Friday, October 29, 2010

And so we bid the ghosts adieu, or, See you in the stacks!

"We were sitting, I remember, late in the evening in your drawing-room, where the lights of the chandelier were so muffled as to produce a delicious obscurity, through which the fire diffused a dim, red glow." That's Nathaniel Hawthorne, setting the scene and mood deliciously, as he does again and again his two collections of strange stories, Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse. Only, this time, he's setting a real scene, in which he once told a real ghost story: those lines come from a brief manuscript Hawthorne wrote at the behest of a friend in whose Liverpool parlor one night--when "the feelings of the party had been properly attuned by some tales of English superstition"--he told a story of a ghost he himself had encountered.

After my post last week about writers I wish would have seen ghosts and written about the experience, it seems right to close out this haunted month by giving Hawthorne, who did and did, the stage. I owe a tip of the hat to the New England Folklore blog for putting me on the track of this story, which was first published, after Hawthorne's death, in the February 10, 1900 issue of The Living Age. Fans of Hawthorne's gentle storytelling voice--which serves so well to set off the horrors of such stories as "Young Goodman Brown"--will enjoy his introduction to the piece, which continues the scene-setting from above:
[T]he lady of Smithhills Hall had just been describing that Bloody Footstep which marks the threshold of her old mansion, when your Yankee guest (zealous for the honor of his country, and desirous of proving that his dead compatriots have the same ghostly privileges as other dead people, if they think it worth while to use them) began a story of something wonderful that long ago happened to himself. Possibly in the verbal narrative he may have assumed a little more license than would be allowable in a written record. For the sake of the artistic effect, he may then have thrown in, here and there, a few slight circumstances which he will not think it proper to retain in what he now puts forth as the sober statement of a veritable fact.
It's worth reading the whole story, which, because the Google Books version can be hard on the eyes, I've posted in full over at my Notes blog, but the short version is quite simple. As a young man, Hawthorne used to spend his days in the reading room of the Athanaeum in Boston, and nearly every day he would see there an old man reading the Boston Post. In the way of libraries, Hawthorne never spoke to or was introduced to the man, but he learned from a friend that his name was Doctor Harris. One evening, after Hawthorne had seen Harris at midday, his friend happened to mention that Harris had died that morning.

Hawthorne assumes that he must have somehow been mistaken in thinking he'd seen the Doctor that day, that his imagination had created the familiar, expected figure. So the next morning,
as I ascended the steps of the Athenaeum, I remember thinking within myself, "Well, I shall never see old Doctor Harris again!" With this thought in my mind, as I opened the door of the reading-room, I glanced towards the spot and chair where Doctor Harris usually sat, and there, to my astonishment, sat the gray, infirm figure of the deceased Doctor, reading the newspaper as was his wont!
Which leads to the best line in the story, one that would serve as a punchline were Hawthorne not so matter-of-fact in his telling: "His own death must have been recorded, that very morning, in that very newspaper!"

Though for the most part, the ghost of Doctor Harris simply sits, day after day, reading the newspaper, one day he turns to Hawthorne with an almost pleading look . . . and Hawthorne displays unexpectedly steely nerves. Realizing that, following convention, the ghost desperately wants to tell him something but is waiting to be addressed, Hawthorne holds his tongue:
[R]eflecting, moreover, that the deceased Doctor might burden me with some disagreeable task, with which I had no business or wish to be concerned—I stubbornly resolved to have nothing to say to him. To this determination I adhered; and not a syllable ever passed between the ghost of Doctor Harris and myself.
Hawthorne may have disdained New England's Puritan heritage, but I think the Puritans would have recognized a bit of themselves in that harsh, even cruel exercise of willpower. How many of us, confronted with a ghost--a kindly-seeming, older ghost--would be able to summon up that sort of resolve? I think most of us would submit, would speak--even though we would know as we spoke that nothing the ghost was going to tell us would be anything we wanted to hear. Through such decisions are nightmares entered.

Which leads me to an apt line that a bookseller friend passed on today, from Javier Marias's "No More Loves":
It is quite possible that the main aim of ghosts, if they still exist, is to thwart the desires of mortal tenants, appearing if their presence is unwelcome and hiding away if it is expected or demanded.
And with that, I'll let October and its ghosts fade away once again into the mists to bide their time until next autumn. And where better to leave them than in a quiet reading room?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


