A delight in gothic terror.
Initially I simply wanted to write a really scary short tale.
I knew this wouldn’t be easy. I had read dozens of ghost stories and could count on one hand the ones that had triggered the kind of chilling unease that stays with you long after the story is over, so that you daren’t even go upstairs on you own. It’s a fine line. Supernatural tales and psychological thrillers often draw on gothic tropes to create queasiness and horror in the reader. But because these symbols and images are archetypal, if handled clumsily they can fall into cliché and serve only to undermine the narrative or at worst create unintentional comedy. I don’t like violence or gore. I respect the writers and filmmakers that can unnerve me by exploiting the aesthetics of anxiety. I’m a huge fan of gothic fiction and I’m fascinated by our human need to act out or explore terror and the frisson of excitement that it brings from the safe space of being a reader or a listener.
I’ve always been fascinated by the place where the supernatural, or mystery and psychological disturbance meet in literature. When I drew up a list of my favourite uncanny narratives I noticed they all had this feature in common. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, The Haunting of Hill House (the novel not the film) and We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (the stage play not the film), The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Don’t Look Now, the film by Nicholas Roeg and The Others, the film by Alejandro Amenábar.
Inspired by these classics I wanted to write a traditional ghost story with universal themes but to update it so that it had relevance now, especially to women. I drew on certain features common in gothic fiction; an eerie, isolated house, a woman trapped in a domestic setting plagued by loss and longing, and a narrative that plays out across the uncomfortable margins between the paranormal and the psychopathological.
Motherhood and postnatal depression
At the centre of The Haunting of Strawberry Water is a Polaroid photograph, which the narrator believes contains the shadowy figure of her mother moving from one room to another. It is the only image she owns of the mother who abandoned her as a child. I use this photograph as a leitmotif of doubt and loss throughout the story. I used to have a friend who had a distant and problematic relationship with her mother. Every night she used to count all of the objects in her bedroom three times because she believed something terrible would happen to her mother if she didn’t. I used this as a starting point for my narrator who, driven by locked up grief and an acute longing for the mother she has never known, creates a ‘phantom’ mother in a nightly ritual with the Polaroid as a kind of sacred object or icon.
The mother-child relationship is a very complex and powerful one. Often in our society women are not given enough support during their first pregnancy, and after the shock of childbirth. With the recent cuts to NHS this support is less available now than it has been in decades. The mother-child bond is vitally important to the future health of that relationship and the mental health of an individual. I wanted to write something that explored the raw and vulnerable period of new motherhood and the ambivalent feelings it can throw up. The huge depth charge for a woman is life changing. All too often the pressure to present the hearts and flowers version means that women are not properly supported or listened to. It’s a state that can open up old wounds, repressed or hidden aspects of the self and feelings about our own parents and the kind of love we did or didn’t receive. Drawing partly on my own experiences of childbirth and postnatal depression I explored that most sacred of bonds, the mother daughter relationship and transported it into the territory of the uncanny.
In his influential essay ‘The Uncanny’, Freud explores the overlap between psychoanalysis and literature in relation to the aesthetics of anxiety. The original German title of the paper is ‘Das Unheimliche’. If heimliche means cosy, safe, homely then the literal translation is ‘unhomely’ and the trigger that elicits fear is rooted in the notion that the familiar places and objects we most trust, that offer us comfort can turn on us and become strange, sinister or taboo. The safe domestic space becomes a place of terror, the trusted objects become alien, a parent or nurturer becomes a threat, and the child, innocent and good, can become something corrupted or menacing. Freud explores the idea that the supernatural in literature compels and appals us because it represents the external expression of repressed and unacceptable parts of our personality or emotions. In The Haunting of Strawberry Water, the narrator, exhausted and in shock from the traumatic experience of the birth of her baby, begins to mistrust everything around her. The objects that always gave her comfort are somehow spoiled. The fabric of her identity begins to dissolve and there is no solid ground. The haunting can be seen as a manifestation of her postnatal depression, symbolic of the split parts of herself, as well as the darker aspects of her absent mother that she was never fully able to confront.
I hope what I’ve created is a tale that women can relate to but that also offers that shiver of delectable creepiness that makes an effective ghost story so enjoyable!