A Ghost Storyby Helen Dunmore
“A perfect ghost story” (The Independent) by the Orange Prize–winning author of The Siege and The Betrayal.
Best-selling novelist and poet Helen Dunmore’s historical novels have earned her comparisons in the press to Tolstoy and Emily Brontë. In her newest book, Dunmore mines the past to chilling effect in an evocative and sophisticated ghost story about a love affair between a neglected wife and a mysterious soldier.
It is the winter of 1952 when Isabel Carey moves to the East Riding of Yorkshire with her new husband, Philip, a medical doctor. While Philip spends long hours working away from home, Isabel finds herself lonely and vulnerable as she adjusts to the realities of being a housewife in the country.
One evening while Philip is on call, Isabel is woken by intense cold. When she hunts for extra blankets, she discovers an old RAF greatcoat hidden in the back of a cupboard. Sleeping under the coat for warmth, she starts to dream and is soon startled by a knock at her window. Outside is a young RAF pilot wearing a familiar RAF coat. His name is Alec and his powerful presence disturbs and excites her as they begin an intense affair. Nothing, though, has prepared Isabel for the truth about Alec’s life, nor the impact it will have on her own.
A spectral tale of love and war that blurs the line between the real and imaginary, The Greatcoat is an “atmospheric and accomplished” (Woman & Home) literary chiller about quiet temptations and the lasting trauma of battle.
“Written in crisp, enthralling prose . . . The dynamics of Isabel’s new marriage are conveyed with subtlety and precision, and the sense of deja vu surrounding the story makes it all the more chilling. . . . Tense and engaging.” —The New Yorker
“A perfect ghost story . . . Builds pace and complexity as it hurtles toward its end . . . The real restless spirit here is that of a wounded, mournful Britain, its scars red raw and its dead still stalking the living.” —Arifa Akbar, The Independent
“The Greatcoat is spooky.” —The Daily Best (Hot Reads)
“Atmospheric . . . Haunting . . . Dunmore’s eerie evocation of post-WWII Britian provides the perfect framework for this nifty little ghost story.” —Booklist
“Conveys a shivery menace . . . This is the most elegant flesh-creeper since Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.” —The Times (UK)
“Dunmore has a sharp eye, and a fine pen, for the hairline cracks in a new marriage, for what is not said as passion begins to dwindle.” —Sarah Moss, The Guardian
“A taut, elegantly written ghost story . . . Dunmore is on fine form here, wielding her skill at bringing history to life in the small, dismal details of the post-war period, and showing off her talents as a poet in her mesmerising depiction of a possession. . . . Spines are delicately, deliciously chilled when she reveals just who is doing the possessing–ghost stories don’t have to be long or gruesome, to be thoroughly scary.” —The Sunday Times (UK)
“A powerful evocation of the period and of the tricks the mind can play on itself, [The Greatcoat’s] unadorned prose builds a chilling effect reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw.” —Prospect (UK)
“Dunmore achieves a delicate balance . . . in this beautifully written tale.” —The Scotsman
“Haunting and exquisitely crafted.” —Glamour
“Dunmore writes with passion and precision. . . . The Greatcoat is a charming character study, a poignant romance, and a fascinating period piece.” —Michael Arditti, Daily Mail
“A deceptively slight tale that catches the reader off guard, revealing the slipperiness of reality . . . The Greatcoat is a gentle tale as war stories go but exposes, all the more searingly for that, the corrosive half-life that lingers on in homes and hearts long after hostilities have ceased.” —Jennifer Cunningham, The Sunday Herald
“The Greatcoat is a well-written ghost story that observes the traditions of the genre without subsiding into pastiche. . . . . [A] disturbing, thoughtful novel.” —The Literary Review
“A charming character study, a poignant romance, and a fascinating period piece.” —The Daily Mail
“Beautifully written and paced. It’s beautifully haunting. It even seems beautifully effortless as if each perfect word simply floated down to the page.” —Pop Matters (blog)
She could still hear the tapping sound that had woken her. It must be her dream still turning, like a record after the needle had been lifted off. Tap, tap, tap. Soft, insistent, determined. It was a real sound. It was coming from the living room. It sounded like someone tapping on glass—on a window.
Relief flooded her. Philip must have gone out without his key and he was tapping on the front window to attract her attention. He didn’t want to arouse the landlady by ringing the bell at this hour.
