I’ve been on a few writing retreats now and one thing that has struck me is that writers, no matter their preferred genre, love to tell a good ghost story. I enjoy them as they have that simple but effective approach to storytelling. However, I’m not too proud to avoid mentioning that it freaks the hell out of me for quite a while afterwards.

We’ve got an Irish guy here called Paul and he was telling us about the Irish knack for this stuff. They might be straight-forward, salt-of-the-earth type people, but they have this understated familiarity with the supernatural. The kind of person who’ll have a pint at the pub, but pour some out the window “for the little people”. The Japanese have this same sort of cultural okayness with the supernatural. I’ve heard stories of foreigners being told just before bed that they should be aware of the spirit standing in the shadow at the corner of their room, but if they pay it no attention, it won’t bother them. When I fainted one day at a morgue (remind me to tell you that yarn some time), the doctor there told me about widow ghosts. Apparently in Malaysia there was a rash of men getting arrhythmia of their hearts and dying in their sleep. The village’s understanding of this was that there were ghostly widows out looking for a husband. They would find one of these men while he was asleep and take them off to the spirit realm. The cure: men went to sleep wearing women’s clothing to fool the widow ghosts.

Anyway, the other night Paul was telling us these stories as examples of the latent Irish superstition. Some of them mix up with stories of drunken shenanagins and have the spooky stuff a just a story element. One night Sean had gone out with his friends to the pub and had a craic of a time. One too many pints later he woke up in the middle of this ploughed field surrounded by hedgerows. He thought to himself, “What the hell am I doing here?” and decided to find his way home. From what he could see, it was hedgerow all around him. Surely there had to be a gate or something that he’d let himself in through. He had the bright idea to stumble over to the nearest bit of hedge and follow it around until he found the gate. So over he goes and he’s following it and he gets to a corner, keeps following, another corner, and then another and another and another. He’s like: “Hang on,” and tried again, really looking this time. The hedge was thick and there was no way he’d pushed through there, and twelve feet tall, so he surely didn’t climb it. Sean’s looking and looking and starting to panic. Suddenly, he sees these headlights pass by the mist and he thought, “Aha! That must be the road, so I’ll go that way.” And he stumbles over and finds this great big bloody gate that somehow he’d miss before.

That example had that neat undercurrent of the supernatural. This one is a little more overt. Mick was a big guy, easily six feet tall. He’d been to the markets that day and picked himself up this nice leather jacket. That night he was walking up from his farm to the lights of the city. It was a bit nippy so he’s zipping up his new leather jacket but it’s a bit tight so he’s struggling. Just as he’s zipped it up to his collar he feels this kick between his shoulder-blades and he stumbles a little. He wasn’t sure what it was, but kept going along in the dark. Then again there’s this bang in his back, like someone pushing him. So he walks a little quicker and bang, it happens again. He starts to run now and all the way to the city this forces keeps hitting him square in the back. He makes it to the pub and he’s white and sweating like nobody’s business. They ask him, “Micky boy, what happened?” So he tells them. One of them asks, “You didn’t turn around to see what it was?” Mick replied, “Would you?”

I told Paul a story about the house we’re doing our retreat in. The house was originally the family house of this female writer, Eleanor Dark. They had lived here for many years and when they passed on, their son didn’t want it to be sold to some developer who’d knock it down. Long story short, they kept the house mostly as-is and it’s now dedicated to running writing retreats. There are several rooms, one of them being the main bedroom where Eleanor and her husband slept. This room is typically given to a male since the other rooms in the house share a bathroom and there’s usually more female writers than male ones. Anyway, they still have the old bed of the Dark’s. I was staying in there once and a bunch of poets told me about the bed. On the bed was supposedly writing on both sides that said, respectively, “His” and “Hers”. Some writer was sleeping in that bed many years ago and was woken up in the middle of the night by a gruff, “Get over your side!” He tucked himself over to one side and didn’t hear anything for the rest of the night. When he checked in the morning, he found that he’d been on the “His” side of the bed, but maybe rolled over to “Hers”. When they told me this, I was skeptical. I hadn’t seen any writing and I knew writer-types loved their ghost stories. Just as I was going to bed, just about to turn out the last light, I saw it - the angle of the light was just right for me to see “His” in faded gold lettering on the side of the bed I had been sleeping on. Needless to say, I made damn sure I stayed there.

It’s hard to pin down exactly why writers love these stories. Perhaps its because of over-active imaginations that love to explore that headspace. Maybe it’s the stories are short but pack a lot of punch. Some might go so far as to suggest that writers have a hidden mystical connection (thus explaining their gifts) and ghost stories let them tap into this part of their psyche. I wouldn’t, but that’s just me. In any case, they are great fun… I just wish we didn’t share them just before going to bed! :)