The following story is true. It is my own experience of living in a haunted house and if, when you have read it, you are still sceptical about the existence of ghosts, I will be very surprised.
All I have done is to change the names of the house and the other people involved, to protect their privacy, although the armchair detectives among you would not have too much difficulty establishing the real names!
In 1989, my then wife and I went house hunting. We fell in love with a stunning Georgian manor house on the edge of a Sussex hamlet. It had a long history—before being a manor house in the middle ages it had been a monastery, and prior to that there had been a Roman villa in the grounds, part of which, a Roman fish keep, was still there, largely intact.
During our time there, archaeological students spent two years doing a dig to discover the remains of the villa—much to my wife, Geraldine’s dismay, as it meant they dug up an area of a very fine lawn, and without success. However, after we sold the house in 1999, the next owners dug foundations for a new garage at the top of the long drive, and unearthed, by accident, the ruins. Their building work was then delayed for two years by a court order, to allow excavations to take place.
‘You'll like this house, with what you write,’ the owner told me, mischievously, on our first viewing after my first two supernatural thrillers were published. 'We have three ghosts.’
It turned out he was fibbing—the house, we were to discover later, actually had four! The first one manifested while we were in the process of moving in. I was standing in the front porch, on a beautiful spring morning, with my mother-in-law, Evelyn, a very down-to-earth lady, who was a senior magistrate. But she had a 'fey' side to her – in that she was very open minded about the paranormal, and always had a particular recurring, frightening dream whenever someone she knew was about to die. She had told me about this and had come to accept it, without ever being able to come up with a rational explanation beyond, perhaps, telepathy.
In court she was a formidable, doughty lady, who acquired the soubriquet—which she greatly enjoyed—of The Hanging Magistrate of Hove, but she was also an enthusiastic reader, totally unshockable, and hugely intelligent, someone with whom I could converse on any topic from aliens, to ancient Egypt, to modern politics.
From the front door where we were standing, there was a long, narrow corridor which ran almost the width of the house, through to an oak-panelled atrium, with four Doric columns, which led through into the kitchen. This atrium was all that remained of the monastery which had originally been on the site, and you could still see the arches where the altar had been.
As we stepped aside to let the removals men leave the house to fetch another item, I suddenly saw a shadow, like the flit of a bird across a fanlight, in the interior of the house.
'Did you see that?' she asked, with a knowing look.
Despite the warmth of the sunlight, I felt a sudden chill.
I knew at that moment she had seen something uncanny. But I did not want to spook my wife on our very first day in this house. Geraldine and I were both townies, and this was our first move into the countryside. She was already apprehensive about the isolation of the property. The last thing I needed was for her to be unnecessarily scared by a ghost! So I shook my head and told Evelyn I had not seen anything. But in truth, I was feeling a little spooked by this.
Our first night was uneventful, and our Hungarian sheepdog, Boris, had been very happy and calm. I’d been told that dogs would often pick up on any supernatural occurrence way before their owners, so I took this a good sign.
In the morning, Geraldine left for work at 8:00 a.m. After breakfast, I went to my study to resume work. Around 10:30 a.m., I went downstairs to make a cup of coffee. As I entered the atrium, on my way through to the kitchen, I saw tiny pinpricks of white light all around me. My immediate reaction was that it was sunlight, coming through the window in the far wall, reflecting off my glasses. I took them off, put them back on, and the pinpricks of light had gone.
I returned to my study, but when I went downstairs to make myself some lunch, the same thing happened again. And again after removing my glasses and putting them back on again, the pinpricks had gone. But I was left with a slightly uneasy feeling. In the afternoon, when I went downstairs to make a mug of tea, it happened again.
I said nothing to Geraldine when she arrived home that evening, and she did not see anything.
The next day around mid-morning, when I was alone in the house, I saw the pinpricks again, and at lunchtime. After lunch, I took Boris for a walk. We’d only gone a short distance along the lane when an elderly man came up to me, introducing himself as Harry Stotting, a neighbour in the hamlet. ‘You are Mr James, aren’t you?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I am,’ I replied.
