A Report from Inside the UK Ghost Story Festival by Alyson Faye
Venue: Derby Quad from Friday 29 November, 2019 to Sunday 1 December, 2019. (@UKGSF1)
This was the début Ghost Story Festival at the Quad Arts Centre in the heart of Derby city centre, where over the weekend a host of author readings, film screenings, panel talks, workshops and author interviews was happening. The event is the brainchild of Alex Davis (@AlexDavis1981) who is the Literature Officer at the Quad and an Associate Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at Derby University. I spoke to Alex during the weekend and I will share his comments a bit later on in this article.
I started off my Friday evening by attending best seller horror writer Adam Nevill’s reading and talk about his latest folk horror novel, The Reddening. (released 31 October, 2019). Nevill read the opening chapters at the mic, ending on a cliffhanger of course, then he talked about the two year journey he’d embarked on when researching and writing the book. He’s a keen walker, kayak-er and swimmer and has explored much of the South Devon coast where he lives. The inspiration for The Reddening, came to him in Kents Cavern, near Torquay ( https://www.kents-cavern.co.uk/) in the middle of a guided tour. The caverns are prehistoric and were once home to our ancestors; when the tour guide switched off all the lights underground, he then played a recording of a hyena- screaming in the darkness. That was the moment when the plot clicked in for Nevill.
He opened the session up to questions from the floor :- which included ones on how hard/easy he finds it to write female protagonists? Answer:- He challenged himself, four books into his career, to switch to a female lead for House of Small Shadows. Which of his books would he like to see filmed? Answer:- No One Gets Out Alive (which he saw as a sister novel to The Ritual).
He talked about the filming of that book, which he’d hoped would get a US cinema release, but was instead sold to Netflix, where it became a slow burn hit. Now six of his back catalogue have been optioned for films. He described this as a ‘game changer’ in his career so far. Nevill referenced M.R.James, Algernon Blackwood, and L.P.Hartley amongst his favourite ghost story writers and of the modern writers, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. His latest venture has been turning his hand to writing screenplays of his ideas, first, before he turns them into novels. Doubling up on their potential market value, as he put it.
Afterwards at the author book signing, where I bought The Reddening, I found myself fan-gushing to Nevill about how he began following me on Twitter a few weeks ago and how thrilled I was. He smiled kindly at me.
Saturday was my full-on, 10.30am- 8.30pm day, with a brief break for lunch. There was such a choice of events that it had been a tough job to pick – I had to, regretfully, opt out of going to the film screenings as I prioritised various panel talks with authors I’ve either/both read or interviewed or met before and choosing a workshop with thriller writer Sarah Ward.
First up, at 10.30am was Supernatural Shorts- with James Everington, Alison Littlewood, Sarah Ward in the chair and Mark Latham.
Discussing their influences growing up, the panel all credited libraries and the experience of choosing books there whilst growing up, as very important to them; Ramsey Campbell and James Herbert also got mentions. Mark Latham carried his battered copy of the 1972 Fontana book of Ghost Stories (which I remember reading) around with him all day.
The panel discussed the advantages of the short story format for writing ghost stories and their Golden Age in the Victorian era, how ghost stories allow us to explore our relationship with death, and our fears, what clichés to avoid and whether there was a place for humour in the genre. The question of how to write an effective ending divided the panel:- James Everington opted for ambiguity in his endings, Alison Littlewood thought the story’s internal rhythm took you there, and she doesn’t plot her short stories as much as her novels, and Mark Latham talked about the ‘snapshot’ demands of the short story and how he used familiar shorthand settings to speed up the narrative and how he focuses on ‘the unknown not the known’. Recommendations of short story authors from the panel included Paul Tremblay, Lillies by Ian Rowan, Michelle Paver’s Thin Air and Dark Matter and Adam Nevill’s story, ‘Florrie’.
I caught up with Alison Littlewood (http://www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk/) after the session, as she has kindly agreed to be
interviewed for me for the Horror Tree and I will also be reviewing her latest seasonal ghost novel, the haunting Mistletoe, a copy of which she signed for me. We chatted about her career, her break through book and her current book. More to follow on the Horror Tree site.
Next up for me was the 12-1pm panel who were debating How to develop a great ghost story – with Adam Nevill, Charlotte Baker, Sophie Draper and James Brogden who was the chair. I sat on the front row, which probably slightly concerned Adam Nevill, but at the end he asked me ‘Did it all make sense?’ i.e. his advice and yes, it did. In fact it was very useful and on point. (I had previously attended another Alex Davis organised workshop in Nottingham where Sophie Draper, author of two Derbyshire set thrillers, Cuckoo and Magpie, and Charlotte Baker had been workshop leaders).
The panel listed their influences as Susan Hill, Shirley Jackson, Michelle Paver (Sophie)’ The Blair Witch Project (film), The Lovely Bones and James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall (book and film and a favourite of mine) (Charlotte); M.R.James had been read to Adam Nevill by his father, and he also loves H.R.Wakefield, Robert Aickman, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood and Sarah Waters.
Asked what characterised a ghost story the panel offered :- a preoccupation with the past, spooky atmosphere, a sense of the unknown, and Nevill said it had to ‘inflict dread and terror on the reader.’
The writers have all done some unusual research in their time for the sake of their novels – Sophie about a coin called The Puppet Rider (Magpie), Charlotte on flies and decomposing bodies and Adam Nevill at one time had 36 books out from the library all on witchcraft.
