Monday, January 31, 2011

The English Ghost - Peter Ackroyd

I love a good ghost story. Especially what I would call “true” ghost stories as opposed to fictional ones. Now, there would be many people who would say all ghost stories are fiction but I’ve always liked to think of those monks, cavaliers, grey ladies & sad lovers drifting through the stately homes of England, reliving some dramatic moment of their lives for all eternity. Part of the attraction for me is the historical aspect & also the fact that often the most believable ghost sightings are, well, so believable. The person who sees the ghost is often not aware that they’ve seen one until after the fact. The ghost often takes a path that was there in its lifetime but has since gone & the witness doesn’t know this. There are often multiple sightings of the same ghost & the witness doesn’t know of the other sightings until afterwards. These are the stories that seem inexplicable to me unless there is something uncanny about certain places & some people are able to tune in to the atmosphere.

Peter Ackroyd’s new book, The English Ghost, is full of stories of ghosts, spirits, poltergeists & uncanny experiences. Ackroyd makes a very bold claim in his Introduction, that England is a haunted country. He believes that ghost sightings are so frequent in England because it’s a country bordered by Celtic countries & also has German & Nordic ancestry, all cultures steeped in ghostly lore,

The English are also in many respects obsessed with the past, with ruins, with ancient volumes. It is the country where archaeology is placed on national television, and where every town and village has its own local historian. Ghosts therefore may be seen as a bridge of light between the past and the present, or between the living and the dead. They represent continuity, albeit of a spectral kind.

                                                (The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall)

Ackroyd has collected stories of ghosts mostly from the 17th century to the present day. They range from the traditional monks & white ladies to spectral animals. One of the most touching stories is of the dachshund that accompanied a woman on her way to her husband’s surgery, looking at her with such an imploring expression, until it reached a certain house when it disappeared down the area steps. Not long after, another woman also saw the little dog, which she recognized as her own missing pet & she followed him to the same house. On investigation, the house was discovered to belong to a mysterious German doctor who specialized in vivisection... Both women were surprised to see that, although it was a very hot day, the little dog was dripping wet & muddy.

                      (The Tulip Staircase ghost at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

Royal palaces are often the scene of ghostly goings-on. Hampton Court has several famous ghosts, including poor Catherine Howard, who is said to be heard screaming outside the Chapel Royal as she begs to be allowed to see Henry VIII after her affair with Thomas Culpeper has been discovered. In February 1907, a police officer on duty at the Palace saw a group of people returning, he thought, from a party, across the grounds. Imagine his surprise when the whole party, eight or nine people, vanished into thin air, only a few yards from where he stood. It was only then that he realised that they had made no sound at all.

Then there are the more modern stories of ghostly hitch hikers & people who throw themselves in front of cars. When the driver stops to investigate, there’s no one there. Some of the most uncanny stories are of the spirits of the recently dead who appear to their loved ones at the moment of their death, when the witness has no idea that they’re in any danger. These stories are often well-documented because the witness writes down what has happened in their diary or tells a friend & then, when the letter or telegram arrives with the sad news, they can verify their vision.

These are only a few of the dozens of stories in The English Ghost. Anyone interested in ghost stories - believer or sceptic - would enjoy this book, although you may not want to read it last thing at night!


  1. Definitely interested in this, it's gone on my wish list!

    I used to regularly read true stories of this type but for some reason I gave up - maybe I became attached to my sleep. Anyway, it's probably time to revisit them.

  2. I normally snap up anything by Ackroyd, but this hasn't taken my fancy. I'm not sure whether this is because I resolutely don't believe in ghosts, or secretly am afraid that I ought to.

  3. Sounds interesting, thanks for reviewing.