The State of the Ghost Story
'I counted that I had read seven hundred and forty-nine ghost stories,’ wrote Roald Dahl, summing up his brief experiences as an editor in the early 1980’s: ‘I was completely dazed by reading so much rubbish.’
It's perhaps a little sweeping, that rubbish, but anyone who reads a large number of ghost stories will be hard put to disagree with Dahl entirely. When it comes to ghost stories it's a sub-genre tend whose most well-known examples tend to come from a rarified group of tales, their presence in anthologies ubiquitous, their mien steadfastly traditional. There are of course stories which have been very unfairly consigned to history, and those readers willing to venture into the territory of the lesser known ghost story will find rich rewards, but to do so one is first required to first sift their way through countless tales which were perhaps best left forgotten. There is, in short, no greater test for a lover of ghost stories than to read widely in the field.
The ghost story’s golden age ran from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, a period defined by revolutionary scientific progress, but also by the conservative reaction against it. Whereas the concurrent rise of detective fiction was borne out of the era’s principle of methodical rationalism, the heyday of the ghost story reflected the reverse: beware inquiry is invariably the message of the Victorian-Edwardian spectre. The protagonists in both Dickens’ ‘The Signal-Man’ and M.R. James’ ‘Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' (to pick two stories from the grand canon at random) encounter spirits powered by a forbidding, inscrutable knowledge and are sent away humbled and cowed, life lessons learnt.
The interwar period effectively saw off the genre as we know it. As well as the advent of electricity illuminating hitherto darkened corners, the First World War had brought home the very real suffering and slaughter humans can endure. In the face of industrial carnage, tales of titillating terror began to seem inconsequential, even tasteless.
Or so it would seem. In fact, one could argue, not only has the ghost story survived but also – with an aptly invisible stealth – it has triumphed.
Firstly, writers continue to be drawn to the form. No bad thing that, but also not without its problems. The popular view of the ghost story as intrinsically Victorian has compelled many to recreate the starchy bygone tone and revisit extinct concerns. Understandably, this yields mixed results, something embodied by the supernatural novellas of Susan Hill.
Hill, still perhaps best known for 1983’s The Woman in Black, a note perfect piece of Victoriana, began revisiting the supernatural in 2007 with a series of similar-length works, each published as small and elegantly designed souvenir books. These stories – 2007’s The Man in the Picture, 2010’s The Small Hand, 2012’s Dolly and 2014’s Printer’s Devil Court – were republished recently alongside Woman as an omnibus edition (1992’s The Mist in the Mirror is omitted both from the collection and its list of the author’s other works). Taken as a whole, they serve as a handbook for the ways in which an ersatz nineteenth century performance can succeed or fail. While The Woman in Black retains its power (the book routinely pops up on the school curriculum in the UK), a reading of her subsequent efforts brings the formula which shapes them into increasingly sharp relief: the prim writing style grows increasingly perfunctory, the period details begin to look like off-the-peg gothic trappings, the circuitous someone-told-me-this second hand narrative so much padding.
But can one fault Hill? As Roald Dahl discovered, on the whole ghost stories simply aren’t any very good, and it often feels unfair to hold their authors responsible. A brief summary of what goes on in even the most successful examples – possessed paintings, sentient trees, magical monkey paws – makes clear what a tenuous, risky job it is to write seriously about the unbelievable. The reality is they either end up working or they don’t: I can think of very few okay ghost stories, which inclines me to conclude that success is as much down to serendipity as it is to craft. As a handful otherwise eminently capable authors have testified in their recent collections – Hill’s The Woman in Black and Other Ghost Stories (2015), Kate Mosse’s The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales (2013), Sophie Hannah’s The Visitor’s Book and Other Ghost Stories (2015), John Connolly’s loopy Night Music: Nocturnes Volume Two (2015) – finding one has written a decent ghost story does not necessarily mean another will follow.
While successful single-author collections remain relatively scarce, the popularity of the ghost story anthology endures. It’s rare, at least in the UK, to encounter a bookshop which doesn’t stock at least one olde-worlde hardback. In part this is because many of the most loved tales, now long out of copyright, make for a cost-effective publishing venture when gathered together. But also the simple truth is that, for all its seeming antiquated obscurity, this is a form of fiction which continues to exert a surprising hold on the reading public. Not everyone is drawn to horror, to short stories or to nineteenth-century fiction, but few can resist the rich promise of a good ghost story.
