“I could open the case, have a peek, and sneak out again. Just a peek. No one would know…”

Uncle Dougie's Suitcase, Alastair Chisholm

Houses Borders Ghosts
Matt Plass

Here’s Matt Plass to tell us about some of the ideas behind his story ‘Next to Godliness’, which appears in our anthology New Ghost Stories II.

To me, the most fascinating thing about ghosts is that they don’t exist.

In the song “God”, John Lennon lets us know that he doesn’t believe in (among other things) magic, I-Ching, tarot, Jesus, Buddha, mantra or Gita. To his list I would add sprites, spirits, faeries, ghouls, phantoms, spectres (at feasts or elsewhere), banshees, devil dogs, the undead, and of course ghosts.

I admit it’s a tragedy, not believing in visitors from beyond the veil. I know I’m missing out. I know my world is smaller than it could be. But that’s how belief works: you either believe in something or you don’t. And without belief, how do you approach the writing of a ghost story in a way that feels legitimate?

The answer, for me at least, is that you don’t.

There are, of course, countless examples of rational, well-adjusted, trustworthy and sober individuals convinced that they’ve encountered a spirit from beyond the grave. In fact, entire modern cultures believe that phantoms are as ‘real’ as the living. (Watch a Chinese martial arts movie—go on, I dare you!—and you’ll find that the human characters regularly bump into ghosts in the street, and converse with them as if such encounters are the most natural thing in the world.) I mustn’t forget, also, that many people—I’ll go out on a limb and suggest most people—believe in what Stephen King describes as ‘burnt toast’: when the bricks of a building retain a lingering memory of past deeds. It’s why you shiver in the murder house before you know it’s the murder house.

Despite all this, as a non-believer, I tend towards the view that a supernatural experience is essentially an aberration of the mind, a hallucination: drug-induced, psychotic, stress-related, or just the product of a virile and frustrated imagination. He imagined it. She saw it in a dream. Perhaps the subconscious likes to play tricks, conjuring our greatest desires or deepest fears as sights, sounds and feelings; our emotions made flesh. So the grieving widow sees the spirit of her lost husband weeding the forgotten rose garden. The man who abandoned his faith hears a scrape of cloven hooves from the attic overhead. The only-child passes two ghostly playmates each morning on the stairs as he hurries down to eat his cereal alone. Whatever the experience, the chances are it comes not from without but from within.

In ‘Next to Godliness’, a couple try to come to terms with the loss of a child. After a series of bizarre events, the mother starts to believe that their dear little girl is still with them in spirit. Look, she says to her husband, things are happening in this house that just cannot be explained. It’s her. It must be her! But what begins as a ghost story, develops into a psychological mystery. Because if it isn’t their daughter making things happen in the house, then who can it be..?

This transition from ‘what external force is making this happen?’ to ‘which one of us is making this happen? is where the business of ghosts becomes fascinating from a storytelling perspective. If a sane and rational person is convinced they’ve encountered a ghost, and you know there to be no such thing, then what you’re left with is a psychological mystery. And for me, a good psycho-mystery trumps the supernatural every time.

All that said, I love a good ghost yarn and I enjoyed the stories in New Ghost Stories II immensely. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to believe that the most fascinating thing about ghosts is that there aren’t any—until the day a ghost chooses to visit with me, and takes time out from its haunting schedule to scare me to my senses.

Meanwhile, for what it’s worth, unlike John Lennon I do believe in Beatles.

P.S. For writers, the British magazine Fortean Times can be a fantastic source of inspiration. It’s crammed with bizarre stories from around the world: UFO sighting, ghostly visitations, paranormal and supernatural activity. Take as a starting point that you are dealing with a psychological mystery, and the story starts to write itself…

Matt Plass

One Comments on “Matt Plass on ‘Next to Godliness’”

  1. Jilly Funnell Says:

    A very interesting and beautifully constructed article. My only disappointment is the idea that a story writes itself. I wish I had a five pound note (trad or plastic) for every time I hear a variation on that phrase. In my experience good writing is in the re-writing and that’s hard work from the consciousness.

    You suggest buying a copy of Fortean Times then a story writes itself? Now that would be ghostly! I think you mean Fortean Times offers a wealth of good ideas. Nothing writes itself.

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