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By the light of the moon - revised

by Grey 

Posted: 22 November 2004
Word Count: 1801
Summary: A man encounters a ghost by a secluded woodland pool, and becomes obsessed with his experience

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Since his divorce, James Richardson found that he needed a break from the frantic pace of his life, and the endless calls from friends and relatives asking him if he was all right. Their concern was touching, but what he really needed was to have some time away – to sort through his thoughts and feelings without interruption.

He took a leave of absence from his job, and rented a cottage near the village of Meadowhall, deep in the Wiltshire countryside. The cottage was situated roughly two miles outside of the village, and backed onto extensive woodlands, where James spent most of his time.

Walking in the deep woodlands was a simple joy that he had never experienced, spending most of his life in the city. James spent day after day exploring the hidden paths of his new environment, often until late in the evening.

Two weeks after his arrival at the cottage, he became lost in the network of paths, and made the journey back home much later than he had intended. It was already dark by the time he arrived at a clearing close to his home, containing a small pool overhung by a single weeping willow tree. A bright autumn moon hung in the sky, and the soft breeze moving through the trees had a crispness to it that he had not noticed a week ago.

The moonlight illuminated the clearing and the pool in a flat monochrome, accentuating the shadows cast by the willow tree surrounding the pool, and shimmering across its surface. At the edge of the water stood a young woman, crying softly into her hands. Her dark hair fell loosely around her shoulders and across the back of the light summer dress she wore.

The girl was translucent, only visible when bathed directly in moonlight. Her left side, partly caught in shadow, did not appear to exist. She turned and walked along the edge of the water, fading in and out of existence as she passed through the dancing shadows.

Her face was distinctive – she would have been beautiful, but for her bright blue eyes, which were a little too far apart, and a nose that was a little too large. The expression on her face was one of sadness and seemed utterly devoid of hope. James felt his heart ache for the girl.

It was then that she noticed him, or at least seemed to. Her eyes met James’s and he felt suddenly disoriented, as if suffering an attack of vertigo, his heart pounding in his chest and his head spinning. Her mouth opened and she appeared to speak, although the only sounds he heard were those of the woods. The silent words on her lips were unmistakable though - “Help me”

As the girl began to move towards him, James’s courage evaporated, and he fled back along the moonlit path, towards the sanctuary of his cottage.

It took a few minutes, and several shots of scotch, before he managed to steady his nerves and to examine the events of the evening.

There was no doubt in his mind – he had actually seen a ghost by the woodland pool, and the ghost appeared to have seen him. He cursed his cowardice – the fear having now being replaced by a burning curiosity. He promised himself he would find out more, and that he would return to the pool in the woods on the next moonlit night.

Finding out more about the ghostly woman the next day proved to be more difficult than James imagined. He had thought that a search of the Internet or a visit to the local library would have been sufficient to locate all of the background information he needed, but so far he had found nothing to suggest the identity of the woman.

There had been a reference to a death by the pool in the archives of the local newspaper, but it had been a young boy named Michael Flanagan, over 60 years ago.

Michael had been 8 years old when he had been evacuated to the countryside in 1939, at the start of the Second World War. He had been taken in by a family called the Williams, on the outskirts of the village, where he had stayed until he was found dead in the pool in the autumn of 1943, apparently due to massive head trauma.

The police questioned his guardian, Mr Richard Williams extensively at the time, but no charges were ever brought against him. Richard Williams was found beaten to death in his home in 1971, a rusty claw hammer lying beside him, apparently discarded by the killer. Again, no arrests were ever made in connection with the murder.

As these had been the only two murders in the village in over a century, and were both unsolved, they passed, after a fashion into local folklore, and most of the older residents spoke happily of them. Of the girl, however, no one seemed to know anything.

It was late in the afternoon that he managed to speak to the keeper of the parish records – a lady called Margaret Johnson, who seemed to take her job very seriously, and was reputed to know as much about the history of the area as anyone alive.

Mrs Johnson had seemed friendly enough when he arrived at St Andrews church late that afternoon. She was a large woman, in her mid fifties, who enthusiastically spoke of the history of the village and the surrounding area – all the while holding his gaze with her bright blue eyes. The lady seemed familiar to James somehow, despite his certainty that they had never met before.

However, her demeanour changed when James mentioned the pool in the woods.

“Places have memories, just like we do. When bad things happen, the place remembers. This village has its memories, both good and bad, but that pool – all it remembers is sorrow and pain for the things that have happened there. Don’t go stirring up the past. Some things should just stay forgotten.”

She had then made her excuses and ushered James from her office at the rear of the Church. Once outside, James had turned to thank her for her time, but was left facing the solid oak door as it closed behind him. From within came the sounds of the door being locked and bolted.

