Cliff McNish Talks To Bookbag About The Hunting Ground

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Cliff McNish Talks To Bookbag About The Hunting Ground


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Summary: Cliff McNish, author of The Hunting Ground popped in to Bookbag Towers to talk to us about ghosts. We're almost convinced: see what you think!
Date: 5 January 2012

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External links: Author's website

The hunting ground

I’ve always loved ghost stories and no one has a richer tradition of writing them than British writers. The Victorians, in particular, were obsessed by ghosts and matters spiritual, and all modern writers of supernatural tales owe a great debt to the trail blazed by writers like M.R.James, Algernon Blackwood and Dickens.

But it was the Victorians as well who were the first to try to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of ghosts. In 1882 THE SOCIETY FOR PSYCHICAL RESEARCH was founded in London. It was a serious body, mostly composed of scientists and academics, looking at the possibility that ghosts and other phenomena like them exist – and set about looking into that, and I quote, in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems.

The society still exists now – and so do a lot of other organisations that have tried to prove the existence of ghosts. But despite all the sincere efforts of all these people, some believers in ghosts, some not, and I don’t care what scam programs you’ve seen on the TV that say otherwise, there is not one shred of actual verifiable evidence that proves ghosts exist. I know people honestly claim to have seen them, or heard them, or even felt them, but actually there is no hard objective evidence.

None of which should concern a novelist one bit, of course. Ghost should exist, even if they don’t. The world of the imagination likes them very much indeed. One thing I noticed about five years ago, when I wrote BREATHE, was that although many people love a good scary ghost story hardly anyone could name me a genuinely scary one aimed primarily at teens? There are quite a few wistful pieces of ghost fiction – thoughtful mood-pieces like Allan Ahlberg’s lovely MY BROTHER’S GHOST comes to mind. And there are loads of funny ghost stories – you know the type, where the ghost is more likely to go boo! from behind the fridge than scare anybody. But there aren’t that many that really scare you. Actually one of the reasons for that is that ghost stories traditionally depend on suspense and tension to get their point across, and it’s hard to sustain this over a novel.

Anyway, my wife, who didn’t like most of my fantasy novels, said you’re always creating these really scary books. If you’re going to do that why not do it properly, by which she meant a ghost story. I didn’t do anything about that until one day a creepy image came into my head of a girl staring out of a window... I didn’t know why she was staring out until it suddenly occurred to me that she was ill, and then the novel BREATHE poured out ...


In my latest ghost novel, THE HUNTING GROUND, I wanted to create a truly monstrous adult ghost, but I was equally interested in the little ghost girl locked away with him. Every ghost story should have a little girl in it somewhere, don’t you think? It’s the story of two boys (Elliott, 16, and his brother, Ben, 14) who are taken by their dad to live in a huge mansion called Glebe House. Their dad renovates old houses, so the boys are going to be stuck there for awhile. And the problem, of course, is that it’s not empty.

I must admit I knew straight away in THE HUNTING GROUND I wanted to create a classic evil ghost – someone absolutely ice-cold terrifying. One of the nice things about a real villain in fiction in a story as a reader is that you can hate them. It’s nice sometimes to be given permission to hate a character without reservation or limit. We like doing that. But there’s another point about true villains. If you create a really nasty character, there’s really no limit to what they will do to get what they want, and the reader knows this. It gives your story a terrific amount of tension that more watered down villains simply can’t ramp up.

But then what? What else could I pit against the two brothers? Why, a little girl of course. In a way a little girl can be way scarier than a monster. Eve, the little girl in the novel is called, and I saw her right away in my mind. She’s a kind of corrupted little ghost girl. Only about 6 years old, but bristling with powers. And it seemed to me that giving a little girl a lot of power is very scary, because how is she going to use it? She’s not going to think like an adult, is she? One minute she might want to play with you. The next maybe she’s bored and dragging you to your death. And you can’t predict when that might happen. Like the boys in the story, if you’re stuck with her in the East Wing, you’ll probably end up talking to her very nicely, because you still think there’s a little girl in there you can appeal to – but is there? Or is Eve as bad as the adult ghost who’s been developing her as his little protégé, his little killer in waiting?

I very much enjoyed racking up the tension in THE HUNTING GROUND about as far as could. I hope you enjoy it.

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