{Photo by rocketlass.}

Lee Sandlin's endlessly interesting new book on the Mississippi, Wicked River, is a work of history, so ordinarily I would wait to write about it until October's ghosts have returned to their crypts. But one passage from its panorama of adventure and incident suits the month's theme, and thus seems worth sharing. It comes from a chapter titled "Oracles," which, in Sandlin's wonderfully meandering way, wanders through millenarian prophecies, circus boats, minstrel shows, ice jams, and steamboat explosions--but it starts firmly in October country:
It was a credulous age. . . . [People] were eager to believe in anything, no matter how strange, as long as it was bad news. They were particularly fascinated by occult portents of doom. Everybody knew that owls and whip-poor-wills were evil omens, that a dog howling in the night meant somebody was about to die, that prudent people had to carry a tuft of wool tied with thread at all times to prevent being ridden by witches. It was a time of seances and mirror divination and spirit rapping--an era when, as Melville observed in Moby-Dick, "the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city."
Sandlin then turns to the truly strange example of Harriet Beecher Stowe's husband, Calvin, who
was a down-to-earth and practical man, but . . . was tormented all his life by visions of weird presences infesting the world. On the streets mingling with ordinary people, he said, was another race, "with the human form and proportion, but under a shadowy outline that seemed just ready to melt into the invisible air, and sometimes liable to the most sudden and grotesque changes." These "rational phantoms," as he called them, were hunted by yet another supernatural race, which appeared as "heavy clouds floating about overhead, of a black color, spotted with brown, in the shape of a very flaring inverted tunnel without a nozzle. . . . They floated from place to place in great numbers, and in all directions, with a strong and steady progress, but with a tremulous, quivering, internal motion that agitated them in every part." And then there were the devils--a great many devils, down every street and in every meeting place. They were "very different from the common representations," he said. "They had neither red faces, nor horns, nor hoofs, nor tails. They were in all respects stoutly built and well-dressed gentlemen. The only peculiarity that I noted in their appearance was as to their heads. Their faces and necks were perfectly bare, without hair or flesh, and of a uniform sky-blue color, like the ashes of burnt paper before it falls to pieces, and of a certain glossy smoothness.
Those descriptions come from a biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe that Charles published in 1891; although his account seems utterly bizarre to us now--and, frankly, in its specificity and insistence can’t help but seem like the product of a disordered mind--it’s not particularly strange that Stowe went pubic with his visions: 1891 was still the heyday of the spiritualist movement, which had erupted in midcentury and gained strength after the slaughter of the Civil War (as it would again after World War I). And Harriet herself was, at least in some form, an enthusiast, as shown by a letter to her from George Eliot that D J. Enright included in his Oxford Book of the Supernatural. Stowe had written to Eliot of a two-hour conversation with Charlotte Bronte that Stowe had conducted via a Ouija Board; Eliot, politely, was having none of it:
Your experience with the planchette is amazing; but that the words which you found it to have written were dictated by the spirit of Charlotte Bronte is to me (whether rightly or not) so enormously improbable, that I could only accept it if every condition were laid bare, and every other explanation demonstrated to be impossible. If it were another spirit aping Charlotte Bronte--if here and there at rare spots and among people of a certain temperament, or even at many spots and among people of all temperaments, tricksy spirits are liable to rise as a sort of earth-bubbles and set furniture in movement, and tell things which we either know already or should be as well without knowing--I must frankly confess that I have but a feeble interest in these doings, feeling my life very short for the supreme and awful revelations of a more orderly and intelligible kind which I shall die with an imperfect knowledge of. If there were miserable spirits whom we could help--then I think we should pause and have patience with their trivial-mindedness; but otherwise I don’t feel bound to study them more than I am bound to study the special follies of a particular phase of human society. Others, who feel differently, and are attracted towards this study, are making an experiment for us as to whether anything better than bewilderment can come of it. At present, it seems to me that to rest any fundamental part of religion on such a basis is a melancholy misguidance of men’s minds from the true sources of high and pure emotion.
Among those “[o]thers, who feel differently,” was another of the era’s sharpest minds, William James. Along with the Society for Psychical Research James conducted investigation after investigation into mediums, spiritualist practices, and unexplained phenomena. James himself, though interested, was skeptical--yet even as he was disappointed again and again by fraudulent mediums, he never quite gave up his willingness to be open to the idea that there are things beyond our ken. In his great biography of James, Robert D. Richardson quotes a letter from James to a family friend that, better than anything else I’ve encountered, helps me--a natural skeptic--understand the way that a piercing, inquisitive mind can be drawn by the currents of the time:
I have hitherto felt . . . as if the wonder-mongers and magnetic physicians and seventh sons of seventh daughters and those who gravitated towards them by mental affinity were a sort of intellectual vermin. I now begin to believe that that type of mind takes hold of a range of truths to which the other kind is stone blind. The consequence is that I am all at sea, with my old compass lost, and no new one, and the stars invisible through the fog.
Reflecting in another letter on the sordid trail of chicanery and falsehood he and other researchers had uncovered, James refines that “at sea” feeling to a concise statement more clearly befitting a scientist:
It is a field in which the sources of deception are extremely numerous. But I believe there is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomenon are impossible.
A perfect skeptic’s creed for October nights if ever I’ve seen one!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Peter Straub, Jonathan Carroll, and the Sadness of Detail

{Photo by rocketlass.}

If you’re looking for scary stories to get you through this last week before Halloween, you could do far worse than let Peter Straub be your guide. In the past two years, Straub has edited two anthologies of supernatural stories--the two-volume American Fantastic Tales (2009) from the Library of America, and Poe’s Children (2008) from Doubleday--that are incredibly good. Tastes in terror vary like any preferences, so no anthology is going to be perfect; there will be a few stories in any collection that don’t work for some readers. But in the 2,000 pages of Straub’s anthologies, I found that number to be vanishingly small--and even the few stories that weren’t to my taste offered something, a new angle or idea or point of view, that made me at least understand why they were included.

I wrote about American Fantastic Tales a bit last October; if you want to know more about that set, you can start there, or with an interview of Straub at the Library of America’s site. Poe’s Children serves perfectly as a contemporary companion to the long history offered by those volumes: it serves up twenty-five stories of wildly varying styles from currently active writers, most familiar names to readers of fantastic fiction of any sort, including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, John Crowley, Kelly Link, and Elizabeth Hand.

