I am lucky enough to have a guest post written by Jonathan here in the blog, in celebration of the release of his novels telling us about his favourite ghosts. I would like to thank Jonathan and his publishers for this, and without further ado, I'll hand you over to him...
Jonathan StroudMy three favourite ghosts
I can’t say I’ve ever met a real ghost in the ectoplasmic flesh, but I’ve been entertained and scared by a great many fictitious ones over the years. So what are my favourites? It’s a surprisingly tricky question. Many ghosts are fab when taken as part of a skilfully told story or movie, but actually aren’t big on individual personality. But a few, here and there, break free of their confines and become more solid than the rest. Here are three that deserve to be celebrated for more than the ability to rattle a few chains.
•GlamGrettir’s Saga (14th Century)
A morose Icelandic shepherd who, once dead, turns into the toughest, most bad-ass ghost in Viking literature, which must be saying something. Glam gets a job at a remote farm in Northern Iceland, and causes trouble even when living, with his surly attitude, godless behaviour and terrible haircut. Then he’s killed by a monster up-valley, and gets worse. Despite being buried under a mound of stones, he’s back the following night, blue-skinned, swollen to a vast size, and possessed of terrible undead strength. He slaughters livestock, scares the women by staring in at windows, and bangs his heels on the roof crest till the rafters crack. The haunted farm faces ruin – until the hero Grettir the Strong comes calling. He lies in wait for the ghost: cue a monumental scrap, reminiscent of, but even better than, Beowulf’s battle with Grendel(and James Bond’s scrap with Red Grant on the train at the end of From Russia with Love – another hand-to-hand classic). It’s so cinematic, it’s untrue, and this was written 600 years ago. Grettir wins, but even thenGlam’s not done, because he curses the hero as his final act, a curse which eventually takes Grettir to his death. In short, Glam makes most ghosts seem wispy, wimpy and frankly rather effete.
•Jack GoodmanAn American Werewolf in London(1981)
What adolescent boy could ever forget their first watch of John Landis’s excellent horror-comedy? And it’s not just down to Rick Baker’s special effects, or the charms of Jenny Agutter’s perky nurse. For me, one of the highlights was a secondary character, Griffin Dunne’s Jack Goodman, who’s savaged to death by a werewolf at the start, and spends the rest of the movie reappearing unexpectedly to warn his friend David of his own impending doom. Jack is badly chewed, and slowly decaying. His step-by-step disintegration is lovingly depicted each time he pops up. And it’s the way this contrasts with his character – wearily sardonic, and deeply cheesed off by his friend’s inability to recognise the truth – that makes him so brilliant. He both undercuts and underscores the horror of the story. The mix of spooky gore, humorand great characterisation pre-empts by 15 years the winning mix perfected by Joss Whedon in Buffy.
•The Linen Ghost‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (1904)
If Glam’s the best revenant, and Jack Goodman’s the great ghost for our hip, post-modern age, the ghost in M R James’s finest tale is the classic terrifying spectre of the golden age of spooky stories. Summoned inadvertently by a holidaying scholar, who blows into a mysterious bone pipe, this is a spirit that can’t take material form itself: it needs to inhabit something. Fortunately there is a spare bed in the scholar’s bedroom, and it’s these bedclothes that the ghost employs in its attempt to frighten its victim to death. James’s description of how the thing moves (stooping, darting, blindly feeling ‘with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion’), and the final revelation of its ‘face of crumpled linen’, is dark genius. An ordinary bed – the place where we should feel safest – becomes a thing of terror: it’s this fearful reversal of the normal that lies at the heart of all the best supernatural fiction.
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