How to tell a ghost story

Sunday, October 15, 2006

It's Halloween night. The room is dark except for a candle flickering from behind the grotesque face carved into a jack-o'-lantern. There's an eerie quiet in the room, and a chill is in the air.

Now it's time for a ghost story.

We asked Tess Gerritsen and Michael Norman, two authors who know their way around a scary tale, how to tell a good ghost story.

Here are their spirited replies:

Tess Gerritsen, author of the novel "The Mephisto Club":

"It all starts with 'the chill.' While reading the news, or listening in on a conversation, I'll hear something that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and I know this will be my next plot.

"Reports of a corpse who woke up in the morgue inspired my novel 'Vanish.' Ancient accounts of demons described in the Dead Sea Scrolls launched 'The Mephisto Club.' Both books started with 'the chill.'

"But no matter how outlandish the premise or ghoulish the monster, the threat must be something that readers believe could actually happen to them. Because what grabs us and pulls us into the story isn't the ghost or the villain, but the victim -- the most vulnerable character in the story.

"It's the victim we identify with, and a truly scary story reminds us that we are all potential prey."

Michael Norman, author of "Haunted Homeland," a visit to some of America's haunted locales:

"A good ghost story does not differ all that much from any other story, but with the added twist that by the end the reader ought to remain uncertain about what really happened. In this way, a ghost story probably raises more questions than provides tidy solutions; it leaves open the possibility that this story might be one of those few that cannot be explained away.

"I also like stories that I'd call the 'quiet chillers,' those that intertwine the supernatural element with everyday activities and ordinary lives. It's the sheer unexpectedness of a visit by a ghost that can be the most frightening."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: