It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of ghost stories, especially well-written, evocative, psychologically astute ones. Susan Price’s collection Hauntings ticks all three boxes, and more besides.
The ghost story, at least if it’s to be done well, isn’t an easy form to master. (Having written a few myself, some of which were more successful than others, I can speak from experience.) The ghost story is often categorised as a sub-genre of horror, yet usually contains few of the over-the-top theatrics that characterise a much more showy kind of horror. The ghost story, instead, relies on the slow, careful evocation of place and mood and a mounting sense of dread or uncertainty, followed by the careful, controlled release of tension. A good ghost story, it’s fair to say, is a great deal easier to read than to write.
Price, however, knows exactly what she’s doing, and the stories in this collection are an unqualified success. These are tales set on the curious, queasy border between this world and another, a border which may or may not exist only in the mind (this uncertainty is partly what lends the ghost story it’s curious power, perhaps). Most of them are set, very recognisably, in more-or-less contemporary Britain, and yet they allow us to experience another world and time. An old farm, slowly being swallowed up by urban sprawl, seems to coexist with another dimension, which is also perhaps in danger of disappearing. A young woman lives another life through her dreams. A terrorised victim of school bullies finds that she can have her revenge – at a price. A fraudulent medium experiences something truly unearthly. The tensions and power play of an ordinary marriage attract, or create, a supernatural force.
What anchors these stories and makes them so believable and powerful is that they are set in a realistic, tangible world. It’s a world of suburbs and pubs, farms and industrial estates. The characters too are real people: they speak in local dialect, behave as everyday people do, and often seem to be way too down-to-earth to be afflicted by supernatural happenings. So when the supernatural arrives it seems all the more urgent and real, and all the more unsettling.
Though these stories will almost certainly send a shiver up your spine, they are not primarily horrifying. They are rooted in folk tales, folk history, and legend. Like many ghost stories, they are often also curiously comforting – that death might not be the end has always been a seductive idea, which is perhaps why ghost stories were dreamed up in the first place. In one particularly memorable moment in one of the stories, a witness cannot bear to look: not, as you might think, because he’s scared, but because he can’t bear the thought that there might be nothing there after all.
These are ghost stories just the way I like them: stories that suggest that, just beyond the realm of ordinary perception, there is another world; and that, sometimes and in some places, the veil can be lifted, and that world can be glimpsed or experienced. This may or may not be true, but it’s a powerful idea; and that power is channelled carefully in Hauntings, and crafted to create these marvellously-realised tales. If you like ghost stories, you’ll love this.