The best story in the bunch, however--the one I still find myself thinking of regularly more than a year after I first read it--is Jonathan Carroll’s “The Sadness of Detail.” The story opens with a tired mother taking a quiet break in a cafe on
a late November afternoon when the whole town seemed one liquid glaze of reflected light and rain. A day when the rain is colder than snow and everything feels meaner, harder edged.
It’s a prosaic scene--the mother has escaped her daily routine for a few minutes of peace--but, as in the above description, Carroll invests it from the start with just the tiniest hints of menace. The mother is worn out, and her narration of the scene hints at resentment of her duties, perhaps even of her life.

And then the scene take a turn. A stranger at the next table complains about her humming, then:
I made an “excuse me” face and was about to turn around again when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a number of photographs he had spread out on the table in front of him. Most of the pictures were of my family and me.

“Where did you get those?”

He reached behind him and, picking one up, handed it to me. Not looking at it, he said, “That is your son in nine years. He’s wearing a patch because he lost that eye in an automobile accident. He wanted to be a pilot, as you know, but one needs good eyesight for that, so he paints houses instead and drinks a lot .The girl in the picture is the one he lives with. She takes heroin.”
And with that moment of what, for any parent, would surely be pure horror, even as they fought to disbelieve, the woman’s ordinary day is gone, derailed by the sinister intrusion, by a man who knows her family and their future so well that he can pick up a photo more or less at random and use it to tell her exactly how everything is going to start falling apart.

I won’t tell you anything more about the story except that it more than lives up to the promise of that moment of surprising terror--and that it manages to bring the fantastic into the story without ever severing its connections to the everyday world. In fact, the creepy messenger in the cafe seems to represent a supernatural world whose squalor is equal to that of our own world, and he brings, not peace or hope or even perhaps true knowledge, but need, temptation, and moral obscurity. In a mere dozen pages, Carroll surprises, scares, and convinces us--then leaves us with far more questions than answers.

“The Sadness of Detail” alone is worth picking up Poe’s Children for. And once you’ve read and digested it, you’ll still have twenty-four more stories to keep you up nights until Halloween.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ghost writers

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Earlier this month, I wrote about Henry James’s ghost stories, which are among my favorites. But then I started thinking about James as a person—and realized that he’d be one of the last authors I would want to have describe an actual encounter with a ghost. Think about it: he’d circle around and around the visitation, honing his impressions to an ever-finer point, conveying each little nuance of feeling aroused by the ghost . . . and by the end, as in The Turn of the Screw, you wouldn’t even be sure he’d seen a ghost at all!

Which got me thinking: which author would be the best for reporting back on a supernatural encounter? Which of my favorites would I enter into the lists against the ghouls?

So many of my favorites would be, well, useless. Iris Murdoch would get too spiritual about it. Nancy Mitford would be too sarcastically dismissive. Evelyn Waugh would ascribe it to the DTs. Actually, any number of my favorite authors would probably ascribe it to the DTs.

But I think I’ve hit upon a couple who could be relied on to face down an apparition and come back with a satisfyingly detailed and interesting report. Here goes:

1 First, there’s William Hazlitt. If ever Hazlitt saw a ghost, there’s no record of it that I’ve found. But in his writings on English theater, collected as A View of the English Stage in 1818, he did give some idea of what he expected from a ghost.

First, there are the expected Shakespearian ghosts. In an account of a performance of Hamlet at Drury Lane in 1814, he tells us what he expects of a ghost:
We cannot speak too highly of Mr. Raymond's representation of the Ghost. It glided across the stage with the preternatural grandeur of a spirit. His manner of speaking the part was not equally excellent. A spirit should not whine or shed tears.
As for how we should behave in the presence of a presence, this appraisal of Eliza O’Neill’s portrayal of Juliet at Covent Garden in 1814, gives a good idea. O’Neill, he writes, she strikes only one false note: when she screams aloud at the sight of Tybalt’s ghost:
[T]here [is] a distinction to be kept up between physical and intellectual horror (for the latter becomes more general, internal, and absorbed, in proportion as it becomes more intense).
In other words, confronted with a ghost, Hazlitt might be terrified, but he wouldn’t lose his cool.

And an account of another stage ghost, from one of the many long-forgotten plays of the period, Frightened to Death?—a farce about a drunk whose friends, to force him to mend his ways, convince him he has died and is seeing ghosts—tells us something of the line of attack that Hazlitt might take on seeing a ghost:
A very laughable dialogue and duet here take place between the Ghost and the Ghost-seer, the latter inquiring of him with great curiosity about his ancestors in the other world, and being desirous to cultivate an acquaintance with the living apparition, in the hope of obtaining some insight into the state of that state “from which no traveller returns.”
Dignified terror and probing questions: a good starting point.

2 Then there’s Samuel Johnson. Who better than the good Doctor to tackle a ghost? I’ve quoted before—even recently—Dr. Johnson’s take on the subject of the afterlife, but it’s always worth revisiting for its characteristically Johnsonian quality of judicious language inflected by the inescapable force of human emotion:
It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
And it’s also worth remembering that, at one of the most fortuitous meetings in literary history, Johnson first appeared, if not as a ghost, then at least with the effect of one. Here’s Boswell, recounting their first meeting, on the premises of Mr. Davies’s bookshop:
At last, on Monday the 16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass door of the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us,—he announced his approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, " Look, my Lord, it comes."
Johnson, so far as we know, never met a ghost, but it’s not hard to imagine him standing up to one ferociously. I picture him demanding of the spirit credentials—some proof that its existence wasn’t the lingering effects of, as Scrooge put it, “an undigested bit of beef”—then, that established, hectoring it, absolutely unafraid, about the afterlife. Oh, the answers we could get were Dr. Johnson our inquisitor!

