Wednesday, 2 April 2014

A to Z Challenge 2014 - Ghosts - B is For Backdrop, Borley Rectory, and E. F. Benson

A to Z Challenge 2014 - Ghosts
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So today, it's on to B, and, as part of my discussion on the aspects of a good ghost story, I'm going to be talking about backdrop. Plus there's the second part of my ghostly serial, The Burning Web. My featured author today is E. F. Benson and I'll be giving you some insight in the very haunted Borley Rectory on my tour of British Hauntings.

B is for Backdrop

Not every good ghost story, but most of them, and pretty much all the ones I really enjoy ;P, have to have an atmospheric canvas against which to paint their story. M R James was a master at creating atmosphere, from dark libraries stacked to the ceiling with books, isolating the lonely man within, to apparently mundane guest house bedrooms where bedsheets can become a terror that gives me the shudders just thinking about it. If you look closely at my banner, you'll see an illustration by James McBryde from the very first M R James publication, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, containing that terrifying story, Whistle & I'll Come To You. Dartmoor, too, is a great backdrop for the hell hound in Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles.

There are also more modern settings that have been put to good use as well. The empty mental asylum in movies like The House on Haunted Hill, and Boo!.  However, I think a writer can never go wrong with a good, old fashioned haunted house. :) We are fortunate in Britain to be surrounded by old buildings, castles, manor houses, cottages by the sea, and all of them could come with one or more tales of the supernatural. These can serve as great inspiration, none more so than the lonely house in the woods described in Walter de la Mare's, The Listeners.
"Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
Already in just two lines, he's told us it is night, and a lonely traveller is asking for shelter. The poem goes on, interspersing the phantoms of the darkness with descriptions of the echoingly empty house.

It is every writer's job to spin the backdrop for their story, but nowhere is it more important, I think, than in the ghost story, where the entire piece is dependent on atmosphere. When I began work on The Burning Web, I knew I wanted to write a haunted house story, and so came to life, Berwick House, a large, Victorian relic in need of repair and, just like any character, the house has to be introduced. :)
by Sophie Duncan

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From the passenger seat, Tris watched the trees go by. They lined the single-track road that Xander was navigating like a latticed tunnel, most of the leaves now gone after the Autumn, but their branches tangling overhead. Tris found himself leaning back in his seat and looking up at the way the frosty light broke through in thin shards. He'd never have even noticed before, but he smiled as the beauty of the morning rippled by.

The dappled world only added to the excitement building in Tris and he could feel the smile getting wider and wider the closer he and Xander came to their future. He looked across at his husband, who was concentrating on the road. However, apparently Xander still had half an eye on him, because, without evening glancing over, Xander immediately told Tris, "Easy does it today. It's a house, not an excuse for a marathon."

"Yes, Dad," Tris teased back, petulant-teenager strong in his tone.

"I mean it," Xander carried on and he did glance at Tris this time, worry in his dark eyes. "Promise me, if you feel anything, you'll let me know."

That anxious glance tempered Tris' excitement and he shifted in his seat at the reminder all was not as it had once been with his health.

"I promise," he mumbled, his hand rubbing over the top of the walking stick that was resting against his right knee.

"Look, I don't want to rain on your parade, Love," Xander rushed on and reached over to squeeze Tris' knee as he steered them round a long bend. "This is important to me too, and I'm as pumped as you, but let's take this tour one step at a time. The place is going to be a mess with all the workmen around. Don't be disappointed."

Tris laughed gently at the ever so slight condescension in Xander's manner. He'd become used to it in the last five months, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to call his husband on it.

"One thing this bloody aneurysm didn't break was my sense of perspective, Xan," he quipped back, determined not to let his mood slip.