Isabel snatched up the greatcoat and dragged it around her. Thank heavens Phil was back. She’d make some tea and he’d tell her about his case and everything would be fine. She ran over the cold linoleum, into the living room and across to the window, without switching on the light. She pulled back the curtains.
There was a man outside the window. She saw the pallor of his face first, as it seemed to bob against the glass, too high up to belong to a man who had his feet on the ground.
The streetlamp lit him from the side, throwing the sharp shadow of his cap over his face. He was too close, inside the railings that separated the house from the pavement.
A man in a greatcoat. An RAF greatcoat, exactly like the one draped over her shoulders: she couldn’t mistake it.
by Helen Dunmore
I have always loved ghost stories, and especially those such as Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which deal with the imprint that the past leaves upon the present. Some events are so overwhelming that time, rather than carrying them away, brings them back again and again to the same place. In fact time itself is transformed. It flexes backwards and forwards until cracks appear in it, and where these cracks form is where haunting begins. When I received an email from Hammer asking if I would consider writing a ghost or horror novella, I thought it over for some weeks. I’d been a reader of ghost stories all my life, and had written one or two short stories in the genre, but had never attempted anything longer. Ghosts fascinate me and stir my imagination in a way that horror does not, and very soon ideas began to develop. If I were to write a story, it would have to be one where the intensity of the inner, psychological drama matched the outward disturbance of the haunting. Suddenly it came to me that the story would begin with something quite simple, and apparently innocent: a piece of clothing. The greatcoat appeared almost before I knew what the story would be. Memory delivered it to me: I remembered its solidity, the denseness of the cloth and the weight of it. It was my father’s RAF greatcoat. When we were little, my elder sister and I had shared a double bed, iron-framed and with a mountainous ticking mattress. The bedrooms of the 1950s were unheated, and as soon as I began to think about those times, I remembered the cold lino underfoot as we pattered over it and then leapt into bed. Once in bed, the chill of the sheets had to be colonised little by little, until we could finally uncurl. On winter nights we would put the greatcoat on top of the bedclothes, and sleep under its weight. Another memory then came to me, of a different house and a particular night when this same sister had been terrified by the figure of an airman at the bedroom window. It was impossible, she was told—the window was too high, and no-one could have climbed to it—but she remained convinced.
The greatcoat became the key that turned the lock into the story. I thought a great deal about the link between the ghost and the person who is haunted. If there is a reason why a ghost returns again and again to the same place, then there must also be a reason why a ghost appears to a particular person. The ghost may return because of something unfinished. In The Greatcoat, Alec is the pilot of a Lancaster bomber, one of many thousands of young men who were ripped out of their life before their time. Most of the crew were in their late teens or early twenties. The trajectory of their lives was still curving upwards. Suddenly, it was chopped. Often, there was no body to be buried. There were a few personal effects, a letter or two, some clothing. A greatcoat, perhaps …
I have written a good deal in other novels about the long shadows of war. In the immediate aftermath, the need to reconstruct and ensure survival is so strong that there may not be time or energy to consider the dead. Society appears to close over the gaps that they have left. The deepest instinct is to rebuild and to begin again. As a small child in the nineteen-fifties, I remember a particular blend of stoicism, optimism and weariness. There was a determination that life would be better, after all the sacrifices of war. We children, with our free school milk, vaccinations, Virol, NHS orange juice and cod-liver-oil, were part of that determination. But in almost every family there were losses, deaths, injuries and traumas which were not talked about much, if at all. It is this silence that I wanted to write about in The Greatcoat.
Silence about the past does not mean that the past has died down. Instead, it remains alive within us, even if unable to speak. The past needs resolution, or, at the least, it needs to be recognised for what it is. This is true on a personal level and it is also true of large historical events. We may hide from the past, but it will always find us.
At the beginning of the story, Isabel and Philip, a young married couple, imagine that they are beginning their lives anew. Isabel has her own tragic history, which will be disclosed little by little throughout the book. She has plenty that she wants to forget. She and Philip come to a town in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where they are strangers. He is the first generation in his family to receive higher education, and move into the professional classes, and he’s about to begin life as a GP. Isabel must take up the life that was on offer for the wife of such a man in the 1950s: that is, domesticity. Their rented flat may be gloomy, oppressive and cold, but in a time of housing shortage they have to be glad of what they can get. Philip must work all the hours God sends in order to prove himself, and he is eager to do so. Isabel, meanwhile, struggles with lumps of suet, rationed coal, kidneys that smell faintly of urine, stall-keepers who palm her off with bruised apples, and the grim-looking landlady who is forever pacing overhead.