3 My final choice will surprise no longtime reader of this blog: Anthony Powell. Unlike the authors above, Powell had at least second-hand dealings with ghosts. The appearance of a ghost, offstage, plays a part in an unforgettable scene from the childhood of Nick Jenkins in A Dance to the Music of Time, as a maid is driven to breakdown by hauntings in the Jenkins family home. In his memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling, Powell revealed that the house in Dance was modeled closely on his childhood home, Stonehurst, which was itself home to ghosts: “a whiteish shape, misty, of no great density but some height” that appeared in the bedrooms of successive maids, and a terrifying, paralyzing presence that once accosted his mother as she lay abed. Wrote Powell,
Some parents would have tried to keep all this from a child of seven or eight. My father, left to himself, would probably have done so. My mother, on the other hand, regarded any such concealments as cutting off an essential aspect of life. Talk about “ghosts” was never at all curtailed on my account, and did not in the least disturb me. I have fairly strong feelings about the “atmosphere” of houses, but never, in fact, found that of Stonehurst in the least uneasy.
The choice of Powell, however, reflects less his experience with ghosts than my own sentimentality, and the nature of my preferred way of imagining a ghostly existence: if there must be an afterlife, and haunting, I’d like it to be as much like this life as possible. I want my ghosts to be congenial and chatty, retaining as much as conceivable of the concerns, amusements, foibles, and self-involvement of the living. And who better to engage that sort of ghost than Powell, as unfazed by differences of quickness as he was of rank, ever alert to oddity and humor? Who better to guide us through the land of the dead than the writer who’s done more than any other to guide me through the land of the living?

And for you? Who are your nominees?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ghosts in court

{Photo by rocketlass.}

On a lovely day back in June, I spent a few minutes wandering the beautifully ornate old library of the Iowa State Capitol . . . and there, with nothing but summer on my mind, I found an odd little ghost story.

It appears in Henry Spicer’s Judicial Dramas, or The Romance of French Criminal Law (1872), whose opening chapter is, unexpectedly, titled, “Ghosts in Court.” The opening lines give a good sense of Spicer’s rather florid style:
Whether or not the defective ventilation of our courts of law be inimical to the subtle fluid of which phantoms are composed, or whether these sensitive essences, oppressed with the absurdities of forensic costume and manners, take fright at the first glimmer of a counsellor's wig, or at the titter that follows a counsellor's joke, there can be no question of the extreme difficulty that has always been experienced in bringing a spectre fairly to judicial book.
The ghost I want to tell you about today comes from the French courts, where, Spicer explains,
questions of ghost or no ghost—and, if the former, what might be the worth of the ghost's testimony—seem to have been permitted a wider range. Counsel has been freely heard on either part.
The back-and-forth of the case can be a bit involved and confusing, especially in the hands of Spicer, who loves digression, but it’s worth working through at least an abridged version in order to get to the punch line.

Spicer’s story concerns a French laborer, Honore Mirabel, who claimed that late one night a ghost alerted him to the presence of a buried treasure of more than one thousand Portuguese gold pieces. And as any fan of crime novels could tell you, that’s when the complications began: unsure what he ought to do with the treasure in order to stay right with the law, Mirabel consulted a local tradesman, Auguier, who said
that the secret should be rigorously confined to those who already knew it, while he himself (Auguier) was prepared to devote himself, heart and soul, to his friend's best interests, lend him any cash he needed (so as to obviate the necessity of changing the foreign money), attend him whithersoever he went, and, in fine, become his perpetual solace, monitor, and guard.

To prevent the possibility of his motives being misinterpreted, the worthy Auguier took occasion to exhibit to his friend a casket, in which was visible much gold and silver coin, besides a jewel or two of some value.
Things, as they do, fell apart, and soon Mirabel was hauling Auguier into court, charging that Auguier had stolen the treasure entrusted to him; for his part, Auguier claimed to know nothing of the treasure and less of the ghost.

Auguier’s lawyer, sensibly fixing on the ghost as his opponent’s weak point, argued against its very existence:
Is it credible (he asked) that a spirit should quit the repose of another world expressly to inform Mons. de Mirabel, a gentleman with whose existence it seems to have had no previous acquaintance, of the hiding-place of this treasure? How officious must be the nature of that ghost which should select, in a caprice, a man it did not personally know, to enrich him with a treasure, for the due enjoyment of which his social position made him so unfit? How slight must be the prescience of a spirit that could not foresee that Mirabel would be deprived of his treasure by the first knave he had the misfortune to trust! There could be no such spirit, be assured.

