Harnessing Love & Fear: Ghost Stories
writing what haunts you...
Photo by Tandem X Visuals on Unsplash
“A haunted house but the ghosts recite the poems you wrote when you were sixteen.” ~Amber Sparks
“On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.” ~David Bowie
I’m thinking of all things ghostly this Halloween month, especially from the writer’s perspective. It’s been said that Barry Hannah used to write “All stories are ghost stories” on the blackboard on the first day of all his fiction workshops. I think humans are driven to write and tell ghost stories because they speak to the two most basic human emotions: love and fear. We describe stories that are particularly resonant, that tap into deep feelings and linger long after reading them, as “haunting.”
When I was a girl, telling ghost stories at slumber parties was standard practice. And it was always the same stories, “Bloody Bones & Eyeballs” and the like. We’d heard the stories many times before, but somehow, all gathered in the middle of the night in our pajamas in somebody’s basement, jacked up on Mountain Dew, with only a flashlight illuminating our faces, we were terrified anew. We clearly wanted to be scared out of our wits. The scary stories tapped into emotions and fears we could not yet name. Once the story reached its climax and we all ran screaming up the stairs into the light, we could move on and attend to more pressing matters like making prank phone calls or playing Truth or Dare or hating (loving) boys.
I always say palpable, urgent emotion is essential to great flash fiction, and this is another reason why I love ghost stories so much. The feeling of being haunted arises from so many complex emotions. How about guilt, for instance? Or regret? What haunts you? Who haunts you? And why?
The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
loves you. Each
has left something
from “Unbidden” by Rae Armantrout
Ghost stories provide us a fictional landing place for our dread, our existential horrors, our relentless grief, our deepest terror. What better way to tell a story of loss or emotional complexity or trauma “slant” than via a ghost story? Ghost stories are cathartic to write and weirdly, scarily comforting to read. They are a means of harnessing both love and fear.
Let’s look at the skills required to write a good ghost story:
Ghost stories call upon the writer to evoke a strong reaction from the reader, to provide a “felt experience” of emotion (love, fear, sadness, anger, even hope).
The scariest stories come from exploring the unknown which requires writers to effectively withhold information.
Ghost stories rely heavily on tone, which depends on powerful description.
All the best ghost stories include strong characters.
And of course, the ghost story writer must be adept at creating and maintaining suspense, which arises from pacing and the use of allusion and subtext.
Developing the many skills involved in writing a good ghost story will transfer to ALL of your writing, especially your flash fiction, as it requires you to do all of this in a very limited space.
“The haunted house is precisely that which should be homey, should be welcoming—the place one lives inside—but which has somehow become emptied out of its true function. It’s terrifying because it has lost its purpose yet stubbornly persists. Neither alive nor dead but undead, the haunted house is the thing in between.” ~Colin Dickey, Ghostland
Write a ghost story set in an abandoned place, a “thing in between.” There’s just something inherently creepy and uncanny about once full, lively places gone empty. Remember the eerie feeling of the cities when the pandemic first hit? Villages overrun with feral goats? Go HERE for great photos of abandoned shopping malls by Seph Lawless. Or HERE for his photos of abandoned amusement parks. Think of old schoolhouses. Or towns where the factory closed and everyone but the ghost moved away. Or yes, a haunted house. Alternatively, you may use one of the photos below as inspiration.
As you draft, ask the following questions:
What happened here?
What did this place used to be like?
Who haunts this place? Who is haunted by this place?
What smells or sounds linger? How can your descriptions and language create tone?
What happens after the sun goes down?
Use sensory detail. Tap into EMOTION. Make our spines tingle.
Photo by Oleksandra Bardash on Unsplash
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash
Photo by Dasha Urvachova on Unsplash
“There Are Absolutely No Ghosts in Mr. Gower’s Field” by Sara Hills in Flash Frog (I love everything about this story, but see how the numbered asides work in conversation with the story in progress, create another layer of resonance and meaning.)
“The Spooky Japanese Girl is There for You” by Juan Martinez in McSweeney’s (Love the structured employed in this ghostly flash.)
“My Husband is Made of Ash” by Jennifer Todhunter in Smokelong Quarterly (I love this story for its combination of sadness and humor. In the interview she says, “I wanted to incorporate a bit of humor into this story because grief is such a heavy form of sadness. I liked the way the lipstick exchange turned out because it’s a little weird and a little funny and a little indicative of how grief can be so misunderstood.”)
“It’s Shaped Like a Grin, They Say” by K.C. Mead-Brewer in Cheap PopWrite (This is just a stunning use of the breathless paragraph flash. So vivid. Wonderful attention to language, and this story lingers.)
“My Mother in the Floorboards” by Leonora Desar in New Flash Fiction Review (Leonora Desar has such a unique voice and vision. I love this captivating one paragraph flash and its use of repetition and wry, dark humor.)
“How to Share Your Home with a Ghost” by Amber Sparks in The Washingtonian
“In the Other Room” by Yael van der Wouden in Split Lip Magazine
“The Next Life You’ll Make” by Ellen Rhudy in Monkeybicycle
“The Boy Did Better in Winter” by Corey Farrenkopf in No Contact
“Mothers, Lock up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying” by Alice Sola Kim in Tin House online
“Every Girl Who Got in a Car” by Cathy Ulrich at Bending Genres
“Rules” by Meghan Phillips in Matchbook Lit
“Four Mothers of Demons” by Hillary Leftwich in Occulum Journal
“Ghost Ecology” by MH Rowe in Untoward Magazine
“Coal Girl” by Tara Laskowski in Jellyfish Review
“The Forgetter” by Joe Baumann in Barren Magazine
“Three-and-a-Half Billion Chances” by Kendra Fortmeyer in People Holding
“Halloween Dads” by Ryan Bradford in Paper Darts
“The Ghost Story” by Wesley O. Cohen in Jellyfish Review
“The Hand” by Todd Dillard in Lost Balloon
“Ghost Boyfriend” by Larissa Pham in Triangle House Review
“Haunt” by Theresa Hottel in Smokelong Quarterly
“Cherry Wood Coffin” by Eugenia M. Tryantafyllou in Apex Magazine
Thanks for reading and subscribing, friends. I’m enjoying this journey, writing these monthly newsletters and drafting “The Art of Flash Fiction,” which is now nearly complete. It’s encouraging to know that ~2,700 of you are reading these craft articles, trying my prompts, and supporting this work that means so much to me. I am grateful beyond measure.