October Scares: Four

Ghost in the Great War, vintage Daily News book from 1927.

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I just thought you should know that it’s almost – very very nearly, so-close-you-could-touch-it – November.

November.

*flings hands into the air disbelievingly*

I don’t know how it happened either.

On the plus side, almost November equals almost Halloween, which equals time for another spooky read.

I found Ghosts in the Great War at a flea market a few years ago and it was love at first sight of the title. It was published in 1927, and is a collection of stories (or, ahem, “thrilling experiences”) sent in to the Daily News by its readers, detailing strange occurrences during the First World War. I did make the mistake on first reading of a). choosing a dark and stormy night to read it on, and b). being all alone in the house. It spooked me a lot more than it really should have. Rereading it threw the hyperbole and melodrama of some of the tales into much more stark light, although there were certainly a few stories that were quite moving and/or disturbing.

There’s a family woken by the sound of chains hauling across the ceilings and floors of their house on the night the Aboukir sank, taking with it their son-in-law. There’s an injured soldier who follows the vision of his wife to safety. And there are countless “goodbye” visits from the fallen.

It’s not the scariest book in the world, but it’s certainly choc-a-bloc full of ghosts and apparitions and things that go bump in the night.

Perfect for almost-November.

October Scares: One

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So somehow it’s October.

You probably already knew, but just thought I’d say.

October. Totally here.

Leaves are caramelly yellow, fall to the ground like tree confetti; sunlight vanishes weirdly and disappointingly and offensively early; the air is really rather kinda chilly, surprisingly so; blackberry and apple crumble is back on the menu (pudding is a very very very important part of my life); and my scarves (again, very important) are officially out of hibernation.

And seeing as there’s a lot of Halloween stuff around already too, I figured I’d get into the spirit (no pun intended) of it and do a few posts on scary stories.

I only heard of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman last week – I read about it on the brilliant book blog The Orangutan Librarian – but there are some stories you know you have to read straight away, and this was one of them. It’s really short (#winning), really ahead of its 1892 time, and really really creepy.

Suffering from “nervous troubles”, the narrator moves into a colonial mansion with her husband and newborn son for the summer. The upstairs room where the narrator spends most of her time is covered in a horrible old wallpaper she is initially repulsed by.

‘The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’

As the long and empty days pass, she becomes more and more obsessed with the paper, convinced there is a woman – maybe even a whole group of women – trapped behind the pattern.

‘Nobody could get through that pattern – it strangles so.’

But, with a little bit of help, the woman does get out.

This is such a clever and compelling piece of writing that packs a lot of spooky punch into its 26 little pages.

And it’s the perfect remedy to the shock of realising it’s officially, definitely-can’t-deny-it, seriously and absolutely October.

Take Me Home

“Jacob?”

He turned, spine creaking, skin burning. A woman he didn’t recognise stood over him, dressed in yellow and framed in dying summer sun.

“You can’t stay here forever.”

Jacob looked back towards the sea, rubbing his eyelids with sandy fingers.

He could stay. He had to.

The woman didn’t go away like he’d hoped she would. Instead, she sat down next to him, pushing her bare feet into the sand and resting her arms on her knees. Big blue-green bruises patchworked across her ankles and calves, shimmering like fish scales in the light.

“You look tired.” she said.

Jacob closed his eyes. He was tired. His whole body hurt with it, and it hurt with sand and salt and sun. But it was so much nicer than the other hurt, the one that scrabbled at his belly, heart, and brain. That was the hurt he was afraid of.

“I can’t sleep.” he said.

“Not out here.”

“I can’t go home.”

The woman leaned a little towards him. “Not yet. Soon though.”

He shook his head. “Not without my sister.”

“No, I suppose not.”

The woman grinned and he stared at her strange face for a long while. Maybe he did know her? She wasn’t as old as he first thought – only just grown out of being a girl.

She sighed a long sigh and stood, holding out a hand for him. “I think we should go for a walk. It’s good to walk.”

He took the hand she offered – didn’t think it was odd, didn’t care if it was – and wrapped his fingers round her palm, gripping as tight as he could. His skin crackled as she hauled him to his feet and his muscles burned right through to his bones. She dusted off his shoulders, sprinkling sand and salt across his feet.

“We don’t need to go far.”

They walked hand in hand at first, but Jacob quickly slowed. The woman let his hand slip through hers, dawdling ahead. He stared down at the sand as he walked, trying to understand what was wrong with the footprints she left behind. But his eyes hurt and his head hurt and he couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Every now and then, the woman looked over her shoulder to ask how he was.

“Fine.”

Every time, she looked like she didn’t believe him. Every time, she carried on all the same.

The beat of the waves against the sand made Jacob feel better as he walked, and he smiled as he remembered how, just a few days ago, he had thought he’d never like the sound. At first – after his father had dragged him here, after he’d been kicked across the sand, dumped by the surf, pinned down and told not to return home without Lora – he had hated it. It had made him want to rip out his ears.

But now the sound wrapped round him like a blanket, cosy and snug, and he didn’t ever want to be without it.