If there were no spectre, there was, according to all human probability, no gold ; and, if no gold, no ground for the accusation of Auguier.
But the other, more supernaturally inclined advocate got his say, too:
Turning on the court the night-side of nature, the spectre's advocate pointed out that the gist of Auguier's defence consisted of a narrow and senseless satire upon supernatural visitations, involving a most unauthorized assumption that such things did never occur. "Was it intended to contradict holy writ? To deny a truth attested by Scripture, by the Fathers of the Church, by very wide experience and testimony, finally, by the Faculty of Theology of Paris ? The speaker here adduced the appearance of the prophet Samuel at Endor (of which Le Brun remarked that it was, past question, a work commenced by the power of evil, but taken from his hand and completed by a stronger than he); that of the bodies of buried saints after our Lord's resurrection; and that of Saint Felix, who, according to Saint Augustine,' appeared to the besieged inhabitants of Nola. But, say that any doubts could rationally exist, were they not completely set at rest by a recent decision of the Faculty of Theology? "Desiring," says this enlightened decree, " to satisfy pious scruples, we have, after a very careful consideration of the subject, resolved that the spirits of the departed may and do, by supernatural power and divine licence, reappear unto the living." And this opinion was in conformity with that pronounced at Sorbonne two centuries before.
So the courtroom see-saw continued. Mirabel produced witnesses who had heard him speak of the ghost, and the gold, but none could definitively speak to Auguier’s involvement.

But, Spicer explains, the consensus seemed ever more that there had been a treasure--and “the scale was inclining, slowly and steadily, to the spectral side”--when things got, well, silly. Auguier discovered a new witness, who testified
that subsequently to the alleged delivery of the treasure into his hands, Mirabel had declared that it was still concealed in the ground, and had invited his two brothers-in-law from Pertuis to see it. Placing them at a little distance from the haunted spot, he made pretence of digging.but suddenly raising a white shirt, which he had attached to sticks placed crosswise, he rushed towards them, crying out, "The ghost! the ghost!" One of these unlucky persons died from the impressions engendered by this piece of pleasantry. The survivor delivered this testimony.
After which Mirabel’s case--and the law’s belief in this particular ghost--rapidly fell apart.

According to Spicer, as of his writing, that was the last case in which the existence of a ghost was the subject of legal and judicial inquiry.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"The licit gratification of certain instincts which we are wont to treat as outlaws," Or, Virginia Woolf on supernatural fiction

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In Volume 1 of Virginia Woolf’s collected essays, her piece on Henry James's ghost stories, about which I wrote last week, is followed by another look at the topic of the supernatural in fiction. It was first published in the TLS a few years before the James essay, on January 31, 1918, as a review of The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction, by Dorothy Scarborough. The broader view taken in this essay allows Woolf to spin out some thoughts on the role of scary stories in general, which, though far from groundbreaking, are worth sharing:
Crude fear, with its anticipation of physical pain or of terrifying uproar, is an undignified and demoralizing sensation, while the mastery of fear only produces a respectable mask of courage, which is of no great interest to ourselves, though it may impose upon others. But the fear which we get from reading ghost stories of the supernatural is a refined and spiritualized essence of fear. It is a fear which we can examine and play with. Far from despising ourselves for being frightened by a ghost story we are proud of this proof of sensibility, and perhaps unconsciously welcome the chance for the licit gratification of certain instincts which we are wont to treat as outlaws.
As in her essay on James, Woolf here is primarily concerned with the fact that the objects of our fears--and the susceptibilities that accompany them--change with time. "Although," she writes, "we are quick to throw away imaginative symbols which have served their turn, the desire persists," then, returning to James, she continues,
If you wish to guess what our ancestors felt when they read The Mysteries of Udolpho you cannot do better than read The Turn of the Screw.

Experiment proves that the new fear resembles the old in producing physical sensations as of erect hair, dilated pupils, rigid muscles, and an intensified perception of sound and movement. But what is it that we are afraid of? We are not afraid of ruins, or moonlight, or ghosts. Indeed, we should be relieved to find that Quint and Miss Jessel are ghosts, but they have neither the substance nor the independent existence of ghosts. The odious creatures are much closer to us than ghosts have ever been. The governess is not so much frightened of htem as of the sudden extension of her own field of perception, which in this case widens to reveal to her the presence all about her her of an unmentionable evil. The appearance of the figures is an illustration, not in itself specially alarming, of a state of mind which is profoundly mysterious and terrifying. . . . The horror of the story comes from the force with which it makes us realize the power that our minds possess for such excursions into the darkness; when certain lights sink or certain barriers are lowered, the ghosts of the mind, untracked desires, indistinct intimations, are seen to be a large company.
One thing that I find interesting in Woolf's analysis is the lack of any acknowledgment of the Great War, which as she wrote was still inexorably mowing down the youth of her generation and driving unprecedented interest in spiritualism. Though she writes that, "the great increase of the psychical ghost story in late years . . . testifies to the fact that our sense of our own ghostliness has much quickened," she never mentions the legions of war dead, or the way that the war's senseless carnage put paid to any number of tidy narratives about king and country, honor and duty, faith and heaven--or the barrier between life and afterlife.

What's perhaps even more interesting is that, nearly a century on, the approach Woolf describes--the psychological approach--remains the preferred form of the ghost story. Even Stephen King, who is never shy about his willingness to go for the gross-out if need be, roots his horror in the everyday, post-Freud fear that we can never fully know our own minds, and that our knee-jerk response to any supernatural manifestation is that we must be going insane, that it just might be a product of our own disturbed consciousness. And despite all the breakthroughs and discoveries of the century just past, science has neither liberated us from such fears nor provided a newer, more convincing bogeyman to replace them; unhappily awake in our beds at 3 a.m., we are all still our own worst nightmares.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Virginia Woolf on Henry James's ghost stories, or, "Surely there are facts enough in the world to go round."

