FIVE THINGS: Kris Frieswick

The Five Ghost Stories That Shaped My Storytelling

When my mother was pregnant with me, she claims she developed an insatiable craving for horror stories—specifically ghost stories. As a child, I was obsessed with ghost stories as well. They were literally in my blood.

I grew up and became a full-time journalist. (It seemed a more stable career path than “full-time horror story writer,” though some days they feel like the same thing.) Then, about 15 years ago, I heard a real ghost story that sucked me back into my love of the genre. The result is my debut novel, THE GHOST MANUSCRIPT, about a rare book authenticator who is aided on her search for a legendary tomb by a 1,500 year old ghost. The book, not surprisingly, has elements of all the best ghost stories I’ve read since I was that freakish, macabre little child. Here are five of them: 

1) The Horla by Guy de Maupassant: When I was in second grade, my home room teacher, who noticed my love of horror, recommended this book to me – an odd suggestion to an eight year old, given its dark, violent themes, but this teacher really got me. Written in 1886, it features a man who looks out the window of his country manse by the Seine and sees a Brazilian ship sailing past. Inexplicably, he waves at it, and unknowingly unleashes a soul-sucking apparition that turns his life into a living hell. Is he crazy? Is the Horla real? We never find out, but our protagonist ends up doing some pretty crazy stuff to rid himself of the presence. The idea of a ghost as a proxy for madness makes an appearance in my book when my main character, Carys Jones, first meets Lestinus, the 1,500-year-old ghost that penned a rare manuscript she now possesses. 

2) Ghost and Mrs Muir: A widow and her kids move into a haunted New England home. The ghost of a sea captain who has lived there for 200 years protests, at first, then ends up becoming a great roommate. I watched the TV show, based on the 1940s film, obsessively as a child. I so badly wanted the Ghost and Mrs. Muir to fall in love. They eventually did, but even as a young child, I could see the futility of the situation. But the idea that people could reach across the filament between life and death and help each other never left me. It is a primary theme of my book. 

3) The Frighteners: In this film co-written and directed by Peter Jackson (already demonstrating the skills that would make him a legend), Michael J. Fox receives the ability to commune with the dead after his wife dies in a car accident. He uses his new powers to convince ghosts to scare the crap out of the living, and then he arrives and “exorcises” his ghostly pals—for a fee. It’s a great gig until a really nasty spirit show up and starts killing people—living and dead. It’s such a funny movie and it’s absolutely horrifying. Writers should be required to study it, and bask in Jackson’s deft skills interweaving the humor and the dread. I tried to do the same with The Ghost Manuscript, but no one can match the master. 

4) A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: This was the second ghost story that captivated me as a child, but not because I found it scary. I found it indescribably sad, especially Marley, who had a crucial message for Scrooge, but who couldn’t get him to listen to it because Scrooge was convinced Marley was a hallucination. Powerlessness to affect an outcome that you can see coming infuses my own ghost, Lestinus, who is my homage in many ways to that original sad ghost, Mr. Marley.

5) The ghost story my father-in-law told me: My husband and I were in his hometown of Swansea, Wales, visiting his parents, Peter and Sylvia. We were all sitting around their living room chatting. Their next door neighbor, Jim, drove up in a pickup truck towing a Boston Whaler (a working boat) that had an advertisement for Wreck Diving on the side. I asked Peter about it, and he said that yes, Jim ran a wreck diving company for tourists. But more interestingly, he said, before that, he used to dive on sunken treasure galleons, looking for gold. Jim spent hours in the British Library reading the ships logs of privateers—17th and 18th century British mercenary pirates who had a dispensation from the Crown to sink and raid the ships of enemy nations. Many of those old logs told the locations of the ships they’d sunk. Jim would find and dive on those sunken ships and see if the privateers had left any treasure behind. 

But, Peter said, one day while he was doing research at the Library, one of the privateers showed up. He sat down next to Jim and started talking to him. The ghost was as real as anything Jim had ever seen. Jim closed the ship’s log, walked out of the Library, and never went back. 

My jaw dropped. That story stuck with me for years, and eventually I built an entire book around it.