Eight Ghosts

eight ghosts short story writing competition

To celebrate the release of our ghost story compilation – Eight Ghosts – we launched a Members' competition to write a short ghost story based at an English Heritage site. A shortlist of five stories has now been selected by our expert panel of judges and you have until Monday 1 January 2018 to cast your vote for the overall winner.

Who's made the shortlist?

The Shortlist

Thank you to everyone who entered our Eight Ghosts story writing competition. A panel of expert judges have now shortlisted five stories which they felt were the most outstanding among the entries we received.

Congratulations go to Peter Wilson from Norfolk, Sara Kellow from East Sussex, Samuel Morris from Kent, Gerry Morris from Suffolk and Peter Malin from Oxfordshire. To read each of their superb stories, click on the titles below.

Make sure you vote for your favourite story; the story with the most votes will feature on the English Heritage blog in January.

Read the stories

Atticus Unbound by Peter Wilson, set at Belsay Hall

Belsay-view-1Where are my books? Where are my folios? The plans, the drawings, the sections that I spent so many hours toiling over for this very house; where are they? What has happened to this perfect world I made for Moncks and Middletons to inhabit forever, in this crisp, iron-flecked stone temple on a green ledge in Northumberland?
 
From the windows I can see my rolling park, now rich with great trees, as I planned.  We, my Louisa and our children, all planted saplings for the future to cherish, so that one day our grandchildren and great-grandchildren might find shelter and shade, and gather firewood from beneath, to warm the home that I built for them. Not just our trees adorn my acres; there are great shrubberies, glistening leaves of plants that are unknown to me. But they set off my wonderful house to great effect.
 
But where is the furniture that I designed for this room? Beautiful Grecian-inspired pieces that sat quietly among my simple columns and cornices. So many nights spent in this room, playing games, reading, music, bat and ball some evenings. We used to sing, roll up the Indian rugs (alas, they too have gone) and dance with cousins and neighbours, Blacketts and Andersons and Swinburnes, friends and welcome guests always.
 
The children played chase and hide in the pillar hall, through here. How fine it still stands, crisp and in measured proportion. How many nights I laboured to get that right; how wonderful when the first pillar went up and I saw all was perfect. The grandchildren loved it, playing hobbyhorse, concealed behind the pillars, racing up the stairs, in and out of the bedrooms, frightening the poor servants by slamming the great mahogany doors… Ah… like this!
 
How it echoes. Even more in this empty house; now there is nothing left to absorb the reverberations. All these rooms just empty. What has happened?
 
And here, what has happened here? This was my workroom. My private place; a room for my best books, my intimate papers, a place to talk to tenants, to deal with business matters, a place for seriousness. Along here the very rooms have gone.  No floors, no ceilings, even the plaster so carefully (at such cost) applied is vanished, gone. The walls are become once again the rock that was so laboriously hewn from the quarry up the hill. What took all this away? Did a fire consume all the fine workmanship? There is no sign of burning. Some flood or rot that consumed everything? And yet was not repaired? It is a mystery indeed. Did poverty descend or a revolution, such as overtook the Kingdom of France? It is hard to bear. Just a shell of a house that was a busy home, full of family and servants, Middleton portraits and china and furniture that told of us as a most ancient county family, and the Monck pieces remembering the generosity of my grandfather who made this perfect place possible.
 
And who are those people dressed so strangely, bareheaded, climbing my steps, walking casually and easily, entering through my great mahogany doors without making themselves known, without even a card of introduction?
 
Maybe indeed there has been a revolution. Maybe we are swept away by Jacobins.
 
No, no, that will not happen, not whilst Middletons still have strength and voice.
 
"Be gone sirs; kindly leave, ladies. This is my home, however forlorn it now may be.  It is what was done by me, by my industry, my brain, by my hand, from what I saw in Greece, the drawings I made in the long years my dear Louisa and I spent in that romantic Attic paradise. Do not disturb my peace."
 
