Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A to Z Challenge 2014 - Ghosts - H is For Human, Susan Hill & Hairy Hands Ghost

A to Z Challenge 2014 - Ghosts
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I get to talk about one of my favourite authors today, Susan Hill. But to balance that, the ghosts I'm talking about today give me the real creeps. Hitch-hikers and their cousins are interactive and all the more scary for it. And, looking at story creation, I'm musing on humanness and how it can aid the grounding of a supernatural story.




H is for Human

However spectacular a ghost story becomes, one thing that every author has to remember is to ground the reader, to remind them that their protagonist is human. Otherwise, if things become too surreal and there is no perspective, the spookiness can lose its punch. Relationships, normal everyday things, emotions, among other things can give characters their humanity. In The Woman In Black, it is Arthur's family who ground him for us. He's married, he has a wife and/or child(ren), depending on the version of the story and his love for them, the fatherly things he does, the interactions with his wife, all add to his humanity and take use away from the supernatural, until, inevitably, the two cross.

One added bonus about reminding your reader that your protagonist is only human is that it can also reinforce the element of doubt. Seeing things, hearing strange noises, not being sure if they are real, or some element of the imagination. Without humanity we wouldn't be fallible and there has to be that element of doubt in the reader's mind as well, else where is the thrill, the risk? Being real is all important when presented with the paranormal.
by Sophie Duncan


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Tris put the kettle on, then glanced around for the needed accessories. There were two cleanish mugs on the draining board, so he put them down by the kettle. Then he noted a pack of biscuits and remembered he'd been too distracted to bother with breakfast, so he grabbed them and dumped some out on a plate. He then reached for the teabags and popped two in the mugs before turning hastily back to the table where he had left the pack of letters. Bill had been called away by one of his men, so, for the moment, Tris was alone. He sat down and picked up the pile of paper, inordinately excited about this private find. The paper was thick and had a definite texture against his fingers, and it had been folded carefully a long time ago. The dark blue ribbon holding the group together was also clearly expensive, and Tris took his time as he pulled at one strand of a neat bow.

The ribbon slid over itself easily and he freed the letters into a rough fan on the table. Picking up the top one, Tris gently lifted the first fold, wary of how long the paper had been bent in this shape, but it did not crack, so he risked the second fold. What was revealed was a neatly written letter in ink that, thanks to its dark home, had not faded. Eagerly, Tris began to read.


Berwick House, 13 April

My Dear Miss Merigale, 

I wish firstly to thank you for your most cordial response to my advertisement...

Tris got no further, because Bill entered at what was perfect timing with the boiling of the kettle. Tris placed the letter on top of the others, got up and, while he was turning back to making tea, told Bill, "Looks like the first letter is domestic correspondence. Something about an adver-."

Tris' last word trailed away as he looked at the sideboard and his heart sank a little. There were the mugs and the biscuit plate, but there was no sign of the biscuits, instead, the two teabags were lying neatly on the plate. Leaning over the mugs, Tris mostly knew what he was going to see: at the bottom of each mug was a custard cream.

"Bugger," he ticked himself off and reached into the mugs to extract the biscuits.

"Something wrong?" Bill checked, but sounded like he was asking the time.

Tris sighed and, swapping the biscuits and the teabags, replied, "Nothing a new brain wouldn't cure."

Tris finished making the tea, still cursing his messed up mental wiring and trying to work out how he had mixed up so spectacularly. When he dumped the mugs on the table, Bill was watching him curiously. He grabbed the biscuits, placed them between them, sat down and explained, "I get things in the wrong order when I'm not concentrating, but I could have sworn I didn't put the biscuits in the mugs."

"In the mugs?" Bill raised an eyebrow.

Tris nodded and rubbed the side of his head self-consciously. However, the corner of Bill's mouth was twitching and, although he lifted his mug up to his face, a second later, he snorted into his tea.

"Oh thanks," Tris quipped, but it was all rather daft and it was laugh, or cry, so he chose to shake his head and grin.

Bill's mirth lasted only a couple of coughed laughs and then he put his tea back down, that enquiring look back in his eyes. He didn't say anything, hadn't actually asked any direct questions of Tris about his disability, but Tris felt the man was owed more information.

