The aforementioned A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke (which I highly recommend) informs me that Einstein once wrote “Even if I saw a ghost, I wouldn’t believe it.” I know what he means. I once had an experience that can only reasonably be called paranormal, and I don’t believe it. The fact is, though, I don’t disbelieve it either. I don’t see how I can. It remains a mystery, and I can only say that I have almost no idea how to interpret it – which, to be honest, is something I rather like, even if it leaves me feeling a little like the protagonist in Alan Lightman’s novel Ghost.
As a teenager, Clarke went hunting for ghosts around the Isle of Wight, where he lived at what I suspect must have been much the same time as I did. But perhaps the grand manor houses where he seems to have spent his childhood were not the only or even the best places to search. I don’t actually recall the exact, or even the approximate location of the house in which, aged around 15, I had my weird experience, but I think it was in Shanklin, and I do know that it was an unremarkable terraced house probably dating from no further back than the 1950s. It belonged to a relative, maybe an aunt, of one of the friends with whom I had gone to a party, and who had bravely agreed to lend their floor to three teenaged boys after they had undoubtedly consumed more alcohol than was wise or even legal. It was around Christmas time, and I remember there was a decorated tree in the living room (definitely a “living room”, nothing as refined as a “sitting room”) where we laid out our sleeping bags.
So yes, we had been drinking, but not into a stupor, and I remember feeling fairly coherent when we turned out the lights in the early morning. There may well be a perfectly rational and natural explanation for all of this, but I won’t accept that it was simple inebriation.
This “haunting” was entirely within my own mind, which is why I am kind of happy to regard it as a mental phenomenon of some sort. But it was like none I have had before or since. As a child and young person I was plagued by nightmares, but I never knew any other occasion when I awoke from them doubting that this is all they were. What happened as I was sleeping was nothing like a nightmare. For a start, I was fully aware of where I was: lying in a sleeping bag next to my friends on a borrowed floor. But what I felt – and it came upon me quite suddenly – was that I was being taken over and possessed by an incredibly malign force. And it had the character of a personality, one that was raging wildly. I could hear a voice in my head, intoning words that I couldn’t recognize but which sounded to be spoken in something approaching a Scottish accent, and utterly fearsome and demonic. Here’s the worst thing: I could feel my whole body inside my sleeping bag, and it felt as though it was being emptied out, shrivelling up into a dry husk as this “thing” took it over.
Then I woke up, and in an almost parodic manner I sat bolt upright, eyes wide open, and said “Ah!”. I was terrified. But there were by friends, sleeping soundly next to me. I have not the slightest suspicion that this was any kind of prank played by them, and I don’t see how they could have created the mental effect anyway.
Well, I suppose I thought, that was a very scary experience indeed. But here I am, in this mundane little house, and there’s evidently nothing strange going on here. So after a time, I lay down and went back to sleep.
That was a mistake. I’d scarcely nodded off when the whole thing happened again: the same fury and sense of malevolence, the same feeling that I was being possessed and crushed within my own body. That’s the way to put it: as though any shred of my own self was to be pulverized out of existence.
And again I “awoke with a start”, in that phrase that children’s writers seem unable to do without. This time, sitting upright and seeing everything as before, I thought: sod it, I am not going to risk going back to sleep. I’ll sit the night out. But I couldn’t. At some point I drifted back into slumber.
This time it started differently: not with that sense of frantic raving and anger, but insidiously, as though this “thing” had decided this time that I would be more effectively eliminated by stealth. But I knew it was happening, just as I knew I was lying there helpless. Then I “heard” a distinct phrase in my head, and I can only suppose it was the voice of some part of me. It said this: “What do you think it wants?”
I have never forgotten those words, especially because they were evidently regarded as a provocation. The moment they “sounded”, the “thing” returned in full, furious force, and there I was again, becoming this shrivelled husk.
But I woke up again. And this time I’d really had enough. I was beside myself with fear. Why didn’t I wake up one of my friends? What, a teenager, admitting to his mates that he was scared he was being possessed? No, I wasn’t going to risk that. Instead I was determined that this time I’d stay awake until dawn. And I nearly did, because I remember that there was the first dim light starting to appear through the curtains, and the birds were starting to tweet, when I fell asleep again, this time into an untroubled slumber.
So there you have it. I was too confused, too shy and embarrassed, to say anything in the morning or to make any enquiries about the house or the people who lived there. I wish I had, but there you go.
All this ghost business comes from the research I have been doing for my next book, Invisible. And I remember reading somewhere in the course of that research about a well attested brain disturbance that can create the sensation of a weight pressing on the chest – purportedly an explanation for some nocturnal “manifestations” that have been described through the ages, perhaps like the one depicted so provocatively in Fuseli’s famous image. Mine is I suppose a little similar, although it went considerably beyond that. What really perplexes me is the triple repeat, with episodes of clear and even lucid waking in between. I have, once or twice, awoken only to slip back into something like the same dream – one can never be sure how “similar” it really is, given the way dreams leave odd imprints on the memory. But I’ve never known anything even remotely like this.
It’s why I like the fact that Clarke remains open-minded in his book and doesn’t try to explain everything away, even though he reports the known hoaxes, the possible role of ultrasound, and so forth. I think he probably believes in ghosts, in a way that I can’t – for one thing, each manifestation seems too attuned to the preconceptions and ethos of its times. But something very strange happened to me all those years ago, and I simply don’t know what it was.