As a small gentlewoman, growing up in the deepest East Midlands (think Adrian Mole with a pudding bowl haircut and school pinafore), ghost stories were few and far between. Those that I came across (Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones) were fiercely hoarded and lovingly looked after and even after umpteen house moves across counties and continents, I still have many of them.
One book that I lost along the way, however, was one that meant a great deal to me. The first ghost story I can remember that really chilled my blood, that made me scared to look over my shoulder, that vividly introduced the idea of malevolent spirits and the hopeless sense of being haunted.
Every Thursday at St Peter’s Primary School, East Bridgford, an after-school bookshop would take place. I’d raid my piggy bank, wheedle spare change out of my parents, make vague promises of chores for extra pocket money. Then I’d spend half an hour after school haunting the bookshop, thumbing through books with the glazed eyes of the truly enraptured.
The best 75p (75p!) I ever spent was on Aidan Chambers’ ‘Great Ghosts of the World’. It ignited within me a love of travelling and a fear of what I might find when I got there. In Bulgaria, vampires are trapped in blood-filled bottles; in the South Sea islands, ghosts wander the beaches looking for eternal rest. In Australia, the Bunyip haunts creeks and feasts on the unwary; in Nova Scotia two sisters are possessed by an evil spirit. However, it was Chambers’ retelling of an Indian ghost story that really spooked me and removed forever the idea that phantoms could be entertaining, but essentially harmless, manifestations.
As Chambers writes:
“Mrs Beresford was, however, the victim of a different type of spectre: not a restless spirit re-enacting its sufferings of long ago, but an ogre intent upon an evil purpose among the living now. And it all but succeeded in its ugly mission. Was this malicious apparition raised by black magic performed by one of India’s occult practitioners? Was it a demon of Mrs Beresford’s disturbed imagination communicated telepathically to her daughter, who, as we shall see, also witnessed the ghost’s final assault? Or was it a vengeful soul returned from the dead to take payment of Mrs Beresford for unknown injustices inflicted years before upon the soul’s living body by some cruel white woman of the British Raj?”
The story concerns a British General, Henry Beresford, and his wife who, when riding in her carriage one day, sees an ayah – an Indian servant woman – crossing her path. The ayah is old and dressed in dirty white clothes (think M.R. James’ sheet-wrapped creature rising from the bed in ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’) and Mrs Beresford is alarmed to see her throw herself under the carriage, When she climbs down to check the roadway, however, there is no body to be found. A hallucination, says her no-nonsense husband, and blames the heat.
Only, over the next few days and weeks, the ayah visits Mrs Beresford time and time again. Each time, the ayah grins ‘so evilly that she became convinced that the phantom meant to harm her’. In desperation, General Beresford sends for his daughter, Barbara, to raise his wife’s spirits and distract her from the haunting. But even with Barbara there, the ayah continues to taunt Mrs Beresford and begins to grab her with bony hands as she sleeps.
Finally, they seek the help of a doctor with an interest in local magic. He tells them they must command the ghost to leave, as it will continue to plague Mrs Beresford and may even lead to her death. The only way to rid themselves of it, he says, is to challenge it. So that night, they sleep with a candle flickering between them – and then Barbara awakes to see the ‘ugly, grinning features of the ghostly ayah. The apparition was bending over Mrs Beresford’s bed holding the poor woman by the throat with its claw-like fingers.’
Barbara screams, and the ayah turns towards her. ‘Never before in her short life had the girl felt such loathing as passed between herself and the ghost as they gazed upon each other at the moment. The ayah’s features were ghastly – hatred personified’. Freed from the ayah’s grasp, Mrs Beresford summons the phantom to leave in God’s name – and the ayah, in a surge of supernatural energy, vanishes from the room. Mrs Beresford is free from harm, and remains so for the rest of her days – but the reader never finds out why the ayah chose her, nor why it had such evil intent.
The idea of this inexplicable malevolence has stayed with me for many years. It’s found in many tales, I’ve subsequently discovered, but never ceases to appal. From M.R. James’ bumbling academics, trapped in nightmarish situations, to Ann Radcliffe’s hapless maidens, ensnared by malignant forces, there is no reason for evil and no reasoning with its forces. Aidan Chambers, thank you for introducing me to the true horror behind the ghost story,