See how they scream and run, down the great steps and across the lawns back to the stables. They flee as if in terror. No, pray, do not be so alarmed. Have they never seen a gentleman before? Perhaps not. Oh, perhaps not. And what opinion will they carry of Middleton hospitality now? I was perhaps a little hasty, taken by surprise at the intrusion, overcome at the changes to my mansion.
 
"Do not run away, come back and be received. Introduce yourselves; perhaps you can help me piece together the strange story of what seems the wreck of my fortunes. Pray you, return. Do not stand and shriek. I am Charles Middleton Monck of this modern yet ancient house. How strangely you look at me. Ha! You look at me as if I were a ghost!"

Discover the inspiration behind Peter's story: Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens in Northumberland

The Silver Penny by Sara Kellow, set at Pevensey Castle

Pevensey-stairs-1
My name is Margaret Lewes. I am a poor woman, relying on charity for my daily bread, since I was driven from my only home by a dreadful visitation. The walls between this world and the next are crumbling, and the dead steal back through the chinks and cracks to make mischief among the living. Let my story be a warning.

I was born at Pevensey within the shadow of those ancient walls that wrap like arms around the castle. My father was a fisherman, drowned by witchcraft when I was just a babe. My mother was a scullion in the castle kitchens until she too went to her rest. The castle was my world - I was never so content there as when the fog rolled in across the marshes and it seemed there was nowhere else.

My troubles began when that infamous witch, Joan of Navarre, was sent to Pevensey, for plotting the king's death. The constable of the castle, Sir John Pelham, let it be known that, for want of any proof, he believed her to be as good a Christian as any of us. But us poor folk knew what she was - a foreigner, and the daughter of a necromancer, who'd bewitched the late king Henry IV into taking her as his second wife. Within hours of her coming, the sky darkened and a great storm blew up like the one that drowned my father, as she showed her anger that God had opened the king's eyes to the ways of his stepmother.

She lived like no other prisoner the castle had ever housed. Not for her the lightless, flooded cells beneath the gatehouse - she lodged in high style in the keep, and rode out with Sir John as often as she wished. She brought a gaggle of maids to wait on her, and such a pack of idle, churlish wantons I have never seen. When I took away the night-soil from their chambers they spoke never a word to me, but stuck their noses in the air like it was my filth I was carrying out.

One evening, as I crossed the inner ward, a stranger asked me if I wanted to earn a penny. He showed me a puppet stitched together from scraps, with real hair and a crown upon its head, and bid me hide it in Joan of Navarre's chamber, somewhere it might easily be found. Before he gave me my coin, he took a bodkin and stuck it through the puppet's body, as if to pierce its heart.

I saw no harm in it, so I did as he asked. When it was discovered though, I was sent for by Sir John Pelham himself, who had never before spoken to me in all the years I'd served at Pevensey.

"Did you put this in the queen's chamber?" he asked. She was there with him, fixing me with her eyes.

I said no, keeping my fingers crossed within a fold of my gown.

Sir John huffed, like he didn't believe me. The queen then spoke and it brought to mind a snake slithering over rocks to hear our English words in her mouth.

"Leave her. My servants shall uncover the truth," she said.

I trembled to hear it for, with her knowledge of necromancy, she counted the numberless dead as her servants.
That same evening there was a stir about the castle and everyone rushed down to see a body carried in to the gatehouse. A man had been riding out the east gate of the outer wall, when a great flint flew from the arch above and struck him dead. No one knew who the man was but I recognised him - it was the one who gave me the penny. I cried out in horror at the swiftness of the queen's revenge, and had to tell all who heard that it was the blood that affected me. Even so, it still fell to me to wash the body, as every foul job at the castle was mine. I prayed the saints would not abandon me likewise, as I scraped the gore from his split skull, and promised to get rid of my piece of silver. It went to the grave with him, hidden within his shroud.   

The man was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas. It was the beginning of the cold season and the fog that flowed in across the marshes hung in the air all day, making strangers of everyone.

