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Five Favourite: Creepy Stories

It’s getting to the time when I normally post about my favourite books of the year. But this year, given that I’ve now got books out in three different categories – young adult, horror and poetry – I thought I would post about my five favourite of each… ever! My most recent book is The Boy in the Burgundy Hood, a ghost story, so I’m going to start with my five favourite creepy stories.

1. Frankenstein

Five Favourite Creepy Stories: #1 Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

First off, Frankenstein. One of my favourite books of all time, regardless of genre. Frankenstein is brilliant and can be read on many different levels. It can be seen as a political allegory for the French Revolution or the abolition of slavery; a lament for Shelley’s own lost child; a cautionary tale on bad parenting; or a warning on the dangers of overreaching yourself with technology. Read this excellent article to see how.

I knew the book as a favourite of my grandma’s, but only read it when I was doing an English degree at university. We studied Frankenstein not in Literature but in our English Language module, because the newly-created ‘monster’ gives a Saussurian view of the world without language to break it down and ‘contain’ it. There’s a brilliant description of the monster staggering through the woods bewildered, his senses overcome by the sounds and sensations all around him. Eventually he sits down and manages to focus on just one thing – a slice of moon in the nighttime sky.

Whilst it’s true the novel works on many levels, it’s also worth stating that the one it works best on is as a gripping horror story. The horror comes from Dr Frankenstein’s neglect as well as from the monster’s crimes. This is a brilliant, claustrophobic suspense story, ranging from the civilised refinement of Geneva to the bleak icy wilds of Antarctica.

Mary Shelley is my standout novelist. Just remember, she wrote this, one of the greatest works of English literature, when she was eighteen years old. And she had to publish it anonymously, for fear of how it would be received were it known the author was a woman.

2. Salem’s Lot

Five Favourite Creepy Stories: #2 Salem's Lot, Stephen King

Where to start with Stephen King? Whilst I don’t list myself among the true hardcore of fans who have read all of his novels, each time I do read one I marvel again at his skill and invention. Whilst he’s a horror writer, I think of him alongside another great modern US writer from the North-Eastern states, John Irving. Like Irving, he takes time to lay out the table, recording his characters and (mostly) small town settings in detail that’s loving but never laboured. Then, again like Irving, he strikes us with seismic, often catastrophic events that, due to the groundwork, you will have known are coming – although you will not have known how, when and where from.

I could choose many of King’s novels – The Stand, Bag of Bones, The Girl who loved Tom Gordon, Green Mile – but I’ve decided to go with Salem’s Lot, which truly scared the heebie-jeebies out of me as a teenager. That floating vampire kid scratching at the window? Give me a break. Or the iconic moment when the priest’s faith fails him and the crucifix loses its power to keep the vampire at bay? I’d seen a hundred horror films but that never happened. I was totally blown away, my world view changed in one fell swoop. Awesome.

3. The Wine-Dark Sea

Want to be properly disturbed by your horror? Read Robert Aickman. I only came across him a few years ago when I saw this collection in a bookshop in Covent Garden. I wrote a short review of it here. Aickman is unlike any other horror writer I know. This quote sums up his approach:

“Nothing is more lethal to the effect that a ghost story should make than for the author to provide an alternative materialist solution. This reduces a poem to a puzzle and confines the reader’s spirit instead of enlarging it.”

His dark tales work like sinister magic, probing away at the depths of your subconscious. I’ve never had such strange dreams as those whilst reading this book (appropriately one of the scariest tales, Into the Wood, is all about insomnia). In most the stories the creep is left open-ended, in a deliberate attempt to stretch your mind, to keep you away from certainties, to open your eyes to the weirdness and mystery at the heart of living. Suggestive, dark, brilliant – but not for everyone…

4. The Cormorant

Five Favourite Creepy Stories: #4 The Cormorant, Stephen Gregory

A couple relocate from the city to a isolated seaside cottage in Wales, an inheritance from an eccentric uncle. But there’s one catch – they must look after his ‘pet’ cormorant. It seems a simple enough ask – but soon things start to go horribly wrong.

I read Stephen Gregory’s story a long time ago when I was working in the Welsh valleys. I’ve always loved the strange, ominous atmosphere it creates and I’m planning to read it again soon.

5. The Little Stranger

A classic ghost story, with a twist (sound familiar?). Without wanting to give anything away, I’m not quite sure whether this counts as a ghost story – although it certainly has a very real supernatural element.

It starts off more like a piece of unsettling period literature – but then, with an incident of a dog and a little girl at a party, transforms into something altogether more visceral and terrifying. The novel deals skillfully with the feelings of injustice that class division arouse – coupled with the burning frustrations of love. I think the ending is one of the most satisfying I’ve read.

And finally… the ones that got away.

It was hard to make this list, and I was often left wondering why on earth I’d just settled on five. Was it purely because ‘Five Favourites’ sounded good? Probably. But I also wanted to give a bit more time to each book than I normally do.

So here’s a few more I’d have liked to include, because I love them too:

The Terror Dan Simmons

The Terror, by Dan Simmons. Recently made into a superlative TV series, there’s a supernatural beast in this but the real horror comes from two Victorian ships trapped in the Arctic ice without sunlight for six months of the year. For three years. Yes, three years.