When I thought of Philip, I saw him driving down endless lanes to the lonely farms of the region, finding his way, beginning to belong. When I thought of Isabel, I saw her lying still, late at night and alone in the bed after Philip has gone out on a call. She is always cold. Although she has tried to put her wartime losses behind her, they are crowding in, coming through to her in vivid flashes. If Alec has a reason to haunt, then hasn’t Isabel a reason to be haunted? Would another woman, lying in her bed, hear the knocking at the window that Isabel hears? If certain people are open to haunting, then this is also true of certain landscapes. The flat, wide, rich land of the East Riding was ideal for the construction of airfields. RAF Driffield, RAF Leconfield, RAF Pocklington, RAF Lissett … The airfield in The Greatcoat is not based on any one particular airfield; it combines features from many, and I hope that it is representative. After the war, it is left to decay. The site which was a temporary city where thousands of people worked day and night, all focussed on a single, complex task, becomes a place of briars, brambles, broken concrete and graffitied Nissen huts. Some of the land is reclaimed for agriculture. When Isabel walks out to the deserted airfield, she finds both peace and desolation. This is a deeply-marked landscape, layered by its history. You might walk past and notice nothing, or you might linger, as Isabel does, and see more than you want.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many stories of haunted airfields. People claim to have seen ghostly airmen thumbing lifts, or the outlines of figures in control towers. The noise of engines is heard at night, especially the characteristic sounds of the Merlin engines that powered the Lancaster bomber. In writing The Greatcoat, I became aware that in order to avoid cliché, it was essential that haunting should take on a richness of texture that encompassed all the senses. We speak of “seeing” a ghost, but although sight may be the most vivid of the senses, it is not always the most evocative. A smell, a sound or a touch may have a more profound effect. Sound directs the story: the landlady’s steps walking back and forth, back and forth, overhead; the tapping on the window that pulls Isabel out of sleep; the engine noise that she can only just hear and that scratches at her memory like a nail down a board; the sound of the wind sighing over the broken-down perimeter fence of the airfield. The texture of smells is equally important. The acridity of coal smoke, the smell of a baby’s skin; the smell of Alec himself, blended of salt and cotton, Lifebuoy soap, cigarettes and engine oil. The last thing I wanted was a ghost who merely appeared to the sight, and then vanished, a ghost who would make one jump but never stir any deeper emotion. A ghost story needs to deliver what it promises. Fear and suspense gather towards a sticking-point. The pace has to be right, so that the tension is maintained without either snapping or slackening. Above all, a reader needs to be drawn into Isabel’s haunted consciousness, while at the same time seeing beyond what Isabel sees, picking up clues that she fails to notice, and becoming more afraid for her than she is for herself. There are elements of possession in the haunting of Isabel, as her own memory becomes a shape-shifter, not to be relied on. The fog in the streets is echoed by the fog that wraps itself around her mind,
Another important technical challenge in writing The Greatcoat was to convey the language of the period without dipping into cliché, or compromising the individuality of the characters. For example, Alec is a Second World War RAF bomber pilot. His world is full of technical vocabulary and slang, but this must not be overdone or it can sound like mimicry. Often, a word or two are enough. For example, in Laney’s song, Germany isn’t mentioned: it’s “Chopland.” And when Alec uses the expression “Bang on” he does so ironically, to describe a navigation mission that involves carrying three WAAFs on one bike in a straight line for a hundred yards. Or, when Janet Ingoldby says to Isabel: “But I hear you are bookish. I’m afraid there’s not much of that here”, it’s the word “bookish” with its faintly derogatory, estranging tone, that describes the time, the place, and the speaker. My intention as a novelist is to absorb research into the narration so becomes part of the story’s texture. Research that calls attention to itself hasn’t succeeded in serving the purposes of the novel. In writing The Greatcoat, I also drew on memories, and because the book is set in the year of my birth (and indeed the place of my birth) I felt I could do so with some confidence. Apart from the memory of the greatcoat itself, there are many others which touch all the senses. The rattle and rush of coal falling from the coalman’s sack into a bunker, the vivid sensation of heat around the hearth, the itch of chillblains, the sound of the air-raid sirens that for some reason still wailed on into the 1950s. There were streets without much traffic, bombsites that no-one had yet got round to building on, lingering coal-smokey fogs, packets of crisps with a blue twist of salt in the bottom and cider bottles with stone stoppers. I wanted all these thing to be present casually, as off-handedly real as they were in life, and without nostalgia. Philip must drive an unreliable car and think that it is the latest thing. Isabel must take it for granted that she has to shop daily, and that in summer the milk will be slightly off by tea-time, because there is no fridge. She must also take it for granted that these things have to be her preoccupations, even when she resents them. They are in their time and of their time, which makes it even more shocking when Isabel’s life is invaded by a time which is not her own.