by Catriona McPherson
The first thing to say is that I don't actually believe in ghosts. (In fact, I don't have any supernatural beliefs at all. I've never come across anything that didn't seem best explained by science, coincidence, and the human flair for drama. Not to say I mightn't come across something tomorrow that causes a swift update . . . just not so far.)
But I love a good ghost story. Vampires, zombies and werewolves included, (super)naturally. And a delight in spookety-woos has not always been my friend.
I used to live here:
in an isolated, some might say creepy, old house with plenty of creaks and rattles and no locks on any of the windows. For three nights a week I stayed there alone and many's the time my taste in fiction outdid my lack of beliefs.
One notable night, I watched The Sixth Sense while home alone, in the dark, during a storm. That was daft. I put every light in the house on and I was still whimpering as I made my way along the corridors on creaking floorboards between shadowy bathroom and shadowy-er bedroom. It didn't help that the neighbouring farmer had just speaned the lambs (separated them from their mothers). Everyone involved protested this arrangement all night and, although I knew it was lambs saying "Mrreeeee" out there and ewes saying "Baaaaaa" in reply, it sounded pretty much like ghosts saying "Catreeeeeenaaaaaa" by three-ish, I can tell you.
The second-worst time I freaked myself out was reading Dumas Key by the emperor of spookety-woos himself, Stephen King. It was winter, there was a storm, I was alone, outside there was blackness all around. When I was fifty pages from the end the power went out. Now I had to decide between reading something else, having an early night, or finishing this spine-chilling masterpiece by the light of a guttering candle while the thunder cracked and the lightning flashed.
I finished Dumas Key, of course. (It was Stephen King.) Then I phoned my mum and she talked me through brushing my teeth and getting undressed for bed without any monsters catching me. She laughed quite a lot but she didn't hang up. Thanks, Mum.
The very worst time of all, though, had nothing to do with ghosts. It was real human intruders. Burglars, perhaps, or serial killers. Flesh-eating zombies at a push. Here's what happened.
It was dark, I was alone, there was a storm outside and I decided to watch Panic Room. Yup, a woman alone in a big old house on a dark and stormy night watched a film about a woman alone in a big old house on a dark and stormy night with murderous intruders trying to kill her.
About halfway through, both of the cats asleep on my lap woke, sat up very straight and stared towards the living room door. "What?" I asked them. Cat A - Spud - slunk down off the couch and, crouching, padded along the hall to the kitchen. I followed with Poppy, Cat B.
Spud stopped in the kitchen and listened, then set off down the stone steps to the back hall. Poppy and I followed. He went across the back hall into the old dairy and looked up the wooden stairs to the hatch that opened into the cheese loft. Poppy looked up too. They froze. I looked up. I freaked. (Quietly.) The cheese-loft hatch, which we kept shut, was open. Had I opened it earlier?
Spud and Poppy did a meerkat impersonation, listening very intently.
"Hello?" I said. Only it came out with about five syllables. I heard nothing in reply but the cats both turned and streaked away back to the living room. I followed as far as the kitchen and paced up and down beside the phone, weighing my options.
I could call Liam and Cathy, the nearest people along the road. Or my mum (again). Or Neil. Or the laird, Richard, who had a shotgun (ditto Willie the farmer, Nigel the gamekeeper, Brian the cowman). But whoever I called I was going to have to say to them: "Yeah, funniest thing, so I'm watching Panic Room and it just so happens that tonight of all nights . . ."
I decided against that and hatched a cunning plan. I went to bed with both cats and the two brass fire pokers that usually rested against the living room chimney. When he - the serial-killing zombie - came into my bedroom, I would brandish a poker at him. He'd advance anyway. I'd throw it (and miss, no doubt). He'd think I was unarmed (because who has two pokers, right?). He'd pounce and I'd lamp him with the other one.
But do you know what? He left quietly in the night without visiting me. I woke up in the morning, got a small fright at a foreign object (brass) in the bed with me and watched the end of Panic Room later that day.
All of this is to explain that, even though I usually write traditional mysteries and have recently branched out into modern stand-alones, I've been reading ghost stories my whole life and adoring them. So when I decided to try my hand at my first ever short story last year it seemed the perfect oppurtunity to see if I could pull off something supernatural. Less cheeky than attempting a novel in a venerable genre with a long illustrious culture and a canon all of its own.
I set out to be dark and chilling - well, you would - but then a joke occurred to me. It was too funny not to put it in and before you could say vegetarian vampire, I had a comedy. It's happened before. Dandy Gilver was going to be very solemn, you know: WWI, the depression and all that. Only it ended up sharing a carriage with Jeeves and Wooster. And AS SHE LEFT IT was going to be very Stieg Larsson indeed. Oh well, Gary Larson is great too.
This particular failure of gravitas has a happy ending, though. Because just as I finished a ghost story with laughs, over in Florida a brand-new press put out a call for short stories in the sub-genre of "paranormal humour". And this very week, I'm proud to say, I've become a published short story writer, with "One Scareful Owner" - a haunting tale of ghosts, real estate and 1970s kitsch - appearing in the brilliant, inaugural anthology STRANGELY FUNNY.
There's a virtual launch party for STRANGELY FUNNY going on over at Mystery & Horror's website - interviews, a reading, a trailer, give-aways, calorie-free recipes . . . and the anthology is available in paperback and as an ebook. Look no further for a half-chills-half-chuckles treat.