"I suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a bleed on the brain. They opened up the side of my head to fix me, but some damage was already done."

"Your leg?" Bill asked, glancing at the stick propped against the table.

Tris nodded, rubbed his thigh and added, "And my balance and getting stuff arse about face." Then he shrugged and finished, "But it's getting better. I couldn't walk at all when I woke up, and I couldn't pick anything up with this hand," he waggled his right. "I'm just having to retrain myself."

"How long have you..?" Bill asked, waving at Tris' leg across the table again.

Tris hadn't taken Bill to be the inquisitive type, but he supposed having your employer collapse on you might make a man cautious, so he answered, "Five months and sixteen days."

Bill raised an eyebrow again and his eyes opened slightly wider for a second.

"Yeah, I'm counting," Tris couldn't resist scoffing at himself a little, because it did sound pathetic. "I have to be a year without another seizure before they let me drive again."

It was a silly goal, since the epileptic attacks he'd had in hospital were one of the things he couldn't really control, but Tris still ticked off the days to getting behind the wheel again: another goal.

"Are you okay to be here?" Bill asked and Tris recognised that look in the man's eyes and he regretted being quite so frank as his chances of working unchaperoned looked like they might be disappearing. Bill revealed he was more direct than most as he added, "I don't want to be calling an ambulance down to this place, it's too far off the beaten track. And I'd be running round the garden to find a bloody mobile signal."

Tris snorted at the face Bill made: he'd experienced the complete dearth of mobile signal on Saturday and had not fancied heading out to the pond where he had been told there might be one bar to make a call.

"I'm fine, I promise. I'm on meds for the fits and I haven't had one since two weeks after the stroke."

"So the whole falling over thing?" Bill checked and pointed upstairs.

"Was just that. I got distracted and lost my balance."

The two men regarded each other over their mugs for a few moments, Tris trying to put on an air of confidence. He was aware that Bill was looking straight through his mask, though, and so, before he could be politely bundled into a taxi home, he put down his mug and picked up the first letter again. He scanned to the bottom of the page and was surprised to see a man's name and signature.

"Maybe not such a normal domestic advert," he carried on where he had left off, "it's from a man, a Dr Berwick, to a woman, Miss Merigale. Oh!"

The second paragraph revealed just what the letter was about and Tris grinned up at Bill.

"He was advertising for a wife, listen to this. 'I feel it best as we enter into this correspondence, to provide additional details to those presented in my notice. I am not a young man, but I find myself in need of a companion after the death of my first wife, Katherine. Thank you for being so frank as to your own age and circumstances in your letter. I am not looking for a girl in the first flush of youth, my house is a distance into the country and I do not feel an inexperienced young woman would cope with running the household, so, in this at least, we should suit each other well.'

He's a medical doctor," Tris started to paraphrase Berwick's Victorian language and glanced up to check Bill was still interested.

His companion just sat opposite, gulping back his tea and wearing a mostly unreadable expression behind his beard, so Tris went on.

"In his forties. Ah, he built this house for his first wife as a family home. He really goes on about her and how happy he was, there's almost a page of it. If I'd been Ms Merigale, I'd have walked away."

The letter came to an end with a request to continue the introductions by post. Tris quickly grabbed the next piece of paper. It was a slightly different size to the first one, and when he unfolded it, it was obvious the letter was written in a new hand.

"This one's from her, Ms Merigale," Tris told Bill with a quick glance at the bottom of the page."'My Dear Dr Berwick, I appreciate your candid response to my enquiry. We should be direct with one another, since we are no longer children in the first rush of love. I, too, am seeking a life companion and I hope I do not read your letter with too much of a woman's eye when I take from it that you are a gentleman warm of spirit and gentle of nature.'"

"She has a way with her," Bill observed, putting down his cup and standing up, "but I have to get back to my men if you want your water supply by the end of the week, because we're off site tomorrow."

Tris put down the letter and moved to stand, but Bill waved a dismissive hand at him.

"Stay there, read your letters, at least I know then you're not falling down my freshly patched stairs."

Bill didn't smile, but there was a dry tone in his voice and he rolled his eyes.

"If one of your people could grab the bag I dropped upstairs for me, I swear to not leave this room," Tris offered, despite his previous plans, since the news that he would have a chance to look the place over alone the next day made up for any cosseting he'd have to put up with while the men were still around.

