Hugh Janes’ spine-tingling play The Haunting is adapted from several original ghost stories by Charles Dickens, and toured extensively throughout the UK in 2010/11. Here, the author explains how the play was inspired by Dickens’ long-held fascination with the supernatural…
Whether we believe in them or not, ghosts appear to be everywhere: in churches, cemeteries and a great many theatres. The composer Ivor Novello has frequently been seen sitting in the stalls of London’s Cambridge Theatre. A woman sometimes glides along the catwalk seventy feet above the Shaftesbury’s stage. And the ghost of 19th-century actor and theatre manager John Baldwin Buckstone appears at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, when a play is about to become a big success. Patrick Stewart apparently saw him at recent revival of Waiting for Godot. I wonder if Buckstone gave the same spectral thumbs-up when the play first opened in the fifties?
Ghosts are a part of ancient culture, as both superstition and belief. They also feature in early literature in works like the Hebrew Bible, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Odyssey and Iliad of Homer who describes a ghost vanishing as ‘a vapour, gibbering and whining into the earth’.
It is the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers who says ‘I wants to make your flesh creep’, and this is the desire of any storyteller entering the world of the supernatural. It is an opportunity to play with the fear that lurks in our imaginations and is conjured from the twilight and shadows. The slightest suggestion of something lurking in the dark can be as powerful as any ghostly sighting.
Charles Dickens always loved ghost stories. His childhood nurse filled his young mind with these tales and he later wrote about his love of her ghoulish tastes. As a teenager he became fascinated by the illustrated horror stories that appeared in the ‘penny dreadful’ magazines. When he grew older, his curiosity about death, spirits and psychic phenomena increased as the same fascination in things spiritual gripped the public interest like a Victorian X Factor. In one of his short stories he wrote ‘There is always life in the night. Listen for it in bed in a darkened room, or look for it even in the comfortable firelight at dead of night, when the warm coals will conjure wild faces and figures… and as the gentle breeze turns into the howls of demons, the crackle of logs the cackle of witches, and then you can fill the house with noises until you have a noise for every nerve in your nervous system.’
His ghost stories appeared either as independent pieces or were included in his novels; there are five in The Pickwick Papers. He may have written them purely for his own pleasure and then published when he needed to meet a deadline. Or he may simply have felt these tales would fascinate his readers and provide them with an unusual diversion from the main plot. He often introduced a character in a book merely to impart a ghostly tale.
Dickens was fascinated by spiritualism and often visited mediums. Even after he learned the nature of their gimmickry he continued to visit. He loved trickery and was a very proficient magician himself. He describes how he and a friend entertained a large gathering of children at Christmas with ‘wonderful conjuring tricks. A plum-pudding was produced from an empty saucepan, held over a blazing fire kindled in Stanfield’s hat without damage to the lining.’
In my play, The Haunting, I have blended five of Dickens’ short ghost stories with a story I was told some years ago. One of my uncles was an antiquarian book dealer in Brighton and he visited an old Sussex manor to value some books. As he was looking at the collection in the cellar a woman appeared. She watched him for a while, apparently interested in what he was doing, and then vanished; he knew she was a ghost. He returned to the manor on several occasions hoping to find out more about her but she never reappeared.
Cinema has been fertile ground lately for all things paranormal but there are still very few ghost plays. Yet all that is needed is the dead of night and an isolated, crumbling mansion high on the moors where a storm is gathering. Then a high-pitched scream followed by the sound of fingernails scraping on glass and the scene is set to begin the haunting of our imaginations.
Nick Hern Books publish The Haunting (£8.99) – adapted by Hugh Janes from five short stories by Charles Dickens. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). Offer available until 31st December 2011.
This play will be great fun to perform, with lots of potential for stage trickery such as books flying off shelves, creepy sound effects and a ghostly apparition. And the good news is – it is immediately available for amateur performance.
Please let me know if you would like to be sent a copy of the playtext on an approval basis (free for up to 30 days, at the end of which the script can either be bought, or returned to us in mint condition), or if you need any more information, by emailing me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org.