With the nights drawing in and Halloween fast approaching, this is a time for ghost stories.
And there is surely no better ghost story than the legend of Borley Rectory…
Have you ever seen a ghost? Photographed by hundreds, sensed by thousands, ghosts are the most prominent paranormal belief in the world.
But where is the proof that would point to a world beyond this life? Can we ever possess reasonable grounds to believe in an afterlife?
These are the questions posed by Harry Price, the protagonist of my debut novel, The Ghost Hunters. The setting? Borley Rectory, a Victorian mansion that gained fame as “the most haunted house in England.”
Built 150 years ago, the Rectory was destroyed by a controversial fire in 1939, and its ruins torn down in 1944.
Since the first brick was laid, Borley Rectory was the scene of many unusual happenings, including sightings of the apparition of a lonely nun. In 1929 the reports reached a crescendo and the Daily Mirror called in ghost hunter extraordinaire, Harry Price.
But who was this man who had promised a grieving nation that he would lift the veil that separated this world from the next?
Three years ago, I visited the Harry Price Magical Library at the University of London, Senate House, where shadows stalk the dusty stacks and secrets linger. This collection is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, complete with rare and ancient volumes on the arts of magic and summoning ghosts.
I wanted to read Price’s many investigations, his letters and articles. I wanted to explore the many aspects of this fascinating character and discover what set him on his path of investigation into the unknown? But the more I read, the more I discovered about Price’s private life and his curious, contradictory beliefs, which oscillated between scepticism and belief. And the more intrigued I became.
I’m not sure anyone could claim to have known the true man behind the façade that Harry Price presented to the media, his followers and his critics. Harry was a businessman. A salesman. He was also a conjuror (and member of the Inner Magic Circle), skilled photographer, engineer, writer, journalist and bibliophile. He was very defensive about his working-class origins, and constantly sought academic recognition. He craved fame and publicity. But he was also brilliant and ambitious; selfish and unreliable; elusive but charming. The perfect subject, I decided, for an historical novel complete with thills and chills!
The generation that created the Borley Rectory legend could probably never have imagined that seventy yearslater we would still be talking about rambling old house, where candlesticks were hurled across rooms, witnesses turned out of bed, and mystery writing appeared on the walls. But here we are. The famous gates to that place are about to be re-opened. What’s interesting to me, isn’t what the story tells us about spirituality and life after death, but rather, what it tellsus about the living and the era they inhabited. The characters at Borley, the people who interacted with Harry Price at his Laboratory, were part of grieving nation – in some ways a desperate nation – that needed something to believe in after the atrocities of the First World War. It was an era choked with grief and longing for hope. And there is no case that better highlights the essence of the age than Borley Rectory.
The Ghost Hunters is published by Quercus available now: Order your copy here.