Bill snorted and disappeared out of the door, but two minutes later, Craig dropped off the backpack.


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Author Info: Susan Hill

You've already heard me mention The Woman In Black, a couple of times as I've talked about techniques in ghost stories. And today I get to wax lyrical about its author, Susan Hill, who, if M R James is the king of gothic horror, then Susan Hill is the living queen, in my opinion. I am in love with The Woman in Black, in all its guises, so excuse me if I gush :).

I first saw The Woman In Black on TV, an adaptation starring Adrian Rawlins, which scared the pants off me and I was hooked from them on. I next saw the stage play in London, a wonderfully terrifying version that made me very uncomfortable about rocking chairs :). The I finally read the original book from which these two adaptations were made. It is a thoroughly gothic experience, a surprise considering it was written in 1983, but it does transport the reader back to the turn of the 20th Century, when the wonders of the modern steam trains could take a man out into the wilderness, but the place itself had not totally caught up with the metropolis.

The story focuses on Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor sent to assess the estate of one Mrs Drablow, a widow who lived in large old house. Eel Marsh House, that is set on its own island cut off by the tide for much of the day. Thus we have our sinister setting, the dark, eerie old building and an isolated young man doing his job and unknowingly walking into a place of horrors. For Eel Marsh House and the nearby town are haunted by a woman, a dark figure with malevolent intentions. The vision of her heralds disaster, but that is nothing compared to the nightmare she becomes when she inhabits the house itself.

This story  makes use of classic tropes and backdrops and is one of the most unsettling ghost stories I have ever read/seen. The final adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe is also a masterpiece. However, The Woman in Black, is not the only ghost story Susan Hill has written, and the others, The Mist in the Mirror, Dolly and others, all have their own creepiness. Check out Susan's website for more details on her ghost stories and her other books.

British Hauntings: The Hairy Hands Ghost & Other Hitch-hikers

This breed of ghosts, the hitch-hiker and cousin, gives me the heebee jeebies, because, being a motorist, I'm in their line of fire. I drive on two roads (that I know of) which have phantom hitch-hikers: Bluebell Hill, which is part of the rat run from the M2 to the M20 in Kent. my two local motorways, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young girl who was killed there in the 60's; the road between Chippenham and Corsham in Wiltshire, on which I used to drive late at night to get home to my digs in Corsham, has a ghost that doesn't even try to flag you down, it just appears in the back of your car and terrifies you. Naturally, I used to get a bit jumpy driving down that road in the middle of the night with sweeping parkland disappearing away from the road into the dark.

I have to say, I've never met either of the ghosts on these haunted highways, but they still bother me in a way that other types of ghosts don't. Apparitions can be passive things, re-enacting a moment of intense emotion, but hitch-hikers interact with the human world, they have consciousness. This gives them motive and that makes them scary. The legend of The Hairy Hands is a well-known Dartmoor (Devon) incarnation of this kind of spirit that wants to interfere with motorists and it's a sinister one. On a stretch of road near Postbridge, it is said that a pair of hairy hands suddenly appear, grabbing hold of the steering wheel, or handlebars of a vehicle and trying to swerve the traveller(s) off the road!

I'd love to hear your own spooky stories, add them to the blog comments. :)

A few of us discovered that we all had supernatural themes for the AtoZ so we got together and did a mini list. If you also have a supernatural theme (ghosts, monsters, witches, spells etc), please feel free to add yourself to the list.

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30 comments:

  1. How incredibly creepy to have a ghost appear in the back seat of a car! Stuff like that is just not OK.

    Hitchhiker ghosts, to me, kind of sound like a modern version of spooky stories that have been going on for some time. I mean, you have the will-o'-the-wisps, for example, that lead unwary travelers astray (sometimes to their doom). And that's just one example. Hairy hands trying to swerve one's car off the road kind of makes me think it's the same thing, only modernized.

    Very interesting, at any rate. Thanks for sharing. :)

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    1. I know, it's scary creepy to have something just appear inside the little shell we're used to driving around in!