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by Peter Ackroyd. One of my favourite authors, Peter Ackroyd brings the saturated history of London to life like no other. This is my favourite book of his, a horror mystery that has a mythical monster slashing Victorian Londoners to pieces (Pisaca, anyone?). Who is the dreaded Limehouse Golem?

The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates. A sprawling, multi-perspective vampire novel set in Princeton university in the early twentieth century. Real life characters including Woodrow Wilson and Jack London add to the zest.

Jaws, by Peter Benchley. The monster of the deep did more to damage the reputation of sharks than a thousand fishermen, but this novel is nevertheless superb. I burned through it when I was eleven, in probably the same amount of hours.

The Magician, by W Somerset Maugham. Whether there are any real supernatural elements is left up to the reader to decide, but this tale of an overbearing, repulsive occultist who steals a beautiful woman from her fiancee is as gripping as any poison love story. The character of John Thrush in The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask was partly inspired by this story.

If my five favourite creepy stories have whetted your appetite for the macabre, why not check out my own ghost story, The Boy in the Burgundy Hood – out now on Amazon:

The Boy in the Burgundy Hood

Up in the Air – Poems on Video: Suburban Alembic

Here’s the latest in my series of Poems on Video from my collection Up in the Air.

An alembic is a distilling tool that combines different elements to create something new. It’s used in philosophy for a process of refinement, or transmutation. This poem, written about a summer evening in my grandmother’s garden in Eastbourne, is my first video request. Let me know if there’s a poem from Up in the Air that you’d like me to read on video.

And of course this poem is dedicated to my grandma, Pamela Isobel Lilian Korn.

You can buy a copy of Up in the Air here:

Origins of a Writer

First story Steve Griffin writer
Paddington Bear – furry, hapless, always lovable

A year or so ago my dad, now in Australia, sent me one of the first things I ever wrote. It was a story about Paddington Bear, Michael Bond’s much loved, slightly hapless, very furry refugee from Peru. I loved the world of kindness, mishaps and marmalade that the author had created and wanted to add to it in in my own way. So I created my first piece of fan fiction, illustrated with my own pictures. (Note – if you’ve never read Paddington, it’s not too late – see why here!) Receiving the booklet made me reflect on how I had begun my life as a writer – something that would wax and wane across the years but never die out.

An early reader, I began writing my own stories when I was seven. I remember filling narrow spiral bound notepads with action stories featuring James Bond and The New Avengers. (I was hopelessly in love with Joanna Lumley as Purdey, whose poster was pinned to my wall, crying when each series finished).

Steve Griffin writer age eleven
Eleven years old (ish), sunning myself on Eastbourne seafront

But my writing really took off when I started writing books with my school friends as the main characters. I was eleven and wrote the first one, Sheriff John Ives, a tale of carnage and revenge set in the gritty Wild West, during a long summer holiday at my Nan’s house in Eastbourne. All the stories involved high action in a wide range of genres, from Sci-Fi to the English Civil War, Viking invasions to chaotic WW2 battlefields. Almost everyone invariably came to a sticky end – but for some reason my friends still loved reading them. As each was finished it was passed excitedly around the class. Other children began writing their own stories in the same vein. For a year or two it became a new ‘craze’.

Somehow – I don’t know how, I never made a conscious effort about it – I’ve managed to keep Sheriff John Ives down the years. I wrote it for my own pleasure, but was over the moon when I found others enjoyed it too. And that for me was the key to becoming a writer – doing something that I adored, but which also had an impact on people I knew. Since then, very little has changed!

Sheriff John Ives first book Steve Griffin writer
Sheriff John Ives – carnage and revenge in the Wild West

I began to publish poems in my twenties. If you want to find out how I got inspired check out this post.

Have you ever written a story of your own? Or perhaps you’ve kept a story written by a child or other family member. Let me know below!

A Ghost Story with a difference

Ightham Mote - inspiration for my new ghost story

I’m halfway through writing my next book, which I’m describing as a ghost story – with a difference.

The idea for the story came from a real life event. When I had just started dating my wife she went for an interview for a very intriguing job. It was a Property Manager post in an isolated country house that had recently been given over to the National Trust. There was accommodation for the postholder in the building. For security purposes, she would need to spend most of her time there, day and night. It was a wonderful opportunity, a beautiful property set in remote rural England.

But there was a catch.

The house was still lived in by the previous owners, who had been forced to turn to the Trust when the financial burden of running it became too much. This scenario is not uncommon, as few rich and aristocratic families now have the funds to sustain such enormous, old, leaky buildings. Some manage to generate sufficient income by opening the property up themselves, but not many. Most either get sold on to hotels, or go to into terminal decline and get demolished. A few get passed on to the National Trust.

It was at the job interview that my wife found out more about the set up. She gathered that the previous Property Manager had left under unusual circumstances. A breakdown was even mooted. The implication was that it was not because of the stress of managing the house itself. It was because the former owners had their own ideas as to how the property should (continue to) be run.

They hadn’t let go. And subsequently they made the manager’s life difficult. Very difficult.

