The winner of the Telegraph ghost story competition will not be me because I wasn’t chosen as one of the six finalists, but after reading all six I thought three were brilliant ghost stories and very well written.
A Hollow Cause by Craig Drew/Gimme Shelter by Pat Black/Friends by Richard Crompton
As this was a ghost story competition, for creepy factor alone that made me go stiff as I held my breath to read the ending…I hope that Pat Black wins (I think it was better than mine), but all three of my favorite winners were well written and creepy. Mine isn’t really creepy, it’s…shock horror…a romance!
In Darkness Let me Dwell
Standing still in the dark, she could sense the priest hole’s long narrow dimensions. If she reached out in front of her she’d touch smooth wooden paneling. Two shallow steps backwards and she’d be up against a rough brick wall, the true wall of the Elizabethan gallery. Tucked into one end of the long narrow passage was a bed; at the other, above a desk and chair, was a shelf with a supply of candles, paper and ink to entertain any wandering Jesuit fortunate enough to know of its existence. Holding her breath she listened for her lover’s faint knock. He’d come soon. His soft warm lips would kiss away her fears and then they’d ride away into the night never to return. Her smiled twisted into a grimace as floorboards creaked on the other side of the wooden wall as if a solitary dancer was compelled to cover the width and length of the long gallery. That was the signal. The voices were coming. Invisible hands wrung her stomach like a wet rag, causing her legs to tremble against the heavy silk of her skirt.
The awful story would be retold in gory detail, conjuring up images that made her wish she was… No! She’d never wish for death, not while her Beloved’s infant was growing inside her. He’d come. He’d take her far away and she’d never have to hear the story again. She covered her ears, but an authoritative voice rang through the wall demanding her attention. Thundering footsteps obeyed, approaching the concealed entrance to the priest hole and then stopping in a dramatic pause of silence as if this time she’d be spared.
“In this room, perhaps on the very spot you’re standing, something terrible happened…” The storyteller was a man; a heartless man who seemed to enjoy making her suffer.
“I paid fifteen bucks to see the white lady. How do you know we’ll see her today?” The demanding voice was one she’d never heard before.
“I’ll answer questions about ‘The Lady in White’ after I finish telling the story.” Safe in the darkness the young woman pressed her palms together and silently prayed the voices would disappear, but her prayer went unanswered. “Over three hundred years ago this house was owned by a wealthy merchant who lived here with his wife, legitimate daughter and a son from a previous unsanctioned union…” The story unfolded in her mind like a badly performed puppet show; the spoken words following several seconds behind the mental images, causing confusion and rage. Thumping the panelling with her fist she screamed at the voices to go away.
“What was that? I heard something. A faint banging.”
“That always happens when I start telling the story. Think of it as her way of saying hello.”
“There it is again. It doesn’t sound friendly to me.”
“Never mind the broken water pipes Hervey, let the man tell us the story. If I don’t feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck in the next five minutes I’m demanding a refund.”
“Thank you Madam…where was I? Oh yes, the wife was a timid plain creature, but the daughter had a rare beauty that captured the eyes and hearts of every man who saw her. That’s her in the portrait at the end of the gallery.”
“Is she the white lady?”
“Yes, she’s ‘The Lady in White’.”
“She was a beauty? Her gene pool must have been a puddle. She looks like a King Charles spaniel.”
“That the was fashion. Now if you’ll all turn back this way I’ll continue…thank you. As the merchant’s sole legal heir, the girl was her father’s most precious possession even more precious than his rare collection of late medieval drinking glasses of which we have some excellent copies in our gift shop through which we’ll pass at the end of the tour. At fourteen the girl was considered of age. Numerous men rode up to win her hand and future fortune, but none were considered worthy of the treasure. Who’d want their daughter to marry a local Baron with delusions of grandeur when she might secure the hand of an influential Earl with the King’s ear?”
