Reading Ghost Stories As Research

15 10 2014

To prepare for a ghost novel I plan to write, I have read three contemporary ghost stories. “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters is the most classically gothic, set in a post-WWII English estate. “The Green Man” by Kingsley Amis takes the classical ghost story and updates it to swinging ‘60s England. Grady Hendrix brings the story to post-industrial Ohio to comment on our working world in “Horrorstor”.

“The Green Man” follows a traditionally alcoholic and rakish Amis protagonist as he runs a bed-and-breakfast in developing rural England. The character tolerates his family, drinks huge amounts of scotch, and works to connive ménage a trois with another man’s wife. He is turned into an anti-hero by his biting observations and the unsettling death of his father.
The B&B setting is haunted by a 17th century sorcerer. The protagonist’s obsession with the apparition drives the story to an end that’s more contemplative and less chilling. It’s an examination of death rather than the dead.
The book itself is only worth examination. The sorcerer is intriguing but Amis gives no thought as to what powers his work. Plot threads dangle and sway in the wind.
I found this useful only in how well Amis works with realistic characters.

I read “Horrorstor” all the way through in one sitting. I’ve enjoyed Grady Hendrix through Pseudopod.org’s readings of “Tales of the White Lodge Street Society”, farces in which a Carnaki-like adventurer spins tales of ghosts, booze, money, and racism. Hendrix also writes a very funny weekly takedown of CBS’ “The Dome” for Tor.com.
He brings his mix of morbid humor and social commentary to “Horrorstor”, a ghost story set in a furniture store styled like Ikea. As a ghost story, it owes more to Stephen King than M.R. James, with awesome effects over suspense.
I work in a Big Box store and sympathized with the young protagonist Amy in her retail job, dealing with customers, the cost of living, and corporate culture. In its own way, this book was its own cutthroat retail operation.
To keep the plot moving, Hendrix cut character development to the bone. For the plot to be plausible, he eliminated resources like custodial contractors, Asset Protection, and lighting to assist surveillance. To serve both humor and horror, the story effectively had two endings in which the villain is defeated but the innocent still suffer.
I’d like to be funny, chilling, and socially aware when I write. I like this book. It had some laughs and a few chills.

I learned that I want a conclusive ending and to keep as close to “real” as I can get. “Conclusive” can be tricky in the Gothic tradition, where hauntings could be ghosts, or hallucinations, or psychic projections onto reality. “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters uses artistic sleight-of-hand on the reader through limited and sometimes unreliable POV. A young man come of age in the shadow of an English estate, studies to be a doctor, and becomes physician and confidant to the estate family. The war has shattered the soul of the heir. The matron mourns a child long deceased. The independent daughter feels stifled by tradition. The house is falling into ruin. Who is setting the fires? Who is scribbling childish phrases in the most unlikely places?
Sarah Waters researches the hell out of her subjects. Her descriptions feel lush and full without slowing the plot. The suspense alone was enough to get me through the 500+ word novel, the first one of such length I had read in years.
From this book, I learned a couple of neat phrasings, and reinforced the idea of “adverbs should be placed after the modified verb, if they must be used at all.”

Overall, I think I gained only some focus through reading these novels. I discovered I want a conclusive, objective force powering the supernatural events. I gained a better sense of how to balance description and action. I still want to experiment with anomie versus physical isolation, and see if I can pull off the trick of “things walking in broad daylight”. I’ll be reading Peter Straub next, I think, and see what I can find.


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