Municipal Gothic: the other type of scary

An underpass covered with graffiti

Ghost stories are about the uncanny and, of course, about fear. But when do you ever feel really scared?

As in, fight or flight. As in, heartbeat up, breathing shallow, nerves twitching.

For me, it’s in subways, when I’ve committed to the tunnel and have nowhere to go, and I see someone blocking the exit up above.

Or when I find myself on a street I don’t know on an estate I don’t know, maybe walking towards a dead end, while whispering men stop whatever they’re doing in that alleyway to watch me pass.

That reminds me of the most scared I’ve ever been, I think, on the top deck of a bus going through Clapton after midnight. Between Central London and the east, it emptied, until it was just me and some hyped-up lads making a lot of noise about someone who was going to get shanked, if he wasn’t careful.

After a while, they noticed me on my own on the back seat.

“Excuse me,” one of them said, with surprising politeness, “but are you a police officer?”

Back then, I did kind of look like I sort of might be – a sturdy bloke with a shaved head, often wearing a white shirt and black trousers.

What was the right answer? Which would make them less likely to want to beat me up, or stick a knife in me?

While I thought about it, my heart began to thump. I knew my voice would wobble if I spoke.

So, after a moment, I smiled slightly and gave a slow shake of my head.

They stared. I stared back.

After a moment, their leader shouted, “Five oh”, and they scattered off the bus as it pulled into the next stop.

It was a while before I breathed again.

That’s logical, sensible, real-world fear. The fear of actually being injured and, perhaps worse, humiliated.

In my case, this is at least partly the result of growing up on an estate, in a town, where, if you weren’t careful, you’d get a ‘smack in the face’ for glancing at someone for too long, or failing to say hello, or for saying hello with the wrong tone.

It wasn’t so bad, not really – not as long as you remained hyper-vigilant at all times, took no risks, scuttled everywhere by the safest paths, thought constantly about your escape routes, didn’t make eye contact with anyone at any point, and got home before dark.

The problem with that is, you go into adulthood hyper-vigilant, taking no risks, scuttling everywhere… I’m in my mid-forties and still carrying it with me.

On the upside, all that internalised terror means I’ve never been mugged, touch wood, or even beaten up. I’ve got no shame about crossing the road if I don’t like the look of what’s up ahead on this side. I’d rather my face be intact than my masculine pride.

Writing ghost stories with resolutely real world settings, as in my collection Municipal Gothic, I want to draw on some of that energy.

Because when a ghost appears in a place or situation where you’re already on edge, it feels all the more horrifying.

But it’s also important not to lapse into the cheap cliché of the ‘faceless hoodie’ as a stand-in for zombies or ghouls.

And I certainly don’t want to write stories about gentlefolk wandering onto the wrong side of the tracks and forced to confront the ultimate horror: The Working Classes!

I’ll leave that to H.P. Lovecraft.

“He brings a quality that is rarely found in stories that have a genuine power to disturb – wit. Sharp, focused and never to the detriment of atmosphere, his deployment of raillery and even snark, gives his characters a depth of believability.”

David Southwell, Hookland Guide
Municipal Gothic is out now as a paperback via Amazon UK, Amazon US and around the world.

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