"Oh really," Xander teased right on back, the corner of his mouth twitching. "I'll remind you of that when you-"

Tris didn't hear the rest of what Xander said, because just then they turned right between a pair of rusted, but ornate iron gates and, as soon as they were past the tree line, not fifty yards away, up rose all three Victorian Gothic stories of Berwick House to greet him. Tris sat forward a little, dropping his gaze under the top edge of the windscreen to get a full view of their soon-to-be home as it loomed over their approach and blood pressure or not, Tris couldn't help it, he was excited by what he saw. The place actually had four levels if you counted the cellar, he'd poured over all the pictures that he'd made Xander take so many times, he knew the layout by heart, but this was his first view of the place for real and it was breathtaking. She wasn't a beauty, if she had been a woman, she would have been what the Victorians referred to as 'handsome', if somewhat shabby at the present. The surrounds of her bow windows, once a gleaming cream stone which contrasted with the grey of her walls, were green with moss and mould and some of the external sills were missing pieces. Still, Tris had seen past the decay from years of neglect as soon as he'd seen the picture in the paper and it had been love at first sight.

As soon as Xander drew the car to a stop on the weedy gravel in front of the house, Tris pushed open his door and put out his good foot. A little more hastily than was advisable, he reached up to the top edge of the door and then hauled himself out of his seat, dragging his gammy leg and walking stick after him. Looking up, he let the door swing shut behind him and shifted his weight as he shoved the foot of his stick into the gravel and leant on it. This was it, the moment he's been planning for months, the reason he had been pushing himself to get fit. Months of rehab and a lot of dreaming had gone into Berwick House and finally he was here.

As Xander crunched round the front of their car and joined him, Tris grinned widely and felt the first flush of real hope he'd had in a long time. He grabbed for Xander's hand, squeezing tightly and breathed, "Finally."

Xander smiled too and took his own glance upward, his profile revealing at least a tinge of disbelief.

"Y'know, renovating an old pile like this is somewhat beyond the gentle rehabilitation recommended for those recovering from a subarachnoid haemorrhage," his husband murmured and slipped a protective arm round Tris' waist.

Tris continued to grin though: nothing was going to ruin this moment.

"You know me, I'd have died of boredom without all the planning to keep me going," he countered, knowing he had to be sounding like an over-excited schoolboy.

"Just remember you did almost die, okay?" Xander sighed and tightened his hold for a moment.

Tris shrugged, but didn't reply, there was no need. Instead, he turned his attention to the large door with peeling paint, but with what looked like an original lion-headed knocker. It had once been grand, just like the house, but now there was something not quite right and it took Tris a few seconds to realise what it was: the door wasn't quite straight in the frame, in fact, there wasn't a hope in hell of it opening. Tris glanced sideways again, and from Xander's squint he knew his husband had come to the same conclusion.

"Round the back?" he suggested.

Xander nodded and so they headed past the right bow window and followed the gravel round the side of the house. The path was uneven, fading into grass at times, so Tris took it slowly, or rather, Xander took it slowly, moving in front of Tris as the path narrowed and therefore made Tris keep to his pace. However, it did give Tris a chance to look down over what had once been a lawn, but was now more of a meadow, that dropped gently away down to a large pond. Half way down the side of the house, he paused to take in the view that was backed by a tight line of overly tall pines that hid any countryside beyond. He wasn't sure why his eye was drawn to the place that was largely in shadow. Reeds and weed choked the dark water, obscuring the details of a small statue in the centre, strangling what had once been some kind of cherub. The whole image gave Tris the chills, but he found his attention held, nevertheless, his vision swimming a little as he concentrated on the half-hidden features of the childlike form.

Tris squinted to try and make the scene stand still, but it shifted even more and the brown-green of the cherubic stone face sunk away, leaving another dark-eyed visage in its place. Tris has seen that face, felt those eyes boring into him so many times he recognised the feel of them before they had even clarified in his vision. Gasping a breath, he turned away and grabbed for the wall to steady himself.

"Tris?" Xander asked anxiously, returning to his side and reaching out.

"I'm okay," Tris told himself more than he did Xander, which made him a little sharper than he wanted to be.

