At the Book Festival today I heard John Harding and Michelle Paver talk about the art of writing ghost stories, John with reference to his novel Florence and Giles (which on the strength of the event I'm going to read forthwith), and Michelle, of course, to her superb Dark Matter which was a huge hit with me last year.
A few words first on what lay behind the books, and while John Harding admitted that his motivation was based on the perceived need for branding and ease of marketing (if you're known as a writer of a particular type of books, it's helpful to continue in the same vein), Michelle Paver said she loved reading ghost stories and just decided to write one, not before, though, writing her tenets on suitably ghostly mauve paper!
On now to influences, and for John, the seeds of his book were sown in childhood with his reading of Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden - large, spooky houses, primeval fears, unseen presences, all informed his own writing. At 21 he read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and it remains the most terrifying story for him, and in Florence and Giles he uses a similar set-up but tells the tale from the children's point of view to create not a sequel or a pastiche, but a gothic thriller all its own. Michelle acknowledged her debt to M.R. James whose ghost stories she studied at a forensic level of detail. Both writers look for a realistic and highly atmospheric setting, characters about whom one cares, and a strong emotional response to the writing; what they seek in others' work they give in their own.
Michelle had travelled extensively in the Arctic, and seeing the long-abandoned mining communities and trappers' huts in Spitzbergen/Svalbard and experiencing the shortening days dwindling to continuous darkness, she knew she had her setting for Dark Matter, which was, she said, "a very intense write". Her period is the 1930s, chosen carefully for various reasons including the lack or limitations of communications technology: isolation could be absolute. John, too, chose a time and place - a secluded mansion in New England in 1891 - in which one could be cut off and frighteningly alone. Both writers' background reading sounded impressively comprehensive.
While Michelle read up on the slang of her period with particular references to language as a marker of social class, John invented words and a distinctive way of speaking for his 12-year-old character Florence. Denied an education by a guardian who believes girls don't require one, Florence has taught herself to read, and like Shakespeare, she coins words as she needs them, switching nouns and verbs, developing a type of verbal shorthand in which to express herself. John read an illustrative passage and left the audience wanting more (you'll get a taste of it in the short video here); indeed, he said that he found it hard to leave Florence's voice behind when he had finished the book and he is considering a follow-up.
In a genre characterised by certain conventions and a subtle, suggestive way with creeping dread, Michelle recommended Edith Wharton (for example The Demanding Dead) and The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, in addition to M.R. James, for those looking for further reading, but I'd say try Michelle's and John's books themselves because given the fascinating discussion I heard them in today, where these writers are concerned it's not just the ghost story that is in good hands.
Edited to add: with reference to my comment below, click here for an article by Susan Hill on what makes a good ghost story.