This may sound like nothing, but I cannot tell you the uncanny monotony of its nightly repetitions. We refused to recognise it, of course, being sane, a family of atheists and, above all, British. One night, my furious doctor father, up book-writing in the early hours, bellowed: “Whoever’s charging up and down the stairs, will they stop?”
His wife and children rallied indignant: “Well, it’s not bloody us.”
One night, emboldened by drink, I roared: “Shut the ---- up” and it did, briefly, before recommencing with still more emphatic zeal. (There was a silver lining to this episode: my little sister, then nine, recently alluded to my big-sister bravery with the line: “Hannah shouts at ghosts.”)
READ: Ghost stories: The Wolf Man
Back then, we didn’t use the G-word. In fact, we strove not to use any word at all – not to acknowledge our summer haunting, certainly not to discuss it. And so the house tried harder, with what, I imagine, would be referred to as classic poltergeist activity. We would return home to find the taps turned on full-force, requiring wrenching back into inaction. An oven, on the third floor, would have its rings switched to red hot, making the house’s already airless attics crackle dangerously with heat. After the second time it happened, we had it disconnected. It happened again. (And, believe me, as I write this, I too think it is mad.)
Matters became worse. One night, the boarded-over fireplace in my room ripped open with a clamour. I wrenched my pillow over my ears, telling myself it must be a trapped bird. In the daylight, I investigated. Behind the fireplace, crammed up the chimney, were Victorian newspapers recording the house’s murder. I couldn’t read them.
My mother started behaving oddly – pensive, distracted. We eldest and Nanny Williams, our beloved summer-holiday addition, interrogated her. Finally, she cracked. Waking in the night, she had seen a dead child. This is how she described it – not a ghost, but a dead child dressed in Victorian clothing, visible from the knees up. It had a certain logic: a child appearing to a mother. I became determined not to see any such thing. Sounds could be denied; but sights would be too appalling.
But my mother was not the only person to be so affected. The house’s most oppressive room, overlooking the garden, we still do not venture into. It is colder than the rest of the house, now a repository for our old toys, which adds a certain Gothic element.
Back then, however, my four-year-old brother occupied it. Like all youngest offspring, he was a golden child: charming, vivacious. That summer he changed: rendered quiet, hollow-eyed, with the air of a tiny old man. Asked why he was so exhausted as he sat yawning one morning, he answered: “Every night, it’s the same: the lady with the big bottom [a bustle? I wonder] and the two men fighting over my bed, then one man hurts the other and the lady screams.” From then on, he slept in my mother’s room.
My grandmother bedded down there next, innocent of that summer’s events, then refused to ever again. My mother braved it to prove her wrong. Next morning, the room was locked. When we quizzed her, she refused to divulge what had happened, saying only that it was “something to do with time”. Somehow this was – and remains – the most horrifying thing I had ever heard.
READ: Ghost stories: A night in England's most haunted bedroom
Still, the part of the narrative that brings most fear to the few friends in whom I’ve confided it is this. One bright August day, drinking tea in the kitchen, we elders – me, my sister, Nanny and mother – finally admitted that something was happening. We laughed and teased each other but, my God, it was a relief.
Suddenly, a mirror sprang off the wall and shattered. On the back of its glass, in an old-fashioned script, the numbers 666 were repeatedly etched, along with the message: “I’m going to ------- kill you all.” I know you won’t believe this – I don’t believe it. But it happened.
Like you, I am wary of ghost stories: their linear march and relentless building to a crescendo. This is a story with no denouement. Over time, a year or two, events gradually petered out. Again, I am told that this is standard form: ghosts (I can barely type the word) act up with newcomers, then they – and you – adjust. Plus, I like to think that Bettses are far more terrifying.
Today, I love my parents’ house with its greenery and servants’ bells. It is our home. Yet still it has the capacity to act up. Our neighbour’s new cleaner recently informed him that she would not be returning, having seen a woman walk through a wall (our buildings were once joined). On another occasion, one brother’s girlfriend remarked that everything in her room had shaken at 4am. Was there some sort of quake?
“Some sort of quake,” we replied.
Have a ghost story of your own to share? Send it to email@example.com
Read more of our writers’ chilling tales at www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/
“Do you believe in ghosts?” they always ask me in interviews. I reply: “I keep an open mind.” The new physics allows for them; it is all to do with time. I don’t understand it, but quantum physicists are not gullible souls.
