London Gothic. Photo: David Secombe, text: Andrew Martin (3/5)

Camberwell. © David Secombe 1988.

From Ghoul Britannia (2010) by Andrew Martin:


In a street of any length, there’s one of these: a vacant house, or one that changes hands too often, or not often enough; a house in shadow or being taken over by its own garden. There were a couple of these on my paper round when I was a boy. One had cracked windows, and a decaying Transit van parked immediately in front of the front door. Another had the curtains permanently closed and a front garden filled with rubble. I was encouraged by this rubble. I thought: ‘One day soon they’re going to use it to construct something marvellous like a pond with a fountain.’ But the rubble just remained. I never saw the occupants of either house and I didn’t want to. I found it hard to imagine them going into Ellis’s newsagents and paying for the papers I delivered to them. That would require a degree of normality incompatible with the state of their homes.

It didn’t take much for me to condemn a property; it didn’t have to be semi-derelict. For example, I wasn’t very keen on any of the house facing our own because they didn’t have the sun on them in the morning; and some of my friends’ houses just felt wrong inside. I am not going to broach the subject of psycho-geography because I find myself dying with exhaustion at the typing of the word, but it has been argued that houses with a reputation for being haunted occupy sites where ley lines intersect. Also blamed – and I like this – is carbon monoxide poisoning. This occurs where carbon combustion occurs with too little ventilation, and there’s quite a neat fit with ghostliness in that the symptoms can include anxiety and hallucinations. People burning wood or coal, or using coal-gas lighting in a shuttered room might be at risk, which connects the condition with Victorian winters – a fertile time for ghost stories.

When I first came to London I was amazed at the number of avoided houses. They constitued about fifteen percent of the total stock.

© Andrew Martin. Ghoul Britannia is published by Short Books.

See also: Halloween, The Haunted House.