Acclaimed writer Mark Haddon knows what makes a good ghost story. But for the BAFTA winner and author of the best-selling Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it’s not all about things that go bump in the night.
We challenged Mark, and seven other leading contemporary authors, to visit our historic places for inspiration to craft an original ghost story for our new book ‘Eight Ghosts‘. Mark spent time at the York Cold War Bunker and created his gripping short story, ‘The Bunker’.
Now we’ve gone behind the scenes and in his own words Mark tells us how was inspired by the York Cold War Bunker and what he thinks makes the ultimate ghost story.
‘I’m not a great fan of the traditional ghost story’
I’m not a great fan of the traditional ghost story. The distant houselights on the moor, things going bump in the night, the unhappy dead. But behind the gothic machinery and the edge-of-the-seat plotting there lies, at the heart of all ghost stories, a deep anxiety about how we come to terms with death, and that is an anxiety that has always fascinated me as it has fascinated many writers. It’s an anxiety that runs, sometimes near the surface, sometimes deep down, through nearly all literary fiction.
In ghost stories a terrible bargain is struck. The knowledge that death is not necessarily the end comes at a very high price, for only if one suffers terribly is one allowed to go on half living in a lonely limbo.
The making of ghost stories
Literary fiction wrestles with the same problem in a different way. How do we come to terms with the brutal fact that we have only these few brief years, this physical world, this one life? One way is to stop looking for infinite time and start looking for infinite depth in the things around us – in people, in nature, in sensation, in memory, in imaginary worlds. In that sense all stories are ghost stories. We use strings of magical words to conjure beings into life.
We keep the dead alive and create monsters. We construct a shadow world which lies exactly alongside this one. It’s no accident that we describe certain poems, certain stories as haunting.
How I approached my ghost story at the York Cold War Bunker
When I took up the challenge of writing a ghost story, I knew that it wouldn’t fit the standard template. And when I came to choose a setting I knew it wouldn’t be a graveyard or a castle.
The York Cold War Bunker was built in 1960, a prospective underground nerve-centre for monitoring fallout during a nuclear war. I was born in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis and grew up in the era of Mutually Assured Destruction. It seemed a very real possibility that America and Russia would join forces to turn the planet into a scorched wasteland of corpses, cockroaches and smoking ruins. So this place is spooky in a way that even the most haunted of houses can never be spooky. People came here regularly to train for hell on earth.
Even if you were lucky enough to belong to the Royal Observer Corps No. 20 Group YORK and got underground before the sealed doors were slammed shut, you would spend the next six weeks living in a land-locked submarine with 59 other people, 20 beds and three toilets.
You would listen to the radio and make maps charting the destruction of the North of England until the food and the water and the diesel ran out and… then what? You killed and ate one another? You froze to death? You went up top to take your chances with the cockroaches and the radiation? The brightly coloured information pamphlet doesn’t discuss the endgame. Suffice to say, above or below ground, you would probably all go the same way in the end.
In that sense the place was designed to be both a castle and a graveyard.
‘Ghosts’ at the York Cold War Bunker
And there’s the problem. During a nuclear war ghosts would be a long way down anyone’s list of problems. So how do you weave those two kinds of stories together, the grit of documentary realism and the frisson of the supernatural?
I decided to write a story that could be read in two very different ways, a story that was fundamentally ambiguous, a story that would hopefully make the reader as uncomfortable as the place itself made me when I visited.
The Bunker is made up of two interleaved narratives about a woman called Nadine set in two parallel worlds. In one of these narratives Nadine is a volunteer for the ROC in the York bunker during a nuclear war. In the other narrative she lives in a world where some people people are possessed by nightmare visions of a war to end all wars, a world where these haunted people are treated like plague victims and hauled away to suffer some unknown fate so that they do not infect those around them.
The ultimate nightmare and the scariest ghost story of all
I’ll leave you to work out the relationship between the two narratives. For now I’ll say only that in the back of my mind when I was writing the story was an extraordinary book, W, or a Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec, which affected me deeply when I first read it twenty years ago and which has never left me since.
When I was a child I went through a period in which I suffered terrible nightmares. In one I was standing at a cross-roads in failing light as giant insects marched towards me from all four points of the compass. In another I was wearing an old-fashioned waxed canvas diving suit with leaded boots and a spherical brass helmet and I was stuck in a narrow cave underwater, rapidly running out of air. In a third I was being chased by a gorilla.
None of them were as scary, however, as the dream most of us have had at one time or another, the one where where you wake up from a nightmare and look around your bedroom and realise, to your horror, that you have merely woken into another dream.
That has always struck me as the scariest ghost story of all.
Pre-order your copy of Eight Ghosts today
Eight Ghosts, our new book of adult fiction, will be available from October 2017 – just in time for Halloween. You can pre-order your copy now from our online shop.
You can also explore our full Halloween event programme on our website.