Immediately sorry for his tone, Tris took the hand that was offered to him and apologised with a look. He took another deep breath and relaxed against his husband.

"Long distance made me dizzy," he excused his reaction and waved in the direction of the pond without daring to look back at it. "I'm okay now."

Xander accepted the answer, although he didn't let go again, so they walked slowly the rest of the way half on and half off the path.

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Author Info: E. F Benson

E. F. Benson (1867 - 1940) is well known for his Mapp & Lucia books, stories close to my heart. because the television series from the 80's starring Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan was partly filmed in my home village of Chilham. However, he was also a prolific writer of the macabre and horror. I've come across his work in many a ghostly anthology, and, thanks to Kindle, I now own a great number of his works in Hauntings & Horrors: The Collected Works of E F Benson.

I haven't read all his ghostly tales yet, so here is my opinion on just a few. The Room in The Tower is a tense story about a prophetic dream drawing a man to his fate, an inevitable confrontation with the horror in tower. While The Man Who Went Too Far is a strangely whimsical tale of a man rediscovering youth by embracing joy, but then stepping too far into Nature and his encounter with the spirit there leads to dire consequences. The Other Bed, so simply titled with so much menace! And yes, it is exactly what you think it is, a gentleman staying in a hotel in Switzerland ends up with a twin room and begins to realise he is not actually alone.

Benson's work has a genuine flow, it is easy to read and builds gradually to its inevitable unsettling resolution. Benson is quite a master of suspense in that regard, drip feeding the information and slowly building up the protagonist's disquiet along, of course, with his reader. Not all his stories are dark, but all carry a note of mystery that can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The stories in the tome I recommend above are generally short, can be read in 15 minutes to half an hour, so give them a go, you won't regret it. :)

British Hauntings: Borley Rectory

If you are familiar with the haunted landscape of the British Isles, chances are you will have heard of Borley Rectory in Suffolk, since it has been billed (among others, I must admit) as the most haunted house in England. That epithet is largely due to the investigations and promotion of one Harry Price, a paranormal investigator with, sadly, a somewhat tarnished reputation. He was a tireless self-promoter, and he has been accused of fakery at worst, and, if we are being generous, taking advantage of the gullibility of others.

However, that does not detract from the shiver-inducing ability of the tales that have come out of Borley from the first half of the 20th Century. Theses stories have made the front page of national newspapers in the UK. The main haunting is that of a nun, a familiar figure in British ghost lore, who not only haunts the grounds of the rectory on the aptly named 'Nun's Walk', but is also said to be inside a phantom coach and horses that runs down the surrounding lanes. Apparently the rectory was built across her route. The house itself was supposed to be extremely haunted: a face appearing at one of the ground floor windows, phantoms seen in different rooms of the house, to the point where the family living there avoid those rooms at certain times. during Price's investigations, there were also reports of writing appearing on walls and flying masonry.

However, if you want to visit and stay a night in the rectory, I'm afraid you're out of luck, because it burned down in 1948 and all that remains is a shell. That hasn't stopped the ghosts, though!

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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  1. I now own two new ghost eBooks - thanks :) Great post as always my dear sibling.
    Tasha's Thinkings

  2. The Borley Rectory!! I remember reading about that one when I was a kid.

    Backdrop is important. I think as the first two seasons of American Horror Story show that where the story happens is just as important as what happens.

    Great post!

    Timothy S. Brannan
    The Other Side, April Blog Challenge: The A to Z of Witches

    1. I really, really want to see American Horror Story, but I keep missing it on the channel it's shown on in the UK.

  3. Ghost nun. Hm. I wonder where she is going.

    1. The stories of the nun are somewhat convoluted, but one suggestion is that she was betrayed and murdered by a man, possibly a suitor. So maybe she is going to meet him when people see her.

  4. Backdrop are majorly important for the spook factor. Or in my opinion.

    1. Whether going with the traditional haunted house or a sparkling modern location which contrasts with the ghostly goings on, backdrop is certainly a big part of ghost stories.

