Unholy Night: Emma Jane Unsworth, Richard Hirst and the Christmas ghost story

As they prepare to publish an anthology of ghost stories for Christmas, Emma Jane Unsworth and Richard Hirst discuss the format's unique license to chill

Feature by Lauren Strain | 04 Dec 2013
  • The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales

A cold, dark winter's eve is probably the worst time to spook yourself with the tale of a nameless caller, a presence in the spare bedroom, or an empty old house seemingly with a maleficent agenda of its own. Wait, no – that's exactly when ghost stories are meant to be read; and it was in the spirit of MR James and the Victorian tradition of telling and swapping spook tales at Christmas that novelist Jenn Ashworth first pitched the idea of writing one to friend and fellow author Richard Hirst. The result is The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales, a limited edition chapbook anthology of short, haunting pieces by Ashworth, Hirst, Emma Jane Unsworth, Tom Fletcher and Alison Moore that each bestow a familiar ghost story motif – demonic possession, the occult ritual – with a particular contemporary unease.

“There's a limit to the number of ways in which you can create fiction based around the dead returning to life, so the tropes that come with the territory – disquieted children, malevolent buildings, the 'this really happened to me tone' – are all but inescapable,” Hirst says. “The fun part was figuring out how to put a unique spin on things.”

It's testament to the defined, persuasive voices of each of these ascendant names – Preston-based Ashworth's third novel, The Friday Gospels, was published by Sceptre earlier this year; Unsworth's debut, Hungry, the Stars and Everything won her a Betty Trask Award in 2012 and her second novel, Animals, is due to be published by Canongate in May; Moore's To The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize; Hirst was joint-winner of the 2011 Manchester Fiction Prize for his story School Report; and Fletcher's The Leaping was shortlisted for Best Novel at the 2011 British Fantasy Society Awards – that their contributions complement each other at the same time as standing totally apart. Hirst's deliciously, darkly comic contribution, Drums at Cullen, brings a salty humour to a collection that, illustrated sparingly by Beth Ward, unsettles in very different ways – from Unsworth's increasingly fragmented, impressionistic In, where the sound of an untethered gate that clangs through the night seems to assume a control of her narrator's autonomy, to Ashworth's chillingly spartan Dark Jack.

“When trying to figure out my story – which involves a young boy spending Christmas day with the strange family of one of his schoolmates – it occurred to me that the traditional family Christmas, when you think about it, is a bit insane,” Hirst says. “If you brought an oak tree into your living room in May and covered it with necklaces everyone would think you mad, but change it to a spruce in December covered with tinsel and you'd be thought a weirdo not to get stuck in. Why? Because it's Christmas and that's what we do. Factor in that each family has its own little customs and rituals, which tend to seem bizarre and occult-like to outsiders, and suddenly you've the seeds of a story.”

Despite their varied subjects and execution, what the tales do share is, as Unsworth says, “the idea of ordinary objects being invested with supernatural threat,” and it's evident that for each writer – as, perhaps, for all of us – the short ghost story format holds a unique power. “I think it's the fact you can hear them in one sitting, one night, and take a whole story on board and then be left alone with it,” identifies Unsworth. “Short stories don't feel like company in the same way novels do.”

“The inexplicable is usually more compelling, and usually much more frightening, when it remains unexplained,” Hirst adds. “With a novel you can't really have that going on: you need to explain what's what, apportion motive and unearth backstory, all of which demands a resolution. And resolution, generally speaking, is not frightening.”

Unsworth agrees. “It's the subtle glimpse of something blurry, like something in the corner of your eye, and then you turn to look at it fully and it's gone.”

The Longest Night official launch, The Portico Library, Manchester, 13 Dec, 6.30pm, £8 (£5)

Readings in the Northwest: Knutsford Library (4 Dec), Altrincham Library (6 Dec), Ebb & Flo Bookshop, Chorley (9 Dec), Harris Museum, Preston (11 Dec), The Church Inn, Prestwich (15 Dec), Nantwich Library (17 Dec), Levenshulme Market (20 Dec), Congleton Library (30 Jan)

See www.curious-tales.com for times for times, tickets and further details

Read the full transcript online at theskinny.co.uk/books