We caught up with Helen Grant, author of Ghost, to find out more about her and the ideas behind writing the book.
Many of your books have a strong sense of place – how does Scotland feature as a setting in Ghost?
The rural Scottish location is absolutely central to the book. Langlands House itself is fictional (although inspired by the many lost houses of Perthshire) but the other places described in the book are real ones: James Square in Crieff, for example, and Torlum Hill. And I don’t think that there can be many other possible locations that offer the combination of history and remoteness. If Langlands House were in a populous part of southern England, it would either have been demolished or it would have been converted into a hotel by now! And it’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be visited by outsiders.
You’ve said that you love exploring wild and abandoned parts of the country, areas reminiscent of Ghost’s remote setting – what kind of research went into the writing of the book?
I spent a lot of time researching the history of Scottish country houses. Many of them were abandoned in the middle decades of the 20th century, as has happened to Langlands in the book. Big country houses built in the early 1800s simply became too expensive to maintain and run. As well as visiting the sites of some of them, I also spent a lot of time looking at Canmore, the Historic Environment Scotland database, because it contains many old photographs of country house interiors. I’m really fascinated by the process of decay in old buildings. In some ways it’s remarkably rapid, especially once a place is unroofed, but I also think it’s amazing how much survives.
What is your favourite part of the country?
Perthshire. I love living here. I’m definitely not a city girl – I like green, open spaces, and when I come home from a trip down to London or somewhere, I can feel myself relaxing by degrees as I get further and further into the countryside! But it’s also good to know that Edinburgh and Glasgow are only an hour away by train. And there are so many interesting old places – ruined castles and tumbledown churches and mossy kirkyards. I’m not ever going to be bored.
Where did the idea for Ghost come from?
It came from a combination of things, most of them experiences I had while exploring interesting places in Perthshire. I love researching the lost countries houses of Scotland, and visiting the sites if I can. I visited one which was supposedly demolished in the 1960s, but is still standing, admittedly in a derelict state. That made me think: supposing there was an abandoned house that was still intact, with all the contents inside it – who might be living there, and why would they be hiding? That thought was a big part of the inspiration for Ghost.
Innerpeffray Library, the antiquarian library near Crieff, was also an influence. I’ve visited it many times and I’m fascinated by it. Some of the books date back hundreds of years and astoundingly, you are actually allowed to handle them. Many are in English, but others are in German, French, Latin or even ancient Greek. The scenes in Ghost in which the heroine consults the library in Langlands House, with its old-fashioned leather-bound volumes, are very much inspired by Innerpeffray Library.
Ghost has been variously described as a mystery, spooky and Gothic – what do you think draws people to these types of stories and how would you describe Ghost yourself?
I would say that Ghost is both a psychological mystery and a Gothic romance. I think spooky stories appeal because they have a pleasantly spine-tingling effect but don’t cross the line into being outright gross. Not everyone likes to read about blood, guts and giblets. I think that’s one of the challenges of writing a ghost story: to make it scary without relying on gore. And I think the reason we like to read about things that scare us is that it helps us to examine the things we are afraid of, in a controllable way. Our own deaths, the loss of our loved ones, disease – we’re all afraid of those things. Some people cope with the fear by looking away, and others can’t stop looking. I’m one of the ones who can’t stop looking…
Can you give us a few recommendations of your own favourite ghost stories?
I’m a lifelong fan of the ghost story writer M.R.James. My favourite of all his stories is probably A Neighbour’s Landmark. I know lots of M.R.James fans and I don’t think many of them would select that story as his best, but it really gives me the creeps. I also love the stories of J.Sheridan Le Fanu, whom M.R.James admired. Schalcken the Painter is marvellously horrid. And I love Thurnley Abbey, by Perceval Landon; it contains the most brilliantly terrifying descriptions of fear.
Your books are often very popular with young adults – do you find many (or any) differences between writing for younger and older audiences?
I know that the readership of my previous books has been very much split between young adults and adults. I don’t consciously amend my style to either group when I’m writing. I’ve put some fairly obscure words into some of my novels (“palimpsest” springs to mind…) and I don’t see anything wrong in that – it’s easy enough to Google them! I think Ghost is suited to an older audience because of some of the material in it. But then, some of my previous books had serial killers chasing people with a carving knife, so what do I know?!
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading Stallo, by the Swedish author Stefan Spjut. I thought I’d give it a try because I love the work of John Avjide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In) but I’ve read all of his books that have been translated into English! Before Stallo I read Thin Air by Michelle Paver, which I loved. I was absolutely gripped by that.
Ebook or physical book?
I definitely prefer a physical book most of the time. Apart from anything else, I love to read in the bath. I’ve dropped countless paperbacks into the water, but those can be dried out on the radiator; an e-reader wouldn’t last long! I also read in bed, and prefer not to be looking at a lighted screen just before going to sleep. But I do have an e-reader, which is perfect for travelling, because of the number of books that can be stored on it. I have a lot of classic literary works on it, plus ghost stories and fairy tales.
What are you working on at the moment / do you have your next novel planned?
At the moment I’m working on a number of different projects. I’ve got three different ideas for novels, all of them with a supernatural element. I’ve actually written samples of those. And I have another idea that still needs more development, for a non-supernatural thriller. I’m also working on a ghost story related to the Perth Charterhouse Project – that’s a bit more historical! Basically I’m bursting with ideas at the moment and need to decide which one to focus on first.
What is the best piece of advice you were given when becoming an author?
I’m quite secretive about my writing (I rarely show work in progress to anyone) so I don’t often seek advice. But whoever told me to buy a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook definitely gave me some sound advice. I don’t remember who that was.
Ghost by Helen Grant is available to buy now from all good book retailers.