“It would depend how often the Earl changed his linen. If he smelled like a goat…”
“It was a rhetorical question Madam. So…five years later the father’s ideal son-in-law appeared, but half-way through the financial negotiations the girl was found to be with child and not by her intended. She insisted she’d been ravished by some vagrant while walking in the woods near the house. Some passing tinker who happened to match the girl’s description was found guilty of the deed and hanged. When the young woman refused to eat the herbs her father hoped would terminate the pregnancy he suspected the truth. He demanded to know the name of her lover, but she insisted she’d been ravished even after a dozen wounding blows. A few days later a maidservant came up here, to the long gallery, at daybreak to clean and slipped in a pool of blood. The household was even more disturbed when they discovered that the girl was missing along with her cloak and all her jewelery.
Strangely, the son disappeared the same night taking his cloak and saddle bags, but all the horses were accounted for. The Merchant spent months looking for his daughter. They say he spent half his fortune trying to find her without a single reputable sighting. It was as if she’d vanished into thin air. Tongues started wagging that the affectionate brother had killed his sister in hope of becoming their father’s heir and hidden her body in one of the secret priest holes known only to the family. The merchant did change his will making his natural son his sole heir, but only on condition he find his half-sister and bring her home, but the son was never seen again. He too had vanished. Some years later on a rainy afternoon the merchant was taking exercise up and down this gallery in the company of a cousin when a ribbon of white smoke expanded into a ghostly version of the man’s daughter dressed in a white gown. The cousin swore the ghost reached out both hands towards the merchant’s face as if to claw at his eyes. Clutching his chest, the merchant fell to the floor…dead. That was the first recorded sighting of The Lady in White. She’s often seen on dark and stormy nights pacing the length of the gallery stopping every so often to stare in the direction of the stairs as if she’s expecting company, but as soon as the clouds clear and moonlight shimmers off the silver threads of the tapestry…she vanishes.”
“Her father obviously killed her. He was probably in love with her.”
“Hervey, not everyone’s father is a heartless pervert. She probably ran off to meet her lover, stopped at a well for a drink and was pushed in by the Tinker’s angry relatives. She blames her father because if he’d let her marry her lover she wouldn’t be haunting this creepy gallery like some freak show exhibit. How long before she appears?”
The darkness of the priest hole faded behind her as the need to silence the voices pulled the unseen listener to the other side of the wall. Hazy autumn sunlight crept under half-closed shades pulled down to protect the French tapestry hanging the entire length of the gallery; embroidered knights hacked each other with silver swords their faces stitched with pain and fatigue as they battled to crush their opponents.
The storyteller, an official looking clipboard tucked under his arm, held one finger to his lips as he silenced his seven listeners. “Do you feel that?”
“The sudden drop in temperature. She’s here!” The seven listeners visibly shivered as they looked over their shoulders with wide nervous eyes. “Is that you Miss Mary? Did your brother kill you? Knock once for yes. Did he kill you?” Mary pressed her hands over her ears, but the horrifying past flooded her brain like a savage tide, washing away the comforting darkness. She could hear her brother assuring her in a loving whisper that all would be well. They’d leave that night. They’d sail down the coast to London, pawn their valuables and purchase land in some remote corner of England where they’d live as man and wife without shame or fear of their father’s wrath. All she had to do was wait for her brother in the priest hole. He’d come for her when it was safe to leave unseen. Knowing she’d be riding all night she lay down on the narrow bed and fell asleep. Hearing her name she jerked awake. He’d come. Running into the candlelight, black shadows outlined her brother sitting on the floor clutching his stomach. Kneeling, she kissed his lips and tasted blood. ‘Father knows. He swore he’d beat my babe from your womb. I must get you to France…seek sanctuary…Beloved…’ He’d died in her arms, his warmth slowly seeped away filling her heart with icy rage. Pulling her brother’s knife from his leather belt she kissed her sweetheart’s lips one last time and then crept out into the long gallery and carefully spilled her blood on the floor depriving her father of his cherished dream of an aristocratic grandson. She had just enough strength to creep back into the priest hole, close the entrance and collapse next to her brother before she found herself alone in the comforting darkness waiting for her brother. “We know you’re here Mary. Talk to us.” She couldn’t bear another taunting question; she had to make the voices leave. “Tell us what…what the…?” Yanking the board from under the storyteller’s arm she flung it hard across the room. The living stared in shock as the self-propelled clipboard fell with an eerie clatter in the otherwise silent room. “She’s never done that before.”
