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Recently, I’ve been delving into the works of Sabine Baring-Gould. Born in Exeter (hooray), he’s most famous for having written the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. Less well-known is the fact that he was also a prolific writer of ghost stories… an odd choice for a man of the cloth, you might say.

Even better, he was also regarded as one of the world’s experts in werewolves. Eek!

What are his stories like?

So far, I’ve only read four of his short stories, and they’re an intriguingly mixed bunch.

There are plenty of the conventions of the genre in there, such as spooky settings like deserted churches at night, manor houses (also at night) and so forth. But there’s also a surprising amount of humour, not to mention other elements (like the mundane representation of daily life), that almost kill the spooky mood at times.

Some ghost-story purists might not appreciate this, but I must say, I’ve been enjoying it so far. It got me thinking – what makes a ghost story, and just how far can you bend the rules?

The common features of a ghost story

There’s a wealth of cracking ghost stories out there; from the classic, gnawing fear of Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, to the more modern hauntings of a Stephen King novel.

They typically share some similarities. For example:

-        The eerie setting. This is often an old house, a churchyard, a forest, or a deserted building. Some recent authors have played around with this a bit, but the premise remains the same; it’s a location that’s usually isolated, dark, and difficult to escape from.

 

-        The slow, creeping pace. Most ghost stories start with small things. The creak on the stairs at night. The pacing in the attic above. The low moan, coming from somewhere in the dark woods. Then, as the story progresses, things become less easy to explain away, until the events reach a climax.

 

-        The ghost. A bit of an obvious one – but all ghost stories invariably have a ghost (funnily enough). This can take many forms. In The Haunting of Hill House, the ghost is the house itself, sort of. In Christine, it’s a car. The ghost isn’t always a threat though. Sometimes, it conveys an important message. At other times, it’s trapped and needs to be set free. Usually, the ghost is a metaphor for something – e.g. our darkest fears, or our concerns about something in our daily lives.

Always scary?

In one of Sabine Baring-Gould’s stories, the ghost only shows up right at the end, to protect her son from the cruelty of others. She’s not at all frightening, and seems to be a device to represent the power of a mother’s love, even from the grave.

Despite that fact, this tale would still (just about) be classified as a ghost story. There are other examples of this – in fact, I can think of some books that are funny and scary at the same time!

My personal take on it is that (like any genre), you can muck around with ghost stories to a certain degree – as long as you keep most of the common features in place.

Ghosts for kids?

Hey, Caspar the Friendly Ghost was fairly well received, wasn’t he? I’m a great believer in writing about the supernatural for kids, and if approached in the right way, children respond really well to it. The Addams Family (admittedly a film) is another great example – it’s gothic, quite dark at times, but hits the humour at a level that younger viewers can relate to.

In fact, mixing humour with the supernatural is a great way to make ghost stories accessible for kids. Having worked voluntarily in a school library for well over a year and a half now, I’ve noticed that young readers love stories with a whiff of spooky about them. The Goosebumps series, for example, remains very popular.

Play around with the genre

I love a bit of experimentation with writing. I have to confess, most of my books take the ghost story format and twist it to a significant degree. The Dr Ribero series brings a sense of the ridiculous into ghost-hunting. The Hanged Man and the Fortune Teller is essentially a story about loss and grieving, told from a ghost’s perspective. And yes, I’ve written a few children’s stories about ghosts too!

It’s a fun genre to mess about with. But if ghost stories aren’t your thing, I’d say it’s possible to get playful with any sort of genre. A romance that’s also sci-fi? Why not? A crime story with elements of steampunk? Sounds fun to me!