The Ghost on the Page
I’ve been immersed in a wonderful book for the last few days – The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring. Based partly on real life accounts, it’s a psychological drama centred around Borley Rectory - reputedly the most haunted house in England - and a series of paranormal investigations conducted there in the 1920s and 30s. The writing is evocative, charged with a sense of place. And it’s a part of the world I’m familiar with - my grandparents used to live just a few miles away, near Sudbury, Suffolk. I found myself taken back there, to one summer’s day in 1986.
Having run out of things to do, near the end of our stay, we'd decided to take an afternoon walk along the banks of the River Stour near Borley. I was eight years old, hurrying ahead of my parents, grandparents and big sister, scanning the countryside to try and catch a glimpse of the haunted churchyard (the Rectory itself had burned down decades before). I’d learned all about it from a library audio tape dramatising the hauntings, complete with screams and ghostly moaning sound effects. It was a stifling August day, the heat pressing down hard, the river flowing brown and sluggish. I was disappointed when we didn’t get as far as the church, or sense anything remotely spooky. Just stillness. Quietness. Boring.
I haven’t been back to Suffolk since my grandparents died. Today I looked up their old house on Google street view. The house looks the same, but the tree in the front garden is bigger, and the door’s been painted green. You can almost – almost – see over the roof of the garage into the back garden where we used to watch for bats in the summer twilight. Using the arrows, you can follow the road along to the post office where my sister and I used to buy sherbet dips. The streets are eerily empty, just one or two cars appearing and then vanishing, lost in the time lapse between the photographs. That part of the world is empty, for me, in a wider sense too – there are no relatives left there, no family friends. I feel a strong pull to go back, but at the same time, the thought leaves me with a heavy, homesick feeling. There’s an uneasiness about it that drags at me and won’t leave me alone.
And then I start writing a scene for the novel I’m working on. The character, Hattie, is on her way to visit the boarding school where she stayed as a girl in the 1980s. She needs to see her brother, who’s now a music teacher there, staying in the empty dormitory block over the holidays.
Hattie gets off the train, and although this imagined school is in another part of the country altogether, in my mind she’s at the station where we used to stop on the way to Granny and Grandpa’s. It’s changed, since her school days. But in her mind she sees the old buffet room, selling plastic ham sandwiches and cheeseburgers with neon-bright cheese. She remembers the blue and yellow livery of the InterCity trains, and how she used to hate the scorching, metallic smell of the brakes. She remembers the way the steps up to the bridge sparkled, ever so slightly, underfoot.
Hattie’s story is not mine. She’s not thinking of her grandparents, or happy childhood holidays. She’s taken back to her boarding school days, at a time when her family was beginning a slow and complicated process of self-destruction. But there on the station platform, she’s overcome by something that feels like homesickness. By the disorientating suck and pull of a world that exists only in the past. Its comforts – barely noticed at the time – are unreachable. She feels this for me, and in that moment, she is me and I am her.
Writing can’t bring people back. It can’t recreate the security of childhood, or chase away old demons for that matter. It can’t – quite – transport you back to the places you loved. But it does do…. something. Something real, that stands in some small way against loss, and lostness. I’ve encountered it often, as I’ve written my way through the lives of my characters.
It might be to do with capturing tiny details, hiding them like jewels within the sweep of a story. It might be to do with the power of words; finding the exact shape of a certain kind of sadness, or fear, or the way it feels when things are made better. Or the dragging almostness of missed opportunities, connections that were never made, love that never quite worked. It might be about sharing those complex emotions - the very ones that make us human - with another person, even if it’s just a character I made up. Or maybe, if I’m very lucky, with a reader out there somewhere, one day.
So thank you, Neil Spring, for your Borley Rectory book, for sparking something off in me, even though you couldn’t possibly have known it (but that’s what the best books do – they take on a life of their own). It turns out I was looking for the wrong sort of ghosts, on that hazy, shimmering summer’s day when I was eight. It wasn’t until today that I found them, walking along that river path with me in my own memory.
5/11/2013 03:55:31 am
I loved this, Lucy. I've been think a lot about homesickness and nostalgia lately too, particularly after visiting a house in Yorkshire that we lived in when I was a child. For the most part, our old haunts there were remarkably unchanged - even our nextdoor neighbour still living there! It was still a wonderful, fascinating place to be but I realised that my yearning for it wasn't so much about the place itself but about my childhood experience of it. Funny thing though - my mind couldn't remember the way to the woods but my feet took me straight there!
5/11/2013 12:31:23 pm
Thanks, Sara. You're exactly right - it's actually a yearning for the childhood experience, which is why the physical place can't satisfy it.... hence that odd empty feeling. So strange - but right somehow - that your feet should know the way to the woods!
5/11/2013 06:05:17 am
You're so right, Lucy. It does do something. I'm still unable to define it completely, so chasing the answer of what it does, exactly, keeps me pounding the keyboard. Thanks for a thoughful, intimate post.
5/11/2013 12:32:39 pm
Thanks so much, Richard. I was hoping that my writer friends would recognise the 'something' I was trying to describe - how lovely to find that you do!
5/11/2013 06:27:26 am
I enjoyed reading this Lucy and have also relived - in a strange, ghostly way - barely remembered sensations through a character I'm writing about. It's a tickle at the edge of my consciousness.
5/11/2013 12:35:20 pm
Yes - tickling describes it perfectly! Other people have also today described it as something 'at the edge' of consciousness, or understanding. Glad you recognise what I'm talking about! Thanks for commenting. :-)
5/11/2013 08:42:25 am
Oh, Lucy..I was immediately reminded of previous ghosts! Your post is so personal and at the same time a reminder of the universal. You hit the narrow and broad of the spectrum perfectly. My newest manuscript calls me from the past in several important ways. I'm not so sure I have the talent you display here of drawing the two worlds together so effectively though. Thanks for the post. Loved reading it.
5/11/2013 12:36:55 pm
Thank you so much, Annielaural - gosh, what lovely comments! You've made my day. :-)
6/11/2013 05:48:18 am
Lucy, I think you have perfectly encapsulated that 'ghostly' nostalgic feeling. Lovely! I'd never thought of writing as a way of capturing those 'ghosts', but yes - and your description of how you used your own experience to make Hattie's (different) one seem real is a great explanation of how the writing process works (ideally, anyway!).
6/11/2013 02:21:08 pm
Thanks very much, Jane! Yes, the writing process is just as mysterious as the 'ghosts' I think. I don't always understand how it works!
13/12/2013 07:50:00 am
I am so glad you enjoyed my debut novel, The Ghost Hunters. Thank you.
17/12/2013 03:56:39 am
It was wonderful, Neil. Eagerly awaiting your next novel.
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