I was brought up believing in ghosts. I had a grandfather who told wonderful ghost stories about his time in India, including one of the ghost of a friend which saved his life one night in the jungle. My grandmother, his wife, was Irish and told stories to make your hair stand on end; my other grandmother, of highland descent, practised telepathy with her brother and sister until their vicar father put a stop to it!
I can’t remember the first ghost I saw – perhaps from such a background I just accepted them as normal; perhaps I saw ghosts which I didn’t recognise as being anything other than ordinary people – it happens! They don’t have to be wispy and transparent. One happening in recent times was in the first home my husband and I bought – a little terraced house in Kew and there on the landing halfway up the winding staircase we would see a little girl, huddled against the banisters crying. She used to make my heart ache, but I didn’t know how to reach her and comfort her then.
It seems to be a fact that many ghosts are anchored to the scenes of their hauntings by strong emotional bonds and, sad to say, of these unhappiness and anger and fear seem to be far stronger than happiness.
All the houses we have lived in appear to have been haunted. It’s not just that we love old houses and they are more likely to be haunted. In a country as small and crowded as ours many, perhaps most places are haunted if one takes the time to find the silence and listen. In some places one doesn’t even need silence! After Kew we bought an old farmhouse in Suffolk. Whilst there we were awoken from time to time by thunderous knocking on the front door in the middle of the night. As in so many houses in the country the front door was seldom used; it opened reluctantly with much suitably spooky groaning of ancient swollen wood on uneven flags. Once opened however, after these loud awakenings, there was never anyone there; nor was there anyone to be seen when I stopped going down and instead threw open the bedroom window above and nervously enquired ‘who’s there?’. It wasn’t until we had lived there some time that I heard the story of a panic-stricken neighbour, who had lived centuries before who had raced through the darkness for help to a now-forgotten crisis. When he received no answer from our house he had run back down the long drive and on down the lane towards the village where he had knocked again at another address . There too, apparently they were still being woken by that midnight knocking. I never found out the story behind that race through the dark. I don’t know if anyone knows it now, but its awful urgency still resonates down the years.
Our next house was another farmhouse, this time in North Essex. Here, my younger son was often visited at bedtime by an elderly lady in a pink twin-set who sat on his bed and told him stories. Never seeing her myself, I was inclined to assume she was a classic ‘imaginary friend’ until our doctoridentified her unerringly as ‘Miss Nash’, who had many years before lived in the house. An unmarried lady who adored children she had never had any of her own but had loved any small visitors who came to see her.. That was a happy house, and children adore living there!
With our present house we have inherited a whole range of ghostly happenings and a cast fit for a Halloween play. Their presence is fascinating; sometimes eerie, sometimes a bit scary, sometimes irritating but always interesting and in case I am beginning to sound a bit mad, most of the happenings have been witnessed by other people as well as ourselves!
With all these stories my reaction has been the same. Who? Why? How? What was their story? Why has it been so dramatic or so sad or so deeply emotional that this legacy has remained? Am I seeing spirits – souls, as entities in their own right? Or am I just witnessing echoes and imprints from the past; no more than recordings and videos somehow imprinted on the fabric of the building or on the air itself? And though I tell their stories and sometimes I joke about them, I do not want to see them mocked or derided, as ghost stories so often are by the cynical , so-called sophisticates. These beings deserve serious attention.
In that first Suffolk village the rector was also the Diocesan Exorcist. (This job is now subsumed, in a more sceptical and defensive age, which is nevertheless still forced to accept that such things exist and that they must still sometimes be addressed, under the more gentle title of Deliverance.) He told us many stories of happenings he had dealt with and witnessed. They were, to use a current word which sometimes has its uses, awesome! From him I learned just how seriously people take these occurrences and what frightening results such visitations can incur.
There are many people out there, in fact, most of us when we are children, who can see and hear otherworldly things. Children learn very quickly to keep quiet about these happenings, usually from when they first go to school where people who cannot or will not ‘see’ make fun of them and often the ability is lost as this stage. But some people do carry on ‘seeing things’ and in some cases hearing them as well and, able to communicate, use their abilities to help the entities, whatever they are, to move on.
Sadly this is a field fraught with uncertainties and with fear and so easily exploited by the unscrupulous that as a matter or course the subject is usually met with scorn and disbelief without an attempt to understand and enquire whether there is any truth in what is happening. But there are people who take the subject extremely seriously. As I met more of them over the years and began to take part in serious debates on the subject I was pointed in the direction of the SMN where learned people – neuro- scientists, surgeons, philosophers, and men and women from different faiths, study and discuss among other things paranormal phenomena (see links if you want to find out more about them) and look for reasons and possibilities and maybe proof of what happens. There is also The Society for Psychical Research ( see links) and other organisations to help one explore this endlessly mysterious and fascinating topic.
The results of my own experiences and research and reading go of course into my books. There I have explored different attitudes to different kinds of paranormal experience, and through my characters’ reactions, good and bad and incredulous, I can develop my own view that the past is , as LP Hartley so memorably put it, but a foreign country, where they do things differently. And it is a country, I believe, which is accessible to those who can find it, as are the people who lived in it. People who are now, for want of a better description, ghosts.