The ghosts of the mountain house

Tom Cox

Tom Cox on the cold and isolated stay in Derbyshire that inspired his new collection of ghost stories

04 October 2018 07:57

When I arrived at the mountain house, the blizzard was starting to spin a little faster, and my movers were already starting to shift the first few boxes inside, walking briskly to protect them from the snow: local lads, from just over the border into Yorkshire, fiercely proud of their area, but who would nevertheless flash me a look from time to time which seemed to say, ‘Here? Really? Why?’ It was a miracle they’d got the truck down the icy track, half a mile from the lane up on the gritstone edge, which itself was hairy enough. I’d set off from my beloved previous house in Devon, 289 miles south, the previous evening, but had to divert to my parents’ place in Nottinghamshire, due to the snow, which was bad as I drove past Birmingham, but a different kind of snow altogether up at one of the highest points in Derbyshire. By the time my parents had followed me there to help with some unpacking the next day, the ice was so treacherous on the track that they had to leave the car at the top and walk down, clinging to the fence for balance. My landlord drove past in his four-wheel drive vehicle, making a misinformed comment about global warming, not offering them a lift. My mum would later admit that, alone in the house, unpacking some boxes while my dad and I trekked back to fetch my cats from their house, she had been frightened, and put Radio 4 on just to hear a comforting voice in this isolated place full of dark air. It was the vast unused space at the top of the rooms that got to her. It got to me too, in the end. I’d never viewed high ceilings as oppressive before – quite the opposite – but that all changed at the mountain house.

I was embarking on a bold method-writing project: my new book was to be a collection of ghost stories and I had decided that the best possible plan of action for it was to retreat to a spooky place to put it together. The book, named Help The Witch, was not entirely set in the Peak District, but I felt a conviction that being somewhere eerie to write it, at the height of winter, would make a significant difference to the book’s atmosphere, kind of like a classic album where you can almost hear the room it was recorded in. Using RightMove’s useful new Pestilence Filter, I found a semi-detached outer limb of a Victorian farmhouse, 1,400 feet above sea level, outside the village of Eyam, which, in the mid-1600s, lost four-fifths of its residents to plague, when, led by their vicar, William Mompesson, they chose to isolate themselves from the outside world to prevent the disease spreading. It was an area drenched in palpable sorrow, with graves – both marked and unmarked – scattered around its wind-gnashed hillsides. A week before my move, on the cusp of December, my publishers shot a small film of me for the book. A dying blackbird quivered as we stood outside the village pub, which was haunted by the ghost of the wife of its once landlord, who’d murdered her by throwing her down the stairs. I felt aptly plague-y myself, riddled with flu, my teeth chattering as I stood beside six isolated gravestones at the head of the valley. But this was pretty much still a carefree summer day, compared to what I was about to experience.

Photography by Tom Cox

Having grown up on the Derbyshire border, just into Nottinghamshire, I knew the particular bleak spookiness of the northern part of the county in winter. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that this would be the most severe winter for years and, while I felt the house was a tiny bit gothic and ominous, it revealed a more chilling character quite quickly. In what now seems a comically be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment, but didn’t seem at all funny at the time, I sat on the stairway that first night, listening to some sounds you might expect in an unfamiliar rural house on a snowy night, and some others you might not: the snow pelting the walls, the wind whipping through the cooker’s extractor hood, the creak of a barn door, the eerie tinkle of the thermostat resetting, some furniture being moved by nobody in the loft, and the ghost dog interred in the walls, begging to be set free. A week later, I met my next-door neighbours, and discovered a rational explanation for the last noise – their terrier, which was 17 and deaf and blind, not a ghost dog, but an almost ghost dog – but more inexplicable things started to happen in the house. A wooden fish ornament carved for me by my uncle Paul swapped window ledges on its own, twice. Pictures and plants and bookcases tumbled from secure positions. Again and again, I woke up at 3.44am from terrible nightmares, usually involving great or mild violence being inflicted on me. In one, I reached out for balance in a black corridor and my ribs were tickled by three fleshless hands. I became convinced that once, in this house, something very bad had happened at 3.44am.

Can you write a book of ghost stories if you are not sure you actually believe in ghosts? I think so. Help The Witch is not the most traditional collection of ghostly tales; sometimes it feels more like just a book of short stories that happen to have an element of the unexplained or possibly the supernatural to them. But I can think of weird occurrences in my life – a locked door, for example, in another isolated house, crashing open on a windless night – that defy rational explanation, and I have certainly wanted to believe in ghosts very keenly at points in my life. The primary school in Nottingham where I was a pupil and my mum was a teacher had been used as a hospital during both World Wars and, wandering the corridors of it alone on a winter night, waiting for her to finish her work, I convinced myself I saw the fleeting figure of a wounded soldier, but I think it was more the combined force of my imagination and my need to believe. ‘YOU’RE JUST THE SAME AS YOU WERE WHEN YOU WERE SEVEN,’ said my loud, rationalist dad when I started to explain to him how the house in Derbyshire was freaking me out. ‘GROW UP.’ He was right: when I was a kid, and my parents took me on walks in the same county, I talked endlessly about the spectres haunting the ruined manors and barns we passed. I have grown up, when it comes to ghosts, since then, but not much. I still like to put myself in eerie situations, in landscapes where there’s room to believe in the magic and macabre. I trespass to explore ruins alone. I walk back nine miles home from wassailing festivals in the thick of night, with only an ineffective torch to guide me, through holloways and steep rubble paths, as owls and other unidentifiable creatures flap about in the trees flanking me. I go to churchyards in grainy January light and feel an urge to spin round, convinced I’m being followed. By something, if not someone.