That night I said my prayers and lay down in my accustomed place in the kitchen. I fell asleep quickly, worn out by fear. I'd seen a servant of the queen in every vague shape that approached me in the fog.

I woke in darkness. I listened - there were four others who slept in the kitchen, disturbing the peace with their snores, but they were silent as corpses. I could see nothing but, by the strange smell of earth and rot, I knew something unhallowed was close by. 

It stood over me, I know it did. I dared not move, or even breathe. Then, louder than a bell in the darkness, came the jingle of a coin hitting the stone floor. And when the blessed light of morning crept in, I found my silver penny had been returned to me.

Whether it was the queen that toyed with me, or whether the stranger meant to damn me alongside him, I cannot tell. As soon as I could I went out on to the marshes and flung that coin into a pool. Yet it came again. I've come to dread that sound in the night, that hateful jingling, and the graveyard stink that clings to the silver, tainting everything that touches it.

This morning I dropped that cursed penny into the moat and left the castle and Pevensey for good, to seek the shelter of some holy house, where I hope it cannot follow me.

Find out more about the site that inspired Sara:  Pevensey Castle, East Sussex

Best Friends Forever by Samuel Morris, set at Kenwood

Kenwood-darker-hall-1
Flora didn't notice the other little girl appear beside her. When she felt a hand slip so lightly into her own, she thought it her Nana's. She held the hand back as she walked through the old music room, looking up at the imposing portraits of the people from long ago. She wondered why they all looked so sad. Why none of them smiled. In the next room she found one particular portrait, one of a little girl with a sly smile, that made her shudder. Though she did not know why.

As she tried to walk away, the hand tightened its grip on her own. Turning, she was surprised to see that it wasn't her Nana stood next to her. It was a girl who smiled brightly, her grip on Flora's hand now so tight that it hurt. The other girl had her hair in tight curls and wore a long, white dress that came to her ankles.

"Hello," the girl said. "My name's Louise. I've not seen you before."

"Who are you? Please let go of me hand. Have you seen my Nana?" Flora replied all at once.

"Oh, yes," Louise said. "Of course. I saw her just a moment ago. Come on." She walked briskly away and ducked through a doorway. In a wide hallway she turned up a staircase with metal railings. With a giggle she turned around and waved for Flora to follow.

Flora wished she would stop so she could ask where they were going. She watched Louise reach the first floor, step over a velvet rope and continue further up the stairs.
Flora hesitated. She'd been told not to go past the velvet ropes. Had been afraid even to touch them. But without her Nana, she didn't know what else to do. She looked around herself and, with nobody watching, slipped over the rope and further up the creaking stairs.

At the top, Flora found a cold, dim corridor that smelt of damp. With Louise nowhere to be seen, she felt her way forwards in the gloom. Through a door was a playroom, or what looked like a playroom. One from long ago. There was a rocking horse in one corner. On a shelf was a line of dolls with strange, white faces that stared at her. Flora was about to turn back, when Louise called to her.

"Why don't you come and play?"

"I want to find my Nana," Flora said. "Please, where is she?"

"Silly. We can see your Nana from here when she passes by." Louise pointed to the opposite side of the room.

Flora got closer and realised that there was another open door through which she could see people walking by. Ordinary people who were visiting the house, just like her.

"Come on," Louise patted her leg. "Come and play."

Flora knelt down next to her but kept a short distance away. From there three things struck her all at once. She noticed that Louise had taken off her dress and let down her hair, so it hung loose over her shoulders like her own hair did. With Louise's hair that way, Flora also noticed that she not only looked a lot like the girl in the portrait she had seen. Louise looked a lot like her.

She was so startled by this that she did not know what to say. Instead, she picked up a doll that was lying close by and ran her little fingers down its cheek, where a single, black tear had been painted.

"That's my favourite," Louise said. "Daddy got her for me when I was sick. You can have her though. We're going to best friends forever. I can tell."

