Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: The ghost in the machine

This week, Futures enters the sinister world of Anna Novitzky, in the shape of her story The ghost in the machine. There’s something in the library — and it’s not particularly pleasant … Anna is a professional pedant, but when she isn’t correcting people, she enjoys knitting, learning things, taking pictures of umbrellas and watching films. She also tweets occasionally. Here, she kindly reveals the origins of her tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The ghost in the machine

The ghost in the machine has its roots in the short stories of M. R. James. As an unabashed fan of both libraries and ghost stories, I’m inexorably drawn to James’s ominous vignettes of creeping dread in antiquarian settings. His work is chilling, but the endings are often unsatisfactory or anticlimactic, so I particularly love 1911’s Casting the runes, a classic tale of academic jealousy and occult intrigue in which, for once, the villain gets his comeuppance.

A couple of years ago, I jumped at the chance to attend a screening of the 1957 film adaptation Night of the Demon at the British Museum, the location of the original British Library Reading Room and a key scene in the short story. There, I began to think about how the surroundings had changed, first since the story was written and then since the adaptation was filmed — and yet how much of it was still recognizable. Working in scientific publishing myself, and with a partner in academia, it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to imagine a thwarted researcher putting a deadly curse on an unfavourable reviewer!

From there I started to wonder how the cut-throat occult academic of the future might plan their deranged revenge, and The ghost in the machine was born. The action moved across London to the current British Library on the Euston Road and I imagined a new technological platform for it, but I made sure that the villain would still get her comeuppance.


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