Friday, 12 June 2020

Rereading Ghost Stories


I wouldn't usually associate reading ghost stories with this time of year now that summer is here, however with the weather here in Wales having taken a turn from glorious sunshine and blue skies to grey days and howling winds, I just felt in the mood for a good old ghost story... So I read three; returning to some tried & true favourites. 

When it comes to pulling ghost stories off my bookshelf, I always turn to Susan Hill & Michelle Paver.

The first ghost story I settled myself into was DARK MATTER BY MICHELLE PAVER. This book is Michelle Paver's first ghost story... And perhaps my favourite of hers.

Fed up with the way his life has panned out, Jack Miller is in want and need of a change, a challenge, something to take him away from his mundane job and lonely existence. When an opportunity arises for him to join an Arctic expedition working in communications, Jack happily signs himself up; whilst, initially, he feels a class divide and personality clash between himself and the other men on the expedition, he is keen to get himself away from London. Research done, kits acquired, and provisions prepped, the men set up camp in Gruhuken... And this is where the story really gets started, told to the reader through Jack's journal; his personal account.

Dark Matter is an unsettling read: the isolated setting creates a sense of unease, with the atmosphere being chilling before even adding otherworldly elements. The use of a journal as a storytelling method is very clever in this instance, as we are able to see first hand exactly how this environment affects those now inhabiting it - not only is paranoia present in his thoughts, but Jack himself references a change in his writing, and mindset, over the course of the entries.

There isn't a whole lot going on in Dark Matter plot point wise, but not in a bad way... The simplicity is one of the beauties of this book. For me, reading Dark Matter is more about the experience, the feeling that envelopes me as I sit in a darkened room, cosied in my warmest blanket. My reread experience was positive, and as with many books I reread, I discovered appreciation for things I hadn't previously. 

I have another Michelle Paver ghost story coming up  - Thin Air - however, I'm breaking up my reading of Paver's ghost stories with my absolute favourite Susan Hill ghost story: The Woman in Black.
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My go to ghost story is definitely THE WOMAN IN BLACK BY SUSAN HILL. I have quite the history with this book and I find whenever I return to it, the experience is heightened each time. As well as having read the book, I have seen the movie (slightly different to the book) and watched the theatre play (twice) of The Woman in Black; I find these other types of media come in to play whilst reading also.

The Woman in Black is the story of Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor assigned to deal with the affairs of Mrs Alice Drablow after her passing. Sent to Crythin Gifford, in order to attend Mrs Drablow's funeral and sort through papers at her home, Arthur initially sees this assignment as a good thing for him, with more responsibility meaning better prospects, however by the time he leaves Crythin Gifford, Arthur sees it quite differently - his life changed in the few short days spent in Crythin Gifford, and in turn Alice Drablow's house, Eel Marsh House.

When arriving in the town, and his business there being known, Arthur already feels a mystery surrounding Alice and her home - people seem concerned when Arthur mentions her, nobody wants to fill him in fully on the hints he is given regarding her - but he was sent there to do a job, and that's what he intends to do.

Despite already having had a shakeable experience, Arthur sets himself up in Eel Marsh House after discovering that working Mrs Drablow's papers isn't going to be a quick and easy task. Eel Marsh House is set back from the rest of the village, with a causeway that is unpassable during high tide - the place is remote, isolated, Arthur is on his own.

The scenes that take place once Arthur has set himself up in Eel Marsh House are some of my most favourite within this book... They are atmospheric, immersive, and so well paced; there are times when I find I'm clutching my book just that little bit tighter. 

For me, The Woman in Black is quite a traditional ghost story in many senses - with sightings, hauntings, secrets best left buried - and Susan Hill pulls that all together wonderfully.
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Last, and by no means least, I picked up THIN AIR BY MICHELLE PAVER.

Along with three other friends, Stephen Pearce and his brother Kits set out on a mountaineering expedition to climb Kangchenjunga. The year is 1935 and no one has yet to summit the mountain, despite numerous failed attempts; one of such attempts being the Lyell expedition, in which Stephen and the team are practically following the footsteps of, despite much hesitation from the locals and also a man who was himself on the Lyell expedition, in which a handful of the team were lost.

Much is known about the Lyell expedition, largely in part due to a memoir penned by survivor and leader of the expedition, Sir Edmund Lyell... However, we come to learn that perhaps not all of what Lyell wrote is true.

The story itself is told from the viewpoint of Stephen, with a lot of the narrative including the brotherly dynamics between him & Kits - I like this inclusion and definitely found it had a strong significance to the unfolding story. 

I found the ghost elements within Thin Air unsettling, with the pace being slow and steady before catching us unaware. The backdrop of mountain, and all the superstitions that surround it, really add to that frightened feeling.

Although there is darkness in the plot of Thin Air, largely regarding the Lyell expedition, I do think this book would be good for those who like a more gentle ghost story.
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I have taken three things, from these three books, that tend to set me up for success when it comes to the enjoyment of a ghost story: isolated environments, male protagonists and the subtle supernatural. If you have any ghost story recommendations along these lines, I'd love to hear them. 

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE GHOST STORY?
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6 comments

  1. Susan Hill is an author I always wanted to try but, still haven't; it sounds like I need to.

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    1. I can only speak for her ghost stories - those are wonderfully well written. Susan Hill has a crime/mystery series that I keep meaning to start, but have yet to get round to that (I think because it is a long running series).

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  2. I read ghost stories all year! Both of those Michelle Paver books are on my TBR list. I haven’t been able to find cheap used copies of them yet, and my library doesn’t have them.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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    1. Oh, I totally see why... I tend to associate them with autumn/winter though.

      Oh, that's a shame - I hope you're able to get your hands on copies at some point. I think the settings are quite unique (for ghost stories) and the way Michelle Paver writes creates such an atmospheric envelope around you as you read.

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  3. I love ghost stories, but I haven't read either of the Michelle Paver books. I will need to keep an eye for them.

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