"Yes." Flora nodded. Her voice sounded far away, even to herself. She kept her eyes on the people walking past beyond the far door but, for some reason, she struggled to focus on them. It was as if some kind of cloud or curtain hung between them and her. She tried to make the doll walk over the floor in front of her, then yawned.

"There she is. I'm sure of it!" Louise screamed with delight and leapt to her feet.

"Where?" Flora said sleepily. She felt so tired all she wanted to do was curl up and fall asleep.

Flora watched as Louise walked away. At the end of the corridor she could see some vague shapes. Was that her Nana's brown coat?

Maybe she would stay here anyway. She felt so tired. Like she sometimes did when she lay on her bed at home, playing with her toys. So comfortable, the voices of other people coming from far away. She closed her eyes and began to drift away. She began to dream; she thought of playing in her garden with her best friend; of birthdays and visits to Father Christmas; of her mum coming into her room just to give her a hug.

Suddenly, her eyes were open and she was wide awake. Then she was on to her feet and stumbling down the corridor and back down the stairs.

"Come back," she yelled. "Come back!"

At the bottom of the stairs she saw Louise slip her hand into her Nana's. Saw Louise look behind herself and give Flora that same, sly smile.

Flora forced herself forwards, though it was if her legs were still asleep. She could see her Nana walking away, almost turning the corner. As she leapt forwards to catch the bottom of her Nana's coat, she fell to the floor with a thump.

Her Nana looked down. "Oh, there you are petal! I wondered where you'd got to."

Flora threw herself round her Nana's waist and held her tight.

"Goodness. Don't worry, you've found me now. Somebody looks like they need some cake. Come on you."

As they walked away together, Louise was nowhere to be seen. Except for her portrait on the wall. From where she watched, her eyes never leaving the crowd.

Visit the property page to find out more about Kenwood, Hampstead .

Bone by Gerry Morris, set at Grime's Graves Prehistoric Flint Mine

Grime's-ground-3
From my place among the rocks I can see new people climbing down the ladder into the mine.

The visitors in these times are different from the men with strange tools who dug their way slowly through the chalk and flint - the men who found my bones and took them away. These people wear bright yellow helmets and colourful clothes. They must be lords or chieftains, for their skin is smooth and clean, their hands not gnarled, their bodies not worn down by labour. And there are children among them, who laugh and chatter in their alien language.

But what do they seek down here? Miners are nomads who own nothing, who spend their lives moving from pit to pit, grubbing in the dirt and darkness. As did I, until that day…
 
I was stretched out on my side in the farthest gallery, hacking at the chalk with my deer-antler pick, straining to prise out the precious layer of dark flint, when I heard it: the sound every burrower dreads. The dull roar of collapsing rock. Next second, I was pinned to the floor, my ribs crushing into my lungs. I struggled for air and flailed around uselessly for my pick.
 
Through the stone and the dust, I heard coughing, and confused voices, and my name being called. I tried to call back, but my breath was gone.
 
Then as I lay there, my blood oozing away, there came another voice - one I knew well. The shaman from our encampment was chanting the death-song, calling on the spirits to receive my soul into the afterlife. 

I had heard it sung often enough for comrades. The flint gave us life but also demanded payment in lives. So it was - so must it always be. With my remaining strength, I repeated the words of the song and fumbled for the talisman - and my fingers clutched at a broken leather thong.
 
It must have snapped off when I crawled under the overhanging rock. I lay immobile, a dark red haze closing in around me. The bone talisman that had hung around my neck since childhood, my payment for entry into the spirit world. Lost - and my soul lost with it! 

I opened my mouth in a last silent scream as the redness turned to airless black.

The strangers mill around at the bottom of the shaft, shivering in the damp atmosphere, peering into the tunnels through the bars - bars made of a material harder than the toughest flint. They raise their black boxes and silver slabs that flash, and make pictures of each other. Do they ever catch sight of me, I wonder, as I see them?