      Yes, good point, there have been tales of supernatural creatures affecting travellers into antiquity, and hitchhikers are the latest incarnation. :)

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  2. If hairy hands appeared on my steering wheel I don't think they'd have to do any swerving because I'd be panicking myself!
    Tasha
    Tasha's Thinkings - AtoZ (Vampires)
    FB3X - AtoZ (Erotic Drabbles)

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    1. I think you might be right there, Sis ;P

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  3. Sophie, what a marvellous article!

    I, too, am a massive fan of The Woman in Black; for me, it's the '89 TV adaptation and the stage production that really bring it to life. The book offers some of the most delicious scares and 'pleasing terror', as James would call it.

    You might enjoy my blog and book of 'new' Victorian ghost tales:

    BLOG: http://freakyfolktales.wordpress.com

    BOOK: http://mybook.to/ghosts

    Kind regards, Paul (FREAKY FOLK TALES)

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    1. The stage production is truly a great adaptation, I agree, I think being in the theatre means there a greater connection than watching it on TV or in the cinema and I was thoroughly and wonderfully scared both at the London production and when I saw it as a touring production as well. I really want to go back and see it again.

      P.S. I already bought your book :)

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  4. I haven't read as much horror as I would like to. But i do agree with you. Even in non-horror stories, it's good to keep in mind that the protagonists are only human. No one likes flawless heroes. Its the quirks and faults that make them relatable.

    Sania @ Fragile Words

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    1. Yup, you said it right, flaws do make things interesting :)

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  5. Oh, those hitchhiker ghosts give me the creeps - shudder!

    I have a note of Susan Hill's works, and now I'm looking forward to them even more after your rave. :)

    Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption
    Minion, Capt. Alex's Ninja Minion Army
    The 2014 Blogging from A-Z Challenge

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    1. We feel we should be safe in our cars and they can just appear - really creepy! ;P

      I'm afraid I can natter all day about Susan Hill :) Some folks might find her pace a little slow, but that adds to the creep factor for me :D

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  6. In my ghost story, the MC is actually the ghost and it's super important to remember he was once human at one point in the story because of how his death affects the plot.

    ~Patricia Lynne~
    Story Dam
    Patricia Lynne, YA Author

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    1. Remembering you were once human must be more difficult than being human. sounds like an intriguing story :)

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  7. My curiosity burns to read more of The Burning Web and the others, especially the Hairy Hands. Ugh, can feel the chill from that one.

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    1. I'm glad you're finding it interesting. The Hairy Hands is a scary one alright :)

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  8. I'm a big Susan Hill fan. She's wonderful. Excellent ghostly post.

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    1. Thank you - glad to meet another Susan Hill fan :)

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  9. Nicely done, again!

    A to Z via: deborahdera.com

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  10. However spectacular a ghost story becomes, one thing that every author has to remember is to ground the reader, to remind them that their protagonist is human

    You nailed it Girl :)

    Loved to know about Susan TOO

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  11. Just the title "The Hairy Hands Ghost" gave me the chills!

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    1. I know - they know how to name 'em in the West Country :)

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  12. I didn't know that ghosts could be hairy!

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  13. I love stories of hitchhiking ghosts, though I'd be terrified if any ever appeared in my car. All the more reason to not pick up hitchhikers.

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    1. Definitely - only some of them it appears, don't give us the choice!

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  14. I'm enjoying your writing.

    The hitchhiking hauntings are creepy. It's probably because people are too tired and shouldn't be driving.

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    1. Thanks :)

      You are probably right, it's tiredness, or could be a lay of the land. Some places gather mist when nowhere else does, so driving past, people could see a humanlike shape by the side of the road.

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  15. I remember once when I went out in my hubbies lorry delivering in the early hours of the morning. We were travelling along a small country lane to a small village outside of Ipswich (can't remember the actual place now). We came to this bend in the road, trees lined both sides making a tunnel. As we approached, I got this horrible, empty cold feeling inside, and I can say it is one of maybe five times I've actually been scared. As soon as we cleared the bend, the feeling left.
    Okay, not an actual hitch-hiker story, but there was definitely something spooky going on there.

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    1. Sounds like something bad happened at that corner and you picked up the vibes. Very spooky. The only positive is that at least you weren't alone in the lorry. Thanks for sharing.

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Thanks for stopping by - I'd love to hear from you. :)