A pleasant discovery I made while reading Martin Scofield’s introduction to The Ghost Stories of Henry James on Wednesday was that Virginia Woolf wrote on that very topic. A few minutes in the library--faced with that endlessly entrancing shelf of the many, many volumes of her letters, diaries, and essays--and I had it before me: a brief piece written for the Times Literary Supplement of December 22, 1921.

In the essay, Woolf makes many of the same points I did in Wednesday’s post, the obvious ones about the fine line between Jamesian inner consciousness and the bodiless manifestations of the supernatural--but as in all her essays, she makes her points in a forthright, clear, and memorable fashion. So she writes, of a relationship that, in James’s story “The Friends of the Friends,” continues after death:
And yet--does it make very much difference? Henry James has only to take the smallest of steps and he is over the border. His characters with their extreme fineness of perception are already half-way out of the body. There is nothing violent in their release. They seem rather to have achieved at last what they have long been attempting--communication without obstacle. But Henry James, after all, kept his ghosts for his ghost stories. Obstacles are essential to The Wings of the Dove. When he removed them by supernatural means as he did in The Friends of the Friends he did so in order to produce a particular effect. The story is very short; there is no time to elaborate the relationship; but the point can be pressed home by a shock. The supernatural is brought in to provide that shock.
Elsewhere, she outlines perfectly how James--and, for that matter, his contemporary Edith Wharton--uses the supernatural most effectively:
Henry James’s ghosts have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts--the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it*; whenever the ordinary appears ringed by the strange. The baffling things that are left over, the frightening ones that persist--these are the emotions that he takes, embodies, makes consoling and companionable.
Those are the benefits offered a writer by the supernatural, but Woolf also dwells on the risks. Ann Radcliffe could scare our ancestors with her Mysteries of Udolpho because
they were our ancestors; because they lived with very few books, an occasional post, a newspaper superannuated before it reached them, in the depths of the country or in a town which resembled the more modest of our villages, with long hours to spend sitting over the fire drinking wine by the light of half a dozen candles.
We, on the other hand--and add nearly a century of advances in communication and in horrors to your reckoning as you read this--
breakfast upon a richer feast of horror than served them for a twelvemonth. We are tired of violence; we suspect mystery. Surely, we might say to a writer set upon the supernatural, there are facts enough in the world to go round. . . . Moreover, we are impervious to fear. Your ghosts will only make us laugh, and if you try to express some tender and intimate vision of a world stripped of its hide we shall be forced (and there is nothing more uncomfortable) to look the other way. But writers, if they are worth their salt, never take advice. They always run risks. To admit that the supernatural was used for the last time by Mrs. Radcliffe and that modern nerves are immune from the wonder and terror which ghosts have always inspired would be to throw up the sponge too easily. If the old methods are obsolete, it is the business of a writer to discover new ones. The public can feel again what it has once felt--there can be no doubt about that; only from time to time the point of attack must be changed.
That determination, that confidence in the infinite suppleness and capacity of art to elicit whatever feelings it sets its sights on, makes me appreciate even more the unexpectedly sly humor with which Woolf structured her essay: from that general statement of principles, she moves, story by story, through James’s ghost stories, noting their achievements, deficiencies, and differences (“the enticing game of pinning your author to the board by detecting once more traces of his fineness, his subtlety, whatever his prevailing characteristics may be, is rudely interrupted” by his changes of approach). Then, having convinced herself that James’s ghosts, “remain always a little worldly. We may feel clumsy in their presence but we cannot feel afraid,” she writes,
What does it matter, then, if we do pick up The Turn of the Screw an hour or so before bedtime? After an exquisite entertainment, we shall, if the other stories are to be trusted, end with this fine music in our ears, and sleep the sounder.
Nearly a century later, The Turn of the Screw having lost none of its power, that passage can’t help but make you smile, no? An hour of reading later,
We are afraid of something, perhaps, in ourselves. In short, we turn on the light.
Henry James, she writes,
has conquered. That courtly, worldly, sentimental old gentleman can still make us afraid of the dark.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Around the campfire with Henry James

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In youth, the dividing lines between them, broadly drawn, and us, narrowly drawn, are relatively simple. They like that music; we like this music. They like those books; we like these books. End of discussion. Adulthood--responsibly conducted--on the other hand, finds such lines much, much harder to draw. As Jean Renoir so heartbreakingly reminds us, "Everyone has their reasons."

But there is one line that may--that, let us be clear, must--be drawn: they ask, again and again, whether the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are real or merely a product of the governess's imagination, while we explain, again and again, that that's not the point.

Ahem. Which leads me to the best $1.00 you could possibly spend this month: the cost of a used copy of the out-of-print Wordsworth Classics edition of Ghost Stories of Henry James, which, as Martin Scofield explains in his introduction,
contains all the stories by James which can strictly be described as ghost stories, in that they all contain an apparition, or at least, in the case of "The Private Life" and "The Jolly Corner," a ghostly "double."
The pleasures found in those ten stories should surprise no lover of James, for no author has had a more firm grasp on the ineluctably individual nature of consciousness than him. Our ghosts are our selves, as often as not, as Scofield writes,
Henry James's ghosts are liable to arise as much from within as from without: whatever their vivid perceptibility, they are often as much emanations from the psyche as visitants from "another world." Indeed, it is precisely the equivocation between the two that gives them their imaginative power.
Which, to press a point, could be said of all of James's writing: it is from the equivocation between internal and external, and the mutual deceptions thereof, that it derives its power.

