downbeat as always, your little stories
paint pictures in my mind
dark and dreary, bright and cheery
the colours, you paint sublime
your lungs are wheezing, your spark is leaving
but your voice still carries on
the things you’ve said i won’t forget
even when you’re dead and gone.
— what’s this one about? maybe an old relative, a grandparent, who told you stories. he smoked and you see now how close he was to death, but it didn’t seem to stop him. now his stories which you thought you’d never forget are fogged over, maybe never to be heard again.
I heard a ghost story recently. It went something like this:
There was a little boy, called Tim, who was 12 years old. His parents got an emergency call at 10pm one night, and had to go to sort things out.
They put him to bed before they went, and told him that the dog was under his bed, so if he woke up in the night and they weren’t around, he could put his hand under the bed and the dog would lick it, so he’d know that he was safe.
He woke up around 2am, feeling scared, and put his hand under the bed. He felt a tongue licking it, so he went back to sleep, feeling reassured.
He woke up again not long after, and the same happened. He fell asleep pretty easily the second time.
Then he woke at 5am. His parents weren’t in yet and it was stormy outside, and the lightning was flashing in through a gap in the curtains. He put his hand under the bed, felt the lick, and then felt brave enough to get up and close the curtains fully. When he got there, he took a quick peek outside, and saw his dog strung up on the washing line, with writing on the outside of his window saying “Not only dogs have tongues.”
Obviously, there’s a lot in the delivery (which is why this story has no effect whatsoever when written down). However, deconstructing it gives some insights into what makes a ghost story good.
First, there needs to be some inventiveness on the part of the storyteller to provide enough detail to conjure up some emotion towards the characters. My two sentences set the scene, but was it spoken, you’d expect it to be more informal and take a little more time over it.
Secondly, there’s the setting up and foiling of the expectation/suspense. When I heard this story, after the first mention of “hand under bed”, a friend assumed (outspokenly) that the dog was going to bite his hand off. The listener knows, from the outset, that with two characters and one bed, not much can happen. Thus, to make a good story, you have to counter the expectation by doing the unexpected.
Thirdly, there’s the rule of three. Things happen in threes in a lot of stories, but in most of the ghost stories I’ve been told, there are two non-events linking to the final event. Ideally the two non-events bear some relation to the final event, but not enough to give it away.
Fourthly, there’s the element of horror. Something dramatic needs to be depicted to make a final impact, hopefully something graphic, involving blood, or veins, or something.
The final rule is to leave the listener with uncertainty as to what happens. This attacks one’s sense of security. In this story, the final event leaves us unsure as to what is underneath the bed, and it even makes us unsure of what had happened earlier in the story. It’s pulling the rug from under us, and is the clever bit.
it started with a friend
he’d tried it. suggested i didn’t do the same
there wasn’t any kick, he said
it was just uneasy pain.
something was ignited. months later
i thought i’d try it myself. just to see how
it felt, on a night of desperation. carefully
selected the spot. i’d avoided it up to now
but i made the mark. warmth fell over my fingers
cold steel against the skin. cleansing the wound,
i fell asleep soon afterwards. the feeling lingers —
i dreamt of it. the morning after, i groomed and moved on
until the next night. and the next. no, it wasn’t
the end of the world. just a new way to escape it
and i couldn’t be blamed. besides, i knew it’d have to stop.
it turned into an addiction. night after night, the scrape
of blade against skin. soft red blood on my upper left arm.
i kept it as much to myself as i could. why should anyone else know?
it was my second life, a way of dealing with the first
until one moment where i knew it had to let it go.
i’d grown out of it, and i wanted to throw it away.
i ramped myself off it. making the cuts, but lighter by degrees.
every one was going to be the last. until the one which was —
two days after my birthday. i was free!
yes, the cravings still returned,
and sometimes the cuts burned.
but i’d decided to stop, and that was it.
i still have scars, long narrow slits,
but they’re fading.
all i had to say was no.
the roads are dark tonight and the streetlights glow amber against the steady background of shadowy houses. it feels unsafe to be out now, with the wind whistling through the trees and sounds of screaming from a park, a football pitch. slowly the night closes in and headlights follow me down the road. each passing car is anonymous and a threat – who does it contain? every person treated as suspect.
i hear static as i walk, from a detuned maybe in someone’s kitchen. who knows what the night brings?