It seems light years since that first evening of my three-day trip to London, but having arrived at lunchtime and spent the afternoon in the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and then done a quick nip to The Women's Library in Aldgate, it was time to scoot over to The Strand. Somerset House in fact for my evening mixing it with the "Fellows" at the Royal Society of Literature because membership seems to include a great number of the nation's revered writers who have been elected in.
At this point perhaps it would be helpful to outline the current aims and objectives of the RSL founded by King George IV in 1820, to ‘reward literary merit and excite literary talent’.
'The aim of the Royal Society of Literature is to nurture, celebrate and defend Britain's outstanding tradition of writing. To this end it organises public lectures and debates, makes awards to new and established writers, and campaigns for the encouragement and appreciation of authors.'
Well I can heart all of that having discovered the RSL via a chance find of the annual magazine in Waterstone's, now readily available to the un-fellowed general public and well worth reading.
So I walked along the Embankment and climbed umpteen flights of stairs up to the venue to hear Susan Hill and Sarah Waters in conversation with Philip Hensher on the subject of ghost stories, and all to the lively accompaniment of the opening night party for the ice rink next door resonating through the walls... what a shame. A cold winter's evening in London, the building lending itself perfectly to some subdued lighting and whispered talk of all things ghostly, the Kenneth Clarke lecture theatre packed out, and all had to be spoken at full volume into microphones in order to compete with the band. Never mind, this is England, everyone soldiered on and tried to ignore it all and concentrate on the matter in hand.
Philip Hensher opened proceedings with an extract taken from Casting the Runes by M.R.James investing it with sufficient atmosphere for us all to be increasingly oblivious to the backing singers.
Asked about her own approach to ghost stories, Susan Hill cited several favourites, A Christmas Carol, The Turn of the Screw and the writing of M.R.James before elaborating on the challenge she has taken up of attempting to write slightly longer ghost stories, hence The Woman in Black and I would add Mist in the Mirror. Quoting M.R.James's economy and his own premise that whilst reticence creates effect but blatancy ruins the good ghost story, Susan proceeded to talk about the slow build up required and the constant need to stop and leave the reader waiting and wanting thus creating a fine balance between satisfied and unsatisfied.
Sarah Waters shared her own favourites, The Monkey's Paw by W.W.Jacobs and The Keepers of the Wall / Well (my apologies, I think the singers were hitting a final line so I didn't quite catch this title or the author, so that's your starter for ten) before talking about her own slant on gothic and the eruption of the irrational, the poltergeists and uncontrolled energy that she had invested in The Little Stranger whilst also applying herself to the complexities of post-war class differences.
On questioning from Philip Hensher about the malevolence of inanimate objects, Sarah Waters confirmed her fascination with this and their relevance to the ghost story whilst Susan Hill favoured the malevolence of place citing the overgrown garden as used in her recent novella The Small Hand as an example. Incidentally, concerned at avoiding any pigeon-holing into the genre of ghost story writer, Susan assured us that she has promised not to write another for five years...you read it here and if you haven't already heard the news, The Small Hand is to be televised by the BBC next Christmas.
Discussing the writing of the ghost story as a technical challenge Susan shared her tips...a list of ingredients needed to make it work, and whilst a ghost may seem obvious it is imperative that it does not induce laughter and must have a reason and purpose to be there, atmosphere to be created, a sense of place and weather, whilst Sarah Waters starts with an effect and likes to build up the uncanny within the boundaries and rules required by the paranormal whilst 'making strange'.
Asked whether ghosts have to be malevolent Susan said no and cited The July Ghost by A.S.Byatt as evidence whilst Sarah mulled over the scenario of the unwelcome return of the loved ones who may not seem as appealing as they had in life and offered John Charrington's Wedding by E.Nesbit as a good example.
Philip Hensher suggested that The Small Hand begins where M.R.James leaves off and asked how Susan created that crescendo of tension to which Susan offered her instinct and experience as a writer and feel for the pace by way of explanation.
Audience questions followed and much discussion that, despite changing cultural norms and a far less repressed society, the ghost story retains its nineteenth century popularity and perhaps that's about its timeless ability to delve into the human psyche and probe what lies beneath, perhaps it chimes with deepest fears. The talk ended with suggestions for forgotten ghost stories and authors so I came away with a nice list to explore before heading out into a cold London night to walk along the Strand with these in mind...
My thanks to the RSL for the kind invitation and to the friends I met there, if you're reading this it was lovely to meet up. Now I'm sure you'll be able to add your favourite ghost stories to the list so please do, I'm in the mood for reading more.