‘There’s a theory I like that suggests why the nineteenth century is so rich in ghost stories and hauntings. Carbon-monoxide poisoning from gas lamps.’
The leaves are starting to turn. These autumn months are the perfect time for ghost stories. Seven years ago, Jeanette Winterson published her book Christmas Days, a delightful ghost-hug of a book, part memoir, part fiction and full of Christmas memories, recipes, and tales of phantoms. A few years, later her novel Frankissstein was stitched together: a play on Mary Shelley’s novel, exploring technology, gender, and AI. Her new book, Night Side of the River, appears to be the spectral child of both books, a collection of ghost stories interspersed with the author’s own experience of the unexplained, musings on the folklore of ghosts and the evolution of hauntings. It’s the book I’m taking with me on my walk today.
The title story begins with one of London’s oldest remaining riverside pubs, The Prospect of Whitby. I start near there, just a bit further along the river, winding east: Canary Wharf. With Winterson’s book in my rucksack, I leave the Elizabeth Line and haltingly work my way across the underground shopping malls and food courts that feed this part of the city. Google Maps can be tricky here, a bit like there’s a phantom in my phone, out of sorts thanks to the overbearing architecture. Once I’ve found myself, I step outside by the South Quay footbridge and walk over the water onto the Isle of Dogs. Historians aren’t sure how the Isle of Dogs got its name. Still, in 1853 Charles Dickens posed two possible explanations: one, that a man was murdered in the marshes and his dog refused to leave his side, barking painfully into the night; and another that kings and queens of old, including Henry VIII, used that piece of land to keep their dogs, so they could deer-hunt with them in nearby Greenwich Park.
I sit down on a bench along Millwall Dock. The first third of Winterson’s Night Side of the River fits in well with these surroundings, a mixture of the new and the ancient. This section of her book is called ‘Devices’ and is made up of ghost stories inspired by technology. The first tale, ‘App-arition’, follows a woman whose husband has recently died. Without consulting her, her sister buys her an app which mimics the husband’s voice, sending texts and making phone calls, using data collected from the cloud, so he echoes back to life. It’s supposed to be comforting; it’s supposed to ease her grief. At first, I was worried this was derivative of an episode of Black Mirror, but Winterson’s story takes a sharp turn when it poses the question: what happens when you don’t really want someone to return? What is it like when a person makes you feel small and ghostlike? How oppressive would it be if, after that person was gone, they were able to come back and do it all over again? The story impresses me, and I finish it with a shiver.
I leave the docks and walk across Mudchute Park and Farm, one of London’s city farms with fields of llamas and donkeys, and out by Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Built in 1902 to replace unreliable ferry services, the foot tunnel connects the north and south sides of the River Thames. Entering the glazed dome entrance, I take the lift down and walk under the river, trying not to think about the amount of water hovering just above my head. Emerging on the other side, I walk past the Cutty Sark and through the grounds of the University of Greenwich — with opera music tumbling out of the windows of the music department — down a street named after Samuel Pepys and into Greenwich Park. The Royal Observatory at the top of the hill boasts one of the best views in London, so I make the climb and pause there to have a cup of tea and read some more.
‘I don’t know if you have ever experienced a ghost sulking — it’s like a child trying to be quiet while doing everything to get your attention.’
The third story in Night Side of the River, ‘Ghost in the Machine’, is inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but, instead of an island, characters become stranded in the metaverse, lured there by spirits. In between these fictional tales, Winterson writes about her own experience of hauntings. From seeing her grandmother walk through a wall into the garden, to odd noises in her old London home, to her mother pretending she often saw tiny ghosts (because she was too ashamed to admit their house had mice). She also writes of her love for Gothic stories in general — stories always set in the past. ‘Ghosts prefer the past. That’s when they were alive.’ Something I’ve always loved about Winterson’s writing is her passion for storytelling itself. If you’ve ever seen her read, you’ll understand what I mean (and you can search online to find her festival performances if you haven’t). She’s always so animated when describing the importance of stories — stories like nets that can save us and ensnare us in equal measure. Night Side of the River is full of this passion, too.
With clouds gathering overhead, I pack my book away and continue across Greenwich Park in the direction of the Rose Garden. I fumble for my umbrella as the rain comes down, pausing to visit the plaque for Ignatius Sancho by Chesterfield Walk. An 18th-century man of letters, Ignatius Sancho was also a composer and abolitionist, and earlier this year I read Paterson Joseph’s wonderful novel The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, which I would thrust into the hands of everyone. He narrates the audiobook, too, which I would particularly recommend.
Crossing Charlton Way, my walk ends trudging over Blackheath to the station. On the train home, I’ll once again disappear behind Night Side of the River. The sun is setting, and in the distance, a murmuration of starlings is dancing, phantom-like, in the rain.
See a map of Jen’s walk, which is approximately four and a half miles, and takes about an hour and forty minutes.
Night Side of the River by Jeanette Winterson is out now.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.