There is a sorcery to these people that makes me uneasy, although I have watched many of them over the years as I hunted for my talisman. Why do they need to make these light-pictures, when they can already see what they look like? Or even hold their slabs out on long sticks to make images of themselves? I would laugh, were it not for the burning pain that consumes me. These people can leave whenever they wish, but I must remain.

They finish making their pictures and start back up the ladder, but there is one who lingers. A fair-haired girl-child. When she is sure nobody is watching, she crouches down and reaches through the bars. She has spotted something, wedged underneath one of the roof-supports.

No… it cannot be… Great spirits, no! After all my centuries of searching!

I can make no sound but my whole body cries out to her: no, child! Do not take it! It is nothing to you - but, if it goes, I am lost for eternity!

But she does not hear. She puts the tiny bone into the pocket of her coat and turns to go up the ladder.

And a terrible thought comes into my mind. The flint knife still hangs from my belt. Or do I need a weapon? My hands are strong and sinewy - well able to wring a neck, or snap a windpipe.

It is taboo to kill - doubly so to kill a child. But what choice do I have? I come closer behind her, my fingers encircle her thin, twig-like throat…

And then it is as if she does sense something. She pauses, her foot on the bottom rung. A voice calls from somewhere high above: "Stacey? Stacey!"

Is that the child's name? I try to concentrate my thoughts on her: Stacey? I know not if you can hear or understand me. But that bone is mine. I must have it.

The voice calls again: louder - angry now. The child turns back to the ladder and begins to climb. In desperation, I grasp at the knife. My talisman - my soul…

And suddenly she stops, and reaches into her pocket. She pulls out the bone and, for a moment, turns it over in her hands. Then she lets it fall to the earthen floor.

I scoop it up. For a moment, my mind is in a haze. Reward, I think… I must reward her somehow.

In the pouch at my side is a stone amulet of a deer, our tribal totem. My father carved it for me when I was born, but now I have no more use for it. As the surroundings dim around me, I drop it at her feet. 

The last sight I see is the child stooping to take it up, with a look of wonderment.

"Where've you been?" Mum demanded, as Stacey reached the top of the ladder. "Just wanted a last look round," Stacey said, ignoring the faces her brother was making.

In her pocket, she fingered the strange little carving that she had picked up. She knew finds ought to be handed over to the archaeologists for study. But this wasn't a find - not really. It was something else.

A gift.

Discover the site that inspired Gerry: Grime's Graves Prehistoric Flint Mine, Norfolk

End of Days by Peter Malin, set at Hurst Castle

Hurst-Castle-entrance-1
It was the strangest of days. A hazy, ochre light filled the air, as if the New Forest's October leaves had squeezed all their yellows and golds into a sickly infusion. As the little ferry chugged steadily across the marina, weaving smoothly through the stilled yachts, it was possible to look directly at the sun, reduced by the day's sulphurous veil to a bright copper disc.

For once, nobody spoke. Mary, usually so full of good cheer, looked as if she'd just received sad news. Even Kieron, the ferryman, seemed subdued, his attention focused on the squat outline of Hurst Castle ahead of them, flattened like an enormous crab on its raised promontory. Jack found the silence unnerving, but didn't want to be the one to break it.
 
The morning's news had been full of speculation about the unusual atmospheric conditions, which had dimmed daylight and shrunk the spectrum to this eerie yellow filter. The internet was rife with end-of-days scenarios, substituting superstition for science. As they approached the castle, Jack felt increasingly anxious. He remembered the first time he'd come here, just after the war. He and his Aunt Emily had tramped along the spit from Milford on Sea, crunching the shingle into irregular hollows.

The castle was still occupied then, by a skeleton staff who kept it ticking over for a remobilisation that never materialised. As a local girl, Emily had performed here with Betty Hockey's troupe of Nonstops, whose high-kicking routines had spiced up the wartime variety shows at the Garrison Theatre. Jack still had the framed sepia photograph of her, smiling at the theatre door. She wasn't really his aunt; a city boy, he'd been evacuated to the New Forest to live with her family. They were all dead now; and he was old.
 
