The Snow Was Softly Falling, or: How To Write The Perfect Ghost Story

The snow was softly falling as my hansom cab made its way up the drive of Danbury Towers, producing a pleasing crunch-crunch-crunch upon the frosty gravel. It had been a full year since last I had seen my good friend Sir Mycroft Wallace-Danbury, but that was only to be expected, since it was at this precise time of year – and no other – that we were accustomed to meet. Last year he had been my guest, and this year it was my pleasure to be his. This was our custom, as we had established by mutual agreement in a year now so long past that neither of us cared to recall the precise date.

The cab turned the gentle curve of the drive past a stand of venerable yews and the full splendour of Danbury Towers hoved into view. Constructed in its earliest guise in the days of good Queen Bess, it had been added-to, taken-from or otherwise meddled-with by every Danbury in the line since, and now resembled nothing so much as the phantasy of an opium-enraptur’d dreamer. The outer wings were terribly dilapidated, for they were effectively abandoned; my host – for he was the last of his line and had never married – occupied only the most ancient core of the ancestral pile, with only his man Godfrey and a titanic Irish wolfhound named Cúchulainn for company.

We approached the front entrance and ground to a halt. My man Chalmers “H’ya!”-d the horses to a standstill and I disembarked, delighting in the continued crunch-crunch-crunch made by my boots. I heaved upon the bell-pull and listened intently to the great resonant KA-LONG!, KA-LONG! booming away inside the hallway behind the vast front door of studded oak. Presently my call was answered, and the door was opened by an ancient manservant dressed in the livery of seventy years past; coat-tails, weskit, knee-high boots, tricorne and all the rest. Sir Wallace-Danbury did not altogether hold with innovation or fashion, and this was one of the principle qualities which endeared him to me.

Godfrey smiled broadly upon recognizing me, his wizened face folding pleasingly from a thousand subtle creases into a thousand subtly different creases. “It is so very good to see you again, sir”, he intoned warmly. “Do please step this way, sir. You are expected“, he added, with particular emphasis upon the final word.

Of course I needed no guide to conduct me down that long-familiar hallway, its centuried limestone walls decorated with the coats-of-arms of the Danburys and the Wallaces, but it pleased Godfrey to walk slowly before me (with Chalmers, in turn, behind me) as if in procession, pausing now and then before the arms and portrait of a particularly illustrious ancestor with just a slight nod of the head and a hmm or a haa, while I followed him at the same pace, as much as for my own pleasure as to humour Godfrey’s pride in his master’s forebears.

Presently we obtained the central atrium of the house, and Godfrey turned a sharp left through a Tudor doorway into the great hall. I nodded to Chalmers and he excused himself to make his way to the kitchen – the poor man must have been half-famished after driving all morning and much of the afternoon, and it was only fair to let him find himself a bite to eat before tending to the horses. Within the hall, all was thrown into stark relief by the roaring fire that seemed a force of nature, with no other source of light apparent in that great space, empty as it was but for a table bearing a few scraps of paper, and a pair of high-backed chairs, both turned towards the fire. I could see that one of these seats was occupied while the other, of course, was intended for me. Cúchulainn, himself a fearsomely venerable beast, dozed in a great shaggy grey heap at his master’s feet.

Sir Wallace-Danbury appeared utterly dormant as I approached, and it was only when Godfrey softly cleared his throat before withdrawing from the room that my host stirred and raised his ancient head.

“Oh! Clement! It’s you! But of course – who else would it be? Do please take a seat. I’ve quite finished my piece, you see, and I think you’ll like it. I’ve spent a good deal of time on it, and it rather sums up a few things I’ve been thinking about for…oh, a long time now.”

(I should probably explain: the main subject upon which Sir Wallace-Danbury and I tend to discourse is that of ghost stories. Each year we attempt to out-do each other – in the spirit of friendly rivalry, you understand – in a ghost-story competition. The winner is decided upon the basis of most-original, most-chilling, most-blood-curdling, &c. &c. Neither of us quite remembers any more the exact tally of victories so far, although I’m pretty sure the score is pretty close to exactly even. But that is by-the-bye.)

Once I had greeted my host he continued:

“It’s a little different this year, Clement my boy, as I’ve taken the liberty of prefacing my story with a short essay upon the subject of ‘How to write the perfect ghost story’. I do hope you’ll find it stimulating. If I may begin?”

Of course I nodded my consent right away, and with that Sir Wallace-Danbury began to read from a sheaf of paper in his lap.