  5. I can comment on yours. :)

    The Listeners has been a favourite of mine since I did it in school when I was very young.

    1. yay - technology works sometimes :)

      The Listeners is one of the few poems that had an impact on me as a child and it's stuck with me always. I'm glad it's one that schools do a lot, because I think it is a great introduction to story-telling poetry.

  6. When a ghost story happens in a regular setting - like an ordinary house - that can be even scarier.

    1. Good point, that is true, because of the contrast of normal surroundings to unnatural events. Poltergeist is a good example, where the events take place in an ordinary domestic property which slowly descends into a nightmare,

  7. I wish I could go back to England. There were some seriously "scary" places I went as a child, but now as an adult I could go anywhere! :)

    I love descriptive backdrops without the in-your-face-spelling-out-every-single-detail. :) Thanks for the post. Good on you!

    Jamie Dement (LadyJai)
    My A to Z
    Caring for My Veteran

    1. Thanks for stopping by :)

      There are loads of places in England that are scary as hell. We do have a surfeit of castles and spooky places ;P

      I so agree on the not-spelling-it-out idea, nothing in writing should be thrown in the face of the reader, but with locations and situations, it's really important.

  8. I love scary/ghost/horror stories, books and movies! My husband just finished reading THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and he really enjoyed it.

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

    1. I think The Hound of the Baskervilles is ones of Holmes' best adventures, but then I'm biased, I like all the gothic backdrop :) I'm glad to meet another horror story fan - thanks for stopping by.

  9. Supernatural...I like it. Pretty cool idea to have a mini list listing all similar blogs. I agree with you on setting the backdrop for horror. Loved the verse you shared as an example too.

    Sania @ Fragile Words

    1. Thanks. I can't claim the idea of the list, that was my sis, Tasha and Timothy Brannan, but yeah, it's a good idea :). Walter de la Mare is a master of atmosphere - glad you liked the verse.

  10. one of the best ghost movies i have ever watched (and nearly strangled my poor dog because it scared the crud out of me) was the woman i black with daniel radcliffe in it. talk about excellent backdrop. the setting was creep-tastic both in and outside. excellent movie. also based off the book by susan hill, i believe.

    1. Yes, yes it was and I totally agree, absolutely brilliant movie. scared me witless - I love it. :)

  11. Love this instalment in your story. Although a little confused as to if the murder occurred before or after? Still, well written all the same, especially the description of the house!
    Will be back tomorrow for my fix! ;)

  12. Wot? It burned down? I was just getting really interested! Sigh... all the best place eventually fall down, don't they ... even the scariest ones.

    Thoroughly enjoyed your story - it's so refreshing to see a couple that isn't a man and a woman!

    1. Yep, unfortunately for all the ghost hunters out there, Borley is now only a frontage. Although ghosts don't always take note of their surroundings, so they may still be there. :)

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed the story. Tris and Xander formed in my head as I was conceiving the plot and I liked their domesticity, their 'coupleness' :)

  13. I have always loved a good ghost story, and backdrop is really important. Without it, it's nearly impossible to feel as scared when reading (or viewing).

    1. true. I think it's really important for a writer to decide on their atmosphere before they start their story, whether that be contrasting or sympathetic to a haunting :) Thanks for commenting,

  14. There are a few local buildings that I think would make perfect settings for a ghost story. They are abandoned and huge and just the outside says "I'm haunted."

    ~Patricia Lynne~
    Story Dam
    Patricia Lynne, YA Author

    1. Are they the kind you try not to look at in detail when you walk past them in the dark in case you see something? ;)

  15. I'm so enjoying your tales and examination of ghost story structure. Excellent stuff!

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


    BOOK: :)

    I also have a FB page:

    Best wishes, Paul (Freaky Folk Tales)

    1. Nnow that sounds like something I will be interested in - I'm off to check it out :)

    2. BTW - I just bought your book :)


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