“Go away!” She screamed at the top of her voice, but they gave no sign of having heard.
“Hervey, I think we should leave.”
“I’m not leaving, I want to take some photos of the clipboard and the cold spot. Hell’s Bells! Do you see the mist?” Wide frightened eyes whirled round to watch the floating white ribbon expand into the shape of an Elizabethan woman. “Don’t stand there, get closer so I can take your photo with the ghost.”
“I can’t move my legs. I’m scared. Help me…”
“I didn’t risk my neck on the M25 this morning to leave now. So she doesn’t like us. What is she going to do about it? She’s dead. If I get a good shot I can sell it to the tabloids. Don’t look a gift ghost in the mouth.”
“What happened Mary?” The storyteller pushed his glasses up on his nose and stared as if the secret to life had been printed on her face. “Who ended your life? Nod twice if it was your…” The man’s spectacles flew off his face hitting the nearest window with a ear piercing crack followed by a second slap that made him wince in pain. As pale as the paper in his forgotten clipboard, blood trickled out of his nose as his mouth opened and closed and then at last a hoarse scream joined a crescendo of footsteps as the oddly dressed strangers fled back towards the stairs and disappeared from view. Staring at the room, the chasm of sadness in her chest became unbearable. Closing her eyes she dived blindly back into the priest hole. Soft blackness wrapped around her like a silk eiderdown. Any moment her brother would wake her, take her in his arms and remind her between soft adoring kisses why they had to leave.
Teresa Thomas Bohannon says
WoW! If this is not a winning entry–I would love to read the winners. I even loved the title In Darkness Let me Dwell.
You had my full “edge of the seat” attention from “Holding her breath she listened for her lover’s faint knock. He’d come soon. His soft warm lips would kiss away her fears and then they’d ride away into the night never to return. Her smiled twisted into a grimace as floorboards creaked on the other side of the wooden wall….” to “Staring at the room, the chasm of sadness in her chest became unbearable. Closing her eyes she dived blindly back into the priest hole. Soft blackness wrapped around her like a silk eiderdown. Any moment her brother would wake her, take her in his arms and remind her between soft adoring kisses why they had to leave.”
I think it was a beautiful spine shivering ghostly tale of doomed romance and tragedy. You even had a bit of comic relief with your obnoxiously hilarious tourists and your obviously long-suffering tour guide.
Thanks for sharing,
Thank you Teresa! The story came out of me reading and then wondering about a real ghost woman who’d been haunted this old castle in (Norway or Denmark) for ages until (for some unknown reason) they broke open a wall and found inside the remains of a woman in the same colour of dress as the ghost seen haunting that area. Of course today ghosts aren’t left in peace to be miserable reliving some ghastly day over and over…no, they get chased by ghost hunting television cameras and microphones and taunted for “entertainment”… “Knock three times if you can hear me…” I couldn’t help wondering how awful it would be to be trapped in a reoccurring nightmare only to find the nightmare invaded by brash thoughtless idiots who want to poke and pry…for fun! For some poor souls, being dead is hell!
Your story pulses with a sense of place, Psyche. It confirms the human feeling that vile deeds against true love will enter the fabric of our places of habitation. Favourite was the solitary dancer on the floorboards, any criticism would just be opinion, and in my opinion your story is right up there with the winners.
(Two` long narrows’ in the first para, needs a comma `long,narrow’?)
Thanks Antb for your feed back! You’re right, anything creative is always subjective. There are truckloads of published books that I think are badly written and in my opinion absolute rubbish. However, there are people out there (lots of them) who think that, that badly written tripe is brilliant, genius even. Who’s right? I think I am of course, but I frequently remind myself that people need different kinds of stories. This helps ease my wounded ego when I face the fact some people think my brain children are mutants. Seriously though, my favorite stories paint pictures in the mind while the story unfolds. It amazes me, but some people don’t want description. I didn’t even know this phenomenon existed until a friend of mine mentioned this about herself. Some people just want the apple. They don’t want apple pie with it’s sweet scent of cinnamon sugar, the golden crust peeping through a big glob of fresh cream, the tightened waist band afterward etc. I love apples, but I’ll always take the pie if its on offer!
