This summer, in situ: presents a further variation in our series of supernatural tales set in the haunting atmosphere of Cambridge’s medieval Leper Chapel. 

Ghost Stories III comprises The Signal Man by Charles Dickens and a retelling of Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen, the two interwoven with excerpts of The Dead from Homer’s Odyssey. 

Artistic Director Richard Spaul here tells us more about what to expect from another of his bewitching evenings.

Richard, this summer marks the eleventh year of your Ghost Stories series. Why do you think the series is so popular and compelling?

People like ghost stories. I liked them very much when I was a teenager and my interest has continued into later life. The genre has attracted some of the greatest writers in different eras. 

It’s also attracted mediocre writers – and one aspect of my development of this series of ghost stories over the years has been my trawling through a lot of average, predictable stuff in search of the real jewels. 

I think the ‘showcasing’ of ghost story treasures is one of the things that has made this series of tales very popular with my audiences. I only ever perform really good writing from really good writers and I take a lot of care over that – no ghostly wolfhounds or headless coachmen! The works I present use the ghost story format to talk about marginalised people and repressed feelings and needs. I think audiences quite rightly find that approach very compelling. 

Something that many people comment on is that the solo performance format I use is theatre in its simplest form. It’s just me on a chair with the audience very close. There aren’t ‘effects’, there’s no spectacle, it’s not ‘streamed’, it involves no additional resources. It’s really happening now, at very close quarters. 

The performance is the performer and the listening audience. We ‘make’ the performance together. I do so by my performance energy and the audience does so by the quality of their attention. It’s a rare thing and it has a lot of power.

Ghost Stories III includes complete tales and linking extracts from three important authors, woven together as a complete work. What’s behind your using this particular combination of texts? 

Dickens is one of the greatest writers of any country or age. But I’ve never done his work until now and it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to perform it. The Signal Man is one of his best short works – far better than the much-loved and over-performed Christmas Carol. The tale has the economy and clarity of myth as it tells of the troubles of a humble signalman, who sees a ghost which prefigures dreadful calamities on the railway line, but who does not know what to do to prevent disaster. That speaks loudly to many of us now.

I’ve performed a couple of Elizabeth Bowen’s works already and I do think that Demon Lover is her best tale ever. She is a great writer, whose ghost stories set in the London Blitz provide a fascinating twist to the genre. Demon Lover reworks an old legend: a woman swears she will be true to her lover for all eternity, but her lover is really a demon and bears her off to Hell. Bowen reimagines the old tale in 1943 bombed-out London, with terrifying consequences. 

The Dead, from Homer’s Odyssey, is the first ghost story in ancient western literature. Odysseus visits the entrance to Hades where he needs to speak to the ghost of Tiresias to learn his future. To this end he sacrifices sheep, but then the Dead are attracted by the smell of blood and start pouring out of Hades in their thousands. It’s Night of the Living Dead a few thousand years avant la lettre. Homer’s work recurs repeatedly during my performance to link the two other stories together. 

It’s very exciting to combine the incredibly ancient and the modern and to see how connected they all are. 

Finally, Richard, do you feel that being ‘safely frightened’ is a human need? If so, why?

M.R. James, the most famous ghost story writer of all, describes the genre as a ‘pleasing terror’, which is very true. 

And in this way, witnessing a performance of ghost stories is a rehearsal for life. We the audience can encounter tragedy, fear, difficulties, loss, moral complications and a whole range of human experiences in a safe environment, because it’s not actually happening to us. 

So we can approach and explore problematic, sad, frightening things in life, without being engulfed by them – and that prepares us for different realities. Being ‘safely frightened’ – as I hope is the effect I’ve achieved in Ghost Stories III – is a crucial part of that. 

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