My wife was offered the job, but she never took it. I’m glad as it was a long way to travel for us to see each other. Who knows whether our relationship would have survived that distance.

But I’ve always been fascinated by the set up. I’ve always known there was a story in there somewhere. And now, with the addition of a ghost or two, I have it. Why is it a ghost story with a difference? Well let’s just say, she ain’t afraid of ghosts.


Up in the Air – poems on video: The Cormorants

Here’s the second in my series of videos in which I read poems from my book Up in the Air. This time, The Cormorants, one of the first poems I ever had published. It’s a short poem about yearning and restlessness, seabirds, and the remote and lonely Scottish island of Iona.

As always, if you like it, please leave a comment.

You can buy Up in the Air here:

Up in the Air – Poems on video: Weather Map

The first of an occasional series of videos in which I read poems from my book, Up in the Air.

I wrote Weather Map when I was living in a small flintstone folly owned by the National Trust on the edge of a housing estate in London. At the end of the garden was – beyond a tricky pile of thorny scrub – a beautiful and little-known tributary of the Thames, the River Wandle. I had just started going out with the lovely woman who was to become my wife.

So, here is me reading Weather Map. If you like it, leave a comment.


You can purchase a copy of Up in the Air here:

Up in the Air poetry book – my first ever Youtube review!

I’m hugely grateful to New Zealand book blogger Pauline Reid for this review of my poetry book Up in the Air – my first ever Youtube review!

In it, Pauline talks about the sections in the book and shows her own Instagram photo of the book. She does a lovely reading of my poem ‘A Bird on the Moorland’. She also flags up the local interest for some of her subscribers, as one of the poems features the Albatross Statue in Wellington, her home town.

Have a watch and leave a comment if you like it!

Olga Tokarczuk: Go read

Two years ago a Polish friend at work went to a publishing event and brought me back a gift. It was a beautiful book called Flights by a Polish author named Olga Tokarczuk. (It really was a beautiful book, cobalt blue that appeared freshly inked, with fine white lettering, published by Fitzcarraldo Press.) The book was a real gem, a connected series of stories and meditations on travel, the body, and hope. The next year, my friend lent me a second book, House of Day, House of Night, which I also read and loved. Next thing, Olga Tokarczuk won the International Man Booker Prize for Flights.

This year I bought Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead which, in my view, is the best of her books I’ve read so far. (The wonderful title is from William Blake). The narrator, Janina Duszejko, gives us a whole new way of seeing the world, peppered with Medieval-style capitalised nouns, her own made-up names for people, a love of Blake, astrological ‘insight’, and a deep feeling for animals. The story centres around a series of gruesome murders on the remote Polish plateau where she lives, with only a few eccentric friends for company since she lost her beloved dogs. It’s far from a conventional detective story and focuses more on the narrator’s longing for a creative, numinous world free from suffering:

“Blake would say that there are some places in the Universe where the Fall has not occurred, the world has not turned upside down and Eden still exists. Here Mankind is not governed by the rules of reason, stupid and strict, but by the heart and intuition. The people do not indulge in idle chatter, parading what they know, but create remarkable things by applying their imagination. The state ceases to impose the shackles of daily oppression, but helps people to realize their hopes and dreams. And Man is not just a cog in the system, not just playing a role, but a free Creature.”

So, all I want to say is this: go read Olga Tokarczuk. You won’t regret it.

2018 Year Review – a big thank you!

The Secret of the Tirthas books

2018 was a very full year for my books and writing. In July I published the final volume of The Secret of the Tirthas, The Unknown Realms. Following Lizzie’s journey from her initial move to the Herefordshire cottage with its strange garden of rooms all the way to her final showdown with the demons and their followers at the Fountainhead has been a real delight for me. I never knew just how much the story and characters would grow, and particularly how much I would come to love Lizzie, Pandu, Raj and Ashlyn. A huge thank you to all of you who have joined me on this journey, especially everyone who let me know what they think through reviews and emails. Your support means a lot to me!

Whilst the publication of the final novel might mean the end to readers in English, it’s just the start for readers in China and Taiwan, as the series is being translated by Mandarin publisher Fiberead. In September The City of Light came out on Amazon’s Chinese site and a range of other Mandarin retail sites, followed quickly by The Book of Life and The Dreamer Falls. The final two books are also being translated, so it’s a very exciting time for me.

The City of Light Mandarin CoverBook of Life Mandarin Dreamer Falls - Mandarin cover

And on top of all that, I have an Argentinian friend who is now translating The City of Light into Spanish. It’s great to see the series opening more portals in the real world!

In October I also brought out my first book of poetry, Up in the Air. I’ve been writing poems since my twenties, and had quite a few published in magazines such as Poetry Ireland, The New Welsh Review and Poetry Scotland. Up in the Air brought the best of these together, alongside a few unpublished poems. I was over the moon when the collection reached no.8 in Amazon’s Inspirational Poetry category!

I love this quiet period between Christmas and New Year. It’s the perfect time to do some thinking – and in my case, some plotting of the next novel, something with a very different twist.

I hope you have a fabulous New Year – and many thanks again for your reading and support!