Close encounters of the chilling kind
Author: Peter Ackroyd Publisher: Chatto & Windus, 273 pages
Different types of spectre flit in and out of fashion. there was a time in the 1920s and 30s when one could barely visit a manor house without seeing a woman in grey. One hardly hears of that these days. in the 90s, ghosts were out and spooky aliens were in, thanks no doubt to The X Files. And when is the last time anyone saw a headless figure?
Although little is offered by way of speculation or analysis, the overall tone of this winning compendium of “true” ghost stories seems to be one of parchment-dry amusement. even Peter Ackroyd’s opening assertion that “the english see more ghosts than anyone else” conjures that enjoyable torch-under-chin complicity that all good ghost stories have.
Ackroyd’s introduction guides us swiftly through a history of British hauntings, from the Anglo-Saxons to today’s television ghost hunters, and explains why the english seem to have a special affinity for all things sepulchral.
the accounts themselves are shorn of any attempt to make the flesh creep. they stand alone, inviting the reader to frame his or her own responses. for instance, the matter-of-factness in the short retelling of the tale of the enfield Poltergeist, a 70s cause celebre involving knockings, moving furniture and flying objects, gives the spectre an unnervingly quotidian quality. Hauntings in suburban semis are more frightening than those in castles.
And among the “true ghost” standbys that children used to read about in Puffin Books – the hovering spectral cylinder at the tower of London, for instance – there are some oddities included here that explain the changing nature of superstition.
Some ghosts behave as one would expect, such as the 19th-century widow of Barby, near rugby, whose ghost vengefully terrorised her next-door neighbours by standing at the ends of their beds. then there are the multiple hauntings of Borley rectory in Suffolk in the 30s: the supernatural forces slammed doors, threw objects, materialised in the shape of horse-drawn carriages and nuns, and, in general, laid it on too thick not to have been hoaxes.
there are recurring traits: an insistent pulling at bedclothes is one, as is an attempt by some visible spooks to speak. Other accounts, though, are disconcerting precisely because of their surreal quality. there is the recent “phantom of the A38” who frightened motorists terribly as they swerved to avoid him. this was, in fact, a middle-aged man in a mac, standing in the middle of the road and shining a torch onto the road surface.
equally bizarre is the 30s thames Ditton commuter train ghost, as encountered by theodore Corey: an “ordinary looking man” who somehow none the less inspired “the most dreadful feeling”. the man got off the train at Surbiton and the relieved witness closed her eyes for a few minutes; but when she opened them again at Vauxhall, she was horrified to see the man sitting directly opposite her.
Also unforgettable is the figure who appeared in tavistock Square in 1884 wearing “a tall white hat covered thickly with black crepe”.
it later transpired that this was a vision of a man who had been buried with Greek church rites, in “evening clothes made by a foreign tailor”.
What makes such accounts fascinating is their absolute lack of meaning. edith Wharton once wrote that ghosts “require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity”. But actually, in the most striking of these accounts, they seem to need neither. – © the Daily telegraph UK 2010