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Tony Grist

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Talking About Ghost Stories [Aug. 19th, 2015|07:00 pm]
Tony Grist
It's probably fair (and will possibly save some explanation later on) if declare myself a believer in ghosts. I know what they are and I'm not frightened of them. (Though I am afraid of people- alive or otherwise- who jump out of the shadows and go boo.)

Because of this I don't necessarily expect a ghost story to scare me. What I do expect to get from it is a sense of the uncanny- a sense of one state of existence bleeding into another, of mystery, of things not fully explained or understood.

The golden age of the ghost story coincides with the golden age of realism in fiction. This is no accident. The ghost story bounces off the realist novel. "You, Mr Trollope, Miss Eliott," says the writer of ghost stories, "are telling us the world is all about wills and arranged marriages and young men on the make, but I'm saying there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy." Without realism- its bracing, unfriendly framework- the ghost story would be just a fairytale and in a fairy tale the most outlandish goings-on are commonplace. Only by embedding your spook story in the conventions of realist fiction can you give weight to a response such as that of the character in Kipling's Madonna of the Trenches who says, "If the dead do rise- and I saw 'em-why- why anything can 'appen." For a thing to come across as uncanny it has to be embedded in a canny world- and the more canny that world the better for the ghost story. A gothic mansion on a deserted moor is already halfway to fairyland and had better be avoided. The challenge for the serious writer of ghost stories is to introduce ineffable things into a world of familiar, everyday things- anti-macassars and gaslight and trams rattling past the door...

...And not be absurd. It's a tall order. Most ghost stories fail.
Most of the ones in the big Oxford anthology I've been working through- supposedly a creme de la creme- are very so-so, But then the anthologists didn't include anything by Margaret Oliphant, so what do they know?

The ghost story has to start in one atmosphere and transport us to another.  It is usual to do this by degrees- and it helps if the pov character is someone who has been loosed from their moorings- and has come to a place where they are not quite au fait with the customs of the country. "The room at the end of the passage? Oh, nothing to see in there. You don't want to worry about it." (Long pause) "Besides, it's locked." Make him a traveller, make her a governness settling into a new position, make them the new owners of the old house. Let them be innocent, unaware- and unwisely curious. In Margaret Oliphant's The Library Window the setting is as rock solid as they come- a street in the lightly disguised university city of St Andrews in Fife, but the pov character is a young girl, a visitor, convalescing in the house of an elderly aunt and seeing only members of a set of very old people- some of whom drop hints. So we are slowly prepared, keyed up, to the thing that is going to happen.  Would it work if the intrusion of the supernatural was entirely unexpected, if everything were going along in a jolly fashion- music on, conversation flowing, everyone happy and then suddenly- without a hint of its approach- something in a bluidy sheet stood gibbering at the door? I can't see it myself. And I'm not sure it's ever been tried.

Very few great stories have a character be haunted in the comfort of his/her own home. There's The Monkey's Paw, A Christmas Carol. I can't think of any others.

Plausibility in the ghost story is terribly important. You want your reader to follow you all the way- and if you casually break the laws of physics you risk losing them.  I'm thinking here of  E. Nesbit's Man- Sized in Marble in which two stone figures come alive, cross a marsh and scare a young woman to death out of sheer meanness- which is just plain silly. Also, just in case you have psychic researchers among your readers, you don't want your ghost to be doing things that real-life ghosts (and we've agreed there such things, right!) have never been known to do. Personally I get exasperated by stories in which ghosts kill people- because in real life that hardly if ever happens. I know my ghostlore and I can't think of a single instance. Again, it's unusual for ghosts to scare people for the sake of scaring them- mostly because they're far too absorbed in their own affairs- looking for that lost will or unfaithful lover- to even notice they're being observed. But I mustn't push this too far or it would cast MR. James beyond the pale and he is, after all, one of the masters. The ghost is non-material- at best ectoplasmic- and in real life its interactions with the world of matter are feeble. Some of them move objects around and sometimes throw them- but hardly ever hit a human target.  And that's it. It's almost as if there's a law that says they're forbidden to hurt the living.  I've always thought it a real blot on The Turn of the Screw that the little boy dies at the end; it almost negates all the subtlety that has gone before. But Henry James is like that. He can be eye-wateringly subtle for hundreds of pages, then stun you with a banality. (H.G. Wells likened him to a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea.) Another story which manages things quite subtly, only to throw it all away at the climax is the movie Ghost- where the spectral protagonist starts beating people up.

