The Ghost Experts

*NANO 2018*

Tony Belgrave’s fascination with ghosts and demons was one of many secrets he hid till he left for university. In his final year, two film students come to him for help with a sketch satirising ghost-hunting TV programmes.

That's where it starts: Mocking crackpot conspiracy theorists, boobs-for-brains actresses and money-hungry, manipulative producers. But over the next two years, Tony’s, Natalie's, and Jules’ caricatures consume them and a joke becomes a wildly popular YouTube series with aspiring ghost hunters clinging to its every lie.

Tony’s friends’ hunger for success brings them to Lansfield Hall. The ruined mansion’s legacy is a cesspool of cliché ghost stories, but there's one fact nobody can deny: Everyone who steps past its threshold winds up dead. The rest of the crew brush away Tony’s concerns; after all, they know ghosts aren’t real. They’re there to act. Only Tony knows they probably won’t need to.

And before long, he’s fighting for more than just the trut


Author's note

Hello! This is now the THIRD rewrite of my very first novel. I don't know if anyone'll be reading this who really remembers the first one, but if you do, please expect MAJOR changes! You remember Philip? Well, he doesn't exist anymore; he's been replaced by Dave's twin sister Julianne, who was in the original for about five seconds to chain-smoke and yell at news crews. I loved her and wanted her to be in the book for way longer, and where else to put an inconsequential joke character than at the forefront of the entire operation? You remember Gerry and Travis? They also no longer exist. There is only Kevin. Andy's still obsessed with himself, Jean's still a manipulative douchebag, Kevin's still a flimsy sweetheart, Tony and Dave are still extremely gay for each other, and they're still all stuck in a mansion with a bunch of vengeful ghosts, so it's not an entirely different book, I suppose. Anyway, enjoy! I'll go away now. Jem :)
(Oh, Jean's name is also Natalie now. I guess that's kind of important.)

1. The Nicotine Gum

I'm thankful that I’m not into women, because if I was, I’d likely be pathetically besotted with Natalie Valentown.

She’s impossibly at ease in front of the camera, even sitting cross-legged on the weathered stone floor, the recording device placed just far enough away that when she leans forwards to speak into it, she shows a little too much chest. She giggles and simpers and tosses her long black hair, fiddling it between her fingers whenever she pretends to think hard about something a twenty-year old woman ought to know instinctively. Yeah, she’s absorbed herself so beautifully into her role I can’t even see where this dumb bimbo ends and my foulmouthed housemate begins.

“We ought to be able to hear the ghosts when we play this back,” Natalie tells the camera, wide-eyed, chewing on her lip. “But I probably ought to check with the men so’s I know what button to press. I, uh… uh… Aw, fuck.”

I snort and look up at Jules, who sighs as she lowers the camera again. “Nat-” Jules begins.

“I know, I know. Fuck,” Natalie says as she rearranges herself on the ground. “I know the line. I just genuinely don’t know how this fuckin’ thing works, s’all. Maybe I do need help from the man in the room.”

“Tony?” Jules says.

I look up at her. “What?”

She makes a shooing motion with her hand.

I sigh and shuffle to sit opposite Natalie and the EVP device. “It’s this button,” I say, pointing out the button. “The one with the little play icon on it.”

“Oh. Chill. Don’t press it, don’t!” Natalie says, slapping my hand away and looking up at Jules. “We gotta do it on camera, right?”

Jules shrugs. “I don’t really care. All I need is for you to act like a boobs-for-brains dumbass. Actually, y’know what? Maybe it’d be better if you couldn’t figure out how to use the thing. The… whatever it is.”

“EVP,” I say.

“Thanks, Tony. EVP,” Jules says. “Actually, yeah. Y’know what? I like that. All the girls on these ghost-hunting programmes are dumb enough they’ll make anything out of anything. Act like you don’t know how to use it.”

“Isn’t that a bit too much?” I say. “I mean, I know you’re satirising, but she’s a ghost hunter.”


“So she…”

“Tony?” Jules says. “I know you’re really precious about all this ghost crap, but we’re trying to do comedy. Exaggeration.” She waves her hand. “The dumber I make her, the better.”

“Okay.” I settle back on my heels. “Sorry.”

“It’s cool. Natalie, you ready?”

