I've always been fascinated by the idea of ghosts - I can remember distinctly asking my mother what ghosts were at roughly the age of three as she tucked me in for the night and thus began a lifetime spent being just that little bit on edge most of the time.
Throughout my childhood it was easy to feed the flames of my unease – TV was and still is, a massive influence and my whole family tuned in weekly to fare such as Arthur C Clarke and Tales of the Unexpected. The Armchair Thriller episode 'Quiet as a Nun', or 'The Black Nun', as she is still known in our house, terrifies me to this day but I have never forgotten it. Weekly, while other girls pored over their copy of Jackie, I waited for my sisters to finish with their copy of The Unexplained magazine to immerse myself into the world of the supernatural. UFO's I could take or leave but it was the ghost photos that fascinated me – look them up – the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, the Staircase ghost of the National Museum in Greenwich. I can't have been more than seven or eight years of age when these images first burned themselves into my consciousness and they've never left me.
All of these influences, combined with living in an old house filled with strange bumps and bangs once the lights went off set my imagination alight, not to mention my nerves. Add in a boarding school education in a convent filled with corridors, nuns and warrens of dark rooms – it's no wonder that when I finally turned to write my first novel that it had an element of a ghost story to it. Write what you know, they say, and I know fear of the unexplained.
My voice as a writer had never sat comfortably with conventional chick lit.. I'm a voracious but difficult-to-please reader and, raised on a diet of Stephen King and James Herbert, I was unfortunately never going to master the art of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl buys shoes, loves chocolate and falls over a lot stories which, if they are well written, I adore. The afterlife, however, felt more my thing and I let the story guide me – what would happen if a vulnerable new mum with a small baby went to live in a house and spooky things began to happen? The Dead Summer wrote itself from there.
Nowadays I can spot the fake ghost photos a mile off and I have grown, if not less jumpy, at least a little more cynical in my old habit of labelling every sound and sensation supernatural. The science of ghost hunting fascinates me – how spooky feelings of being watched can be caused by old wiring, how sleep paralysis has created an widely felt experience of someone sitting on your chest, how sound can be distorted to seem like ghostly voices. There is generally a logical explanation for every unusual thing and as I grow older I am more likely to seek that out than jump to the immediate conclusion that we are in the presence of something strange.
However I love the idea of life after death and all that goes with it – revenge, unfinished business, fear – as a storyteller, it creates endless possibilities. I'd love to think that there are definitely ghosts out there, either carrying on as they did in life, or taking on some task which will enable them to cross over to wherever it is we're supposed to go.
What happens after we die? My greatest fear is that it would be absolutely nothing. It would thrill me to think that we could carry on in some way but who knows? For every cynic, there is a believer. For every 'orb' photograph which is really smoke or a raindrop there's a Newby Church Monk. It's the possibility that's as thrilling as the evidence for me so until the day that someone can categorically prove to me that ghosts are nothing more than electricity or mist or air currents I'm going to continue to keep a corner of my eye on alert in an old building for a face watching me, or keep an ear cocked for a voice giving me a message from the other side. And I'll continue to sleep with the light on...just in case.
Helen Moorhouse is the author of The Dead Summer, which is published in paperback