I love subtlety- and most of the stories I really rate manage to get from beginning to end without resorting to old rawhead and bloody bones popping up from behind a gravestone.  One of the chillyest stories I know- and one of the very few to have really scared the bejasus out of me- de la Mare's Seaton's Aunt- turns on the merest suspicion that a batty old lady may be moonlighting as a necromancer. In what I rate as the greatest story of them all- Mrs Oliphant's Library Widow- the most sensational event is that the window of the title gets opened. Such stories succeed through a slow build up of atmosphere, by suggestion, by hinting, by turning the screw.  Few of the best stories are simply about ghosts- they're about psychology and theology- about love and redemption and the workings of conscience- and they move us with emotions other than fear (though maybe that as well). If I don't put MR James at the very top of the tree it's because his stories are just machines for delivering a frisson- and nothing much more.

I'm a believer, but I quite like there to be a way out- by which I mean a rational explanation- so that sceptics can play along too. This is another way in which the ghost story is realist. It challenges a purely materialist vision of the world, but never negates it.  It is happy to live with uncertainty. More than happy.

"That's impossible." "But it happened." "Are you entirely sure?"

We all like lists, so lets close with one. Here are my top ten.  I'm letting authors have more than one entry (because best is best even if it means Buggins not getting a mention) and I'm not grading in order of merit- though number one would get my personal gold cup. Also I'm being fairly strict in my definition. Sometimes things pass as ghost stories which aren't. For example I own a collection of so-called ghost stories which includes Wilkie Collins' Terribly Strange Bed- which sounds like it should be a ghost story but isn't. All the stories in my collection are certified to contain ghosts- actual or implied.

Here's my top ten:

1. Margaret Oliphant: The Library Window.
2. Walter de la Mare: Seaton's Aunt
3. Robert Aickman: The Houses of the Russians
4. Margaret Oliphant: The Door in the Wall
5. Rudyard Kipling: The Wish House.
6. Sheridan le Fanu: An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street.
7  Robert Louis Stevenson: Thrawn Janet.
8  Robert Aickman: The Cicerones
9  J.M. Barrie: Mary Rose (it's a play but- thanks to Barrie's luxuriant stage directions- can be read as a story)
10 Hilary Mantell: Beyond Black (it's a novel- but deals with ghosts all the way through, which few novels can manage successfully.)

Oh bother, I didn't find room for The Signalman, though Dickens needs no boosting. And here's an odd thing: all my stories are in English- and the authors are English (4) Scottish (3) and Irish (1) while the American Mary E Wilkins nearly made the cut. Are there no ghost stories in French? In Spanish? in German? Surely there must be German ghost stories- what with the Erl King and all that- but I don't know of any. The Japanese have a lovely line in traditional spook stories- but it took an American- Lafcadio Hearn- to write them down. Is the ghost story a peculiarly Anglo thing?  If anyone knows of any first rate ghost stories in a foreign language I'd be glad of the recommendation.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: sovay
2015-08-19 06:21 pm (UTC)
The Japanese have a lovely line in traditional spook stories- but it took an American- Lafcadio Hearn- to write them down.

Lafcadio Hearn wrote them down in English, but in Japanese the literary genre goes back centuries.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-19 07:17 pm (UTC)
I'd read that Hearn was the first to write them down in any language. Thanks for putting me right.
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[User Picture]From: mrwaggish
2015-08-19 06:32 pm (UTC)
Lucius Shepard's "The Night of White Bhairab" might be worth a look. It throws some twists on the usual ghost story, and makes use of Tlingit mythology as well as American ghost story tropes.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-19 07:18 pm (UTC)
Sounds interesting. Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: strange_complex
2015-08-19 06:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the list of recommendations. I am very fond of M.R. James, and of other near-contemporary ghost stories I have encountered. But I know there is much more out there to discover and I've never read any of these (though I have seen an adaptation of The Cicerones - see 15c), so your list constitutes a useful road-map.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-19 07:30 pm (UTC)
In Aickman's original the cathedral isn't anonymous but quite specifically St Bavon in Ghent. Some- at least- of the objects our English tourist sees are actually there. Aickman set at least one other story in Belgium. Weird little country with a tradition of producing weird art.

Aickman is tremendous.
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[User Picture]From: davesmusictank
2015-08-19 07:19 pm (UTC)
I find real ghosts to be be emanations of people who , for one reason or another, have not found that eternal rest.I know it is cliche but then sometimes things that disturb the air in a closed room is something close to a ghost. I have felt it in the local pub late at night in which it is roamed by a ghost. It is quite an strange feeling.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-19 07:41 pm (UTC)
Pubs are frequently haunted by sad old soaks looking to vamp off living drinkers.

Also by cheerier souls who don't want to leave the place where they were happy.

