Invisible Ink: No 204 - Ghost writers


Remember the odd history of Virginia Andrews? Her Flowers In The Attic novels began appearing in 1979 and became surprise best-sellers. They were airless, claustrophobic works about four siblings locked in an attic in order to gain an inheritance. The incestuous melodramas appealed to teenaged girls, so when Andrews died in 1986 she was replaced by a ghost writer called Andrew Neiderman, who penned more than 40 further volumes in her name. They did so well that her estate kept her alive and earning, the Inland Revenue Service cannily arguing that her name was still a taxable asset.

The Andrews case opened the floodgates; authors who were deceased started writing again, and living ones doubled their output. Tom Clancy and James Patterson co-author endless volumes, so that it’s hard to see where the original author ends and the ghost writer takes over – not that it really matters, as such dispensable volumes are not for posterity. Robert Ludlum continues to have a healthy writing career despite the minor inconvenience of being dead. Authors are sometimes trademarked so that new books are merely “in the style of” the earlier works that made their names. An entire necrophilic industry has sprung up wherein Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet continue their amorous affairs, Poirot still investigates, Jeeves still bails out Wooster.

Sometimes authors’ wives are unacknowledged ghost writers. It’s been argued that Dick Francis’s spouse was the driving force behind his novels; he certainly stopped writing when she died, only to start eight years later with his son.

Ghost-writing is not a disreputable career choice; H P Lovecraft was one, working with Harry Houdini; Ian Fleming’s most famous character has been extended by a long line of “named” ghost writers; R L Stine’s “Goosebumps” series for kids has fielded a small army of them, and SF ghoster Ron Goulart handled the “TekWar” books supposedly written by William Shatner. Many ghost writers sign non-disclosure agreements as part of the deal.

Nobody expects soap stars, footballers or supermodels to articulate their own life stories, and the ghost writer dons the mantle of the would-be author so effectively that their own identities are completely subsumed. Films and television shows are spun  into volumes that are rarely authored by the original scripters, and a good  ghost writer can produce a readable facsimile in about a week. Intriguingly, some develop their own ghosting style and have lately become collectable in their own right.