Inspired by the season, and by our recent snowfall, I decided to devote this Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM to some of my favourite ghost stories – December is the best month for ghost stories, after all. You can listen to the show on the player below but, as promised, here are the details of the stories I featured. If you agree (or disagree) with my choices, or if there are other titles you’d recommend, leave a comment!
Published as part of the Mugby Junction series of stories in a Christmas edition of All the Year Round, Dickens’ short story is a must-read for December. Beginning with the wonderfully ominous line, ‘Halloa! Below there!’, this tale has an unnamed narrator meeting with the eponymous signal-man in his cabin by a railway cutting. Seemingly fearful of the narrator, the signal-man reluctantly invites his visitor in and begins to explain why he is so nervous, and why he was standing so still, staring into the railway tunnel…
A perfect story for a snowy December evening, ‘The Signal-Man’ was one of the tales adapted by the BBC for their Ghost Story for Christmas series. The 1976 adaptation was produced by Lawrence Gordon Clark and starred Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd.
Toni Morrison’s multi-award-winning novel Beloved tells the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver, who live in Cincinnati after escaping slavery on a plantation. Sethe’s house is haunted – it is believed that the ghost is that of her eldest daughter – and the women are isolated from their community. When Paul D, another slave from the Sweet Home plantation, arrives, Sethe’s story is gradually revealed, and the true trauma haunting the women begins to surface. But Paul D isn’t the only new arrival. A young woman called Beloved also appears, bringing the manifestations in Sethe’s house to an end, but signalling the beginning of a different type of haunting.
Morrison’s rich and evocative novel is never unambiguously a ghost story, but it is undoubtedly the story of a haunting. It was adapted for the big screen in 1998, in a film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
Back a few centuries now, with a medieval romance. Sir Amadace is a late-fourteenth-century Middle English verse romance, which survives in two manuscripts (National Library of Scotland Advocates and Princeton University Library Ireland Blackburn). It is a chivalric romance, with a ‘ghost story’ plot. While it is by no means the only Middle English tale to feature a ghost, I chose it because the ghost that appears in Sir Amadace feels much closer to our modern idea of a haunting than many other contemporaneous texts.
The tale begins as Sir Amadace discovers he is broke. Rather than face the humiliation of admitting this, he mortgages his property and flees the country, taking his last forty pounds with him. After journeying for some time, Amadace stumbles upon a strange sight in a forest (as romance knights usually do): a widow weeping over the unburied body of her husband. It turns out that her husband died in debt, and his creditors refuse to allow the burial of his body until the debts (thirty pounds) are repaid. Amadace uses the last of his own money to bury the merchant, leaving him utterly destitute. When he prays to God for assistance, a strange white knight appears and offers him some words of help. But, as in all medieval romances, help from a supernatural stranger comes with a price that will eventually have to be paid…
The next title on my list is a favourite from my childhood. Cresswell’s novel tells the story of Araminta (Minty), who is staying with her aunt in Belton, after her mother is seriously injured in a car accident. Minty is a ‘sensitive’ (in the paranormal) child, and prone to noticing the presence of the spirit world. As she explores her surroundings (specifically the grounds of nearby Belton House), Minty discovers a sundial, which she instinctively understands is also a moondial. Through the power of the moondial, Minty is able to travel back in time, where she meets Tom (a mistreated Victorian kitchen-boy) and Sarah (a put-upon young girl from the eighteenth century). Together, the children help each other overcome the unhappiness of their lives. But a shadow lingers over their time-travelling camaraderie in the form of Miss Raven – a ghost-hunter who has installed herself at Belton House – who may or may not be connected to the cruel Miss Vole of the eighteenth century.
Moondial was adapted for television by the BBC in 1988, starring Siri Neal as Minty. The TV show was filmed at Belton House.
And now for the horror end of the spectrum… I decided to just go with the book that’s become something of a byword for the haunted house. Anson’s 1977 book was purportedly based on a true story. In 1975, George and Kathy Lutz moved into a house in Amityville, Long Island. Before the Lutzes bought the house, it had belonged to Ronald DeFeo Jr., who murdered six members of his family in 1974. Shortly after moving in, the Lutzes – including Kathy’s children Daniel, Christopher and Missy – began to experience strange and unsettling occurences, from swarms of flies to Missy’s ‘imaginary’ friend, via strange smells, cold spots and a revolving crucifix. When even the blessing of Father Mancuso doesn’t put an ending to the haunting, the Lutzes have to decide whether they can bear to remain in the house for much longer.
Anson’s book has caused a certain amount of controversy, as they question as to how much of a ‘true story’ it is has never really been answered. Nevertheless, it spawned a number of sequels and continuations, including books by John G. Jones (The Amityville Horror Part II, Amityville: The Final Chapter, Amityville: The Evil Escapes and Amityville: The Horror Returns), Robin Karl (Amityville: The Nightmare Continues) and Hans Holzer (Murder in Amityville, The Amityville Curse, The Secret of Amityville). There is also a factual account of the case: Will Savive’s 2008 book Mentally Ill in Amityville. Anson’s novel was adapted into a film in 1979, starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, kickstarting a film franchise that is still going (reasonably) strong in the direct-to-video market. The most recent installment in the film series in 2017’s Amityville: The Awakening.
And finally, a return to the cosier end of the ghost story spectrum. Benson’s 1906 ‘spook story’ is a favourite of mine mostly for its two best-known adaptations (both of which appear in texts I love). ‘The Bus-Conductor’ was originally published in Pall Mall Magazine, and was then collected in The Room in the Tower, and Other Stories (1912). In the tale, the narrator is in conversation with his friend Hugh Grainger, who recounts a creepy experience from earlier in the year. Grainger had been staying with friends and, unable to sleep due to the oppressive weather, he had got out of bed during the night and looked out of the window (or had he dreamt doing this?) To his surprise, he saw a fully-decked hearse waiting outside the window, with its driver (dressed incongruously as a bus conductor) sitting in the cab. The hearse driver looked up to the window and greeted Grainger: ‘Just room for one inside, sir!’ And then… but no… no spoilers here. If you don’t already know the story, I thoroughly recommend getting hold of a copy of Benson’s story to find out what happens next!
‘The Bus-Conductor’ makes an appearance as one of the tales in the 1945 portmanteau horror film Dead of Night (an absolute favourite of mine), and was collected as an anecdote in Bennet Cerf’s Ghost Stories anthology in 1944. It is also the basis (in a somewhat revised form) of the Twilight Zone episode ‘Twenty Two’ (1961). So powerful (and yet so simple) is Benson’s story that it’s become something of an urban legend, as you can see from this post on Snopes.
To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here: