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The dead of night: how to write the perfect ghost story

Mark Gatiss tells Robin Ince about his love of MR James.

Christmas feels like the right time for ghost stories. What makes them work?
There are many types of ghost story but people generally agree that the “English” version is the best. It’s something we do very well! And M R James is the undisputed master of the form. Many of his stories were written to be read around Christmas to a select group of friends. He understood the dual nature of the season – the cosiness of sitting round the fire, but at the same time the need to banish the dark.

What makes the English ghost story so distinctive? Perhaps it’s because of our interest in repression: James is a master of this, of letting fear seep through the cracks. The terror he creates is monstrous but because it’s contained within a sort of fusty academic carapace, it feels both authentic and strangely comforting. As the creator of the “antiquarian” ghost story, he insisted on a historical setting – not necessarily hundreds of years old but 30 or 40. It needs to have some distance. A story told to someone told to someone else . . .

Do you think the best ghost-story writers, such as James, were psychologically troubled?
Often in James’s stories, something from the past creeps forward that eventually ensnares the protagonist through his or her own avarice, clumsiness or stupidity, with terrible consequences. We can see the roots of this trope in James’s own life. Born in 1862, he was brought up in parsonages and rectories, educated at Eton and went to King’s College, Cambridge as an undergraduate. He was most comfortable in academia, acting as director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and returning to his old college as provost in 1905. He stayed there until the last year of the First World War, when he moved back to Eton, again as provost. He was incredibly well-read – he knew the apocrypha of the Bible as well as his own language – but wore it lightly.

James was also a deeply conservative man: he didn’t like change and he increasingly feared the future and technology. That must explain why so many of his stories are set within a cosy environment but also in the past, where he felt at home. He actively campaigned to stop women becoming members of his college, for example. Indeed, his fear of women – and particularly of female genitalia – is a recurring theme in his work. His heroes are fusty academics, like him, middle-aged bachelors living a sheltered life, “pent ‘mid cloisters dim”. Whereas the manifestation of the monster often takes the form of the folklore idea of the vagina dentata – a terrible moment of putting your hand under the pillow and finding something wet and hairy with teeth, say. In “The Diary of Mr Poynter”, there is a figure made of hair:

. . . absolute stillness greeted his touch, made
him look over the arm. What he had been
touching rose to meet him. It was in the
attitude of one that had crept along the floor
on its belly, and it was, so far as could be
collected, a human figure. But of the face . . .
no feature was discernible, only hair.

That idea recurs in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap- Book”, with a haunted picture, showing a terrible creature where “at first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black hair”. This horrible apparation manifests to haunt the academic Dennistoun after he buys the scrapbook. In the television adaptation of the story, you see bits of it when you reach the climax: there’s a terrible suggestion of a wet, hairy leg. But that’s all.

This fear of human contact, meant that for years I had assumed James to be asexual – a kind of “damn any feeling for anything other than dusty books” attitude. But the new edition of his work makes clear this wasn’t the case. He used to “rag” male students for fun during Christmas parties, wrestling them on the floor and tickling them. He also seems to have been desperately but chastely in love with a fellow academic from whose death he never recovered.

A colleague of James’s once said, perjoratively, that his was a life untroubled – a smooth progression from Eton to Cambridge and then back to Eton. He never experienced real life; it was in every sense academic. Nothing rippled the surface except these things we now know about. So why did he choose to write ghost stories? It’s a fascinating question.

Was the ghost story the form that allowed him to challenge the rational world he inhabited?
I think he would have fought the idea that he was exorcising some sort of demon. In his mind, he was creating these things as entertainment and he also wrote essays on how he performed the tricks. But I keep coming back to the idea that things were smuggled into his ghost stories, consciously or not, that he wasn’t prepared to show to anybody else, in any other way.

