Book of a lifetime: Ghost Stories, By Charles Dickens


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The Independent Culture

Throughout my teenage years, I read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens every December. It was a story that never failed to excite me for as well as being a Dickens enthusiast, I have always loved ghost stories.

From MR James to Henry James, Susan Hill to Sarah Waters, I am instinctively drawn to any novel with a sense of the supernatural. I love the atmosphere, the sense of dread, the feeling of claustrophobia. Dickens's ghost stories are not a well-known part of his oeuvre – with the exception of Scrooge's story, of course – but they can be found in anthologies or reprinted as "lost" classics.

When I came to write my ghost novel, This House Is Haunted, I deliberately set it in 1867 so that my opening chapter could feature a scene where the heroine and her father attend a reading of "The Signal-Man" by Dickens himself. Perhaps the best known of his short ghost stories, this is an unsettling piece that starts with a great cry – "Halloa! Below there!" – and recounts a series of encounters between the railway signalman of the title and a spectre who informs him of calamities to come.

The ghost appears once and a terrible crash ensues; he appears a second time and a lady dies in a railway carriage as it passes. It appears a third time, gesticulating wildly, but as yet no misfortune has occurred and the nervous fellow is distressed at the fear of what horror might lie ahead.

Reading Dickens's ghost stories again taught me perhaps the most important feature of the genre. You do not have to explain the existence of ghosts, but you do have to explain the existence of your ghost. And it's got to make sense. All of Dickens's ghosts make sense. In "A Trial For Murder", a victim's ghost takes a seat in the jury at the trial of his killer – retribution! In "The Ghost Chamber", a scoundrel who has killed both his stepdaughter and her paramour finds his spirit trapped at the scene of his crimes – justice! And most famously, Marley's ghost returns to show Scrooge the error of his ways before it is too late – redemption!

Literary genres fall in and out of favour and the ghost story has happily seen a resurgence in recent years, not least through the efforts of the Hammer imprint at Random House. But these classic tales are worth revisiting, not just for a deeper insight into Dickens's work as a whole, but also for a good old-fashioned fright.

'This House Is Haunted' by John Boyne is published by Doubleday