Asked how they each start their their own ghost story- Charlotte begins with her characters, and history, often tied to old buildings and asks herself ‘what if ghosts are attached to events?’ Sophie believes however that the setting is paramount and draws on her own knowledge of folklore. Magpie was located very much on her own doorstep, but her next novel, her third, she told me is set in Staffordshire. Adam Nevill creates a recognisable settings and then incrementally inserts weird and unsettling events so that when the supernormal crosses over the line, it works and the reader accepts it as the norm and buys into it.
After this session I hit the Quad bar café for lunch and a mini interview with Lewis Williams, one of the founders of Corona Books. (https://www.coronabooks.com/) who was there with his business partner, Sue Eaton to give a talk on ‘Editing a Horror Anthology’ and to promote the latest anthology from Corona. The Third Corona Book of Horror Stories (published October 2019).
Interview with Lewis Williams of Corona Books.
(Reveal- I had myself submitted to the call out for this anthology and though I didn’t make the final cut I did receive a polite and lovely email saying that they had been overwhelmed by the 800 plus story submissions they’d received and that my story had made the long list of the final 50 ‘honourable mentions’ and it would be listed at the rear of the anthology).
Lewis wrote in his email: “We’re a very small publishing business and one that’s committed to publishing as much great writing by indie authors in the horror and sci-fi genres as we can.”
I asked Lewis to talk about why he’d set up Corona in 2015. (Note:- the cover (image above) by the way is a homage to all those classic paperback Pan/Fontana anthologies).
Lewis said he has a great love for sci-fi and horror and he was aware there was a wealth of talent out there which with a bit of help and editing could be even better and he was keen to promote that.
His business partner, Sue Eaton, is a former teacher (like me) and has had her work performed on Radio 4. She is a huge Dr Who fan, Matt Smith is her favourite (mine’s Tom Baker of course).
Asked about the future for Corona, Lewis promised (and I said I would quote his very words) that ‘as long as my heart is beating’ there will be an annual Corona anthology.
So, would-be horror/sci-fi writers, go follow them on twitter @CoronaBooksUK and keep an eye out for their call outs.
They are an indie horror press to watch out for run by committed, enthusiastic folk.
After lunch I was off to a 3-4pm panel talk on History in the Making? What relevance does the ghost story have today? The panel on this one was – Paul Kane, Laura Purcell, Mark Latham with Sophie Draper in the chair.
Asked what their favourite contemporary ghost stories were the panel opted for Ghoster by Jason Arnopp, published October 2019 and a new one for me, though I’ve ordered my copy and it has been garnering great reviews.
(Paul), Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts (Laura), Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter from Mark and Sophie mentioned Susan Hill and Shirley Jackson whose stories she has recently got into.
Asked about the enduring popularity of the ghost story the panel commented that people enjoy the need to be unsettled, the fear of the unknown and there is a trend towards genre mash ups (Latham) where the settings have become more innovative. (Alien is a ghost story in space.) These days technology is changing the content of ghost stories -e.g. Transcendence – is your soul in the machine? Or is it really you? or are you the ghost? There is the tech to reproduce the images of dead actors in new films and new gadgets give writers a fresh spin on old tropes.
Mark talked at length about the internet urban legend of ‘Creepypasta’ which has been spread by memes, gamers and you tubers as an example of the twenty-first century equivalent of the Victorian fireside story. Laura Purcell for her research on Bone China had immersed herself in the video game Dear Esther and Sophie suggested that social media was the new version of the traditional oral storytelling. Twitter was mentioned as a way of writers adapting ghost stories to the tiny original 140 characters length and doing it well and Joe Hill’s short story Twittering from the Circus of the Dead was referenced, which he wrote entirely as a series of tweets.
The consensus is that ghost stories will embrace whatever the new tech is and adapt to continue in some format or another to tap into our darkest fears.
Sarah Ward’s workshop was next up but before that I did a mini interview with the festival’s driving force Alex Davis.
Interview with Alex Davis
I asked Alex how long he’d been planning this festival? It turned out it has been a bit of a dream of his, and he’s wanted to run one for years and has been discussing it with the Quad team. He’s already the founder of the two Derby Quad-based horror conventions (and sci-fi) the summer Edge-lit and the winter, Sledge-lit (both of which I have been to) but one focussing purely on the ghost story form took some putting together and he said it had been a big decision to replace this year’s Sledge-lit with this instead. He wanted it to have wide appeal, ideally in the winter season, but in the end he suspected he’s programmed what he himself would like to see and go to.
He had a key hot wish-list of authors to invite:- Adam Nevill, Laura Purcell, Andrew Michael Hurley (author of The Loney) who I simply couldn’t manage to fit in seeing this time but I have seen him twice before at other events and happily they all agreed to attend.
Being aware that ghost stories cross different media i.e. books, films, Alex wanted a pop in/drop in option for attendees and a dedicated weekend pass so that he could attract both the committed writers/readers and a more casual audience and hopefully the festival would appeal to folk living in Derby itself. He believed he’s succeeded as the events (all of them, I think) were sold out and there was a mixture of weekend passes (like me and my Otley writing group mates, Martin and Jo) and casual one-offs, come for one event and a drink in the bar).
Other people, like writer Johnny Mains, came along and pitched a talk idea to Alex which became ‘How to find the Hidden- researching ghost stories) and Alex booked him in into the schedule.
It is, Alex believed, one of the main dedicated themed writing festivals in the UK and he aims to run it every year and plans go international with his author invites.
(Well, I did get to see Paul Tremblay at the Quad last year).
If anyone can do it Alex Davis can, with his drive and enthusiasm for the world of horror, sci-fi and fantasy.
Look out for Part 2 of Alyson Faye’s write-up of the Ghost Festival, next Saturday. (As a previous attendee of Edge-lit and Sledge-lit, I’m really disappointed I couldn’t go – Steph)