With the nights drawing in and a chill in the air, we turn to our fresh release, Spirits & Ghouls, for some atmospheric short stories! Full of spooky tales from the likes of M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, Amelia B. Edwards and more, this latest book features classic fiction alongside new and recent tales by talented modern writers. In the first part of this Q&A, authors spoke about the inspiration behind their story in the anthology. This week, they’re back to shed light on their writing process, as well as recommend other stories on the theme…
What are your favourite stories from this genre?
I’ve always been intrigued by the story of yuki-onna, a snow woman, who seems to be the spirit of hypothermia. She is said to visit people who are lost in snow storms, and leaves their frozen bodies behind.
A recent addition to my favourites in this genre is Will Maclean’s novel The Apparition Phase. It absolutely gutted me, not to mention cost me sleep (as all good spooky tales should).
Nothing terrifies me like ghosts. Ghosts follow me home from the movie theater and sit with me at bedtime. Ghosts force me to finish the book in one night because I’m too afraid to stop reading. Some stories that have damaged me in the best ways include: The Haunting of Hill House, The Turn of the Screw, The Changeling, Stir of Echoes, The Sixth Sense, The Woman in Black, Ghostwatch, Session 9, The Shining, and most recently, everything that Mike Flanagan touches.
Gotta love The Ring and The Grudge. There’s something about that long black hair everywhere that makes me want to sleep with the lights on. I also love The Turn of the Screw and the ambiguity as to the nature and reality of the ghosts. Those are actually exceptions, though. For the large part, I want my ghost stories to be kind of camp and not very serious, or to feature nice benign friendly ghosts like Casper, because I do not in fact like sleeping with the lights on and snapping awake whenever the house creaks.
I’ve always loved reading in the horror genre. I prefer quieter stories, where the horror is a suggestion creeping in the shadows; where the ending doesn’t tie things up neatly or leaves questions that keep you up at night. Neil Gaiman’s very short story ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’ does this perfectly.
When I was very young, I saw the 1960 William Castle movie Thirteen Ghosts. And it got me. Especially the chef ghost in the kitchen, doomed to commit the same murder over and over forever. Each ghost had a backstory. Then they were collected like pressed pennies in this kooky house. I hadn’t seen anything like that. And as I said, it got me. And I loved it.
My favourite story, hands down, is ‘They Bite’ by Anthony Boucher. Bone Tomahawk is probably my favourite film.
There’s a lot of great gothic literature out there, much of which involves ghosts, spirits, and other types of haunting. For more recent explorations, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is outstanding and full of gloomy English settings that go hand in hand with the genre. Usman T. Malik’s Midnight Doorways is also an excellent read for anyone who enjoys horror and the fantastic – it’s full of brilliant stories by a master of the genre. Or if you need a bit of levity, you can always go back to Jane Austen, whose Northanger Abbey ruthlessly parodies gothic conventions.
Favourites come and go with moods. Some classic supernatural stories are just old and comfortable friends; some contemporary weird tales are friends in the making. When in doubt, I return to M.R. James, who still manages to convey, with his style and dry wit, elements of both the old classic and the new weird. He has been matched, in various ways, but rarely bettered.
Can you tell us a little about your writing process?
I keep a steady schedule and write every day. I’ve developed a strong prewriting process that includes cluster maps, freewriting, song playlists, image collages, outlining, and a healthy dose of daydreaming. Prewriting establishes a strong mood and a clear direction. But when I start writing, I don’t feel overly bound to my outline; I often discover deeper and newer connections while writing. I revise throughout the process, but especially after that first draft.
I write down everything, no matter how rough, knowing I’ll fix it later. I have a sleep (that seems to be important) when I change from creation to editing mode. There’s a lot of reading aloud (the dog worries about me when I am talking to myself), trimming or combining characters, taking out details that don’t relate. I try to make each sentence relevant and connected like a spider’s web.
I have some chronic health issues that keep me from writing more than a couple days a week, for a few minutes at a time, so my process is both intermittent and sporadic. I tend to scribble bits of stories on scraps of paper as they come to mind. I toss the scraps in a pile until I get a really good day and can piece them together. Over weeks and months, a story takes shape. The editing, too, is done in piecemeal fashion, over time. My process takes time, detachment, and patience. If you have a chronic illness and want to create stories, just do what you can when you can. You can write anything you want – one word at a time.
The most important thing about my writing process is that I like to know where I’m going. I need some kind of outline on paper or in my head before I start. Which doesn’t mean I don’t adapt and make changes as I go along – I do all the time. Sometimes the tale takes hold of me and decides for itself where it’s going. But I like to start with a plan.
I look for inspiration every moment I’m awake. Every abandoned house or toy, every interesting stranger or tidbit of odd conversation can become part of a story. I write in the mornings when my mind is fresh, spending two or three hours pounding on the keyboard and fishing around the internet for crazy news stories or details like the colour of President Zachary Taylor’s horse.
My desk looks directly out of a window and that’s where I do all my writing. I ‘assign’ a candle to each story, whether it’s a short story or my current work in progress novel. The scent for ‘In Bleak December’ [my story in Spirits & Ghouls] was aptly named Winter. As soon as I light the candle I know it’s time to get words on paper.
I write in a very non-linear way. I usually get an idea for a small part of the story, like a scene or a character, that serves as my starting point. Then, I just go with the flow and write small sections at a time. Eventually, I’ll get a sense of the story and can arrange the small sections into something cohesive. Once I have a complete first draft, it’s time to start editing!
Often I choose to explore various articulations of intimacy through storytelling and tend to follow and explore ideas spontaneously rather than through careful planning. My story in Spirits & Ghouls started as a short work of flash fiction that demanded to be developed further.
I don’t have a schedule, but when I get the chance to write, I stick on some good music and get to it. The process depends on the story and how long it has been swimming around in my head. ‘Xarus’s Mirror’ [in Spirits & Ghouls] is an example of a piece of work that came out all at once in one session, but has since been written and edited and rewritten and reedited many, many times (for over a year) until it became what it is today. As always, feedback from trusted writer friends helps me immensely!
I am a pantser by trade, which means I usually just put on a good tune, sit in front of the computer and wait until words dance across the screen. For my story in Spirits & Ghouls, however, I took inspiration from my hometown. Much of the story was written while sat outside overlooking the St. Andrews wharf.
I like to blend imagination with personal experience. Wherever I go, I take notes. I listen for sounds: the gravel crunching under my steps, the gate screeching on unoiled hinges, the jackal howling in the hills, raindrops hammering against the window demanding entry. I observe Gothic visuals, such as old paint flaking off a black wooden door, revealing an older coat of scarlet like bloody blisters. I notice the tattered lace curtain wafting in the window and the thorny vines snaking up the walls. I note the feel of a door knob, hot and sticky in my hand. This sort of thing fires my creativity. Once I’ve found an inspiring locale, I ask myself questions: Who would come here, and why? What happens to them? What if…? If I can’t find the kind of setting I need in my notebooks, I go and seek out a fresh experience, just to take notes. For example, to research a ghost story I once spent a night alone in a remote rural cemetery. I stroked the lichen-encrusted headstones to feel the rough, cool surface under my palm. I watched clouds waft across the gibbous moon, listened to the wind rustling the leaves, and dug my fingers into a grave and lifted the soil to my nose to inhale the earthy smell. This gives my stories the convincing creepiness and authentic atmosphere my readers love.
The book is available to buy now – get your copy here!
- Did you miss the first part of this Q&A? Catch up with Part 1, where authors discuss the inspirations behind their stories.
- See the full list of authors in this book here.
- Browse the full collection of Flame Tree anthologies.