Parapsychology professor Philip Goodman doesn’t believe in the paranormal – do you? From the very beginning, Ghost Stories tells you the supernatural is a trick of the mind but then presents a three-part fable that pushes rationality to its limits.
This is the script of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s mega-successful cult stage play of the same name. The play runs without an interval, so the resulting script is short, but scarily sweet. Reading a script like a book isn’t hard; think of the stage directions as part of a present-tense third-person narrative and you’re away. In fact, it has an advantage over novels in that there’s no room for rambling descriptions. Because every word and action must have a purpose for audiences, it translates on the page as a tight and tense exercise in economy.
We are in a lecture. Professor Goodman is a sceptic, keen to prove that our brains are hardwired to play tricks. He claims folklore, ghostly phenomena et al developed as “a way of remembering and contextualising tragedy”, using slides and examples to demonstrate his points.
Just as he starts to lose his audience to boredom with an academically potted history of the paranormal, we are introduced to the first of three taped interviews, part of Goodman’s university research.
They are each authentically chilling, and work as stories in their own right. The first is about Tony, a cynical nightwatchman close to retirement age, whose experience in an empty depository – “I used to call it suppository because it was such a shit job,” he tells Goodman – in the dead of night leaves him frozen in terror.
The two that follow are on similar lines; ghoulish occurrances amid everyday life that can’t be easily explained away. That these are knowingly a tiny bit Scooby-Dooish allows for that age-old release of tension – laughter. The ideas aren’t new; for example, the well-worn trope of framing children as spooky and sinister instead of innocence and light is used to good effect. It’s the authors’ treatment of the tropes we know and love that brings something new to the party.
The anxieties of the male protagnists drip from the pages like water in a sewer, tangible and menacing. There’s no doubt their fears will catch up with them, and we are going to be party to the horror of it all. It’s here, of course, where the true ghosts live, and we watch their inevitable falls with helpless horror. The characters are haunted physically and metaphorically by actions they will come to regret.
But where Ghost Stories’s ultimate cleverness lies in its banality and use of the uncanny. A newborn’s nursery, the interior of a car with the music up loud, a cosily-lit nightwatchman’s cabin… on the surface, these are comfortable, homely places. That is, until they fall into the hands of Dyson and Nyman. Yes, we are expecting scares – the title alone sets up expectations from the off – but there’s a creeping, cunning subtlety to it all which is delightful to read.
The dialogue is pacy and written realistically, with starts and stops, stutters and incorrect grammar. The jump scares, though made for theatre, are genuinely effective, as are the stage directions. It’s refreshing to be told precisely what to feel or hear, and makes reading of the script an intense experience. We are in no doubt whatsoever of what we are meant to experience.
Ghost Stories has the distinct seasoning of a very English sort of horror. It’s not quite Jamesian, not exactly Lovecraftian either. Nor is it truly like the Amicus films (Ghost Stories, coincidentally, was also released as a film in 2018). Yet like James, it is wrapped in a storyteller’s bow, ours a uni lecturer as opposed to a fusty college dean. It has Lovecraft’s uncanniness, and it does ape the portmanteau style of Amicus. It’s all of these things, and not at all, which must simply be down to immaculate crafting on the authors’ parts.
After all, they have good pedigree: Dyson is one quarter of The League Of Gentlemen and Nyman is an actor (if you saw Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set from 2008, you’ll remember his fabulously dry resignation to being eaten by zombies) and Derren Brown’s long-term collaborator.
Ghost Stories is a neatly arranged, if petite, addition to the immense canon of horror literature. The hook isn’t immediate: we are lulled into a false sense of security through the trustworthy, respected lecturer promising an intellectual debunking of the supernatural. What actually occurs is a journey into the psyche, and – no spoilers – the surprising conclusion asks questions bigger than all of us.
Whatever you believe about the paranormal, one is left with the feeling that real life can be much more terrifying. Perhaps this is why we instintively turn to the supernatural for explanations, and for entertainment. As Professor Goodman surmises: “Maybe it’s because the brain, rather than accepting the mundane explanation of a mundane life, it positively chooses the colour and drama of a ghost story.”