“Charming woman” he muttered to himself as he made his way out through the church graveyard.

There was one other way, he mused, to get the answers he needed. He would return to the woods that evening and prove to himself that he was not going mad.

The autumn sun was just beginning to set as James set off into the woods. He was excited, and more than a little scared, but, as he made his way through the darkening woodland, he resolved to see the experience through this time.

The evening was not as clear as the previous night, the moon being mostly hidden by clouds, although there were a few patches of open sky. James took up a concealed position on the edge of the clearing and waited for the moon, nervously running his fingers over the camera in his pocket.

He did not have long to wait. Within 20 minutes, a gap appeared in the clouds, and the clearing was illuminated in soft moonlight. There was however, no sign of the phantom girl.

James scanned the clearing, searching for any sign of her, but all he saw was the long shadows cast by the trees, and the light on the surface of the pool.

“Maybe I did imagine it,” he muttered, suddenly feeling a little foolish.

Then he saw her. She was walking from the far side of the clearing, where the shadows were deeper. At first, all James could see were flashes of illumination, where parts of her body were caught in the silver light. As she made her way across the clearing however, she came into full view.

James took shot after shot with his camera, hardly daring to breathe, let alone move. The girl was walking right for him this time – a sense of purpose in her stride. Then, as the moon moved behind a cloud, she disappeared.

James inhaled deeply and tried to steady his trembling hands. There had been no doubt at all this time - the ghost was real and he had got everything on film, or so he hoped.

The moon broke free of the clouds once more, and suddenly the girl was right beside him. James gave a start and uttered an involuntary cry. Her mouth moved silently once more – the words “Help me” on her lips. Spectral tears rolled down her face, and she looked at him imploringly.

James could not move, or even speak for a moment, then, swallowing the hard knot of fear, whispered, “How?”

The girl slowly leaned over towards him. Her bright blue eyes were the last things he saw before she kissed him. James was sure he had seen eyes like hers before.

The vertigo James had experienced on his last visit returned in a flash, much worse than before. James felt as if he were falling, there was a sharp tearing pain, and then he felt nothing at all. James opened his eyes, and to his horror, realised he was looking right back at himself.

His mirror image opened its mouth and spoke.

“I am sorry James, you don’t deserve this – but then, neither did I.
Its taken me over thirty years to come to terms with what I needed to do – to take another persons body, and leave them here in my place. Just like Michael Flanagan did to me.”

James watched as his body opened the camera, removed the film and threw it into the centre of the still pool, and then walked out of the clearing, into the woodland.

“Goodbye James and thank you”.

He opened his mouth to scream, but there was only silence. Then the moon passed behind a cloud once more, and James faded from sight.

Margaret Johnson was not happy as she trudged downstairs to answer the insistent knocking on her door

“It had better be something serious” she grumbled to herself as she pulled back the bolts, and cautiously opened the door

She was not happy to find Mr James Richardson standing there.

“I really don’t think..” she began, before trailing off into silence.

It was not James Richardson, not anymore.

“Hello Michael” said James’s body as he strode purposefully into the hallway, pushing the woman standing in the doorway aside. His expression widened into a grin as his fingers tightened around the shaft of the rusted claw hammer, hidden behind his back.

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Comments by other Members

Grey at 15:42 on 22 November 2004  Report this post
I have done a few updates to the story, and am fairly happy with it as it stands.

Its been written for a competition, so I was limited to 1800 words. This means I have not been able to go into as much detail as I would have liked in my quest to keep the word count down.

The hardest part has been to try and give enough clues as to the ending without doing the literary equivalent of putting big neon signs in the prose.

Hope you enjoy it

Jumbo at 18:18 on 22 November 2004  Report this post

Hi (and welcome to WW (if I haven't said that before)).

I enjoyed this - and didn't guess the ending - although I get quite confused very easily, so maybe some of your neon signs would have helped me!

This seems to be a tale of revenge (of a sorts) but I was (am) still trying to work out the significance of the demise of Richard Williams in 1971.

A couple of points worth looking at before submitting this for your competition (hope I'm not too late).

The word 'roughly' appears twice in quick succession. You need to change one of them - but I wondered if you actually needed either?

...he made the journey back home much later than he intended... or ...did he get back home much later than intended...? A subtle difference, but significant, I think.

And this is closely followed by the repetition of the word 'near'.

Would When James mentioned the pool in the woods behind his cottage however, her demeanour changed. be better as However, her demeanour changed when James mentioned the pool. (Don't think you need ...the woods behind his cottage...)