‘You've just moved into the Manor?’
‘Two days ago.’
‘How are you getting on with your grey lady?’ he said, with a strange, quizzical look that immediately unsettled me.
‘What grey lady?’ I asked.
‘I was the house sitter for the previous owners. In winter, they used the atrium as a ‘snug’ because, adjoining the kitchen, it was always warm from the Aga [stove]. Six years ago, I was sitting in the snug, watching television, when a sinister looking woman, her face grey, and wearing a grey, silk crinoline dress, materialized out of the altar wall, swept across the room, gave me a malevolent stare, gave my face a flick with her dress, and vanished into the panelling behind me. I was out of there thirty seconds later, and went back in the morning to collect my things. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back in there again!’
I was struck both by the sincerity of the man, and his genuine fear, which I could see in his eyes as he told me the story. It truly made the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
I returned to the house after our walk, feeling very uncomfortable. I even wimped out of going through the atrium into the kitchen to make my afternoon cuppa! But when Geraldine came home in the evening, I said nothing—I suppose I did not want to believe it myself, and she was still extremely nervous about living in such an isolated house. One of the things you realize when you move into the depths of the countryside after living in an urban environment is the sheer darkness of the nights. In a city, it is never truly dark, ever, there is always an ambient glow from the street lighting. But on a cloudy or moonless country night, it is totally pitch back. I had tried to convince Geraldine that for a potential intruder, total darkness was less favorable than ambient light, so we were safer. But she did not buy that.
The following Sunday, we had invited Geraldine’s parents to lunch. Whilst she was occupied putting the finishing touches to the meal, I took her mother, Evelyn, aside and asked her what exactly she had seen that day we were moving in.
She described a woman, with a grey face, dressed in grey silk crinoline, moving across the atrium—exactly what the old man, Harry Stotting, had described to me.
I was stunned—and very spooked. Later, after her parents had left, I decided I had to tell Geraldine. She took it in the pragmatic way she had of dealing with most difficult issues in life. ‘You’ve met several mediums in your research—why don’t you ask one of them to come in and see what they find?’
A few days later, a medium who had helped me a lot during my writing of Possession came to the house, and I took her into the atrium, and left her on her own, as she had requested.
An hour later, she came up to my study, and yet again, described exactly this woman in grey silk crinoline. She explained the pinpricks of light I kept seeing by telling me I was slightly psychic, so while I was not actually seeing the entire apparition, I was picking up some of its energy—hence the pinpricks of light.
I asked her if there was anything I could do about this, and she told me that the apparition was of a deeply disturbed former resident of the house, and that it needed a clergyman to deal with it.
I felt a tad cynical about her response—but at the same time, I was now feeling deeply uncomfortable in what should have been the sanctuary of my own home. But there was a vicar I knew who I thought would be able to help, and with whom I had become good friends.
At the time he was officially the Vicar of Brighton—but with another hat, he was also, officially, the Chief Exorcist of the Church Of England. That wasn’t his actual title, which was the less flaky-sounding Minister Of Deliverance. A former monk, the son of two medics, an Oxford double first in Psychology, he was as far from Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin in The Exorcist as you could get. He is delightful human being, with whom I had become good friends, and still am to this day. He is a modern thinker, a clergyman who has a problem with the biblical concepts of God, yet still retains an infectious faith. His views, for instance, on the Ouija board are that far from putting its participants in touch with the spiritual world, it actually opens up a Pandora’s Box of their own inner demons.
Even so, I was a little surprised when he cheerfully entered the atrium, stood still for a couple of minutes, and then loudly and very firmly enunciated, into thin air, ‘You may go now!’
He turned to me and said, ‘You should be fine now.’
The above story was only one of the spooky occurrences we had in this otherwise glorious house. The second happened the first weekend we spent there. It was on the Sunday morning and I said hello to our nearest neighbours, who lived in what had, in former days, been the Manor’s coach house. ‘I just want to ask you,’ the cheery elderly occupant asked, ‘Because my wife and I are very curious. Do you have any one staying with a young baby this weekend?’
‘No,’ I told him.
