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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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.