Is there a story or an image that particularly haunts you?
When I wrote my own ghost stories for BBC4, I kept returning to the work of M R James to study how he set up moments of shock. But as a writer you have to find what terrifies you – and for me, it tends to be the same things that scared me as a child, whether you find a new version of it or refine it. I was always terrified of faces in the window. Or the idea of being in the back of a car, going down a narrow road where the hedgerows are growing over it, and there is only the glow of the headlights. I was always convinced I’d look out and see a face. My worst fear, though, is even more simple: the idea of waking up with the pressure of someone sitting on the end of the bed, which to this day – I’m going cold now – terrifies me.

Mark Gatiss is co-creator of the BBC TV series “Sherlock”

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

Photo: Getty Images
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It's time for the government to think again about Hinkley Point

The government's new nuclear power station is a white elephant that we simply don't need.

Today I will welcome Denis Baupin, Vice President of the French Assembly, to Hinkley.

His own choice to come and visit the site of the proposed new nuclear power station reflects his strong desire to prevent the UK disappearing up a dangerous dark alley in terms of energy policy. It also takes place as France takes a totally different path, with the French government recently adopting a law which will reduce nuclear energy in the country.

Greens have opposed Hinkley ever since the government announced its nuclear strategy. Hinkley, with its state aid and an agreed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt, has always been financially and legally suspect but it is now reaching the level of farce. So much so that George Osborne is required to be economical with the truth in front of a House of Lords committee because he cannot find anything honest to say about why this is a good deal for the British people.

Mr Baupin and I will join hundreds of protestors – and a white elephant – to stand in solidarity against this terrible project. The demonstration is taking place under a banner of the triple risks of Hinkley. 

First, there are the safety and technological risks. It is clear that the Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) – the design proposed for Hinkley C – simply does not work. France’s nuclear safety watchdog has found multiple malfunctioning valves that could cause meltdown, in a similar scenario to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.  The steel reactor vessel, which houses the plant’s nuclear fuel and confines its radioactivity, was also found to have serious anomalies that increase the risk of it cracking. Apart from the obvious safety risks, the problems experienced by the EPR reactors being built at Flammanvile in France and Olkiluoto in Finland have pushed the projects years behind schedule.

Secondly, Hinkley poses risks to our energy security. Hinkley is supposed to produce 7% of the UK's energy. But we now know there will be no electricity from the new nuclear plant until at least 2023. This makes power blackouts over the next decade increasingly likely and the only way to avoid them is to rapidly invest in renewable energy, particularly onshore wind. Earlier this week Bloomberg produced a report showing that onshore wind is now the cheapest way to generate electricity in both the UK and Germany. But instead of supporting onshore wind this government is undermining it by attacking subsidies to renewables and destroying jobs in the sector. 

Thirdly, there is the risk of Chinese finance. In a globalised world we are expected to consider the option of allowing foreign companies and governments to control our essential infrastructure. But it is clear that in bequeathing our infrastructure we lose the political control that strengthens our security. The Chinese companies who will be part of the deal are part owned by the Chinese government and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. What a toppy-turvy world globalisation has created, where our Conservative British government is inviting the Chinese Communist party to control our energy infrastructure. It also seems that China National Nuclear Company is responsible for the manufacture of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Of course it is the Chinese people who suffer most, being at the hands of an oppressive government and uncontrolled companies which show little respect for employment rights or environmental standards. By offering money to such companies from British consumers through their energy bills our government is forcing us to collude in the low human rights and environmental standards seen in China.  

Research I commissioned earlier this year concluded we can transform the South West, not with nuclear, but with renewables. We can generate 100 per cent of our energy needs from renewables within the next 20-30 years and create 122,000 new quality jobs and boost the regional economy by over £4bn a year.

The white elephant of Hinkley looks increasingly shaky on its feet. Only the government’s deeply risky ideological crusade against renewables and in favour of nuclear keeps it standing. It’s time for it to fall and for communities in the South West to create in its place a renewable energy revolution, which will lead to our own Western Powerhouse. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.