As you may have divined from these quotations, Scofield's introduction is itself worth the trouble and cost of picking up this book. In addition to drawing the necessary connections between James and Hawthorne, and Henry and his brother William, whose interest in the paranormal took a more scientific bent, Scofield presents fascinating evidence from James's life and letters in support in his attempt to argue for James's own equivocal view of the supernatural. There's James's father's account of an inexplicable personal experience with a
"damned shape," squatting invisibly in the corner of the room where he sat, "beat upon meanwhile by an ever-growing tempest of doubt, anxiety and despair, with absolutely no relief from any truth I had ever encountered, save a most pale and distant glimmer of Divine existence," a state of mind that it took him "a good long hour" to get under control
--and which will be familiar, at least in outline, to any reader of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. And there's Henry's own take on supernatural stories, offered in a letter:
A good ghost-story . . . must be connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life.
--and the account he gave of his ghost story "Sir Edmund Orme" in the preface to that volume of his New York Edition in 1909, touching on the note of the
strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy,
and the
indispensable history of somebody's normal relation to something.
--and the reminder that
The extraordinary is most extraordinary in that it happens to you and me, and it's of value (of value for others) but so far as visibly brought home to us.
It's hard to imagine Henry James reading Stephen King, and it's hard to imagine King, bookish as he may always have been, articulating his ethos in quite that way, but that's as good a capsule summary of what King got from the first moment he jumped into the horror game as anything I've seen. What's scary is what's strange; what's terrifying is what's only a tiny bit stranger than what's going on around us all the time.

The Ghost Stories of Henry James won't send you rushing to turn on all the lights in the house the way that King at his best can do, but their insidious questioning of the reliability--and their acknowledgment of the chillingly frequent pathology--of the inescapable isolation of individual consciousness will stay with you for a long, long time.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Quickly, now. There's no time to waste.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I’ve read but one story, the first, in the new collection of Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud’s short fiction, A Life on Paper, but it’s enough to convince me that this book belongs on any October reading list. Here’s how the story, “A Citizen Speaks,” opens:
As for the blight, we call it rust for its color. In reality, whether mold or oxide, its true nature eludes us. Does it not assail stone and slag alike? Both zinc and bronze? Even woodwork corrodes here. The leprosy spares only living things: a tree will spend ten years unscathed, slowly rising over a path, but let a branch be cut, treated, painted, and varnished—that branch will be disease-ridden in a few months. So unerring is it that old men’s complexions often imitate its taint. That was how my father died: reddish, as though life had singed him.
Less than two pages later, the story is finished, having in that brief extent offered up strange and memorable images; a deep sense of loss, resignation, and weariness; and glimpses of the horror of inevitable, inexplicable decay. It’s a lesson in concision, in the way that allowing a voice to speak to the reader as if we already share a substantial amount of underlying knowledge of his world can allow a writer to cut right to the uncanny details of that world; the flat, matter-of-fact tone that results only emphasizes the strangeness of the situation being revealed. Dread edging into horror in two pages—that's an achievement.

More than anything, “A Citizen Speaks” reminds me of the old Robert Arthur–edited Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, and that sense of hope they convey when you find one in a used bookstore: the hope that on any given page you might discover a real gem of a horror story, long-forgotten, by an author who shared the same fate. Fortunately, Chateaureynaud, while little-known here, is far from forgotten, and I have a whole slim volume ahead, but the feeling persists of having been given a mysterious, unexpected gift, one that in mere minutes wiped away my pedestrian surroundings and injected the day with a quiet, slow-building influx of the uncanny.

Friday, October 08, 2010

"I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud," Or, Stopping off in Sleepy Hollow

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Now this is the kind of place where one ought to spend October:
From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, than an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, that the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots,.and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the night-mare, with her whole nine fold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.
You wouldn’t want to spend your whole life there, but a few autumn weeks to set the proper chill in your bones before winter sounds about right.

Even though the story is as deeply burned into my brain as into any American's, I hadn't actually read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" before taking it down from the shelf this week. It was a pleasant surprise, a ghost story that is also a gently wry portrayal of small-town life and the petty, mostly harmless vanities and foibles that thrive there. Like The Turn of the Screw, it leaves the question of the supernatural--was the Headless Horseman really a ghost, or was he a mere prank of Bram Bones?--deliberately vague, if clearly inclining towards skepticism. But unlike James, Irving is out merely for fun, not a deep exploration of the nether reaches of the human mind, so he delivers the climactic chase with great gusto:
An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand. The wavering reflection of a silver star in the bosom of the brook told him that he was not mistaken. He saw the walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones' ghostly competitor had disappeared. "If I can but reach that bridge," thought Ichabod, " I am safe." Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath.

There’s so much to cherish in this story's brief extent: the perfectly tuned portrayal of Ichabod Crane’s narcissism and priggishness, the beautifully described autumn countryside surrounding the Hudson River, the way that the battles and heroes of the Revolutionary War remain an active presence in the region--as seen in the Horseman himself, thought to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier--in the days when Irving's namesake was forming the first presidential administration.

