Ghost Story Genesis

Author Susan Price reveals the inspiration behind some of her ghost stories.

 I remember the exact moment that 'Overheard In A Graveyard''s title story arrived.  I was watching ‘Silent Tongue’, starring River Phoenix as a simple boy whose father buys him a squaw for a wife.  The woman dies and her body is wrapped in a blanket and ‘sky-buried’ in a tree – but the grief-stricken boy stands guard, scaring away birds with shots from his gun.      


The woman’s ghost appears to him: and the film handles the ghost in a very simple, but effective way.  She appears from the edge of the frame, or dashes across it – and as what appears within in the frame is ‘reality’ to us while we watch, she is, in effect suddenly appearing and vanishing without the need for any expensive computer trickery.  She screams at the boy that he has to let her body be destroyed so her spirit can go on to the next world.


          My head is stuffed with folklore, and I remembered all the many stories about grief for the dead keeping them from peace – Who lies weeping on my grave and will not let me sleep?  I immediately wanted to write my own version of this theme – in fact, I started writing it then and there.  I wanted to make it as simple and bare as a ballad – or a ghost who steps into view from the edge of a film frame.
           As I worked, I cut all description of place and clothes.  I didn’t want to pin it to any period or country.  What you cut out is more important than what you leave in.  I ended by reducing it to a dialogue between two voices.  The title, ‘Overheard In A Graveyard,’ did the work of scene setting.
                I cut out even ‘he said,’ and ‘she said.’  Which was male and which was female, anyway – the living or the dead?  And who was to say the voices weren’t both male or both female?  I left that for the reader to decide.  Of all the stories I’ve written, it’s a favorite of mine.


This isn't the ship that is overheard in the museum. This is the Oseberg ship.


           Having started the collection with an ‘overheard’ story, I decided to end with another – ‘Overheard In A Museum.’  C. S. Lewis’ observed that we write from ‘the habitual furniture of our minds,’ and  when I was 11, I collided with the Norse Myths.  I’ve never been the same since.  They left me with a fixed interest, not only in myths, but in the Viking Age.  As a teenager, I read everything I could find about the Vikings, including accounts of the Oseberg and Gokstad ship burials.  One day, I decided, I would go to Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum and see them – and so I did.  I spent hours in there.  The guards, impatient for home, eventually lured me out by laying a trail of chocolate.

           ‘Overheard In A Museum’ was inspired by that visit, though written two decades later.  The voice overheard is that of the Gokstad war-ship, and the museum is the Viking Ship Museum which stands above the fjord where the ship once sailed.


         Two stories, The Familiar, and Across The Fields, were originally written for anthologies of ‘scary’ stories published for Christmas.  Across The Fields was based on a Cornish folk-tale I found in one of the collections I bought as a child while on holiday.  I changed the setting to my own Black Country, among coal-mines instead of tin-mines.  My Great Grandfather was a miner, and my grandfather worked at pits too.  The background of the story – the primitive pits, the dark fields, the gas-lit, cobbled markets -- was one I often heard described when I was a child.  And Grace Mary, the gypsy girl who drowned herself in a marl-hole (a clay pit) was – is – a Black Country ghost.

           The Familiar stems from Icelandic legend.  The Icelanders are good at grue.  It’s all those long, dark nights.  They have a kind of ghost known as a ‘follower’, which attaches itself to a particular person or family.  These ghosts can also be created by witches and wizards and sent to haunt people.  I shifted this idea into a modern, English setting.

          Inanna was originally written for an educational publisher, as an early reader.  It was the publisher’s choice, and not one I was familiar with.  I was a little surprised when I found out what a goer Inanna was – but, hey, I’m just the hack.  I writes what I’m asked to write.
           I found and combined several versions of the myth, but was most charmed by a close translation of the original (one of the oldest written stories in the world) which I found – where else? – on the internet.   I particularly liked the Great God Enki fussing like an old mother hen:  ‘Oh, what has Inanna done now?  She has Me worried.  What has the Queen of Heaven done?  Oh, that Girl worries Me.  What is the Mistress of All Lands up to now?  She worries Me, She does…’
           That Girl worried my publishers too, when they saw the finished story.   She was too sexy, her tale too horrific… Honestly, what were they expecting from a Goddess of Desire and War?  I decided to kindle it, instead of wasting it.  I like it – it’s a very ancient explanation of summer and winter, a forerunner of the Persephone myth.


           Cruel Mother is another story that came in a flash.  I was on the treadmill in the gym, listening to music through headphones.  The song that triggered the story was the folk-ballad, ‘The Cruel Mother’, about a woman who murders her newborn baby.  It leaped into my head that I should off-set the old ballad’s verses with scenes from the same story, set today.  The result isn’t a barrel of laughs, it’s true; but it does achieve something of the effect I was aiming for.

           Missing the Bus came from my brother telling me about his work in a call-centre, where he told callers the bus and train timetables.  He worked nights, and his description gave me this image of a tall, illuminated tower in darkness, with many voices rising up to it.  The snatches of conversation in the story are based on conversations he actually had with callers.

           Footsteps on the Stairs is from an account I read, years ago, in a collection of ‘true’ ghost stories, which I sometimes prefer to invented ones, because nothing is neatly explained.  The ghost hasn’t come to warn anyone, or for revenge, to lead the way to treasure or to right a wrong.  It remains an odd, inexplicable incident.
                Finally, Mow Top, which I owe to my friend, fellow-writer and ebook-buddy, Katherine Roberts.  Kath and I are both members of the Scattered Authors’ Society (SAS), and I was at the SAS ‘retreat’ one summer a couple of years ago, when Kath ran a ‘collage workshop.’  First we had to concentrate our minds on the kind of story we wanted to write.  I knew I wanted to write a ghost story.
           Then we riffled through piles of old magazines for five minutes, ripping out any image or words that caught our eye, without stopping to think about it.

Next, we took our heap of rippings and made a collage from them.  I had a moorland scene, the phrase ‘buried in an unmarked grave’, and a flight of steps going down into the dark cellar of a ruined building, with which I associated the phrase ‘descending to the Underworld.’


On finishing our collages, we all had to speak about them.  I could think of nothing to say about mine, though I did feel it had some significance for me which I couldn’t put it into words.  But the point of the exercise is that, often, our best ideas come from that part of the brain which has no words.


Anyway, it was lunchtime and, as my room was near where we’d been working, I threw the collage on my bed and forgot about it.  Hours later – hours of lively, stimulating SAS company – I returned, took one look at the collage, and had the story, Mow Top, complete in my head. It seemed to spring from the collage straight into my head, fully formed.

There was still a lot of writing and rewriting to do, but the story didn’t change much.

So that's how they came -- if you read them, I hope you enjoy them!


Photo Sources. The Oseberg ship is by permission of Vassia Atanassova - Spiritia, via wikimedia commons.


The image of Inanna or Ishtar, also from Wikimedia, by permission of Rama.