Ghostly (2015), edited and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger, has an agreeably atypical quality, breaking with anthology conventions in its pairing of reliable standards from the likes of Poe, Kipling and M.R. James with tales of sci-fi and humour and, most importantly, some first-rate contemporary stories (Amy Giacalone’s ‘Tiny Ghosts’ is published here for the first time). But there’s one story in particular, Oliver Onions’ ‘The Beckoning Fair One’, first published in 1911, which dominates the collection, due to both its domineering 25,000-plus word-count but also its subtle, gnomic impact. Although written well before the First World War, Onions’ story bristles with a queasy modernity (indeed almost modernism), equal parts trad. arr. ghost story and delineation of mental disintegration. The protagonist – a writer who moves into a new house whose previous occupant seems to have not quite left – gradually sheds his friends, his work and his life, becoming steadily immersed in a recondite, quasi-sexual malaise. But why? Is he compelled down this path by the story’s barely detectable female presence or is he simply experiencing a psychotic break? It’s a story whose aversion of cosy certainties and insistence on destructive pathology exemplify the gravity that this type of fiction can wield, uncannily prefiguring (much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper) the Freudian inwardness and dissociative brutality which would come to dominate the coming century. Indeed, there are breezy echoes in Rebecca Curtis’ 2014 ‘The Pink House’, Ghostly’s other stand-out story, in which a possible act of possession appears to compel a pair of unsuited MFA students into a miserable, doomed and inexplicable relationship.
Beginning in 113 AD with Pliny the Younger’s rumours of a remote house plagued by the sounds of clanking chains and concluding with a sharp and abstruse piece of flash fiction from 2014, Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Light On (2015), an omnivorous 800-page brick of a collection curated by thriller novelist Louise Welsh, flouts anthology norms even more brazenly. The golden age is healthily represented, but Welsh’s collection is informed by a freewheeling liberality when it comes to assessing what it is that constitutes ‘a ghost story’: stories proper sit alongside extracts from novels, poetry, non-fiction and screenplays. Glancing down the contents page, a reader may be surprised to learn that Richard Brautigan has written a ghost story, as have J.G. Ballard, Yukio Mishima and Lydia Davis. Except perhaps they haven’t, at least not in any conventional sense. Although old school yarns of dilapidated mansions and wailing phantoms abound, Ghost is at its most engaging with those more oblique stories like Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘The Dancing Partner’, in which an inventor creates a mechanical man for his daughter and her friends to dance with. No obvious ghost intrudes on the narrative and it is impossible to put one’s finger on any otherworldly force which governs the story’s events and imparts such disquiet on the reader. And yet it is there.
The inclusion of Mishima in Ghost, as well as Ben Okri and Haruki Murakami, is particularly welcome. Although the canon has, rather surprisingly, been hospitable to stories written by women – Elizabeth Gaskell’s 'The Old Nurse’s Story’, Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’ and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ all sit among the elect – there remains a deep Anglo-Saxon conservatism to the ghost story which, for those who read a large number of these sorts of books, can be very claustrophobic. It’s almost a cliché to say so but all cultures have their own ghoulish modes of storytelling: Japanese kwaidan stories remain hugely popular; China owes its existence to the Ming dynasty, the supernatural looming large in both the period’s classical novels and its folklore; Bengali literature has as rich a tradition of ghostly fiction as one could hope to encounter. On the whole, however, tales of djinn, kunti, bhoots and the like remain absent from the great ghost story songbook, viewed as anthropological curios rather than quality fiction worthy of addition to the grand canon.
And yet triumphed was the word I ventured earlier to describe the ghost story. A baffling claim perhaps, certainly a grand one, but one which I promise makes sense to anyone making their way through Ghost in the chronological order in which the stories are presented. In doing so, one begins to suspect that the ghost story, as we have come to know it, is simply the most easily categorisable iteration of a seam of writing which probes the stratum of the dark, murky unknown which generations of men and women have always suspected operates beneath their lives. The most successful modern ghost stories are rarely those which replicate the formal gothic quality of the golden age but those which retain its fascination with the inexplicable and the unreliable, which are at ease with the aberrant and the unheimlich, and which accommodate ellipses and are alert to the power of apparent non-sequiturs. All of which, it could be said, are intrinsic components on which the craft of many of our most celebrated modern authors who write non-ghostly short stories – Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill, Kevin Williams, Deborah Levy, to name a semi-random transatlantic few – have come to rely.
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