I believe in ghosts. It’s an odd thing coming from someone who’s pretty much an atheist and who’d sooner worship science than a god. But I readily admit it without an ounce of self-consciousness or embarrassment. I do believe in ghosts because I’ve been in a situation that counted as a haunting. And as I’ve noted at my blog in the past, I wasn’t alone when the incident occurred, and I’ve got my younger sister to corroborate my story. We still talk about it from time to time, and I’m sure neither of us will forget it till the end of our days.
The incident’s rather too long to recount here in full detail, but let me just say this: we continue to be convinced it was our dad, who’d recently passed away, whom we heard walking slowly up the stairs and across the hallway, only to stop at our bedroom door to turn the knob. Thank heaven our door was locked. If it were a live person, we’d have heard him/her walk away from our door, but we heard nothing after the doorknob turned a couple of times. This rough summary doesn’t do my experience any justice, but for the sake of brevity for this guest blog, that’s it.
I’ve also been deeply fascinated with the supernatural when it comes to my entertainment. Ghost stories in the traditional sense are my love, and when I say “traditional sense”, I’m talking about ghosts treated as – ghosts. Not things that kill people in an orgy of blood lust, which tends to be the modern interpretation of ghosts, particularly in film. I’ve read recently published ghost stories that ended up being nothing more than chapter after chapter of increasingly over-the-top hauntings, so that there’s nothing subtle about ghostly activities in those books.
I had high hopes for the more recent adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, but while the movie does a spectacular job visually, the writers have completely ignored the gradual, creeping nature of Jennet Humfrye’s hauntings in favor of jump-scares and piled-on moments of ghostly occurrences, which aren’t reflective of Hill’s novella at all. The movie’s release, though, re-ignited my love for Victorian ghost fiction, and I re-read Hill’s novella prior to seeing it, and I dug out my old anthologies of Victorian ghost fiction to enjoy.
I wish I could explain why ghosts and ghost fiction have such a stranglehold on me (not that I’m complaining, mind). I think it’s got a lot to do with the unknown, with what goes on after death and how ghosts seem to upend everything we’ve always been taught about the afterlife. There’s also that chance, however slight, of a deeply psychological element involved in hauntings – not just in the part of the deceased, but the witness as well.
Enter young Nathaniel Wakeman, circa 2007, when I wrote Banshee.
Before I received the call for material for Prizm’s opening, I’d already read several Victorian ghost fiction anthologies. I’d also latched on like a barnacle to M.R. James’ ghost stories, which are considered to be the best in the genre. Through James’ stories, I developed an appreciation for the actual art of writing ghost fiction, which (to me) involves a skilled use of suggestion and sustained atmosphere – a lot of control going into each haunting scene. So I jumped at the chance of trying my hand at writing my own Victorian ghost story – one that involved a gay teen, at that.
Nathaniel Wakeman lives in the Isle of Wight – a setting that I wanted right off the bat because the one effect I was hoping to achieve in this story is the pervading feeling of claustrophobia. So Natty grows up in an island, and he’s the son and only child of a modest vicar. His world view is extremely limited in every sense of the word – he’s physically isolated, mentally limited to whatever books his parents allow him to read because he doesn’t go to a regular school and is taught at home by his father, and emotionally, he’s very much focused on his day-to-day cares.
The novel’s also written in the first person POV, which was a bit of a challenge because the story takes place in the mid-19th century, and there’s always that tricky juggling act of making the story readable without sacrificing too much of its historical angle. But I decided it was necessary to stay inside Natty’s head the whole way as a means of capitalizing on that feeling of claustrophobia I wanted. Once the hauntings begin, we get to see the ghost through his eyes, and we experience his struggle for understanding using nothing more than his limited perceptions of the world.
I wrote the ghost as both a haunting as well as something that’s deeply psychological. And I based it on an actual experience my sister had involving my mother when we were little kids. In short, my mom appeared to my younger sister – looking normal and talking naturally and all that – when she was supposed to be at work. Of course, she told my sister she needed to see our grandmother next door, and almost immediately after she left us, we got a call from her, checking up on us. “I was just thinking about you kids while I was working,” she’d said (summarized), “and I thought I’d call to see if you’re all okay.” Well – we sure as hell weren’t okay after we got the call.
As an addendum, I was in another room when my mom appeared, so I didn’t see her, but I heard her voice as she talked to my sister. My oldest brother was infuriated and tried to catch her at a lie, but my sister stuck to her story. She was, what, six years old or something? Would a child that age lie about things like that? Count this as another incident that can be corroborated, even if it didn’t involve an entity.
But that was what I wanted to achieve in writing the ghost. It isn’t a sentient being, out to kill for revenge or for sport. It haunts Natty for a reason he won’t uncover till the end, and even then, the psychological aspects of the hauntings throw a few shadows in there, clouding his attempts at full understanding. That, though, is the nature of ghost stories as I’ve always seen them. No matter how many times we turn things over in our heads, no matter how hard we try to work logic into them, there really isn’t any way for us to come to a complete understanding of incidents that defy the natural order of things.
I’ve always said that Banshee was my baby of the three books I debuted as a gay YA writer because it’s in a genre I’ve always loved and will always love. I continue to feel a special kind of fondness for it. It remains my only attempt at Victorian ghost fiction so far, and I’ll have to remedy that situation soon. Having gone through another couple of rounds of edits to prepare this book for its 2nd edition release, I’m again bitten by the bug. And I’ll have to go back and re-read my favorite ghost fiction anthologies and re-watch my favorite haunted house movies to whip myself up to another haunted house frenzy. Not that I mind, of course.
BLURB: Nathaniel Wakeman is the only child and son of a modest vicar, who lives in the quiet and idyllic confines of the Isle of Wight. When his maternal grandfather dies, Natty’s mother reconnects with her estranged and wealthy brother and his family in hopes of raising Natty up in the world, to urge him to go beyond the humble life he’s always known.
Though his cousins show no particular regard for him, one of them, at least, lures him away from his retired life and introduces him to the world—and to the son of a baron from Somerset, Miles Lovell. Natty gradually finds himself drawn toward the older and worldlier gentleman and returns to his father’s vicarage a changed young man. He also seems to have attracted the attention of a ghost, one that has followed him back to the island.
Haunted by a woman in white, who seems to appear when he’s at his weakest, Natty struggles with his own nature and with his family’s increasing difficulties. His mother is distant, hiding things from him as she never has, and his father is aging before his eyes. Quarrels between his parents grow more and more frequent, and Natty’s increasing terror of familiar and beloved footpaths add to the spiraling tension at home.
While Natty tries to find his place in the world, his childhood is crumbling around him, and he becomes more and more convinced that his persistent ghost is a harbinger of doom.
THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED