I guess you could say I deal in absence. As a horror writer, I trade in manipulating absences through ghost stories. Absences that follow you. Absences that can be summoned or used to judge the guilty. Absences that serve a purpose when it comes to a story. If you look at fiction as parables, then the absences I create are really all about driving someone to face something corrupted or questionable within themselves. Of course, it doesn’t always end well for them. Such is the nature of the beast.
Death is a neat little premise on the page. It’s whittled down to a tame plot point. It can be moved within the chronological order of things or simply used as a catalyst. It doesn’t even need to happen at the front of the stage. It can happen in the wings. It can happen before the audience have taken their seats. Even when you try to add grit or pain to the loss you’ve created, it’s very often remains a vapid thing. A reflection of the truth at best. I forget that. We all do. It’s how we focus, I suppose. It’s how we keep moving every single day of our lives. Death is always waiting for us at the end of the road. It can get a little distracting if we keep catching its eye in the stories we enjoy.
All of this preamble is my way of saying the universe reminded me recently how much a death can hurt. My Nana hadn’t been well for a while. After years of appearing to be another one of the many scratch-proof old ladies who march so proudly down the streets of our lives with their heads held high and their sticks swinging by their sides, she fell ill late last year and never quite recovered. She spent nearly four months in hospital, fighting off an onslaught of symptoms and illnesses. Then, once she came out, she went into residential care home that she had always liked the look of but only got to stay there for a few weeks before things took a further turn for the worse. Two weeks ago, she was rushed into hospital on a Thursday afternoon and seemed to stabilise before she slipped away from us on the Friday morning. Even after the months of illness, it still came as a shock.
In life, she had possessed the sort of momentum it took to turn planets. It was hard to think that would ever be taken from her. If Uri Geller could bend spoons, I’m pretty sure my Nana could’ve tied the whole of the cutlery industry in one big knot if she’d set her mind to it. In polite circles, you’d have described her as a character as she could occasionally display the sort of tact that’s normally reserved for armoured military vehicles. I spent many a visit during my later teenage years being asked, over and over again, why I was still single. In more recent years, the questions turned to when I was going to shave my beard off.
She believed in my writing. I will always love her for that. Regardless of whether I was some daydreaming little boy or some overweight twenty something who acted as if storytelling was the only escape route that suited him, she always took an interest. She always seemed proud of my ambitions. It’s hard to explain exactly how much that pride meant to me. She had a creative streak and didn’t pull her punches. Her interest in my lonely scrawling was a wonderful, personal gravity. It held me in place time and time again over the years, as I’ve begun to doubt myself and my aspirations. I hope she knew that.
When I was little, I was allowed to sit and write during Sunday afternoon visits with her and my Grandpa. The grown-ups would talk and I could create brief little worlds to escape into. After a while, she would always ask what I was writing and then listen closely to the rambling explanation of whatever strange thing I’d pulled out of my brain that day. I remember one idea, which revolved around a corporation monetising evolution, made her very happy. That was the day I first found out my Nana had read ‘Brave New World’ as a teenager. Considering the amount of Catherine Cookson and Danielle Steele I’ve seen her read, it still really surprises me how much she had loved Huxley’s heavyweight sci fi classic.
As I went through college and a brief phase of thinking I was meant to be an actor, her support never wavered. After spending years on the stage, she explained to me how nerves worked. How feeling nervous wasn’t any sort of weakness, but a sign you had completely invested your heart in something. She had nurtured her own dreams of being onstage in her younger years but, as her father had frowned on the idea of her treading the boards professionally, she had settled with ruling the local amateur theatre with an iron fist instead. Well, that’s a little harsh. It wasn’t a fist. Maybe an iron handbag and a laser lethal glare.
My parents took her to Gilbert and Sullivan shows when she was well into her eighties and she would still sing along with her favourites and point out, with volume and gusto, that she could do better than the professionals. She loved singing and was happiest when she in amongst any church or philharmonic choir, filling a room with her voice. Her singing clearly had an effect on people. It was one of her choir’s early rehearsals of ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ that triggered my birth. I don’t think my mum has ever let me forget that. Especially once my writing began to lean towards the supernatural.
Regrettably, Nana had never been a big fan of ghost stories. She rather reluctantly bought a copy of the first novella I had published, but she made a point of telling me she wouldn’t read it. With each new story, she would ask if it was a horror story and always look disappointed when I told her it was. Although, once I had a couple out there, she did strong arm the local paper into running a story on me. She was quite the PR agent.
Recently, she had become focused on the idea of me writing for television. She kept pointing out that there was money to be made in TV scripts. I would tell her I was aware of that, but it seemed awareness wasn’t enough. To this day, I’m still amazed I didn’t get a call from a rather dazed member of the BBC asking if I was Doreen Long’s grandson and what it would take for her to stop calling them every day.
Although, for a woman who didn’t care for ghost stories, there’s one thing I’ll never forget from this year. Around late January early February, during a particularly bad time in hospital, she ended up suffering with delirium. She would drift between vague states of her past, hallucinatory dinner parties and rooms lined with doors and windows in the oddest places. She would get annoyed when no one else could see them and often speak to people who were never in the room with her and her visitors. After she came out of it, she would often have these brief remembrances of what she’d seen and then say sadly that she should’ve written them down for me so I would have some ideas for new stories.
Given a little more time, I reckon I could’ve made a ghost story fan out of her. Sadly, there wasn’t enough time left in the end. It ran out long before any of us were ready to see the hourglass empty.
I’m sure all of us are left with these bittersweet fingerprints on our souls when we lose someone close to us. I just wanted to mark her passing by saying, as someone who deals so casually in absences, that I understand I take it for granted. I remove a character or conjure their ghost to torment another without ever really considering the unforgettable pain I’m toying with in my reader.
In my defence, it’s a sin almost every fiction is guilty of committing. Very few bullets fired on the TV screen represent the true brutality of being shot. Very few heartbreaks in the movies really show us what it feels like to be so utterly rejected by someone we loved and trusted. There is a reason why fiction dabbles in shades of reality. We’re projecting shadow puppets of the events as more of simulation, an exorcism. Fiction is a chance to stand on the precipice of our imagination and look at what might be instead of what is or has been. A chance to face things beyond our current life and feel as if we get know them better by watching events unfold. Still, at a time like this, it’s going to be hard to write about death without remembering the true, lingering touch of grief lurking behind the fictional appearance of a ghost.
The truth is that there are ghosts in our real lives and they’re not creeping figures, dwindling in the rising daylight or hiding behind the crooked tombstone. The majority of them live in us. My Nana is there now, smiling in the ghost light left on to cast back the shadows from the centre of the stage in my heart. I will feel her presence if I ever get to write for television. I will feel it every time I write another horror story or if I ever decide it’s time to let the beard go.
I suppose it just goes to show that not all hauntings are necessarily a bad thing. Some of them give us a reason to believe those we loved are never too far away.