JB Priestley was fascinated by the subject of time and the way it might shift about. He wrote plays and fiction about it, but, so far as I know, he did not write a ghost story. I wish he had. The genre has attracted some fine writers but it is often dismissed as mere “entertainment”. Literary snobs might heed the American writer Tom Wolfe. He gives another definition: “Entertainment enables people to pass the time pleasantly, and any writing should first entertain. It’s a very recent thing that there is a premium put on making writing so difficult that only a charmed aristocracy is capable of understanding it.”
Dickens’s first readers were far from being “a charmed aristocracy”, yet he, one of the greatest of novelists, delighted in the ghost story and may claim to have written the most famous one. A Christmas Carol is magnificent literature, a serious moral tale – and a first-rate entertainment. It is spooky, moving and funny by turns, and the characters have entered worlds in which they are known and understood outside the context of the book.
The existence of ghosts might yet be proven by quantum physics, but in fiction they should not be rationalised or explained away by natural causes: that shadow moving across the window as a tree shifting in the breeze; the woman who saw the ghostly child as suffering from puerperal psychosis. Ghostly children are especially troubling, of course. The boy and girl in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw are not ghosts, they are victims – but are Quint and Miss Jessel real, or ghostly figures of the children’s imagination? Rudyard Kipling’s story “They” is both disturbing and beautiful, with its ghost-children in a garden.
Literary scholars tell us that the ghost story originated with the gothic novel in the 18th century, or with Dickens in the 19th, but we forget how relatively small our fictional culture is. In countries such as Japan and India, tales of the supernatural have ancient origins. It is a near universal form of storytelling – indeed, I often think that cavemen must have told ghost stories to explain away shadows cast by the fire inside their caves. The play of my novel The Woman in Black has had an extraordinary welcome in countries where the genre is traditional – Mexico, Japan and India – but failed in what one might describe as “rational” countries; Germany has never understood it.
It is not entirely true that a ghost story must frighten if it is to succeed. AS Byatt’s “The July Ghost” is set in a London summer garden and is almost unbearably moving, but not in the least bit scary. However, with the darkness of winter comes the longing for a ghost story – to be read when alone or perhaps aloud to a small group – and, if it is to satisfy, that ghost story must frighten delightfully. It is a basic human need. Fear of the real and dangerous plays a part in every human life and if we can ever prepare for it, and learn how to overcome it, we must do so through stories.
Horror is ever popular too, and I am often accused of writing it. Not so. A ghost story may be horrifying, but the genres are different. A ghost story must contain a ghost; a horror story need not. Gothic is different again, and it has changed slightly since its (probable) origin in the 18th century, when it contained, almost perforce, an ivy-clad castle or monastic ruins. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is a wonderful and terrifying gothic/ghost story. The Turn of the Screw, perhaps the greatest ghost story ever written, is gothic – but so much more besides.
There is not much good literary criticism in the field. If you want the best background reading and careful analysis, read Night Visitors by the late Julia Briggs. (It’s out of print, which is a disgrace, and rather hard to obtain but try an inter-library loan.) Michael Cox’s introduction to The Oxford Book of Ghost Stories and his biographical study of MR James are both essential and enjoyable reading.
The ghost story has more often been short – it is hard to sustain beyond about 50,000 words without any slackening of tension – but recently, several writers have successfully written them at full length. Sarah Waters and Michelle Paver are especially good. If you prefer a short, sharp shock, then MR James is for you, as are LP Hartley, Edith Wharton, EF Benson and Elizabeth Bowen, whose The Demon Lover is one of the most chilling I know, and which improves with familiarity. E Nesbit, author of jolly good children’s books, including The Treasure Seekers, also wrote some short and deadly ghost stories.
Inevitably, in such a popular fictional form, there is an awful lot of rubbish, but the best rises to the surface, as with most things. If a story or a novel, let alone the complete works of a writer, have stood the test of time – say 100 years – and are still in print and being read, they are reliable providers of damn good narrative and ghosts that clutch at your heart.
Do I frighten myself when writing a ghost story, is another question I’m often asked. No, because I am in control. But when reading one, especially in perfect circumstances, I am often scared, even when I know the story well. I never fail to be chilled by MR James’s masterpiece, “Casting the Runes”, or to feel uneasy as I get a few pages into Edith Wharton’s “Mr Jones”. Which, of course, is precisely what I want, sitting beside the fire in a room full of odd shadows cast by the lamp, on a cold winter’s night.
• Susan Hill will join John Mullan for a special Halloween Guardian Book Club at the Tabernacle, London W11 on 25 October. Tickets £15. theguardian.com/guardianlive. Hill’s new collection, The Travelling Bag, is published by Profile.