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read many ghost stories. I love the haunted landscape of wartime London that Elizabeth Bowen creates in The Demon Lover or The Happy Autumn Fields. Both these stories are impregnated with longing, and the conflict between the necessities of wartime and the imperatives of desire. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights can be read as one of the most magnificent ghost stories ever written. The two ghostly apparitions which frame the story—the ghost of the child Cathy crying at Lockwood’s window, and the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy together again at the end, “under t’nab”—suggest that the passions shaping the story are not only human, but are also enduring, elemental and not be erased even by the power of death. In Kipling’s wonderful short story “They” a driver loses his way in Sussex woodlands, and discovers a house haunted by glimpses of children and snatches of their laughter. As the story reaches its climax, the narrator feels his hand taken and turned by the soft hand of a small child. There is the brush of a kiss in his palm “a fragment of the mute code devised very long ago.” He knows that he has encountered his own lost child. The story is saturated by Kipling’s grief for his dead six-year-old daughter, Josephine, but it is also a universal story about the liminal ground where the dead and living meet.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca must be one of the finest accounts of haunting. even though it does not contain a visible ghost. The presence of Rebecca controls and dominates everyone in the book, although when she rises again it is as a heap of bones. The nameless heroine of the novel is another kind of ghost, who haunts her own life without ever daring to live it.
Ghosts thrive everywhere in mainstream literature, as well as in genre stories. In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, the ghost story is there to provide cover for illicit meetings. Lady Macbeth “sees” blood on her hands, while the ghost of Banquo arrives at the feast to outface Macbeth himself. The ghost of Don Juan’s victim comes to dinner, and bears Don Juan away with him to hell. The classical literature that shaped our own traditions is full of ghosts. In The Odyssey, Odysseus meets the ghost of his comrade Elpenor, who has been left unburied, and promises that he will burn him in his armour and make a grave for him on the sea shore. After this, Elpenor’s spirit can rest in peace. The shade of Virgil is the guide and mentor who leads Dante through the Inferno. From the very beginnings of fiction, ghosts have been interpreters, advisers, or figures of warning. Pliny the Younger, in the first century AD, tells stories of ghosts who visit the living to warn or prophesy. He describes a house in Athens, haunted by a ghost who appears at night, rattling his chains, to the terror of the inhabitants. Eighteen hundred years later, Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Marley’s chains are made up of the very things that have been his downfall—”cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel”—and will be Scrooge’s downfall too, unless he changes his ways.
The earthliness of Marley’s keys and cash-boxes give a tangible quality to the apparition. Often, it seems, it is an everyday object that opens the door into the story, as the greatcoat did for me. The greatcoat was also the key that enabled the door between the living and the dead to be unlocked for the characters. Isabel, chilled to the bone in her comfortless flat, puts the greatcoat on her bed for warmth and reassurance. Instead, it draws her out of the living world, and introduces her to the world of the dead. The danger is that she will be trapped between the two worlds, belonging neither to one nor to the other. Ghost stories are about the hearth inside, and the darkness outside. They are about heat and cold, light and darkness. However complicated or even sophisticated a ghost story may be, it is also elemental, and so it connects with the deepest human fears, longings and desires. At the end of The Greatcoat, it seems as if normality has been restored, and the ghosts at last laid to rest. But although the summer night is still, “Down on the grass a fold of the greatcoat’s heavy cloth lifted, as if a night wind were walking under it.”