And suddenly James starts to take photographs. Up to that point there was no mention of a camera (was there?). Stating that he had a camera when he set out for his walk might resolve this.

Also, The girl was walking right for him this time. might be better as This time the girl was walking directly towards him.

Hope some of this helps. Feel free to ignore any, or all, of it as you wish.

All the best, and good luck with the competition.


jane199 at 19:17 on 22 November 2004  Report this post
Hi - I found your story engaging and I liked your clear and direct style of writing. In some ways it almost seemed like a synopsys of a good novel. There are a lot of threads woven in quite quickly which does make the plot confusing in a short story. But then as it's for a short story competition, you probably don't have any intention of it being a novel! My main concern would be that I'm not quite sure who has killed who and in what order - although I get the impression that the killings are cyclical in some way? The sense of mystery is great but a clearer explanation line is needed towards the end.


Grey at 19:21 on 22 November 2004  Report this post
Richard Williams was the guy who killed Michael - the original ghost - Micheal grabbed the body of a young woman, killed the person who killed him, and then lived her life, while she was trapped by the pool.

I did have a mention of him taking a camera with him, but the way I originally wrote it seemed a bit contrived and did'nt fit with the rest of it, so I trimmed that part out.

Thanks for the comments :)

No matter how many times I look at this damn story there is always something to improve ;)

I think I have spent more than three times as long rewriting it as I spent on it in the first place.

I shall go back later on tonight and do a few final edits. Hopefully I will be at a state where I am happy with it fairly soon. Maybe a small neon sign somewhere in the middle might help explain things a bit better ;)

Jumbo at 19:55 on 22 November 2004  Report this post

They do say that good stories aren't written - they're re-written and re-written and ...

It's a bit like polishing a stone in order to make a diamond - you have to keep at it, until the whole damn thing sparkles!

So keep at it - it's worth it.


Grey at 09:45 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Thanks for the continued help :)

I see what you mean Jane, about how all the plot threads can be a little confusing in such a short story.
To be honest, there were quite a few additional threads that I chopped out for space. More than anything else, its this that I am finding difficult - as I thought the story up, I can't easily see which parts are causing difficulty for the readers. Hopefully I have addressed this in the current version a bit more.

Maybe one day I will come back to this and turn it into something with a bit more substance - I can't see it coming anywhere in the competition I am entering - its more a case of me getting my first short story down, and making it as good as I can within the time and word constraints that I have.

jane199 at 12:41 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
It just shows that it can be harder to write a short story than a long one as you have so little time to get the message across. I think if you could decide what the main part of the 'twist' is - maybe that the boy managed to kill his own killer by an unusual means ( body takeover), then lay down a clue of some kind - perhaps the trapped girl by the pool could hint at it the first time she is encountered ? I can follow the shifts quite well now that you have explained it but not fully understanding it the first time made me confused about the ending and why James was not James any more.


Grey at 12:57 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Perhaps I have made the story too complex for the amount of words I have to play with.

Part of me is tempted to cut the entire ending out. I could finish the story when he vanishes near the end - take out all of the cycle of revenge stuff. Its stated at the beginning that he wanted time and space to sort his head out, and he would certainly get that by having his body stolen. Perhaps I could make a bit more of that, and use the extra 100 or so words to improve on the characterisation.

Its very difficult to bring yourself to chop up a story that you are fairly proud of (especially seeing as its my first), but 4 out of 5 people that read it seem to have trouble understanding the ending without explanation, even after I put in additional clues so I am either explaining it badly, or have just made things too complicated, and tried to be too clever :(

Dee at 16:22 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Grey, this is a damned good story, it’s improved since the original version, but I still think you’re trying to say too much in too few words. You have so many characters but not enough time to develop them as they deserve. There’s a novel trying to get out here!

With such a complex story, coupled with a word limit, you need to watch out for excess baggage… words that don’t add anything to the meaning:

partly caught in shadow, did not appear to exist. 9 words.
‘partly in shadow, didn’t appear to exist’…. 7 words.

the solid oak door
cut ‘solid oak’. All church doors are solid oak – well they’re solid, at least… and being oak isn’t relevant to the story.

he made his way out through the church graveyard
cut ‘church’ … we know he’s just left the church.

See what I mean?

The autumn sun was just beginning to set as James set off into the woods. He was excited, and more than a little scared, but, as he made his way through the darkening woodland,
Repetition of ‘set’, and woods/woodland is a little too close. Perhaps you could kill two birds with one stone by saying something like ‘The autumn sun was just beginning to set as James left the cottage.’?
And you could cut ‘more than’.

Hope this helps.


Jumbo at 16:27 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Get out that old red pen!

