More Ghosts is my second short collection of ghost stories. It includes a few old stories which I found on my computer, and a few stories written to round out this collection. Here, as a taster for the collection (around 44,000 words) is a short little tale called Unfinished Business.
It is extremely unnerving to feel a hand on one’s shoulder when you know that, for certain, you are alone in a room. It is even more unnerving when you turn around, only to see that no one is there.
I had been sitting at my writing desk, trying – vainly – to come up with an idea for a short story. I’m old-fashioned; I like to do the first draft in longhand, so that I have something concrete on paper. I distrust computers, having lost stories to computers crashing in the past, and having had to spend many hours re-writing something that I thought was finished. So now, having learnt my lesson, I make sure that the first draft is on paper.
I had been searching for inspiration, but ideas were no more than an ignis fatuus – as soon as I thought that I had captured a good idea from the ether, it would melt away into nothingness, leaving me with half a dozen started-but-unfinishable short stories.
I turned around. The room was empty, lit only by a bedside lamp on the floor, its warm glow easily providing me enough light for my purposes. But I had definitely felt something.
“Who’s there?” I called, stupidly, as if any interloper was going to answer me. Still feeling a tad uneasy, I turned back to my blank page, hoping to be able to mar the virginity of the sheet.
I felt the hand on my shoulder again. The hair on the back of my neck began to rise, of its own accord. The hand was resting on my right shoulder. I reached up with my left hand to grab it. I don’t know what, exactly, I was hoping to accomplish, as I was not au fait with such strenuous activities as ju jutsu or aikido.
There was no hand there. My left hand rested on my own right shoulder. But I could still sense that there was a presence there. I turned; I was still alone. Yet something, someone else was still there.
I no longer felt scared. Perhaps I was a little excited, by such an unusual occurrence; but I could not detect any malice. Only a hand resting on my shoulder.
“Fine.” I said. “I’m being haunted.”
Trying to ignore what was happening to me – which was not easy – I returned to my literary tabula rasa. I put pen to paper, and the words began to flow.
Thoughts rose unbidden in my mind, blossoming into similes and descriptions that were not of my style. The words that I wrote were not my own; but I wrote.
I did not understand what I was writing. It was as if I had turned on my television midway through a movie. It was only as I continued writing that I began to make any sense of the prose.
The words were couched in a Victorian style. I knew that much from the first couple of paragraphs. I had been thrown headlong into a tale of poverty and greed, of bleakness and despair. I wrote for most of the night, my hand cramping as it held the pen. As dawn came, my unseen visitor departed, and I staggered to my bedroom, to collapse mentally exhausted on to my bed, still fully dressed, and on top of the bed sheets. Within seconds I was asleep, too tired to dream.
I awoke wondering why I was wearing all my clothes. I glanced at my alarm clock. It said four o’clock. I could not understand why it was light outside. It was then that I realised that I must have slept through until the afternoon.
I got up, and off my bed. I stretched, yawning. My back ached, and I felt dishevelled.
I went to my writing desk, to check that I had actually spent all night writing, and that it had not merely been some strange dream. No, there were ten double-sided sheets of hand-written prose there. The only thing was, the handwriting was not mine.
I did not read what had been written, as yet. I wanted to get things straight in my head first. And to get a bite to eat. I was absolutely starving.
Once I was suitably refreshed, I glanced at the sheets of paper. Though I had written the words, they were not my usual style. To tell the truth, they were far superior to my self-conscious scribbling; although the names of the characters were somewhat silly, and did not have the verisimilitude that I aimed for (and usually missed). I thought that I recognised some of the names, but I could not be sure. Nor was there enough of the story for me to discern the plot.
I wondered what I would be writing that night. Would my mysterious visitor return, to fill me with his alien inspiration? I laid out my ink pen, and ten more sheets of blank paper, on my desk, just in case.
I spent the afternoon and evening relaxing, reading a book (the most recent Sebastian Faulks) and watching a little television. I did not bother trying to continue any of my own stories. They could quite happily wait until some other time.
I sat down to write at the same time as the previous night, in the same chair, in the same position. Again, I felt a hand rest on my shoulder. This time, though, I did not freak out.
Again, I worked all through the night, only stopping when the sun began to come up. I had little recollection of what I had just written – I was no more than a conduit for the spectral presence.
It was the same on the following nights. In the afternoons, I would read what my hand had written the night before. I began to realise what it was that I was working on – the concluding chapters of the incomplete The Barren Manse, the last work of that great Victorian novelist, Richard Carlyle. I don’t know why the great man had chosen me, a mere journeyman writer of short stories, as his medium to complete his final novel. I had no idea of how I was going to get the remainder of it published, nor if anyone would believe the circumstances whereby I had come to write it. Claiming inspiration from dead artists or authors was usually the preserve of charlatans – a cursory glance at supposed ‘new’ Beethoven symphonies, or ‘new’ Blake poems, is enough to reveal them as mediocrities that possess only the surface styling of the alleged inspirations.
Yet this was the real thing. It was better than anything that I would ever write. Perhaps it was a sign that, once it was completed, I should give up my scribbling for something that I was actually good at.
Eventually, it was complete. One hundred and thirty four years after its inception, The Barren Manse was finally whole. I could not prevent a thought rising unbidden in my mind – why had it taken so long to complete this work?
My hand, beyond my control, wrote the answer – ‘writer’s block’. I would never again complain about being stuck on a story …