by Ranulph Williams
For an uncommon thing, the English ghost is a commonplace affair. Where do they come from, these Grey Ladies and Headless Highwaymen, this phantom parade of jilted lovers and remorseful murderers? Is there a linen chest in England that has not had a bride locked in it? Is there an attic without a monstrous Earl? Do these spectres walk their well worn paths because we demand it of them, or do we following in their footsteps? These universal stories that accompany us down the generations: do we see ourselves in them, or find ourselves there? Are we haunted, not by the past, but rather by the story?
The stories themselves are certainly ancient, old as the seasons, some of them: the Spring who dies, to be born again, the god on the tree, the sacrificial King and his tanist, the man who in holy duty dies in his place. A story that beats the rhythm of our own country’s eternal tragedies of Arthur, Launcelot and Guinever, of Mark and Tristram and Iseult.
That country is ancient too, and it is the country, we all know, that is haunted, not the people. The people come and go: the dynasties, the histories, the races, but the ghosts remain, universal, eternal, geographical. Their stories are wound into the landscape, the secret clockwork of myth that drives out history, our mystery, onwards.
I am thinking, in fact, of one landscape in particular, on place. I am thinking of a house.
This house, as they always do, had a history, or, rather, two histories. It has its legible history of deeds and contracts, of genealogies and plumbing, but it also has its unwritten history of wakeful nights and wordless fears, of gooseflesh, of suspicion. Of haunting.
A story winds itself through the house, ticking away the years, a regular as clockwork and grinding as small through the generations. A family for whom romance was an inevitable tragedy, who died before their time, not happily and in that house.
And I have heard that ticking, too. Even in this monstrously modern world, so sleek and electrically alive, so full of its own new radical terrors, of governments of murderers, of industrial death, even today that story uncoils itself. A horror for three, a story made of jealousy and love and death. A story as old as mankind and stronger. A story that haunts a place still. That still haunts me.
The stories in this book are not, thank the gods, as strong, but they have, I hope, a little of that power that inspired them, a little of that suspicion that I have now, that we are haunted by myth, an untouchable history, buried in the earth yet growing all around us, and they may, perhaps, just for a spell, haunt you.