There’s nothing quite like a good ghost story. Good ones can send a shiver up your spine and have you checking under the bed before you turn out the light, but the truly great provide more than a brief frisson they leave us with a sense of melancholic wonder and burrow into our imaginations forever.
Of course, I’m not talking about the ghost story as folk tale or urban legend here—the oft-repeated sagas of pale girls flagging down cars and borrowing jackets only to vanish, leaving the jacket folded on a gravestone (my personal favorite), or the localized legends of haunted woods or restaurants. Those stories are fine, and have a fascinating history in themselves, but what I want to talk about here is the ghost story in literature. And as with most things, that leads us right back to the original old storyteller, Homer.
For the ancient Greeks, ghosts were almost always miserable and unwilling. When Odysseus travels to Hades he meets lots of them: the ghost of his mother, of Agamemnon, Achilles, Elpenor (one of Odysseus’ comrades—he died by falling off a roof), Teiresias, Minos and Hercules. They’re all pretty unhappy and can’t understand why Odysseus would want to visit Hades while he was still alive. The other thing most of them have in common is a desire to be properly buried. Agamemnon tells Odysseus that after his wife, Clytemnestra, murdered him she buried him in such haste that his eyes and mouth weren’t even closed. Elpenor complains that he is still lying unburied even as his ghost complains to Odysseus. The overall feeling is one of oppressive gloom and despair and the reader shares the hero’s desire to get away as soon as possible.
This idea of ghosts with unfinished business, usually the desire for a “proper” burial, but often a lust for revenge, continued to be a feature of supernatural fiction for centuries. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the ghost of the young prince’s father to spur him on to avenge his death, and in Macbeth, Banquo’s bloody shade appears at a feast scaring his murderer half to death. (I once saw a performance of Macbeth in Canada in which Banquo, and every other victim of Macbeth’s ambition, appeared absolutely drenched in streaming rivers of fake blood. I was about twelve and I have to say it definitely made an impression!) At the same time, however, another kind of ghost story was on the rise. These tales originated in the Scottish borders where continual battles between the families of border reivers left a lot of broken hearts. They were told in the form of ballads and generally focused on tragically separated lovers, sons or brothers. Many of them crossed the Atlantic and found new homes, slightly altered, in the southern states of America. Ballads such as The Wife of Usher’s Well, Sweet William and The Unfortunate Rake (better known now in it’s US versions, The Streets of Laredo and St. James Infirmary Blues) had hearts all aflutter in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The age of such genteel tales was fast coming to a close, however, as a new form of fiction stormed the bastion of popular taste: the gothic novel. It has been said that these sensational works were a reaction to the rationality of the Enlightenment, but they were, in their own overwrought way, extremely rational, for they introduced a concept that has remained with us ever since the explained ghost. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is generally credited with being the first gothic novel, but it was Anne Radcliffe who truly embodied the genre. Her novels included The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho and centered on mysterious houses, hidden panels, spirits and brooding heroes harboring dreadful secrets. They were devoured by men and women alike and ridiculed by the intelligentsia (including Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey), but their influence was profound and ghosts were soon popping up everywhere from Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher in 1839 to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol four years later (and of course his classic 1866 story, The Signalman). And where would the Brontes be if it weren’t for Mrs. Radcliffe and her ilk? Wuthering Heights really can’t be beaten for its combination of gothic romance and ghosts. Who can forget the truly creepy encounter when Lockwood (the narrator), staying the night at Wuthering Heights, reaches out of his bedroom window in the dark to try to move a rattling branch, only to find his wrist seized by a small white hand with a grip of iron, as a pleading, desperate voice cries “Let me in let me in! I’m come home! I’d lost my way on the moor!” (A scene rather brilliantly recreated by Kate Bush in her 1978 song and video.)
