The Longest Night: Ghost stories, Booker-shortlisted writers & mince pies

Susie Stubbs

Jenn Ashworth, Emma Jane Unsworth and friends go DIY with their latest, limited edition anthology.

Friday the thirteenth is unlucky for some. But not, we hope, for a group of five authors who have chosen Friday 13 December as the launch date for their latest book. Said book is an anthology of winter-tinged ghost stories, and its title – The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales – feels entirely fitting, given that the authors have made what at first feels like a curious connection between Christmas and the supernatural.

“I’ve always liked ghost stories and Christmas, and the connection between the two,” argues Jenn Ashworth, one of the writers behind The Longest Night. “There’s a tradition of writers producing ghost stories and giving them to their friends as presents at this time of year, and Richard [Hirst] and I wanted to do something that recaptures that idea.” The title of the book also, of course, refers to the Winter Solstice, that longest night whose darkness we attempt to hold at bay with a mass of overenthusiastic Christmas lights, sparkle and glitter.

The short stories, all set in December and all featuring an element of the supernatural, have been written by an impressive set of writers. Ashworth has been lauded by the BBC’s Culture Show as one of its best new novelists, while her fellow contributors all hold various awards – including, in Alison Moore’s case, a place on the 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlist. What’s particularly intriguing about this book, however, is less the calibre of its writers and more their approach to producing what turns out to be a literary one off.

Short stories are like a drive-by glimpse of something potentially terrifying

“We thought it would be really nice to make something lo-fi, that was illustrated and presented as a limited-edition paperback; we just thought it would be something quite different,” says Ashworth of a collection that has been written, illustrated, produced, marketed and distributed entirely by its authors. “We wanted to create a beautiful object, in a day and age when everything is more electronic,” agrees fellow contributor, Emma Jane Unsworth. The end result is a handsomely produced anthology that feels almost handmade – each book features bespoke illustration and is individually numbered and signed, “and when they’ve run out, that’s it, there are no more,” adds Ashworth.  That original idea of a story performed to friends on a winter’s night also means that, alongside the book itself, there is a tour. “The stories are like an antidote to the cosy glitter of Christmas, whereas the tour is quite jolly, with mulled wine, mince pies and a bit of atmosphere,” says Unsworth of a series of live readings at libraries across the north. “It’s good fun, this band of travelling writers going on tour; we’re like the Traveling Wilburys only a bit more gothic.”

Yet it’s the gothic, that sense of menace darkly blooming in the long hours of a winter’s night, which really makes this anthology worth tracking down. “I’ve always loved horror films – and I think a lot of people like the idea of there being something magical beyond the everyday,” says Unsworth. “It’s an inspiring idea for a writer and it gives you so much more scope for storytelling. Filmmakers have a bag of tricks they can use – sound effects, visual effects, motifs – but as a writer you only have words on a page. I haven’t been as scared by a book as I have a film, but the ideas I’ve read have preyed on my mind much more.” Unsworth pauses for a moment, then says: “Short stories are like a drive-by glimpse of something potentially terrifying – that sense of something much, much bigger is the thing that stays with you.”

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