Mark Haddon has written a ghost story inspired by York’s Cold War Bunker as part of a new collection for English Heritage. Chris Bond talked to the best-selling author.
For decades, York’s Cold War Bunker was part of a network of little-known underground shelters embedded up and down the country.
Dating from the 1960s it was designed as a nerve-centre to monitor fallout in the event of a nuclear attack.
The bunker was brought into active service a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States came perilously close to war over a Soviet missile launch site established in Cuba, just 90 miles from US shores.
Back then, the West was gripped by fear of nuclear conflict, with memories of the devastation wrought down on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just 15 years earlier still fresh in the memory.
In the event of a nuclear bomb being dropped, those working inside the bunker in York would have had the macabre job of providing vital information on the size and location of bombs – as well as staying inside the 3ft thick walls for 30 days before cautiously opening the blast-proof doors to ascertain what remained outside.
As it turned out Armageddon was averted and, after being officially stood down in 1991, York’s Cold War Bunker was one of only a few that weren’t demolished. It’s now open to the public who can walk around this chilling symbol of our recent past.
The bunker is one of English Heritage’s most recent acquisitions and is among eight of its sites that provide the inspiration for a new book – Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories – written by some of our best known authors.
It’s the first time the charity has commissioned new works of fiction, and proceeds from the book will go towards its conservation work.
The compilation includes stories set at Carlisle Castle and Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, and an essay on the tradition of the English ghost story by York-born author Andrew Martin.
Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent, and Jeannette Winterson, best known for her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, are among the contributors. So, too, is Mark Haddon whose 2003 book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time made him a household name and scooped a clutch of literary prizes, including the Whitbread Award, in the process.
A Cold War relic might seem an unusual setting for a ghost story so what was it that appealed to him? “I wrote about the Cold War Bunker because it leapt out at me when I was scrolling through the English heritage catalogue in search of a setting (and because Hadrian’s Wall had already been taken by Kate Clanchy).
“It’s unlike any other English Heritage property. It’s military, it’s industrial, it’s underground, it was in use during my own lifetime and you can’t walk round the place without thinking of the end of the world,” he says.
“I knew nothing about the bunker until I was asked to write the story. And what isn’t interesting about the place? It’s all too easy to switch off while getting the guided tour of a castle or a stately home. But everything in the bunker is fascinating – the history, the personal stories, the technology, the way it vividly conjures the drama of a nuclear attack.”
When Haddon first visited the bunker he wasn’t sure what to expect but after exploring its underground rooms and corridors he quickly realised it was an ideal setting for a ghost story.
“The York Cold War Bunker is a genuinely disturbing place, both physically and historically. It was built for an eventuality which would have destroyed large parts of Europe and America and destroyed civil society.
“Writing a story set in the bunker was a challenge. During a nuclear war, ghosts would be a long way down one’s list of worries. And, in my experience, if a story is easy to write it rarely turns out well.”
He says his spectral tale is not a conventional one. “I decided to write not about ghosts per se, but about a ghost world. My story is about a woman who finds herself slipping between universes. If I say anything more than that I may give too much away.”
As well as a best-selling author, Haddon is also a poet, cartoonist and abstract painter, and says writing a ghost story took him out of his comfort zone. “Paradoxically I rarely, if ever, read or enjoy ghost stories. But that was part of the attraction, to make myself interested in a genre that usually struck me as rather antiquated and artificial.”
While it’s only 70 years ago since the Cold War started – a heartbeat in historical terms – it’s a period that has been largely overlooked by a world changing at an ever increasing rate of knots.
It was part of the reason why English Heritage was keen to take charge of the York bunker, which reopened as a museum a decade ago.
Haddon, too, believes it’s important that this chapter of history does not slip off the radar. “If only visiting such places made us think or act or vote differently. Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be reminders enough, yet (President) Trump is playing chicken with North Korea and we’re all just keeping our fingers crossed.”
The collection of ghost stories is also a way of reminding people about some of our lesser known, but no less intriguing, historical sites.
“I presume that’s one of the motivations for English Heritage. My job is just to write as a good a story as I can.”
Perhaps it’s also an opportunity to revive the long-standing tradition of ghost stories. It’s a genre that has produced some of the most famous literary works ever written including Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Stephen King’s The Shining and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
But while crime fiction continues to dominate best-seller lists today, ghost stories are conspicuous by their absence.
So is there still an appetite amongst readers for such supernatural tales? “I think it’s obvious that there is no longer the same appetite for ghost stories on the page,” says Haddon.
“Go into any bookshop and hunt for them in vain. Perhaps we’re less superstitious than we once were, though I hesitate to say that we’re more enlightened (to quote Franny Armstrong, we seem to be living in The Age of Stupid).
“If anything, ghost stories have simply shifted from the page to the screen where they are as popular as they ever were on paper. Perhaps when film gets tired of them they will be sent back to haunt novels again...”
Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories published by September publishing is out now.
Mark Haddon is taking part in An Evening of Ghost Stories at York Cold War Bunker tomorrow evening, from 6pm-9pm. Tickets cost £36 and include a copy of the book, refreshments, a reading from Mark as well as an audience Q&A, followed by a tour of the site. For tickets call 0370 333 1183.
Bringing history back to life
English Heritage is responsible for over 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites – from medieval castles to a Cold War bunker. Many of the historic sites in English Heritage’s care have already inspired great works of literature.
The Gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey provided the unforgettable backdrop to the arrival of Dracula in England in Bram Stoker’s novel (Stoker refers to the legend of a white lady, said to be seen in one of the abbey’s windows).
Thomas Hardy famously set the climax of Tess of the D’Urbervilles at Stonehenge.
More recently, George RR Martin has said that the huge ice wall in Game of Thrones was inspired by a visit to Hadrian’s Wall.
For more information log on to www.english-heritage.org.uk