Things That Go Bump in the Night

I have always preferred music written in a minor key. I like ploughed fields and the tracery of bare trees on the horizon set against a lowering sky, with the haunting sound of crow call breaking the winter silence. I like thunder storms, power cuts and candlelight.

My reading preference from a very young age has been for stories tinged with sadness or suspense. I prefer unresolved endings.  I don’t like horror and gore but I love sensation and suspense.  So it won’t surprise you to know that I love traditional ghost stories.

I take my ghost stories seriously.  I am fascinated by the past. Visiting historic sites, I can easily imagine myself in another time and if I close my eyes I can hear the voices from the past and visualise the stories taking shape on that spot. And those are the ghost stories that I prefer, the ones that bring the stories of people and events from the past into the present. Isn’t that after all what makes us human: our life stories and the fact that we can hand them down orally, in writing or in the objects that we leave behind us? For me there is no greater pleasure than listening to the wind howl and rain driving against the window pane whilst curled under a duvet in front of an open fire, reading a ghost story. 

I know I am not alone. When working with children I will often ask if they like funny stories. Lots of hands usually shoot up. If I ask the same question about sad stories some, but fewer, hands are raised. If I then ask, ‘who likes stories that make their skin tingle and the hairs on the back of the neck rise?’, a  sea of hands is waved enthusiastically.

Ghost stories have their roots in traditional tales. Most villages and towns have their own stories of hauntings and there’s nothing quite like a good ghost story for encouraging tourism. In our county, Essex, we can boast to be home to reportedly the most ‘haunted house in Britain’, Borley Rectory. The stories live on in the popular imagination, even though the investigative  psychic studies conducted at the infamous house have been largely discredited and the house was destroyed in the 1930s.

The literary ghost story was a product of the Victorian age with M R James the acknowledged master of the genre. The appetite for ghost stories increased throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, Philippa Pearce, in the forward to ‘Dread and Delight’, notes that the children’s ghost story is a relatively new addition to children’s literature. It  became popular in the 1970s with the publication of books such as Leon Garfield’s ‘Mr Corbett’s Ghost’ (1969), which tells the tale of a young apprentice, Benjamin, who is cruelly treated by his employer, Mr Corbett. Benjamin wishes Mr Corbett dead, but when his wish is granted he finds himself haunted by the man he most hated.  

Garfield’s story is suspenseful  and will certainly cause a few shudders, but other ghost stories are more comedic. For instance, in Penelope Lively’s Carnegie Medal winning  ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’ (1973) a 17th century sorcerer materializes with the intent of turning a young boy into his apprentice. There is much humour in the bad-tempered poltergeist’s antics. Lively’s ghost allows her to peel back layers of time and to explore the persistence of history and tradition by intertwining the past and present. So the ghost story has a wide range of tone, at one end verging on horror as in Chris Priestley’s ‘Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror’, and at the other high comedy ‘Scooby Do style’.

However for me, great ghost stories have, as Ruskin Bond reminds us, 'something important to teach us'. Robert Westall’s ‘The Watch House ‘(1977) tells the story of a lonely girl who becomes obsessed by the old Life Brigade’s Watch House. Set in Garmouth, this is a tale about the presence of restless spirits of long-dead sailors and the brooding suspense of being watched from the windows of the Watch House. Westall writes, ‘perhaps I use the supernatural as a viewpoint to comment on the inner world of psychology (in Pearce 1995:343) This applies equally to Clif McNish’s ‘Breathe’ (2006) Jack has an affinity with the spirits of the dead and when he and his mother move to an isolated house following the death of his father, Jack immediately senses the presence of spirits reaching out to claim him. At the heart of this story is the Ghost Mother – long dead but still mourning her daughter. She has intercepted the passage of four children from the world of the living to the afterlife and draws them into her terrifying Nightmare Passage. Jack’s survival depends on his own powers, his understanding of the Ghost Mother’s guilt and the resolution of his own grief. It is a powerful story and not for the feint-hearted,

As the nights draw in, this is the perfect time of year to enjoy some ghost stories with your class. Make a collection of different kinds of ghost story to suit the tastes and sensibilities of the children.

Why not have a ghost story evening after dark? Invite children and parents into school for a camp fire style session with comforting hot chocolate and marshmallows.

If you are reading ghost stories as part of your literacy teaching, here are some things you might want to consider after immersing children in stories and books:

  • What function do ghosts serve in these stories?
    • Do they provide a reference point by contrasting the past with the present?
    • Do they allow a character to come to terms with something in their personal lives?
    • Are they the source of humour?
    • Does their presence raise philosophical questions (e.g Tom’s Midnight Garden – who is the ghost? what is he relationship between ghosts, the past, dreaming?)
  • Is there an explanation for the ghost’s presence or is it left unresolved?
  • What tone is created in the story and how does the writer achieve this?
  • What techniques does the author use to create suspense and surprise?

We have put together some packs of spooky stories and ghost stories suitable for children at different ages. These themed packs are a great way to keep library and class collections refreshed and up-to-date.

Library Pack: Ghost Stories UKs2/KS3

Library Packs: Spooky Stories KS1 and Spooky Stories KS2

Nikki Gamble

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