Grey at 22:02 on 24 November 2004  Report this post
After considering everyones comments, I have come to the conclusion that the story does not work as I would like given the limitations of the word count - if I wanted it to work and fit in 1800 words, I would have to chop more out than I am willing to do.

Only thing to do in this situation - bugger the competition, I shall instead do a rewrite of it, and see how it goes at around 4000 words - see if I am a bit happier with it then.

Not sure if I have the stamina or time for a full blown novel just yet ;) Maybe one day

Dee at 22:18 on 24 November 2004  Report this post
Good for you, Grey. I'll look forward to seeing the full version.


Jumbo at 22:28 on 24 November 2004  Report this post
Yeah, good for you Grey!

There's a damn fine story in there bursting to get out! Get in there and find it!

All the bset


lieslj at 03:33 on 25 November 2004  Report this post
Another thought to ponder in your ongoing rewrite is the significance of the divorce. You have mentioned it right at the beginning, so it seems really important, yet you don't return to it.

Another observation I have is that a lot of this story is presented as information that the reader is expected to somehow accept. I wonder if you couldn't more gradually reveal some of the aspects, which would enable to reader to come to the same conclusion, for example this sentence:

Two weeks after his arrival at the cottage, he became lost in the network of paths, and made the journey back home much later than he had intended.

You might try to describe the experience of being lost and the accompanying sensations, frustration, intense anxiety, mild irritation? You might also add more sensual detail to the work for a more visceral experience of the narrator's troubles.

Some description of this would perhaps be more plausible, for example:
The path went right, or was it left. He'd been on the correct path just a moment earlier, the one where the tangle of ferns gave off a slight dusty aroma. He expected the steep descent, but it was still flat. Birds were beginning to settle for the night, their bedtime chatter escalated as the sun slipped toward the horizon.

Hope this gives you something else to work on.


Hamburger Yogi & PBW at 07:51 on 27 November 2004  Report this post

I like ghost stories so you've hooked me from the outset.

The conversational tone is informative; the lack of dialogue at the outset does not bother me. But the 'investigative tone' detracts a little from the mystery itself.

I am reminded of the first sighting of the female ghost in The Turn of the Screw - she too is spotted over water.

... only visible when bathed directly in moonlight. Her left side, partly caught in shadow, did not appear to exist. for me does not quite make it as an evocative image. Might one write only outlined in a shimmer of reflected moonlight or something, and her left side had no mass apart from reeds. To me 'partly caught in shadow' and 'did not appear to exist' are too objective, scientific almost. This impression is confirmed by the investigative tone of the rest of the text.

'James felt his heart ache': were there not other emotions also? (shock, fear).
At 'Her mouth moved silently once more – the words “Help me” on her lips. Spectral tears rolled down her face, and she looked at him imploringly.' I wanted more description of the setting. This would have drawn the reader more into the atmosphere - temperature, odours, the narrator's own sensations.

The spirit/body transfer needs reworking to create SENSATIONS of this happening in the mind of the reader.

It was not James Richardson, not anymore. This needs showing and not reporting. Reportage here detracts again from the mystery by telling the reader what to think instead of her having to realise it herself.

Williams Williamses?

Reading back what I have written it sounds a bit pedantic - this is not what I meant. What I wanted was for you to work out a way to upgrade the mystery aspects. Your writing is very clear and precise and is very polished. For the expository aspects this is fine but it detracts from the otherwordly qualities that need upgrading to make an emotional impression on the reader.

A good tale; interesting idea that could be very shocking in the mind of the reader if reworked a bit.

Hamburger Yogi

Becca at 10:50 on 27 November 2004  Report this post
Hi Grey,
I thought your writing clear and well paced and did have something of the feel of the 'old ghost story writers' about it.
I did though, think the plot complicated and wondered why it had to be that way. I suspect you've taken on something bigger than what fits convincingly into an ss.
It got me thinking about the 3 elements in short story writing, setting/atmosphere, characterisation and plot. In your story plot is very dominant. In the old style ghost stories atmosphere was often the dominant aspect with the MC, as in your story, as a vehicle to carry the story along. With plot as the main element the story reads more like a mystery story with the ghosts almost incidental. I hope I'm making sense so far. I think you could create atmosphere well, and more of it would have given the story tension.
Editing thoughts:
There are two 'pools' close to each other in the text at : 'The moonlight illuminated the clearing and the pool in a flat monochrome, accentuating the shadows cast by the willow tree surrounding the pool, and shimmering across its surface.'
Later there are a lot of 'James', you could just use 'he'. - 'The vertigo James had experienced on his last visit returned in a flash, much worse than before. James felt as if he were falling, there was a sharp tearing pain, and then he felt nothing at all. James opened his eyes, and to his horror, realised he was looking right back at himself.'
Where you have 'It was late in the afternoon that he managed to speak to the keeper of the parish records – a lady called Margaret Johnson, who seemed to take her job very seriously, and was reputed to know as much about the history of the area as anyone alive.' I thought you could save a lot of wordage here by just saying something along the lines of 'Towards dusk James called on Margaret Johnson, a scholarly woman who kept the parish records and was an expert on local history.'- You could gain back 20 words or so, (as you mention your word limit).
I hope this is of some use to you, and good luck with the compo.

