Ghost stories from Ghent


On the cusp of Halloween, British author Helen Grant tells us why she chose Ghent as the setting for the second part of her unsettling trilogy

Ghent and its landmarks offer a suitably demonic setting for new book

Author Helen Grant’s first visit to Ghent only lasted a few hours, but it was enough. “I fell in love with the city, so much so that I rather rashly said I would set a book there,” she recalls. The result of that encounter, The Demons of Ghent, is due to be published next year.

Grant writes mysteries, crime thrillers with young protagonists that travel the borderline between human intrigue and the supernatural. She is inspired by folklore and history, both of which are very close the surface in Ghent. “It has that sense of the overlay of different centuries,” she says. “If you look from the Gravensteen across the city you can still see the three towers of Sint-Baafs, Sint-Niklaas and the Belfort, the same as you would have in the middle ages. And that is amazing.”

The chief inspiration for The Demons of Ghent came from the altarpiece in Sint-Baafs cathedral, known as the Lamb of God. “There are things about it that are quite spooky,” Grant says. First of all there is the eerie sharpness of the painting. Then there is the central panel, in which crowds gather round a lamb on an altar, a neat fountain of blood gushing from its neck. Yet not everyone in the painting is focused on this holy scene. “One of the bishops, but only one, is looking out, straight at the viewer,” Grant says. “I found that quite chilling.”

Researching the history of the altarpiece produced further intriguing details. The work was started by Hubert van Eyck but finished by his brother Jan. So little is known about Hubert that some people wonder if he existed at all. Then there is the story that, when Hubert died, his arm was cut off and placed in a casket over the main door of the cathedral. “You have to think: Why would anyone do that? He’s not a saint. He’s a painter.”

Haunting homework

Grant wove these symbols, historical facts and traditions into a suitably sinister (and entirely fictional) back-story, then started to think about how it might play out in present-day Ghent. This meant returning to experience more of the city at first hand. 

One of the bishops is looking out, straight at the viewer. I found that quite chilling

- Helen Grant

“That is really critical to me, because I want to know that, if the characters in the book have a certain feeling about a place, then it’s authentic,” she says. Various practicalities also need to be worked out. “I did a lot of walking around the streets as well, to get a feeling for where you would go if you were running away from somebody.”

Aside from her young protagonists, Sint-Baafs emerged as the star of the book. “Some places almost vibrate with atmosphere in a way that others don’t, and that cathedral really spoke to me.” Sint-Niklaas church has a smaller role, but Grant is particularly fond of a sculpture on its altar that shows the saint with three children he has just raised from the dead. “I love gruesome stories like that.”

The other essential location is the Gravensteen, the city’s castle. “There is something quite impressive about the fact that even nowadays it would be extremely difficult to break into or out of,” Grant says.

She was also drawn to its museum of torture. “They have a guillotine and various other torture instruments, like a rack and thumbscrews, but one of the nastiest things just seems to be a bed. You instantly start thinking: What did they do to people when they were tied to that? Your imagination runs riot because, out of all the things in the room, that’s the one that looks relatively innocent.”

Urban legends

The Demons of Ghent is the second part of a trilogy that begins with Silent Saturday, published earlier this year. This is set in and around Tervuren, just outside Brussels in Flemish Brabant, where Grant lived for several years. Here the spooky atmosphere comes from more modern locations, such as opulent villas left empty by wealthy expats, which represent a temptation for adventurous teenagers and the more dedicated urban explorers who appear throughout the series.

“Some of these urban sites are incredibly spooky, if you look at something like a modern hospital or a modern factory, where everything is so dusty and dirty and broken and derelict. It doesn’t need to be hundreds of years old.”

These more modern elements will also feature in the third volume, Urban Legends. As the name suggests, Grant plans to draw on more recent folklore for this book, and has been particularly inspired by a book of Flemish urban legends collected by Stefaan Top, a professor at the University of Leuven.

“This is some of the most chilling stuff I’ve read,” she says. “Stories about people who pick up strangers on the way back from the cinema at Kinepolis, or gangs attacking people in stations, people disappearing in the toilets at South Station in Brussels...”