I believe in ghosts. I know its not a popular viewpoint among more rational members of society, but forgive me, I am a product of my upbringing. Like most fishing families in Hull, mine were steeped in superstition and held a casual credulity for the supernatural. Added to this, a friend of my mother’s was a medium and she would talk to unseen spirits whilst she was getting her hair done in our back kitchen. So I grew up with the idea that there was an unseen world happening alongside ours. It never seemed all that unusual or far-fetched to me. I’ve always thought that if you could imagine something then that made it real enough. I suppose, like most people, I try to have an open mind on most things.
I’ve never seen a ghost, although I have sometimes caught strange shapes and movements in the corner of my eye or heard odd noises where there should be none. All very normal, I suppose. The mind can play tricks, especially if you leave it wide open to suggestion. But it remains a subject that fascinates me. So I suppose it was inevitable that at some point I would try my hand at a ghost story.
The idea for “Kingdom” was borne out of illness. For most of my adult life I had not been able to breathe properly on a night, especially during the winter months. The slightest bout of the sniffles would result in a mushy head, a bed full of dampened tissues and hours of broken sleep. Sudafed would provide some brief respite, but too much of that stuff can wire you up tighter than a tour of duty in Vietnam, so I tried to keep the medicine to a minimum. Damp November nights would have me tossing and turning and trumpeting like a wounded bull elephant. No fun whatsoever.
I struggled for years with this nonsense until fatigue finally forced me to the doctors. My GP is a pragmatic fellow with a rash of bad art adorning his walls; horrific portraits of mangled faces, all hard angles and garish colours. He tells me they’re hung there to dissuade persistent malingerers. And they are truly horrible. Even the hardiest of hypochondriacs would have their stomach turned by this gallery of broken-faced ghouls. It is for this reason, among others, that I try and keep my visits there to a minimum.
But desperation drove me to his door, where he told me that I had a deviated septum. It was so deviated that I only had one functioning nostril. This was why a simple seasonal cold would reduce me to a spluttering, gasping heap. I was firing on one single barrel. So I was sent to the hospital where they put me to sleep and smashed and then re-set my septum.
Upon waking from the operation I found myself in that strange, woozy, half-awake state of existence peculiar to the after-effects of a general anaesthetic. From where I was laid I could see a sign swimming in and out of focus: NOW WASH YOUR HANDS. My brain struggled to compute this. Wash my hands? Why did I need to wash my hands? And why NOW?
I got off the trolley and took a few tentative steps towards the wall where the notice was displayed and caught sight of myself in the reflection of a window. The sickly grey pallor, the flowing white robes. I felt like I was floating.
I stood staring at myself, dumbfounded, for what seemed like an age, not knowing what to think or do, until a passing nurse took me by the arm and guided me back to my repose. I fell back to sleep and dreamt of ghosts and long white corridors.
After the post-op rest and recuperation I found that I could inhale and exhale freely through both nostrils. This was a revelation to me. All of my life I had become accustomed to impaired breathing and now, as I walked home from the pub one icy dark night, I found I could pull the world in and out, in and out, clean fresh air flooding in and out. Unbelievable! Glorious! I imagined it must have been fairly similar for a short-sighted person, putting on glasses for the very first time, being able to see tiles on rooftops and distant landmarks. After years of nocturnal gasping and snuffling, I could finally breath properly. I loved this newfound sensation. I was ecstatic, drunk on fresh air.
The book got properly into gear after another medical occasion, this time a visit to the dentist. The dentist I use is near a street of derelict houses. I parked my car up near these steel-shuttered boxes and mused on the likelihood of homeless people setting up camp there. It was the depths of winter, January or early February, remorseless biting cold. I thought about a person setting a fire in a room, and all the problems associated with that. Then I thought about a man not lighting a fire, and dying in the cold in such a place, like in the story by Jack London. I started writing a story about a man waking up in a derelict house. At this stage I didn’t know who he was or why he was there.
A few days later, the words “My name is Alistair Kingdom and I was born a ghost” arrived in my head. Of course, a ghost is an irresistible narrator, because he is potentially a witness to everything. A ghost can drift in and out of the action unchallenged and nothing is hidden or censored. I started writing the story anew.
I’d recently written a thing about a blind girl, written it in the second person with a heavy reliance on smell and listening and the sense of touch. When I started writing from the viewpoint of Alistair Kingdom, I decided to stick to visuals. If this guy was a ghost, then he couldn’t interfere or interact. There was to be no sensory perception in the narrative, save for sight. This ended up as part one of the five parts of the book.
Around three or four weeks into messing about with this, I drifted onto Facebook and found a video of a band called Wilco doing a song called “Handshake Drugs” live on the Letterman Show. I’d never heard of this band before, but I loved the song. I looked up the album. It was called “A Ghost Is Born”.
I took that as a signal and got down to the proper graft of writing. A year and a half later the book was finished and now it’s a real thing existing in the real world. It’s an odd book, but I think it’s a good one. I hope you like it.