I smile to myself as Jules looks down at her camera and Natalie starts fussing her hair. I kick myself for interrupting them again; I’m just here to watch, and help with jargon when they need it. I don’t know why Jules set her sights on ghost-hunting programmes for her final film project before Christmas, nor do I really care; all I know is that she watched them all, she doesn’t believe a word of them, and now she wants to make fun of them. A satirical sketch. She and Natalie make a bizarre pair- my long-limbed dark-haired stunner of a housemate with this short, scruffy freckled blonde girl with the stocky build of a rugby player. That’s what I thought the first time I saw them together at my bedroom door.

The first time I met Jules, Natalie didn’t even bother introducing us. She just said, “Tony, you’re really into ghosts, right?” and waited, impatient as ever, for my answer. I remember being bewildered; I thought I’d been hiding my hobby from the world with relative success. I watched YouTube with my headphones in, I watched TV with the volume turned all the way down, I hid my EVP recorder and EMF readers and pocket-sized thermal camera at the back of my drawer under three inches of Biology textbooks, barely ever drawing up the courage to get them out, let alone use them. But Natalie saw through it all, and before I knew it, the secret obsession I’d spent twenty years hiding from my parents was spread out all over the desk along with Jules’ scripts and storyboards, and I’d agreed to help them make fun of everything I loved.

“Cut! Natalie, that was fine, but could you make it dumber? Really, really act like you don’t know how to use it,” Jules says.

“I already did!” Natalie tucks her hair behind her ear.

“Yeah, ‘cos you didn’t, dumbass.”


“Tony must’ve explained all the jargon to you fifty times.” Jules’ face breaks into a grin. “And yet-”

“It’s fine,” I say hurriedly. “I don’t mind. Explaining.”

“I’m not a dumbass; it’s called acting,” Natalie whines, but she’s grinning too- a thin, wide, lopsided smirk that gives way to an ugly snort of laughter as she examines the buttons for the eightieth time.

“Action!” Jules says half-heartedly, and just like that, Natalie’s grin dissolves and her hand flies easily to her hair.

“It’s just, like, so awe-inspiring,” she says in her suddenly high, sugary voice, gesturing to the building all around her, the white muck-speckled walls, the gaping wounds in the ceiling. “I mean, to think, two kids died in here. In this very room! I just hope we can, like, communicate with them and make sure they’re okay.” I watch Jules grin behind the camera, trapping her white nicotine gum between her teeth. Natalie reaches down and pretends to pore over the buttons for a long time before picking the blatantly labelled pause button, incurring more stifled giggles. “Ah, here we go. First up, Angelina Twill, who died here in 1893. Can you speak to me? Just make a noise, any kind of noise, to let me know you’re here.”

There’s a long pause.

Natalie smiles childishly up at the camera. “Hopefully, when we listen to that back, we’ll hear her speaking to me. And now, I want to hear from Jenny Ritter. Can you let me know if you’re here or not? I’d love to hear something, anything, about the way you died. Please, just… spill the deets of your traumatic death so I can exploit it for views.”

Jules snorts, managing to shut the camera off before her laughter trembles the camera. “Immaculate,” she says.

Natalie looks at me as she drops her wide-eyed expression. “Tony, did I get any of that wrong? The names?”

“Um…” I struggle. “Well…”

“I did, didn’t I? Shit.”

“Yeah, but it’s fine if you’re trying to be dumb.”

“How much?”

I run a hand through my hair. “Bits and pieces.”

“It was all wrong, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, it was all wrong. All of it.”

“Aw, fuck.”

“First of all, it’s Angelica Twill. Pronounced the same. She died in 1983, not 1893.”

“Really? What of?”

“Oh,” I say. “She fell down the stairs. She lived alone in the fourth room, second floor. Studying astrophysics. She was only seventeen- got in early on recommendation. She started late, so nobody was used to seeing her in class, and that meant nobody noticed her missing or thought to go check on her for ages. When they did, they found her dead right behind her door. They think she’d been there two days. Maybe three. They don’t know whether she died straight away or not, but most people don’t think so.” I cut myself off, realising I’ve started rambling again, and force my eyes onto the girls. Natalie’s fiddling with the EVP device again, but Jules is staring at me, her hand on her chin and her eyes sparkling with thinly veiled interest.

“Sorry,” I say hurriedly. “Too much detail.”

“I mean, maybe,” Natalie says. “Honestly, how d’you remember all this stuff? You don’t have flashcards on you or anything?”

“Um, no.” I feel my cheeks burning.

“Keep going.” Jules cuts me off. I look up at her.


“Keep going.”

“What about the other girl?” Natalie asks. “Jenny Ritter? If that was her name.”

“Yeah,” I say with a nervous smile. “That was her name.”

“Oh, great. Got something right, at least.”