As the century progressed, the supernatural tale became an increasingly accepted genre, with writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Violet Hunt writing little else, even “serious” authors like Henry James tried their hand and produced some genuinely thrilling, if rather more psychological fare. The magazines of the day were also brimming with tales of ghostly goings-on, though they tended to vary widely in quality. I suspect most of the writers were subsisting in garrets and getting paid by the word so the necessity of delivering the story and getting the money played a large part in the resulting quality. Many of the magazine stories start out really well, but unravel quickly by the end. Tales of dreams that turned out to be all too true, or phone calls that came from the recently dead (new technology has always provided fertile ground for stories about the supernatural) are initially thoroughly gripping, but fall flat at the end with some hurried attempt at a “rational” explanation.
Still, it was magazines that gave us the two greatest exponents of the art in the 20th century: Algernon Blackwood and M.R. James. Blackwood was the son of austere Calvinist converts but had a lifelong interest in the supernatural that must have really irritated his parents. After trying various ways of earning a living both in England and Canada, in his thirties he returned home and started writing. His output was extraordinary and many of the stories are truly chilling. Some of them, such as The Willows, cross into the realm of science fiction and fantasy, but ghost stories remained his core interest.
As good as Blackwood was, however, it is in M.R. James (1862-1936) that the ghost story realizes its true potential. A noted medieval scholar and Cambridge provost, James first created his stories as Christmas entertainments for his friends and they retain an accessible conversational quality, as if they are actual experiences told to an acquaintance though they’re not really the kind of actual experiences any one would really want to have. The format for his tales is now familiar, but at the time he was treading new ground, removing the gothic aspects that still clung to the genre and placing his stories in the present day, in ordinary places. His protagonists, too, were often ordinary to the point of dullness.
And then stuff would happen.
But not too much stuff. As James himself wrote: “ don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded ”
And it is with this mixture of restraint and horror that he wrote some of the best ghost stories ever put to paper, including my all-time second-favorite tale, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. The title comes from a Robert Burns poem and sounds rather friendly. The story, however, is anything but. As with many of James’ stories, the set-up is mundane—a scholar taking a much-needed holiday at a seaside resort out of season. It’s cold, windy and overcast, but he is given a much larger room than he would have received at the height of the season, with two twin beds and plenty of space for his work (apparently scholars can’t ever stop working). He enjoys long walks near the beach and it is during one of these that he finds a small metal tube half-buried in the dunes. It’s a whistle and is clearly ancient, with two sets of writing, though the scholar can only partially translate one. So he blows the whistle, as you would, first on the beach and then later in his room at the boarding house. And something comes
The great thing about this is that we never really find out what. It’s something old, evil and powerful. There is no need for a full explanation because for James the ghost story is about the frisson of fear. Some dreary lengthy why-and-wherefore is completely unnecessary and would detract from the sense of chilly dread.
There have been many ghost stories since M.R. James left the scene, and although many are effective and frightening (The Haunting of Hill House leaps to mind), most still work from James’ playbook.
Which brings us to my favourite ghost story, and it’s not by an author generally associated with the supernatural, although he did write quite a few mysterious tales—Rudyard Kipling. Kipling has gone out of fashion, as authors often do, and while most people are familiar with the films based on his work (The Jungle Book, The Man Who Would Be King, Gunga Din, etc.), fewer and fewer seem to actually read the source material. This is a shame, because he was a jaw-droppingly skillful writer, and nowhere do we see that skill on better display than in They.
Originally published in 1904, They seems on the surface quite unlike a ghost story. It’s set in the countryside in full sunshine and although its protagonist has experienced tragedy, he is not crippled by it. There is no sense of dread, there isn’t even any fear. There’s just a barely concealed feeling of loss and a desperate need for the kind of resolution that is now called “closure.” It is, in every sense of the word, a haunting tale, but what sets it apart from almost all other ghost stories is that it is, ultimately, hopeful.
Our distant ancestors would have found hope an unlikely result of contact with the dead. But while the miserable shades of Homer’s Hades might not recognize the lovelorn ghosts of the Borders or the joyful creatures of They, the passage of time has ensured that every type of ghost has its place.
And there are still times when the differences between the ancient Greeks huddled around a campfire and modern man hunched over a laptop are not so great, because if there’s one thing everyone in every place and time really enjoys, it’s a good scare.