Our occasional ‘Stories behind Stories‘ series features our writers talking about the inspiration and ideas behind their work. Here, Alex Clark tell us how she came to write ‘Poor Billy’, which is featured in our current anthology Separations.
Ghosts, it seems, are usually attached to places. The haunted house, the haunted graveyard, the haunted wood: as Halloween approaches, you’ll see them adorning everything from boxes of biscuits to babygrows. A thousand horror films have at their centre the Bad Place, where no-one should go but we know they will: the place where the unquiet spirit waits, seeking justice or vengeance.
Give this a moment’s thought, and it’s a bit odd. Why don’t the ghosts go out wandering? Why don’t they go looking for the people who’ve done them wrong? Or try to correct whatever terrible mistake led them to be stuck in the real world? Of course, in some stories and in some other cultures, they do. The ghost in Western culture, though, is usually stuck on its home turf, acting out the same horrors over and over again.
With the dawn of spiritualism, in the Victorian and Edwardian period, it was inevitable that people would start investigating why this might be. Intelligent, rational people set out to investigate hauntings, feats of mediumship and black magic. For a glimpse of the true weirdness of this time I strongly recommend a visit to the Wikipedia page for Harry Price, amateur magician and psychical researcher of the early twentieth century, which features tales of talking mongooses, egg-white ectoplasm and boys transforming into goats.
The idea of seriously investigating these kinds of phenomena seems ludicrous to us now, yet many of the investigators were not fools. They knew that most of the supernatural claims were hoaxes, but they believed that it was possible they might find a tiny core of genuine paranormal activity. This activity could then be investigated, to find the mechanisms by which apparitions might appear to people in the everyday world.
New theories sprung up, theories distinct from previous religious, moral or superstitious understandings of what ‘ghosts’ might be. Victorian psychical researchers William Fletcher Barrett and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, for instance, suggested that strong psychical energy could become imprinted upon materials such as wood or stone, remaining there and disturbing the minds of later visitors. In the mid twentieth century, Welsh philosopher H.H. Price expanded on this and suggested that ghosts might not be unquiet souls, but some kind of memory or recording, held in the matrix of the physical world. His theory of ‘place memory’ suggested that a strand of memory from a person’s mind might attach itself to the physical environment and lodge there, experienced by others as hallucination.
Later, in the 1960s, all these theories were gathered by parapsychologist Thomas Lethbridge to argue for ‘stone tape theory’, the idea that ghostly phenomena are recordings of historical events, stored in the stone and wood that witnessed those events. Ghosts, in this theory, are inanimate shadows, acting out a short loop of the past over and over and over.
Whilst I love the idea of stone tape theory, there are some big problems with it. The first of my objections is: why no happy ghosts? Or ghosts who have strong emotions, but about ridiculous things? If stone tape theory held true, then maternity units the world over would be plagued by endless replays of new-baby bliss, registry offices would be impossible to work in and the M25 would be infested by apparitions with road rage. Furthermore, why are almost all supposed ghosts dead people? Wouldn’t there be lots of recordings of living people?
And this is where Poor Billy started to take shape. Rather than wood or stone, concrete seemed the natural material on which to store a psychical recording. There are very few stone castles and timber-framed houses knocking around nowadays, but an awful lot of concrete tower blocks. Concrete has all of those properties that Billy talks about in the story: it’s great at absorbing sound and heat, so why not memory too? Why not a happy memory? When Maggie’s mum describes the ghost as ‘just a snatch of him,’ this is what I had in mind: a fragment of the past, like a radio station caught and lost again, or a TV channel flicked over.
I’ve written here before about my former career as an archaeologist, and it amuses me to note that many of the early psychical researchers were archaeologists before becoming paranormal investigators. Perhaps there’s something about studying the past, about wanting to know what life was like there, that draws the mind towards ghosts. I know myself that to pull an object out of the ground, to know that the human being who last touched it walked the world of the 1570s, is extraordinary. It is easy to think that the present is the only real time that there has ever been, and that the past looked like a film, or a tapestry, or an illuminated manuscript. It didn’t. The sun shone, the wind blew. 1570 was the only reality, and it was happening just where you’re sitting, reading this. Hundreds of millions of dramas and revelations and deaths have been acted out on every patch of this earth, and all of them are vanished. It seems inconceivable that those emotions left no trace. How appealing it is to imagine that they might have done, and that we might be able to replay those memories and see the past for ourselves.
It was perhaps because of my archaeologist’s training that I was unable to stop myself planting a small artefact in the story, an in-joke of my own. The architecture firm for which Billy works is named Sidgwick Barrett Price, a nod to the people whose ideas birthed stone tape theory. I think they would find it funny. If they don’t, I do hope they won’t come visiting.
— Alex Clark