“RULE NUMBER 1: There must be characters.
No reader will care two hoots about what happens to anyone in a story if these persons are not developed into characters. Names and bare characteristics such as sex, age and occupation are not enough! We must be made to care about characters were are supposed to be well-disposed towards, so that we delight in their successes and feel sorrow at their sufferings; likewise, it is insufficient to create a villain simply by having him do villainous things – we must see inside his head to know that he does them for villainous reasons! Then, we will really have cause to despise his vile plotting and give a resounding ‘hooray!’ when his plots are foiled – assuming, that is, that they are foiled.

In the context of ghost stories specifically, too many authors assume that the desired effect will be achieved by having some bland and undeveloped Tom Smith or Jane Jones subjected to a haunting (or vampirism, werewolfery, or whatever-have-you), and concentrate purely on the supernatural phænomenon. Pooh! If we have no sense of whether a man is good or evil, and why, or whether a woman is virtuous or sinful, and why, then we shall care no more about their eldritch experiences than we shall about what they had for breakfast.

RULE NUMBER 2: There must be a location.
Ghosts and their like need a location like flowers need a flower-bed. Creatures belonging partly or wholly to the spiritual plane are nonetheless inevitably rooted to a particular material place, because they form a part of that place’s memory of itself; indeed, a ghost may be said to be nothing more than a place-memory that refuses to lie quiet, but from time to time intrudes upon the conscious mind of the place in question – that is to say, upon the present day – and exerts its influence, just as we may suddenly be subject to the surfacing of a long-forgotten memory from our distant youth that fastens itself upon our consciousness for we know not what reason. Create the location as you would create a character: give it a reason for being, a past, a personality. A place sufficiently well created, with enough memory behind it, will like as not produce ghosts spontaneously, without your even having to make the effort of raising them yourself.

RULE NUMBER 3: There must be atmosphere.
This is perhaps the most obvious of rules for ghost stories, but also the most difficult to achieve. In these cynical times it can be difficult to produce atmosphere without ‘over-egging the pudding’ and ending up with an inadvertent pastiche or even an outright pantomime of a ghost story. One does well to bear in mind the injunction that the true shiver is almost never produced by the explicit description of a ghastly scene, but is infinitely better served by suggestion and implication. Do not tell your reader “She turned the corner and there was a ghost”; rather, tell us she turned the corner and beheld some purely material object or phænomenon that, under the circumstances, could only have been produced by a ghost! Likewise, an eldritch whispering upon the midnight air that is probably just the voice of the wind through tree-tops – but might not be – is more effective than a voice that quite unequivocally belongs to a ghost. At every turn, present your reader with hints and clues, perhaps each of which could by itself be ascribed to happenstance, or hallucination, or a trick of the light, but which add up to an ineluctable spectral presence.”

My host paused, and when I was quite sure he had finished for the nonce I cried “Oh bravo, Mycroft! You really have distilled the very essence of the spooky tale, I see. I only hope you can agree that we should decide this year’s competition on the basis of our stories alone, as usual, and not include your excellent little thesis, as it would render the contest quite unfair.”

Sir Wallace-Danbury smiled and said “Of course, my dear Clement: the essay was written purely to exercise my wits and amuse yours. We shall compare tales, as always.”

Our colloquy was momentarily interrupted by a soft knock at the door, which opened just enough to display Godfrey’s face. “May I fetch anything for you, Sirs?”, he inquired graciously. “Oh no, we’re quite alright, thankyou Godfrey”, replied Sir Wallace-Danbury, knowing he spoke for me as well as for himself. “Do please join Chalmers in the pantry and ask if he’d like to sample a few bottles of stout with you”, he added with a chuckle.

Godfrey smiled more broadly still and with a muttered “Very good, Sir”, he withdrew. It’s quite a challenge to find servants who cope as well as do Godfrey and Chalmers with employers who suffer the… condition common to Mycroft and myself. Well, I say ‘suffer’, that’s really quite misleading, for in actuality it means we don’t suffer from the great bulk of ailments and sorrows that afflict mankind. And, from a valet’s point-of-view, our needs are remarkably few. This state of affairs is intimately connected with our, may I say, rather expert knowledge of ghosts and ghost stories – for Mycroft and I have each been quite as dead as a stone these past twenty years and more.

“Perhaps you’d like to go first with your story, seeing as I rudely leaped in with my little essay?”, my host offered.

“Very well then”, I replied, removing a small packet of folded papers from my breast pocket. I cleared my throat, straightened out the pages, held them so as to catch the firelight and began:

“The snow was softly falling…”

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