I've read and watched hundreds of supernatural, ghostly and dark tales. There are a memorable few that occupy a special place in my affections and have in various ways influenced my own writing.
Shirley Jackson can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. Her work ranges from malevolent ghosts, twisted individuals and horrifying rituals. We Have Always Lived in this Castle is a short Gothic novel, that slowly unravels to reveal the secret of incestuous family murders. The Lottery is considered one of the best short stories in any genre and is spine chilling in its twisted normality. Her compilation, Dark Tales also contains some deliciously cruel and wonderfully rendered characters.
A beautifully crafted novel, The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley skilfully delves into religion, ritual and contains all the hallmarks of the traditional folk horror. The twist will keep you on tenterhooks. It's every bit as sinister as the classic folk horror, The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy 1973) and the more recent Midsommer (dir. Ari Aster 2019). Just because the sun is shining doesn't mean malevolent activities aren't afoot.
I love short stories and when done well they are juicy little morsels of delight. Original, quirky and thought-provoking, Joe Hill's, 20th Century Ghosts is breathtakingly good. Hill is known for his horror novels, but I'd reach straight for the short stories. They really are something special.
Robert Shearman goes for the jugular. Unsettling is an understatement. In his collection, Remember Why You Fear Me, a dishevelled Father Christmas is every single dad failing at fatherhood and the brilliant, Custard Cream holds a domestic abuser to task in the most disgusting way.
Mark Gatiss, the master of the macabre and one of the creators behind The League of Gentlemen, has curated a collection of excellent ghost stories by EF Benson. These are classic late 19th/early 20th-century stories that are creepy and subtle. The fear builds as the unwitting protagonist tries to work out what's happening – wouldn't we all disbelieve the evidence, if it didn't make any logical sense.
Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is often considered an exemplary ghost story and one of my main influences. It actually contains all the archetypal elements considered essential for both a successful Gothic and ghost story: an innocent heroine, an old creepy house and a terrifying secret. The story was written in 1898 and critics often argue that it directly tapped into contemporary notions of the unconscious mind – are ghosts the product of our unconscious or actually true spiritual entities? The story is a fight between good and evil and sustains the tension to the end. Marvellous. This type of psychological supernatural storytelling reflects my own approach. I like to think of my stories as personal hauntings – whatever the individual fears, will haunt them.
“Despite how stupid it was, she still carried a secret fear of the unknown, a fear of the threats that nestle amongst ordinary things.”
Switch – from Surface Tension by Sarah Gray.
Films are a great inspiration. Most of my favourite supernatural films show ghosts in their human form - no elaborate special effects or ghoulish make up; The Others (dir. Alejandro Amenavar 2001), Rosemary's Baby (dir. Roman Polanski 1968) and Blithe Spirit (dir. David Lean 1945). Inside No 9 created and written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton has produced some of the best writing for TV in recent years. Often creepy, always intriguing and impossible to overlook.
I've been told my stories raise the hairs on the back of the neck and that's what I set out to do. It isn't easy to embed all the subtle markers required to tell a chilling tale, but maybe these stories are as mercurial as the supernatural itself and however much we try to explain them, they will change and mutate evading definitive, neat explanation.
Sarah Gray latest short story collection, Urban Creatures, is out now. For more information about Sarah visit: https://www.sarahgrayracontesse.com/
You can read Sarah's blogpost for our LGBTQIA+ art blog here.