Ghostly Green Screen: Hitting The Reader Where They Live

It's good to make the most of the medium in which you write.

Sometimes this means doing things which only your medium can do.

The unfilmable book.

The unbookable film.

I've always loved how prose fiction is a collaborative medium, between writer and reader.  An intimate kind of contract.  The writer divulges a handful of details – or a whole cartload, if they’ve had too much coffee and can’t stop themselves – then the reader almost becomes the production designer and creates the finished result in their own cerebral screening room.  As a result, infinite, subtly different versions of your story exist in an infinite number of heads.  That sleazy Baton Rouge bar on the page, for instance, will be imagined in a billion different ways by a billion different readers.

With that in mind, I decided to write a ghost story set in the home of whoever happened to read it.  The story, A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home, would take the form of a letter from the previous tenant of the reader’s home, warning the reader that the place is haunted.  I would lay down the prose equivalent of green screen, onto which the reader would overlay rooms in their own home.  That way, each version of the story would be entirely unique.  Everyone would picture their own living space, in which terrible things would happen. 

All prose uses this mental green screen, to some degree or another.  This story, I decided, would just happen to wallpaper an entire home with the stuff.

I fell in love with the idea, even though there were consequences when I came to write.  I soon realised that it would be all too easy to break the story's 'spell', if I wasn't too careful. There had to be the following…

I couldn't assume anything about the layout of the reader's home: they might, for instance, be in a studio flat.  So I had to boil down all mentions of areas in the abode to the basics, which ended up being Bed, Sofa, Living Area, Kitchen Area, Bathroom.  I felt I could rely on everyone having those things.  No stairs.  No garden.  No wood-panelled study reeking of cigarillo smoke.

Because the reader's home could obviously be anywhere in the world, I could make no mention of the neighbourhood whatsoever.  I could only refer to it in the vaguest possible terms.

One slightly aggrieved Amazon reviewer would later grumble that the narrator doesn't use the Internet to track down the previous tenant.  But here's the reason for that: I had no way of knowing how long the reader has been in their home. Could be 40 years! Because the narrator lived there directly before the reader, this dictated that the narrator's placement in time needed to be completely flexible.  So no internet.  No mobile phones.  I didn't actually state that the narrator doesn't use these new-fangled resources either.  Vagueness was the key.

As you can imagine, these three key elements were quite the straitjacket when it came to writing the story.  But what the story loses in detail, hopefully it gains by not breaking the spell.  In ensuring that the reader goes on imagining their own home throughout, rather than protesting, “Hold on, I don’t have a vodka luge by the TV!”  And very conveniently for me, the narrator's vagueness is motivated by their insistence on giving as little information about themselves as possible.  They don't want to give the reader their name - not even their gender - so them playing fast and loose with facts hardly seems out of place.  Besides, they're describing a home which the reader already knows.  Why would they need to describe the kitchen to them again?

Once the story was ready for publication, another thought struck me.  Imagine being able to create a separate, unique, ‘deluxe’ version of this story, tailored to the reader.  Ditching all that vagueness, it would feature their name, their hometown, their address, mention of whether they're in a flat or a house.  It would namecheck a local hotel, a bar.  Then imagine this bespoke story being printed as a letter and snail-mailed to the reader's home.  So that's what I did, and ever since, the popularity of the Paper Edition of A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home - aka the Scary Letter - has really surprised me.  It's the evil gift which keeps on giving, whether people buy it for themselves or for others.  Celebrity customers for the Paper Edition have included Ghost Stories co-creator Andy Nyman, stand-up comedy supremo Tiernan Douieb and The Shining Girls’ author Lauren Beukes.  And whereas the prose story inevitably falls rather flat if the reader's home is a new-build, somewhere along the way I created a special New Build version of the story for the Paper Edition, if it became necessary!

Whether people read A Sincere Warning... for the first time on a screen or on paper, they tend to respond very well to the story’s ‘ghostly greenscreen’ approach, with many berating me for ruining their lives and sleep patterns!  Which has to be a tremendous result in anyone’s language.

Here are the places you can buy A Sincere Warning… if you dare...  

Amazon UKAmazon US Amazon Canada
Amazon Germany Amazon France Amazon Italy
Amazon Spain Amazon Japan Amazon Brazil
Amazon India Amazon Mexico Amazon Australia

And here’s the Scary Letter site, dedicated to A Sincere Warning’s Paper Edition.  Goodbye!

Top photo: a still from the film Grave Encounters 2.

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