“What happened to her?” Jules presses, and I realise with a fearful jolt that she’s pointing the camera at me.

“What?” I say, sure all the colour’s gone from my face. “What are you doing? Are you filming? Is it filming?”

Jules smirks. “So what if it is?”

“I said no filming me,” I say. “No filming. Just film her.”

“Alright, alright,” Jules says, lowering the camera. “It wasn’t filming anyway. Keep going. Tell her what happened to Jenny Ritter.”

I breathe in to steady my quivering nerves.

“She was a third-year student here in 2002,” I say to Natalie, promising myself I’ll rush through the explanation and get back behind the camera as fast as I can. Jules is making a show of scrolling through her camera roll, like she’s ignoring us, but I don’t trust her. “Politics, I think.” I’m lying. I know it was politics. I know Jenny Ritter received an unconditional offer and wanted to be Prime Minister someday, or at least Education Minister. I know her father’s and mother’s and brother’s names and I know the order in which they found out she’d died. I know everything.

Embarrassed, I shut my mouth.

“C’mon,” Jules says impatiently. “Tony, you’re here to be a ghost freak. That’s what we want from you. That’s what I need from you.”

“How did she die?” Natalie presses me.

“Same,” I say. “Fell down the stairs.”

“In which apartment?”

I swallow and repeat, “Same. Fourth on second.”

“The same apartment?”

“The same apartment.”

“Damn.” Amusement flickers over Natalie’s mouth. Amusement at the story, or at me? “Good story.”

“So that’s how it started,” I say. “All the ghost stories. People came forward after Jenny died, saying she’d been seeing things in her apartment for a long time. Seems she never knew another girl died there, or how. She just knew stuff was moving and she had nightmares and once every month or so, she’d wake up in the middle of the night and the room’d be freezing cold. And then obviously, after she’d died and everything came out, people refused to sleep in this dorm building. They turned it into another assembly hall for a while, with storage upstairs, but that didn’t last. So they just shut it down. Kept meaning to do stuff with it, but never did.”

In the silence that follows, I glance up at Jules and see she’s watching me again, her camera thankfully down at her side.

“I want you in it with Natalie,” she says to me.

I frown. “What?”


“No. I said I’d help you with it on the grounds I’d never be in it.”


“Because I’m not… I feel… No. Just no.”

When Natalie and Jules told me they wanted me in a film, my mind immediately jumped to old family pictures, home videos. I’ve already had my top surgery and I’ve been taking the testosterone for two and a half years, but there’re still parts of me that don’t feel quite… right yet. I know I’ll only end up looking back at myself in this film in a couple of years the same way I look at Grace, the chestnut-haired, porcelain-skinned, blue-eyed little girl who still hangs on all my parents’ walls. My Mum still texts me pictures of her sometimes with Such a beautiful girl… or I miss my gorgeous daughter sometimes… written underneath.

I’ve got her face, but sharper; I’ve got her voice, but lower; I’ve got her chestnut hair, but shorter; I’ve got her porcelain skin and her blue eyes and her clunky NHS glasses and her nerves and her hopes and her fears, but she’s not, not me. She never was. And I’ve never been able to put that into words.

“You don’t wanna be on show?” Natalie says. “Not everyone does.”

I shake my head, trying to make light of the sudden crashing, rolling heaviness in my chest. “Nah, I’m fine. I’m fine just sat here talking. I’ll let you do all the acting.”

“Hey, Tony?” Jules asks me. I look up at her.


“I don’t know you, but can I ask? Have you really not taken a picture of yourself in four years?”

“No, I’ve taken pictures, but…”

“Look, I know you’ll think this is just me trying to get you in my film, which I do want, cos you’re perfect, but I wanna say that you can’t just hide away till you’re completely happy with the way you look. If those thoughts’ve been there before, you’re gonna keep making excuses even after you’ve gotten everything done that needs to be done. You can’t spend your whole life just waiting to feel right.”

Natalie stares from her to me, nervous to say anything. Eventually, she says, “That was kinda deep, Jules.”

“No, it was kinda rude,” Jules says with a sigh, but doesn’t apologise. “Real rude and disrespectful, and a person who was less of a dick might even apologise.”

I look down at the ground. I know she’s right, even though I only met her two days ago and her words should hurt, even though they don’t.

“Please, Tony,” Jules says.

“You’ll look stupid in front of your class,” I try.

“Bullshit. Besides, do I look like someone who cares how she looks in front of people?” Jules says, gesturing to her huge shapeless hoodie, her jeans puckered with cigarette burns, her undone trainer laces. “You’re damn good at this, Tony, and I know you love it. I can tell you’re a right nerd for it. So help a stranger out, would you?”