For those curious souls who’d like to read AntB’s ghost story entry (which is really good) go to http://my.telegraph.co.uk/antb/antb/15857397/not-a-ghost-of-a-chance/
I had my Goblin check the grammar of my Ghost story for me. I’ll have to let him know he missed one of my mistakes! 😉
Psyche, I think this is a very good story. Clearly,you are an excellent writer. I see two or three (minor) possible reasons why you didn’t make it to the shortlist. Most people are turned off by incest and they might feel ambiguous about Mary’s unmitigated affection for her brother. I was also confused about why she was waiting for him when he did come back and actually died in the priest hole. And I felt that the action at the end should have been from Mary’s point of view to emphasise her anger. The way it is, it looks too much like slapstick which is a pity. But with a bit of tidying up I think this story could have been among the winners.
Thanks for your comments Julie-t! I think to be a really good short story writer one needs to be writing short stories all the time and I haven’t written one in years so I’m not surprised I’m not on the list. I hope Pat Black wins as his/her story was brilliant; a thousand times better than mine. For me, finishing a story to a deadline and entering was like reaching the top of a mountain. I’ve been ill all year. I thought my hair was falling out from stress, but by September my brain came to a complete stand still and I couldn’t write to family let alone write stories. It turns out I’ve had a thyroid problem that’s been getting worse. I spent a good part of August and most of September and October watching murder mysteries on youtube…one after the other day after day. I’d only been taking my pills for about a week or two and my brain was coming back to life when I read about the ghost story competition. I love ghost stories, so it was a lovely opportunity to focus on something small instead of trying to face two unfinished novels waiting for their endings. Thanks to my ghost story I’m back to work.
As for the ghost, she’s delusional. The only way she can bear the truth is to lie to herself and pretend her lover’s still coming. Reality is a reoccurring nightmare churned up by the story telling guide. She’s mental.
I meant it to be entirely from her perspective so clearly I didn’t quite achieve my aims, but considering I haven’t had a brain for months I’m not unhappy with it.
That you can’t please everyone, and the most difficult writer to please is yourself, is a good and helpful thought to hold, Cari. Thank you. I’ll stick that on my wall along with `Just do it’. I learnt a lot by having a go at the competition and from the comments.
Here the snow is persistent, the air is freezing and everything takes twice as long as usual. Look after yourself, get well soon and have a lovely Christmas. Happy Writing!
Thanks AntB, I hope you have a lovely Christmas too! The saying I have blue-tacked to the bottom of my computer screen is “I will do my best and my best will do!” Another one I should have taped on my computer is, “Enjoy the process!” Sometimes I get stuck in worrying about the end “product” but I’m not spending four years of my life (in the case of certain books) working on a product. As an artist I’m trying to create a work of art. Some people might equate my stories to circular cement planters filled with pansies, begonias or daisies (the public kind you often see stuck with chewing gum), but who’d want to live in a world without pansies?
Teresa Thomas Bohannon says
Not me, that’s for sure. Pansies are my favorite flower. One of the things I recall most fondly from my childhood was a large wooden framed, horizonal picture of pansies all strung out in a row, that was probably already old when I was young. I loved that picture. Unfortunately, before I grew up and realized the sentimental value of family treasures, my mother passed it along to a younger sister, who passed it along to her daughter. I had forgotten all about that picture until I read your post. Hmmmm. Ebay here I come 🙂
@Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Teresa, you have excellent taste in flowers! I’ve always loved how pansies have contrasting colored faces with that “try to not see me with my purple and yellow face” attitude. If I was a flower I like to think I be a pansy…or a tulip…or an orchid.
As a small child at church we’d sing this lovely song Little Purple Pansies.
Little purple pansies touched with yellow gold, Growing in the corner of our garden old, we are very tiny but must try try try, just one spot to gladden, you and I.
In whatever corner we may chance to grow, Whether cold or warm the wind may blow; Dark the day or sunny, we must try try try, Just one spot to gladden you and I.
That sums up how I feel about my stories! I hope you find your pansy painting! 🙂