Haunted House Stories where things go bump in the night in ramshackle abandoned shacks or big fancy suburban homes, strange lights switch on and off, and voices echo in gloomy corridors, have been fascinating readers and authors for years now.
Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Audrey Chin, a Southeast Asian author whose work explores gender, faith and culture. She’s sensitive to the atmosphere of spaces and believes in the imponderables; love, ghosts and God included. Her Asian Gothic mystery, The Ash House, came out this August, and has received a lovely reception. She’s here today to speak about the crafting of a haunted house story. Take it away, Audrey!
What I learnt about writing a haunted house classic
My latest novel, the Asian Gothic mystery, The Ash House, has hit the charts in Gothic fiction and it’s all thanks to the classics. I read a ton of them while researching my story. This is what I found :
The essence of a spooky house classic
The best haunted house stories don’t just terrify in the moment. Beyond the usual elements of story – characters, settling, plot, conflict and resolution – haunted house classics linger.
Yes, it’s the acronym LINGER that makes haunted house stories shine.
- ‘L’ – It’s the LIVING we root for in a haunted house story.
Ensure living characters engage and have skin in the game.
In The Ash House, the ambitious young maid and lonely heir in the house have love, a fortune, and lives to lose. That’s why we keep turning the pages. We’re invested in their fate.
- ‘I’ – The action occurs INSIDE. A haunted house isn’t merely a setting. It’s a character in its own right.
Bring the house alive as Shirley Jackson did in The Haunting of Hill House.
Make walls speak, even when silent. Create openings leading to mystery and corridors channeling enchantments. Configure an architecture that confuses.
- ‘N’ – NARRATIVE point of view (POV).
Point of view is the ‘eye’ through which readers experience our story.
Channeling events through single characters is intimate. When readers know only as much as the narrator, their fear feels almost visceral. They become the bewildered lawyer haunted by Sylvia Hill’s Woman in Black.
A third-person omniscient narrative offers a broader perspective. Readers know more than the characters. In William Peter Blatly’s the Exorcist, this POV shows the demon at work all over the world. Evil does not just inhabit a little girl’s body, it is everywhere. How frightening is that?
To find the best POV, we must become our readers. How would they want to be immersed in the story?
- ‘G’ – GHOSTS! Must a haunted house story have ghosts?
Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, is a ghost story with no ghost. The first Mrs. De Winter, Rebecca, is dead. Yet, for good or ill, she lives so palpably in the memories of all who encountered her, she even haunts the new wife who’s never met her.
So, yes. Something definitely has to linger. It’s up to us what that is.
- ‘E’ – It’s the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.
Secrets want out. Secrets haunt.
In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, two sisters are confined to their family property in the aftermath of a family poisoning. The tragedy casts a shadow on all their interactions. Yet the two never speak of it.
Consider the unspoken, the secrets dying to get out from the walls. Consider what happens when they’re let out.
- ‘R’ – The nearly REAL will stay with readers longer than full-on fantasy.
Make one or two everyday activities and objects central to the story.
In Stephen King’s novel Dolores Clairborne, a rich woman Vera is haunted by dust-bunnies. They prove to be her undoing. Fluffs of dust under the bed have scared me ever since. That’s how powerfully the image ‘lingers’.
Classics featuring haunted houses in a Snapshot
Here’s my summary of the 10 classics that stayed with me, how the six elements feature in them, and what struck me in each. There’s a diversity of settings, characters, ghosts and secrets here. Hopefully, they’ll inspire!
Start with your own haunted house story
- Go deep. Be personal.
Find the one lingering thing from the psyche.
In the case of my novel The Ash House, it was a family secret – a snippet of conversation between a first wife and a third about removing their rival, an unknown middle wife. Who was she?
- Do the terrifying thing – start writing.
It’s amazing the depths plumbed once a story unfolds. Our best stories come from the places we fear most.
What haunted house classics are your favorite? Have you read Asian Gothic fiction? Do you have questions for Audrey? Are you going to pick up the book?
(I’ve read The Ash House and highly recommend it! Pick it up if you like horror stories that go beyond scary tropes. )
It is available in India here.
Reviews are appreciated–please get in touch if you’d like a review copy.
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