I find myself getting up, disarmed by her bluntness. I’m so used to people treating me like brittle glass, maybe I even like her. She makes giant problems like mine look stupid.

“Help you make fun of people like me?” I say.

“People like you?”

“People who believe in ghosts. Crackpot conspiracy theorists like me.”

“Oh. Right. Honestly?” Jules says. “Yeah. Yeah, I am here to take the piss outta crackpots. Can you take a joke?”

“Oh,” I say. “Right. Fine. But you’ll have to direct me. I don’t know what to do.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know what to do? Just talk.”

“But Natalie had ages to sort out a character. I’m not gonna be funny if I just be myself. I gotta know how to… exaggerate myself.”

“Just talk,” Jules repeats.

I blink, and Natalie giggles. “She’s just teasing you, Tony.”

“No, I’m bullying him, Natalie. I’m a great big buff selfish bully who picks on nerds and needs to pass a project to not get thrown out.”

“It’s fine,” I say again.

“And then,” Jules adds, “Once you’ve done monologuing, can you walk over there, open the door, and walk upstairs? Just a little way.”

“Yeah, sure.”


“Just give me a minute.” I fiddle with the hem of my hoodie. In front of the camera, I suddenly feel all wrong- even taller than usual, and even thinner, and even paler, and my tongue feels huge in my mouth and my ribs suddenly constrict and squeeze my chest.

“You were fiddling with your glasses before, when you were talking,” Jules says.

“Oh, was I? Sorry.”

“Can you keep doing it? But do it more? Thanks.” Jules unceremoniously digs the gum from her mouth and flicks it away. “Action.”

I clear my throat and begin talking about Angelica Twill, unable to keep the embellishments at bay. All the while, I’m keeping myself calm under the camera’s scrutiny by thinking of the frontmen of my favourite paranormal TV shows. Those were the nerds I loved and clung to all through my life, the ones I related to. And now, this girl I barely even know is using me as an archetype to make a mockery of them. It’s fine. This is fine.

Once I’ve finished talking, Jules and Natalie have to prompt me to turn around and walk towards the back stairs. As I do, I feel my old self-consciousness flooding back and fix my eyes on the black splatter of my shadow up the wall to keep myself calm. He looks like me. I look like him. Rainbow sparks dance across my vision as I climb the stairs and a strange sense of anticipation rears in my gut and crashes into dread, making me stop.

“Is this far enough?” I call, my voice cracking.

“Yeah, perfect. Come on back!” Jules calls happily.

As I reappear in the stairwell doorway, the soft sound of Natalie’s clapping fills my ears, and I look beyond the camera to see her baring her perfect teeth in a huge grin.

“Nice, Tony,” she says. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” I hasten. I look across at Jules, who’s ignoring me in favour of her camera.

“Oh, I’m so getting an A on this bitch,” she says to herself.

I grin a little as I say, “Please don’t ever make me do that again.”

As my eyes wander into the corner next to the stairs, my sarcasm softens with shock.

“You okay, Tony?”

“What?” I tear my eyes away from the tiny white speck and face Natalie. “Yeah, why?”

“Nothing.” She grins. “I once had a friend in GCSE drama who just wanted to do make-up and costumes and fainted the second they put him on stage. Just got up there and fell dead over, he was so scared. I thought you were gonna go the same way.”

“No, I’m fine. Hey, Jules?” I ask.

“Uh…huh?” She says, ignoring me as she thumbs through her pages of notes.

“Is this your gum?”

“Is…” Jules glances up, and I realise she’s already got another piece of gum in her mouth. This eighteen-year old scares me for a myriad reasons, not least the fact she gets through nicotine gum like it’s toffee. “What my gum?”

“On the…” I look down at the white lump of chewed gum she discarded before she started filming me. It never hit the ground. It’s hanging in six inches of empty air, bobbing slowly up and down like it’s underwater. “Ground?”

“Yeah, prob’ly. Why?”


I lean down to stare at it closer. I know it must be caught in a spider’s web- after all, what’s the alternative? Ghosts? I may think I believe in them, but seeing something first-hand’s a whole different deal.

Something I’ve never experienced before.

No matter where I wave my hand, the gum never comes down.

“Huh,” I say to myself, knowing full well that my mind will have debunked it in ten minutes, like the UFO I saw when I was six, or the monsters I used to swear lived in my wardrobe. “Weird.”

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