When the boat had moored at the wooden jetty, Jack let the others get off first, Mary with her bunch of rusty keys, ready to unlock the castle for the day's visitors. None of them spoke; all seemed weighed down by the dreary light, curdling now into a syrupy gloom like the prelude to an eclipse. Perhaps the doomsayers were right after all.

Stepping on to the sallow turf, Jack felt uneasy; he was relieved, though, that at least he hadn't been coughing this morning. It was Emily, he recalled, who'd given him his first cigarette. "See you later," he said to Kieron, and added, "Strange day." The ferryman barely glanced at him as he cast off and brought the boat round to return to Keyhaven. Jack loved this name: the place where the keys to the castle were cherished and kept safe.
 
When Jack retired, he'd moved back to Milford and offered his services as a volunteer at the castle. As resident handyman, he soon established himself as an indispensable part of the team. He steeped himself in the Castle's characters and stories, which he would happily embroider for the benefit of visiting children. He particularly relished tales of the theatre, such as the moonless night when his aunt and her companions were almost stranded at the castle after drinks in the officers' mess. They had to be carried out to their drifting boat by two or three soldiers in pitch darkness and thrown into it before it retreated on the receding tide.
 
As Jack passed through the dark gateway into the grass-hummocked courtyard, he thought he heard voices whispering his name. This was not unusual; for ages now he had felt in tune with the spirits of those who had lived and died here. He began his day, as always, on the roof of Henry VIII's circular fort, breathing in the spectacular view. Today, though, it was unearthly and disturbing under the sky's thickening yellow, and he felt suddenly afraid. The castle's Victorian extensions stretched out each way along the promontory, enclosing the bleak salt-marshes in the crab's reaching pincers.

A little way along the shingle spit, a couple laboured towards the castle with a small child. The Isle of Wight was a formless haze, penetrated only by the regular blink of the Needles light. The upper air, turbulent now, twisted jaundiced leaves from far inland into a spinning vortex, shrill with the voices of the castle's dead. And from the Garrison Theatre's scooped-out cave of an auditorium, tucked away in the Victorian red-brick west wing, Jack could hear the sound of cheerful music and raucous laughter reverberating through the dense air.
 
Assuming the castle's sound system had malfunctioned, Jack hurried down the spiralling stone steps back towards the theatre. This was where his aunt and her troupe had joked, sung and danced away the war, one night at a time, for hundreds of servicemen with no expectation of living longer than a few weeks. He could smell the acrid tang of packed bodies, the fug of cigarette smoke and stale beer, and as a thrill of fear trembled through his body, the air's nicotine-stained fingers closed around him.

He was distracted by the arrival of the day's first visitors, the family he'd seen negotiating the shingle bank. This, surely, would restore normality; he would entertain them with some of the castle's livelier stories, like the Nonstops and their vanishing boat. The little girl ran towards him across the tussocky grass, as if she sensed he had tales to tell. He knew she was going to trip even before she went flying and sprawled headlong in front of him. He braced himself to catch her but, to his horror, she tumbled straight through him, as if she were merely an insubstantial projection of the sulphurous light.

The music rose into a head-spinning cacophony. The girl started crying as her parents rushed towards her and lifted her gently to her feet. Jack turned away, cursing his stupidity, understanding everything: for him, it was the end of days. At the theatre entrance, suffused in sepia twilight, Aunt Emily gave him a welcoming smile. Relaxing, he smiled back.

Find out more about Hurst Castle, Hampshire.

Vote for your favourite

Now it's up to you to decide which of these terrific tales is the overall winner. The story which receives the most votes will be featured on the English Heritage blog in January, so if you have a favourite from among our shortlisted stories, make sure you vote for it*. Voting closes at midnight on Monday 1 January 2018. Good luck to all our shortlisted writers.

*Please note, only one vote will be counted per person.

 

Vote now
'step into englands story