The woman came to a stop by Cryer’s Cave, gazing up at the gaping scar of hollowed out rock.

“This is my favourite place.” she said.

Jacob hung back from the entrance, scrunching up his face.

“Are you scared?” She crossed her arms and leant against the rock. “I didn’t ever think I’d see the day.”

He frowned. What days had she seen him before?

“I’m not scared.” he lied and started forwards, his heart blundering at a strange rhythm – too hard, too quick. He hoped she couldn’t feel it too, though he was sure it was making the air shake. He tried to focus on each painful step and ignore the woman as she watched him, but he looked up as he passed her, almost stopping when he did.

Her hair was wet.

How had that happened?

She didn’t seem to notice the way her hair stuck to her neck or the way water bloomed across the top of her dress. Instead, she smirked a little smirk and followed him inside.

The cave was like a church, walls of rock towering up and up, echoes crawling off every surface, their breaths bellowing.

“Hello?” the woman called, grinning as hundreds of hellos rattled back. “Is anybody there?”

The air lulled back to quiet. “Your turn.” she whispered.

Jacob shook his head.

“Go on.” she teased. “Yell from right in here.” She pushed her fingers against her chest. “Take all the air you’ve got and scream.”

He shook his head again.

“Oh go on, Jacob.”

“No!” he yelled, and a rush of pain scrambled up his throat. He doubled over, coughing until his lungs felt bruised and he spat phlegmy blood onto the sand.

The woman pushed dripping hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Jacob closed his eyes and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t cry, gulping blood back down his throat.

“I just want Lora.” he said.

“I know.” said the woman, ruining the echo of Lora’s name. “I just want to help.”

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he froze. He blinked, then blinked again, sure his eyes were wrong. But what he saw didn’t change.

The woman’s face was bleeding.

A huge gash had torn across her cheek and blood poured from it, spilling down her jaw and neck. The taste of his own blood made him grimace as he looked at it.

“Is something wrong?”

“Your face. You’ve cut your face.”

“Oh.” She ran her fingers along the gash, frowning.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No, not really. Not anymore.” She wiped the fingers across her dress and turned, scaling a crop of rocks and picking her way across them. “There’s something I need to show you. It’s here somewhere, I just…” She stopped and faced him. “You have to promise you won’t run away.”

He would have laughed if his lungs hadn’t hurt so much. Hadn’t she seen he could barely walk?

“I promise.”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You’ll want to, but you can’t”

“I won’t go anywhere.”

“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. “I won’t be long.”

She turned and clambered down the other side of the boulders, disappearing.

The sea and Jacob’s heart thudded in sync as he waited, and a horrible ache built under his skull.

I won’t be long.

The words went round and round, and made him want to scream. They were the worst words he’d ever heard and the worst words he’d ever said.

He tried to reach back four days and pull them out of the air, tried to erase them from his mouth and from Lora’s ears. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to go back, tried not to walk away, tried not to leave her playing all alone.

I won’t be long.

The sound of shuffling footsteps dragged him out of his looping nightmare. The woman reappeared at the top of the boulders, carrying something. Something with dangly legs and a floppy head. Something covered in shimmering bruises. Something wearing a yellow dress.

Jacob edged back as she descended the rocks towards him, the hurt he was afraid of rearing in his chest.

“Don’t run.” she pleaded. “You promised.”

The dangly legged, floppy headed something swayed at every limping step the woman took, its hair dripping and dress dribbling and face painted with purple-brown blood.

Water bubbled from each corner of the woman’s mouth as she handed the little body out to him.

“Please.”

He took the body in his arms and tried not think about how it was heavier than he remembered.

“I’m sorry.” he said, and the woman smiled.

“Take me home.”

Footprints in the sand at Lyme Regis, Dorset.

>>> No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get this story right – but I’m releasing it into the wild anyway, because it needs to be free of my head and my laptop before it drives me mad with all the potential edits that can be made to it. The main idea for it comes from how people experience the unexpected death of a loved one. I was reading old accounts from families who lost relatives in World War I, and most of them wrote about seeing/hearing their loved one at the time they died – walking through the garden gate when they should have been (were) in France, appearing in a dream, etc. – and it kind of twistedly got me thinking about how there are no accounts where people see the death itself. It’s always very ethereal and rose-tinted, rather than visceral and horrible to watch. Here, the death has already happened and Jacob is witnessing the drowning retrospectively (and obviously a bit abstractly), to the woman Lora would have been. <<<

The Haunting of Hill House

I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson over the weekend, and in all honesty I don’t really know how to describe it or what to make of it.

All I can say with certainty is that I haven’t read anything quite like it, or anything quite so disconcerting.

It is really unsettling. It is really strange. I loved it and was kind of repulsed by it.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

Despite having ‘haunting’ in the title, there are no ghosts in the book. Just lots of bumps in the night, doors that won’t stay open (and may or may not lead to the room that you thought was there before), and a lot of unreliable – or maybe it’s reliable, who the hell even knows? – narration.

It’s brilliant. You should read it.

And if you do, can you please let me know and help me understand what just happened…