Photography by Tom Cox

I remember boasting just before starting Help The Witch that none of this truly scared me, or at least that it was, in a phrase coined by one of my favourite writers of subtle ghost stories, M.R. James, ‘a pleasing terror’. What really scared me was filling out my tax return, or letting down a friend, or inadvertently hurting somebody’s feelings with a tactless comment, or being misunderstood, or being homeless, or living dishonestly and losing my soul. But living in the mountain house did scare me and was a useful reminder of more primitive fear. One day, in the worst of the snow, after both of my neighbours and the almost ghost dog had moved out because they couldn’t take the bleakness any longer, and my landlord had gone on holiday somewhere less unremittingly freezing, I walked up the track to take my rubbish to the bin (a futile gesture, as the bin men hadn’t been able to get up the mountain for a fortnight), in what, with wind chill, amounted to minus-17, and thought, ‘I am the only human around for over a mile.’ I felt like the only one on earth. And I felt that earth was a new planet made of cold yellow ice-breath instead of real air. That night I woke at 3.44am from a nightmare where I’d spooned a three centuries-dead skeleton. When the meltwater began to flow and the track cleared, I drove to Devon, found the first suitable house I could, put a rental deposit down on it. A fortnight later, I was gone. I’d lasted marginally over three months. It had felt like fifteen. I don’t regret any of it.

Something you realise when you’re writing a book with a supernatural theme, and you tell people this, is that nearly everyone has got a story to tell in that area, whether they’re a sceptic or not. Some of these slunk up and rubbed their influence on Help The Witch. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts,’ said a friend in a pub in Devon, before detailing a night on Dartmoor, when she and an acquaintance were lost in the mist, searching for a house party, and looked in the rear-view mirror to see a figure in white, floating behind the car. They later realised that the place they’d stopped was directly opposite the infamous Jay’s Grave, an unconsecrated site where, in the 1700s, the farm girl Kitty Jay was buried, after hanging herself, and where flowers still mysteriously appear every day. In a Norwich pub on the brink of winter a chill ran along my ribs as my friend Jecca and her mum talked about Jecca’s imaginary childhood friend from a neighbouring cottage, who also later turned out to be an exact ringer in every detail for a child drowned at the very same house, many years before. Back in Devon, following my escape from Witch Mountain, the father of my new next-door neighbour told the story of a stay in a hotel in Brixham during a fishing trip in his youth, where he woke to find that a small girl had broken into his room and was throwing his luggage and bedding about. My neighbour’s mother chipped in to tell the final, most unnerving bit of the story: many years later his wife, unbeknownst to him, went on a ghost walk in Brixham, which included the story of a ghost long associated with the hotel. The ghost was a little girl named Aggie who had fallen to her death from one of the hotel’s windows in the 1920s and had a reputation for disturbing bed clothes and luggage. This is one of many supernatural stories I have been told that’s associated with the Brixham area, including the Green-Faced Monkey Story, about a green-faced monkey seen wandering the woods in nearby Churston many times over the summer of 1996. Derbyshire, Devon, Norfolk, Somerset, York: I feel like I’ve lived in a lot of places rife with ghost stories. But where isn’t rife with ghost stories?

I would argue until I am blue in the face that buildings, and even woodland, or valleys, or rivers, absorb events and won’t let them go.

Help The Witch is as much about our undying rural folklore as about ghosts, about how it fits into a more technological world, about stories seasoned with the magic dust of time, about natural sights that we might see while walking in a remote place that, given a certain light and a certain state of mind, could be perceived as something else, quite unnatural. I am less interested in ghosts themselves and more interested in the way events and experiences are trapped in a place, long after they’ve happened. I cannot argue that a ghost – a figure, resembling a dead person, visible to the naked eye – exists, but I would argue until I am blue in the face that buildings, and even woodland, or valleys, or rivers, absorb events and won’t let them go. Never once, even on the most unnerving winter night at the mountain house, did I feel like I would turn around and see a ghostly figure or creature, but I was aware of something suffocatingly sombre there. My cats acted differently, jumpier, starier. I realised, with a jolt, what a laid-back person I had been in my (very positive) house in Devon, because of what an anxious one I had briefly become here. And not just anxious because I was trapped inside by adverse weather, the vast dark witness inside, but because the very air in the house and what it held seemed to be changing me. Fleeing back to the South West, I jumped in the sea at the first opportunity. I sunbathed, even when it wasn’t sunny. I wrote the final few paragraphs of the book on the beach, in baking heat.

My new house had nothing palpably malevolent in it. The kitchen drawers were sticky, as if they’d been used solely for the storing of loose sugar. The door didn’t lock. It felt like a party house. In the mountain house, I felt convinced nobody had ever had a party, or even a good time. Or even if they had, the spirit memory of it had been trounced by countless bad times. I’ve lived in twenty-one houses over the course of my life – light and dark ones and some that were a bit of both – and maybe this makes me more sensitive than most people to the energies that buildings have, but it is there. You cannot get away from it. As I get older, the idea of a ‘ghost’ in any conventional sense becomes harder to get a grip on, but the idea of memories in the ether, trapped by time, still influencing the future, becomes less so. Our interest in ghosts is at least slightly egotistic. We can’t believe we won’t be here any more. We want some evidence we will continue, even if it’s in tortured, unresting form. The question becomes bigger as you get older. You stand there, this collection of experiences and opinions that’s become more complex with every year you’ve been on the planet. All that energy. It might not be in your body and mind any more when you die, but it has to go somewhere. It can’t just vanish. Can it?

Help The Witch is published by Unbound on 18 October. Buy a copy (Amazon, Waterstones).