Zigeroon at 13:09 on 30 November 2004  Report this post


Hi. Can't add much to the foregoing. I really enjoyed reading the story. It was a great attempt at squeezing a quart into a pint pot and I look foward to reading the four thousand word version.

I'm not sure if you do this but to get distance between you and your story and become more of a first time reader, and therefore see it through the eyes of your audience, (thereby identifying the things you can't see soon after completion, because you're too close to the story) it is a good idea to write it, edit it, as many times as you see fit, and then put it away, for a month if you can bear the suspense. Upon rereading a good many of the wrinkles become visible.

Look forward to the next one.


Grey at 22:06 on 04 December 2004  Report this post
I have started the rewrite - turned the first paragraph into just over 600 words - I am trying to give a deeper sense of character for the protagonist. I am at this stage, not trying to limit myself - just writing the story that I wanted to to in the first place - after all the editing I did initially, the story did not even seem like my style of writing - more like a series of events

This bit goes into a bit more depth about his divorce and his state of mind as a result - see what you think :)

The phone was ringing again. James swore under his breath, reached for it, and then stopped himself; it had seemed like the damn thing had gone off every ten minutes or so for the past three hours, and he was sick to death of repeating the same words over and over to different people.

The answer phone kicked in. “This is James – you know what to do.”

“Hi James? Are you there? It’s Laura. I heard about what happened to you in court yesterday, and just wanted to make sure you were all right. If you want to talk about it, or go for a drink sometime, give me a call OK? Talk to you soon.”

“I should change the message to: this is James, I am fine, fuck off and leave me alone” he muttered to himself.

He forced himself to get up from the chair, letting out a small grunt at the effort, and headed towards the kitchen to make a drink.

He might as well enjoy the flat while he still had it. Sarah’s solicitor had graciously given him a month to get himself and his belongings out. The flat was in a highly desirable part of the city, and he could not have given Sarah half of its current market value as part of the settlement if he wanted to. That only left him with one option.

“Bitch!” he growled, as he poured himself another drink, making a face as he swallowed the glassful in one gulp. He had drunk everything decent yesterday – all that remained was a cheap, acrid whiskey that someone had given him as a Christmas gift years ago.

He poured himself another one. After a few glasses, he doubted he would taste it anymore.

From the living room, the telephone began to ring again. His fingers tightened around the glass, making tips of his fingers go white.

“Leave me alone you bastards!” he yelled at the telephone, and then, collapsing heavily on a kitchen stool, James Richardson cried for the first time since his divorce.

He existed for almost a week in an alcoholic haze, only leaving the flat to make the journey to the supermarket at the end of the street to buy more alcohol, and the occasional microwave meal for one. Clothes were left in piles on the floor, the washing up grew into mountains in the kitchen, and the living room floor vanished beneath an ever-growing mountain of empty takeaway cartons and bottles of scotch.

When the estate agent brought the first prospective buyers round, he answered the door in his underwear, stinking of alcohol and his own unwashed body.


“Mr Richardson? I’m Miles Howe – the estate agent dealing with your property? I did leave a message on your answerphone yesterday to tell you about the viewing?”

He had not checked his messages in days, and the telephone had been unplugged for almost a week

“I suppose you had better come in then”.

The couple – a pair of insipid yuppies had seemed appalled at the state of the flat. The woman actually held a handkerchief over her nose as she walked from room to room, while the estate agent desperately tried to get them to imagine how it would look with their belongings in place, and talked about space, light and location.

After they had left (and after the estate agent had promised to take matters up with Sarah’s solicitor), James had telephoned a removal company, to get his belongings placed into storage. The unwanted visitors had violated the place with their presence. It no longer felt like home, and James finally realised it was time for him to leave.

Nelly at 12:47 on 05 December 2004  Report this post
Hi Grey,

A fantastic start to the new version. It reads more easily and the fact that you can now take your time with the character has really paid off. His house sounds abit like mine on most days. An enjoyable read and looking forward to the next part.

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