can they?

polhttp://www.amazon.co.uk/Property-Michael-Flint-Haunted-House/dp/1847513476/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_img_9?ie=UTF8&refRID=069E3DDPA8F4TQTECB4S