Most of all, though, the joy of reading "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" comes from reconnecting with what has become an American myth, a story that symbolizes everything I was thinking of when I wrote last year, regarding the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories,
that New England, and the colonial past it represented, were the home of ghosts. Now that I'm an adult, despite the fact that I know much more about the realities of American history and those dark forests, that's where ghosts and spirits still live for me, and it seems natural to find them lurking in everything from the shadows of Hudson River school paintings to the Berkshire towns of John Crowley.
Even for this life-long Midwesterner, New England is home to America’s ghosts; in the autumn, it’s where I always find myself turning my gaze.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

What the ghosts want

{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Expiration Date (2010), by Duane Swierczynski:
”What exactly do you think I am?”

“You’re a dead man.”

“But I’m not.”

“Right. Sure. You’re not dead. Maybe I’m dead. Maybe I’m a dead woman floating around a sea of living people, only I don’t know it yet. Maybe I’ve been dead since I was a kid.”

“I want to ask you about DeMeo.”

“He’s good to me.”

“What does he do up there? What kind of experiments?”

“You mean you don’t know? I thought dead people knew everything. That’s why you come back. To taunt the living. To show us how smart you are, and how dumb the rest of us are.”
In fairness, I should acknowledge that the man isn’t a ghost. The only ghosts found in Expiration Date are, like those in all good noir, those generated by the secrets of our pasts, come back to haunt us.

But I couldn’t resist sharing that pessimist’s view of what ghosts want from us, especially because it serves as such a good lead-in to this passage from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial:
The dead seem all alive in the humane Hades of Homer, yet cannot well speak, prophesie, or know the living, except they drink bloud, wherein is the life of man. And therefore the souls of Penelope's Paramours conducted by Mercury chirped like bats, and those which followed Hercules made a noise but like a flock of birds.

The departed spirits know things past and to come,yet are ignorant of things present. Agamemnon foretels what should happen unto Ulysses, yet ignorantly enquires what is become of his own Son.
Which leads me to this, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, picked out by D. J. Enright for his indispensable Oxford Book of Death:
But the calling back of the dead, or the desirability of calling them back, was a ticklish matter, after all. At bottom, and boldly confessed, the desire does not exist; it is a misapprehension precisely as impossible as the thing itself, as we should soon see if nature once let it happen. What we call mourning for our dead is perhaps not so much grief at not being able to call them back as its grief at not being able to want to do so.
If there's a month to call the dead, October is it--but do you know what would you say? Do you know what you would hear?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Entering October Country

{Photos by rocketlass.}

It’s time.

Time to venture to October Country, which Ray Bradbury, in one of his familiar cascades of definition, described as,
that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain . . .
Time for hot cider and inexplicably cold rooms, for fireplaces and scratching . . . of branches? . . . at the window, for the night closing in so early, so early that you’re unexpectedly home alone for a few hours after dark before your spouse returns . . and the house, creaking and cracking, knows it; and the wind, howling and hissing, knows it; and your cats, suddenly skittish, know it.

October Country doesn’t require belief. If it did, I’d be on the other side of the line, looking in, myself. All it requires is susceptibility, a lack--however temporary--of active disbelief. We’ve all jumped when startled; October Country merely asks us to slow that jump, to savor it.

In the introduction to an anthology of scary stories he edited in 1944, Creeps by Night, Dashiell Hammett laid out what a proper visitor to October Country should bring with him in him:
To taste the full flavor of these stories you must bring an orderly mind to them, you must have a reasonable amount of confidence, if not in what used to be called the laws of nature, at least in the currently suspected habits of nature. If you believe in the ability and willingness of surgeons to transplant brains from skull to skull with shocking results, these stories may frighten you, but merely in the same way--though hardly to the same extent--that having to take ether in a strange hospital would frighten you. If you believe in ghosts, you can hope to derive from these stories at the very most a weak semblance of the sensation you would experience on being told there was a bogey-man in the closet, or on having the village cut-up wrapped in a sheet jump out at you. If you believe in werewolves, then it can make little difference to you, except perhaps academically, whether your heroine is eaten by one of them or shot down by a Cicero muscle-man. To the truly superstitious, the “weird” has only its Scotch meaning: “Something which actually takes place.”

The effectiveness of the sort of stories that we are here concerned with depends on the reader’s believing that certain things cannot happen and on the writer’s making him feel--if not actually believe--that they can but should not happen.
Throughout this month, let us choose the position of Hammett’s ideal reader--susceptible to the uncanny precisely because during the daylight hours we believe it has an opposite, that the world can be kenned. For on a dark autumn night, it’s hard to disagree with Dr. Johnson’s take on the topic:
It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
Bring on the ghosts.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Beware new months bearing gifts . . .

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss (2010):
How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten? There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories.
I am giving you this because it is the only one of its kind. I am giving you this because no one else will. I am giving you this because I need you to keep it safe. I am giving you this because I was told to do so. I am giving you this because I have had it too long. I am giving you this because I need you to understand. I am giving you this because of what it does to my thoughts. I am giving you this because I was ordered to do so.

I am giving you this because I need to forget. I am giving you this because I cannot think of any other way out. I am giving you this because that is what must come next in this story.

I am giving you this because it is October, and I need you to be scared.