And then, of course, there are the jilted barmaids, the murder victims, the highwaymen. A lot of emotional stuff goes down in pubs- of just the kind that generates ghosts.
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2015-08-19 10:13 pm (UTC)
Spaniards, being the superstitious souls they are traditionally, just don't write that sort of literature that I've seen. Yes, there are mentions of ghosts in some of the classic literature (e.g. the Don Juan story) but as a general rule, even the cemeteries are always as far away from the town as they can put them.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-20 09:02 am (UTC)
Interesting. This suggests that the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic nations have a somewhat cosier relationship with their dead.
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2015-08-20 10:40 am (UTC)
But then there are the Mexicans who celebrate the Day of the Dead with all wealth of details! Of course, that may well be a mix of their native cultures and Spanish Christian belief.
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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2015-08-20 02:07 am (UTC)
Have you read Kipling's "Them"?
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-20 09:08 am (UTC)
Of course.

Kipling wrote a lot of supernatural fiction. You could fill quite a fat volume with his Collected Ghost Stories.

One of my favourites is The Dog Hervey. I'd have listed it if it wasn't for a suspicion that it's not quite a ghost story. It's certainly spooky but is there a ghost in it? Probably not
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From: cmcmck
2015-08-20 07:40 am (UTC)
Margaret Oliphant is way underrated as a writer!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-20 09:12 am (UTC)
She is. Circumstances- meaning the need to make money- turned her into a one woman factory for the production of
whatever it was the market wanted. Had she had the leisure to spend time over her work she might have been one of the greats.

She was certainly capable of greatness- witness The Library Window.
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[User Picture]From: steepholm
2015-08-20 07:50 am (UTC)
Thanks - there's much to chew on in that discussion, and several recommendations I'm going to pursue.

I think that many of M. R. James's ghost stories are not about ghosts in your sense, but about supernatural evil - malevolent, purposeful evil. And generally, the "more in heaven and earth" argument can be served by the wider genre of strange stories that flourished between 1900 and 1940 - which might encompass not only ghosts but such weirdities as Greek gods in the English countryside (as in Forster's "The Story of a Panic") parallel countrysides (John Metcalfe's "The Bad Lands"), or even things like 'The Angel of Mons' (in Machen's "The Bowmen").

Edited at 2015-08-20 07:51 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-20 09:36 am (UTC)
And it's not just a literary thing. There was a huge vogue for all things woo- for psychical research, paganism, magic (as something you actually practised), spiritualism, theosophy and so on. Algernon Blackwood- who should have found a niche on my list- probably for "The Wendigo"- was a member of one of the magical fraternities active at the time. And he's a typical figure. Lots of major and minor early 20th century celebs "dabbled" in both literature and the occult- from Yeats (who wrote rituals for the Golden Dawn) to Aleister Crowley- who when he wasn't shocking the Daily Express fancied himself a literary titan (which he wasn't.) Another typical figure is Dion Fortune who not only ran her own magical order but also wrote supernatural novels and stories of some merit. Then there's Charles Williams... Ach, it just goes on and on.

Edited at 2015-08-20 09:38 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2015-08-20 09:39 pm (UTC)
I was once told a ghost story about a young man on a motorbike coming to help his friend with university exams. Ever heard that one? I'm fairly sure the guy who told me wouldn't have the wit to make it up himself.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-21 08:37 am (UTC)
I haven't. I like the idea of a ghost on a motorbike.
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[User Picture]From: ashlyme
2015-08-20 10:10 pm (UTC)
Have you read Peter Ackroyd's "Hawksmoor"? Another rare and good ghost-novel.

As for French stories, there's de Maupassant's The Horla, but it's hard to know just what's haunting the narrator there.
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[User Picture]From: negothick
2015-08-21 12:57 am (UTC)
Real ghost stories transcribed by folklorists--memorates--are the most boring things to read. About as interesting as unedited transcripts of other peoples' dreams. No atmosphere, minimal setting, banal occurrences--and of course, no plot beyond "And I felt the air move" or "I saw a shadow of nothing on the wall" or "the little girls ran giggling down the hallway." The literary ghost story is completely different.
I have been leading tours to haunted places for some 45 years, and in all that time, I've never felt anything worse than myself, as in the old expression. I've seen two apparitions courtesy of digital cameras held by other people. No possibility of trickery there, as we watched the apparitions forming on the screen.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-21 08:51 am (UTC)
I like "true" ghost stories. I binge read them sometimes- and feel slightly queasy afterwards.

I've never seen a ghost but I've been around when odd things happened. I captured something anomalous with my digital camera in an old church earlier this year.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2015-08-21 08:41 am (UTC)
I have. I could make out what the hell was supposed to be happening at the end. :(

The Horla's OK. But an invisible thing that blots out the stars? it doesn't quite wash. I'll give it a B-.

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