Putting a shiver down our spines on a spring evening were authors Toby Litt, Patrick McGrath and Hilary Mantel who compared notes on their own spooky writing in a discussion chaired by PEN’s own Simon Burt.


Toby Litt had been leading up to writing a ghost story in books preceding, the unequivocally titled, Ghost Story, describing ghosts emerging from washing machines and in Finding Myself about a budding author and her ten friends holidaying in Southwold, an encounter with a spirit dressed up as a ghost in a white sheet. Ghost Story tells the story of a grieving couple’s move to a new coastal home, haunted by the death of their baby, and portrays the ways in which bereavement can overshadow life.


Hilary Mantel had also experimented with the ghostly before Beyond Black, telling the story of lives that might have been led and children who might have come into existence in Giving up the Ghost. Mantel shared her childhood experiences of living in a haunted house, in which dogs would cry at night and stare by day at unseen presences, memories that she wanted to channel into her writing. Beyond Black sees main protagonist Alison terrorised by the spirits of her childhood abusers, always on the cusp of becoming real, vulgar flesh.


Patrick McGrath similarly associated ghosts with childhood. Educated by Jesuits, McGrath was taught that the soul was housed within the body and that the appetites of the body should be suppressed in order to manage the soul. Years later he began to read Gothic fiction with great passion, a genre exploring the separation of body and soul, resulting in the ghost and the ghoul. McGrath preferred the ghouls, enjoying stories of zombies, vampires and characters such as Heathcliffe, whose body is governed by rage and soul is embodied in Kathy, with whom he must be re-united to become whole again. McGrath’s Ghost Town, a collection of stories set in New York, examines unlikely ghostly presences in a city which allows nothing to get old.


As the talk was opened up to questions, one audience member asked whether an essential origin of fear could be traced back to Catholic guilt. McGrath replied that ghosts often represented the moral good and stood against the living as a reminder, while Toby Litt viewed ghosts as having a purpose for the living, existing as a kind of non-Catholic redemption, and felt that contemporary writers were often psycho-analysed if they wrote about ghosts. The audience kindly let our panelists off any such line of psycho-analytical questioning and were happy to have enjoyed this entertaining discussion of other-worldly beings. We hope they didn’t lose any sleep.


Many thanks to our speakers and to Adam Street club for having us.


Report by Alice O’Hanlon

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