‘Ah, must be your ghost again,’ he said, very matter-of-factly.
It turned out that he, and other neighbours across the narrow lane outside the house would regularly hear a baby crying. We learned that in the 1920s the drawing room floor had been dug up, because of damp and dry rot and the skeleton of a baby had been discovered – either stillborn, or murdered, possibly by a servant girl, way back in time.
In the grounds was a very narrow lake, a quarter of a mile long. On the far side was a public footpath. During the decade we lived in the house, several residents of the hamlet, and of surrounding villages told us how they had been chased off the footpath at dusk by a Roman Centurion! To me, this was the least credible of the stories. But in many ways, one of the most credible was the day I was collared by another of my neighbours.
The Manor used to own many hundreds of surrounding acres. Over time the land was sold off in parcels. Several houses had been built in the 1930s and 1950s along the far side of the lake. One day, I was walking Boris along past them, when the owner of one, a very down to earth man in his forties, the works manager of the company that manufactured Filofaxes came over to me and said, ‘I wish you would keep your bloody ghosts under control!’
He then told me, ‘Last Sunday, we held a Christening party for my grandson here. At 4:00 p.m., all the guests had gone, and I went and sat in the conservatory to read the Sunday Times. Suddenly, the room turned icy, and I shivered. I looked up and saw a monk, in a cowled hood staring down at me. I thought at first it was one of my relatives playing a prank on me. I stood up and followed it into the kitchen. But he had vanished. The only person in there was my wife, doing the washing up. There is no door out of the kitchen. She had not seen or heard anything.’
There was another dramatically spooky thing that happened during our time there: A thick paperback novel of mine lay on a beautiful antique wooden chest which we kept in the atrium. I always put my latest book there for visitors to see. On this particular sunny morning, I was having breakfast, around 7:45 a.m., while Geraldine was upstairs getting ready for work. Suddenly she called down, ‘I can smell burning!’
I suddenly realized that I could, too. I turned around, and to my amazement, the copy of Host, on top of the wooden chest, was on fire!
I rushed over, grabbed the book, ran to the kitchen sink and threw it in, then turned the taps on, to extinguish the flames.
In this case, there was, of course, a perfectly prosaic explanation: Close to the book, on the chest, was a round glass paperweight. The hot June morning sun rays had been refracted through it, much the same way that as kids, we used to set fire to things by letting the sun’s rays refract though a magnifying glass. But… the fact this had happened in this room which had had the apparition in added a sinister dimension.
At the front of the house were two sets of bay windows, classic Georgian. One was in our spare room, which we called the Blue Room, where we often put up guests, and and all the time we lived there, I never felt comfortable entering it. Whenever we went away, we employed a house sitter. On each occasion, when we returned home the house sitter would have moved out of this room, giving a lame excuse about not liking the colour, or the morning sun, and slept somewhere else in the house.
I should add something of the house’s history. For much of the 20th Century, it was owned by the Stobart family, the most famous member of which, Tom Stobart OBE was a photographer, zoologist and author. A true adventurer, he was the cameraman who climbed Everest with Hunt and Hillary and took the photos of their ascent, subsequently was shot in the knee in Ethiopia, and tragically died far too young from a heart attack at the local railway station, Hassocks. One member of his family was, reputedly, a very strange lady, who subjected Tom’s sister, Anne, to such cruelty as a child that Anne was never able to live a normal life or form normal relationships. We befriended Anne in the years before she died from a stroke, and she told us that, when she was a child, this relative used to strap her hands to the side of the bed to prevent her, should she be tempted, from touching herself.
Was this the angry grey lady in the atrium?
During the Second World War, the house was used to billet Canadian soldiers. After the War, during the second half of the Twentieth Century, three couples bought it—and subsequently divorced. We were the third. Was the miserable grey lady in any way responsible?
I will always wonder.
© 2013 Peter James/Really Scary Books Ltd
Peter James is an international best-selling author, creator of the long-running series of crime novels featuring Detectice Superintendant Roy Grace as well as many supernatural thrillers. He now lives in an, as yet, unhaunted converted cinema.