Until recently, the words Hammer Horror made me think of Christopher Lee, red in tooth and eye, or Peter Cushing rushing around his lab.
It meant films that were spooky but schlocky, on late at night in my university days, ones that I much preferred to Blair Witches and Ring things. More recently there was an adaptation of The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe wearing his best “honest guv, I’m not a wizard” face. However, there’s a far more up to date definition of Hammer - as a publisher of horrifically good ghost stories.
OK, so I’m a bit late to this party. For the last couple of years, Hammer has been publishing supernatural stories by Great British writers. Jeanette Winterson and Melvin Burgess have written for the imprint, and Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat, which I recently picked up, was the best kind of ghostly tale - one that has you pondering its implications - and checking the back of dark cupboards - long after the final page.
And last week best-selling crime writer Sophie Hannah had her first Hammer titled published. The Orphan Choir (brrr - children AND creepy religious singing, well done that woman) might sound like an MR James classic, but it’s a very modern sort of ghost story. It starts with that contemporary form of haunting, noisy neighbours playing rock music late into the night, and takes in parental guilt over schooling and the pull of a second home. The best thing, though? It has proper, old-fashioned ghosts in it. And there’s a good reason for that - Hannah wants her books to be properly scary in the old-fashioned way, despite the trappings of 21st century life. “One thing that really bugs me in contemporary supernatural is - and I think this happens more at the literary end – this thing ‘is it a ghost or is it all in her mind?’” explained Hannah when I spoke to her last week. “Then you get to the end of the book, and it could have been either”.
Although some of the scariest bits in The Orphan Choir are when you start to suspect that the heroine, Louise, is losing her mind (something I came close when I had a nightmare living next door), there’s nothing like ghostly children to give you the collywobbles. “All my favourite ghost stories – The Woman in Black, and ones that have been made into films such as The Others, The Sixth Sense – have proper ghosts in them who are definitely ghosts, definitely not just a figment of the narrator’s imagination.”
Ghost stories, however posh the authors who write them are, are a guilty pleasure for some. Not for me - I find them endlessly fascinating and enjoyable, and a welcome respite from real life. Well, at least until a pack of dead choristers start interrupting my weekends, that is. Hammer obviously knows that scary sells as next month it launches its Hammer Chillers, a series of downloadable audio dramas. And I’ll definitely be tuning in for Hammer’s newest horrors.