If ghosts exist then it is at Halloween that the veil between the spirit world and ours is supposed to grow especially thin, so it is a perfect time to think about all things spooky.
I have long been interested in ghosts – mostly because in the absence of any hard evidence they still have such a strong hold on our imaginations. The idea of ghosts, either venerated or feared, exists in all cultures and has done throughout history, either as ideas born of unsettling events or injustices or old stories told at night and passed between people like gifts.
A draught whispers across the back of your neck, goose pimples prickle your skin, something heavy uncurls in the pit of your stomach and an overwhelming feeling of dread makes your heart race. Even if you have never experienced a ghostly encounter in real life, just reading a ghost story can give you a healthy dose of the creeps.
Writing a ghost story is a good lesson in the mechanics of storytelling. They are some of the first stories we tell each other and often the ones we most remember. It’s an exercise in holding back information and relying on suggestion and our primal fear of the unknown. It’s about off-key, off-kilter moments that jar, sudden unexpected movements or sounds, what we see out of the corner of our eyes, or perhaps even more potent, what we don’t see.
It wasn’t until I started writing a ghost story of my own that I experienced a shift in perspective. I had decided that my main character would be one of the restless dead and although I still wanted the creeps and all that came with it, I spend many hours trying to imagine how being a ghost would really feel. I thought hard about ‘life’ from the ghost’s point of view until I came to the premise of what would become Potkin and Stubbs: What if ghosts aren’t trying to frighten us at all? Maybe it isn’t all about us, maybe it’s about them.
Invisibility is one of the most popular superpowers people say they would like to have (not me, I’d choose flying any day), but if you were permanently invisible, and not only invisible but intangible – if no one knew you were there – if no one ever listened to you or looked at you, how hard would that be?
Audrey Niffenegger said that ghost stories are about loneliness and longing and this became the feeling which coalesced into Nedly Stubbs, a lonely ghost who no one could see, and who arrived fully formed and sitting in the bus station, in grave need of someone to fight his corner. Lil Potkin was his perfect counterpart; daring, fiercely independent and determined to make a difference, but also someone who knew loneliness when she saw it.
Fear of the unknown is a powerful thing and to combat it you need superpowers of a different sort. In Potkin and Stubbs it is kindness and bravery that gives the characters the ability to look past the unknown or misunderstood to see the person there, because no one should be made to feel invisible.
Potkin and Stubbs 3 – Ghostcatcher is due out in March 2020, with Potkin and Stubbs and Potkin and Stubbs The Haunting of Peligan City available to buy from all good book shops.