Last night I watched Woman in Black, mostly to see Daniel Radcliffe playing a grownup (which he did well). The movie was powerfully atmospheric and so genuinely scary that a couple of times a chill ran down my spine — which I always thought was only a metaphor.
Nevertheless, at bottom it was, like all ghost stories, pretty silly. That, and the much-less-good ghost movie The Innkeepers, got me thinking. Ghost stories are always all about atmosphere — ivy-choked Victorian mansions, Olde New England inns, mossy graveyards, mists and fogs and shadows — all the usual stuff. Which usually serves to disguise a story that wouldn’t hold up in the plain light of day. Not since the great Shirley Jackson (read her 1950 short story “The Summer People” if you really want to know what I mean) has anybody mastered the art of turning the ordinary into the chillingly horrible.
That gave me the idea for the opening of a ghost story with a very different setting. But all I’ve got is the opening. So, you very clever people, where would you go with a ghost story that starts like this?
It was a perfectly generic house. Oldish. But not old. Fading and peeling a bit. But not decrepit. Neither mansion nor shack. Neither architectural monument nor eyesore. Just another house plunked somewhere between “needs TLC” and “cute starter home” as real estate agents measure these things.
No great tragedy had ever darkened its aura. Neither bodies nor mysteries were buried in its perfectly ordinary though slightly damp basement. In fact, nothing bad had ever happened in it other than the ordinary bumps, scrapes, petty spats, broken collarbones, bill-paying crises, sibling rivalries, marital discords, and teenage heartbreaks of life.
It was not located on a windswept hill or wreathed in the fetid mists of a cinematic marsh. The weed-grown lot next door hardly measured up to any Brontean (or Hollywoodian) moor or heath.
It had no more cobwebs than you might expect. No jilted crone sat in her wedding finery, mourning her life away in its rather small dining room (which was, in fact, only an ell off an otherwise boringly rectangular living room). No pale women robed in black, no blood-drenched children or mad deceased poets roamed its halls (which were in any case actually one hall, singular, 12 feet long, leading to three boxy bedrooms and one bath that still featured chipped “Seafoam Aqua” colored tile, installed circa 1955).
Neighborhood children did not avoid it. Renters did not run screaming out of it. Buyers did not dump it back on the market after six months of tormented residency, telling lies to hide its savage secrets in hopes of salvaging a few bucks of their downpayments.
In short, it was a perfectly unnoticeable house in a slightly run-down neighborhood.
Nevertheless, it was haunted.
I’ve also got this paragraph (below), which I threw in to have a somebody and a something taking the tale into the next step. But I’m not in love with it and am ready to erase it if somebody suggests a better direction:
And perhaps those hypothetical renters or buyers would have abandoned it, had they known. But they remained in their peacefully hypothetical fog, leaving only Melissa — sensitive, unsuspecting Melissa — to risk her life and sanity for the sake of its unhappy spirits.
So … where do you take a ghost story that begins here?