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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘ghosts’

The haunted house

If you believe in that sort of thing

It being a couple of weeks now since the house move, I feel surprisingly settled-in already, and a big proportion of stuff has now been unpacked and sorted out. At some stage I will write a fuller account of what happened on move day itself, and all the stresses that had to be overcome, but today is not that day.

This post, though, is partly about how different it is living here. Not about the neighbourhood or the landscape, different though they are, but how different it is to move from an old, fragile, Victorian brick-built terrace to a modern house on a modern housing estate. Not just about how physically different the spaces are, but how I have moved away from an old building with an old building’s atmosphere to somewhere that, spiritually speaking, is much more fresh and bare.

That paragraph is really just a long-winded way of saying: the new house, I’m pretty sure, is not haunted. The old house, I can’t say that about.

Regular readers will have seen my post the other day about Surviving Death, the recent TV series about, well, evidence there is an afterlife. In that, I naturally concentrated on the bits of the documentary it was easy to be sceptical about: frankly, it’s more fun to write and I assume more fun to read. That isn’t to say, though, that I’m prepared to rule out the possibility that something can survive after death, or that ghosts exist, or anything else along those lines. All I’m sure about is that, if anything of that kind does exist, it will be completely different in every way from anything you, me or anybody else has ever been able to imagine. So I’m approaching this from a sceptical angle, but an open-minded sceptical angle. All I will say is that when I went from spending most of my time out of the house, to most of my time sitting in my bedroom working, I became less and less willing to say that the house, for definite, was not haunted.

Surviving Death didn’t really touch very much on ghosts. Maybe they’re considered a bit passé in a world where a medium promises to rustle up the spirit of a lost loved one almost on-demand. The sort of haunting I’m talking about is also one very light on evidence, with nothing other than strange feelings, curious hunches, and the like.

Last March, back when the death rate started to climb and everyone was told to stay at home, I made sure I had a suitable working space. Previously when I worked from home I’d done it at the kitchen table, which was almost tolerable but not really. For one thing, the dining chairs were fine to sit on for a couple of hours but were rather painful after a whole day. The kitchen was hot in summer, cold in winter, and the wi-fi dropped out whenever the microwave was on.* The bedroom, on the other hand, was large, directly above the wi-fi base station, and kept me nicely out of the way. I bought a cheap little desk—more of a table really—that just fitted into the bedroom’s window bay, found a slightly more comfortable chair than a dining chair, and settled down to a life of working in the window bay, tapping away at my laptop and watching the neighbours walking up and down the street, not to mention the local magpies, squirrels and occasionally foxes.

I quickly became used, though, to something else. Somebody would come and stand over me. I don’t mean I heard anything, but that I could see somebody out of the corner of my eye, who wasn’t there when I looked at them directly. They weren’t always there, but they would come and watch over me, maybe two or three times per day, when I was busy and when nobody else was around. I never saw them directly, but I knew they were there just as I knew when a living flesh-and-blood person had walked up behind me. They always approached from the same side, from my left, the direction of the doorway, never my right.

Was I just seeing my own hair moving out of the corner of my eye? Or noticing the curtains moving? But if so why only ever on the one side of me? My eyesight is rather asymmetrical, it’s true: my left eye’s sight is much worse than the right. I will, of course, never know the answer. But it’s easy to think that a 130-year old house will have had people die inside it, particularly in the large bedroom; or will have emotions and spirits become attached to it in a way that a three-year-old house will not have.

You can never trust what children, small children, say. But I remember that when they were much younger than they are now, or were a year ago even, The Child Who Likes Fairies said a man would come to play with her. An old man, she said, would come into her bedroom and talk to her. What he said was never specified, but apparently he seemed friendly. As you will have guessed, nobody of the sort had ever been in her room. Nowadays, she has no recollection at all of any of this.

Was the old house haunted? It’s not a question I can honestly give a yes to: there are too many unknowns and too little evidence. But equally, I feel I can’t say for certain that the old house wasn’t haunted. It’s not a question we can ever get an answer to, and I very much doubt a medium could help, or diving in kitted up with night-vision cameras and temperature sensors. For that matter I never had any feeling there was anybody watching when I was in bed, even though I have in the past, when living in other places, had the classic “old hag” night terror. Only when I was working, concentrating on my screen, would the figure come into the room to wonder what I was doing.

Now we have moved on and are unlikely ever to know what is happening to that place, and how it is changing from when we lived there. If it was haunted, I hope the ghost who lives there is happy with whoever is there now. I hope he finds them as intriguing as I apparently was. Since moving, I’ve been sitting at the same desk, working away on the same computer, staring out of a different window, and never feel there is anybody watching me, or that anybody I can’t see has walked into the room. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there is some distinct qualitative difference in what I feel I am perceiving. Whether that is something paranormal, or something else about the nature of the building, I would never be able to even begin to work out. Subjectively, though, whether there was a ghost or not, is there really any difference that matters?

* This is a very normal problem, so if you find your wi-fi often has problems at around the same time each day, check to see if it corresponds with cooking activities.

Winter chills

Or, what makes a ghost story frightening

With winter starting to approach, it’s time to start thinking about traditional Yuletide activities. Putting up the tree, sticking tinsel around the mantlepiece, lighting the candles; and settling down in an armchair to read a scary story.

I’m not sure when “reading a ghost story” became one of the traditional Yuletide activities, but it can only have taken a few decades at most, from the invention of the literary ghost story, to them being specifically written to read to friends by the fireside at Christmas or Yule. As early as the 1840s A Christmas Carol tied Christmas and ghosts tightly together, at precisely the time that many of our Yuletide traditions were being newly-minted. Dickens’ other famous ghost story, “The Signal-Man”, isn’t a Christmas story per se but was written for the Christmas 1866 special edition of All The Year Round. Communal Christmas ghost-story-telling is the framing story in The Turn Of The Screw, written in the 1890s by Henry James; however, I suspect that this is just a device, and that The Turn Of The Screw is rather too long to actually read out in an evening.

One of the best known English ghost story writers, however, did write his stories specifically for performance. M R James was an academic who spent virtually his whole life at either Cambridge or Eton, living in the rooms provided by the colleges he served and led. Every year, more or less, so the story goes, he would write a ghost story and perform it to his inner circle of colleagues and acquaintances at Christmas; they were then published in magazines and every few years in collected editions. He must have started doing this in his mid-30s at the latest, as his first collection was published in 1904 when he was in his early 40s and he averaged just under one published story per year from then until his death. It isn’t an enormous output: most of his time was taken up with a very active academic career as a medievalist, curator and art historian, and he also found time to occasionally write guide books for the Great Western Railway too. However, nowadays, unless you’re a medieval manuscript specialist, if you’ve heard of M R James it’s because you’ve heard of his ghost stories: they are considered classics of the genre. Indeed, they’re an entire sub-genre in their own right. The typical Platonic James ghost story can be summed up as follows: a shy, nervous academic somewhat resembling M R James is either carrying out some sort of research, or is on holiday; wherever they are, they discover some sort of antiquarian artefact or, more often, fragment of manuscript. They are then haunted by firstly a sense of terror, and then by some sort of horrific spirit which slowly gains physical form, either a humanoid shape or quite often something vile and spidery. And then, the threat somehow … goes away.

That description makes his stories sound rather anticlimatic. But, that’s because the real reason I’m writing this essay is something I feel I have to whisper to you privately, as if it were a secret unsuitable to tell you out loud. Despite his reputation as a master of the English ghost story, I don’t think very much of the work of M R James.

This isn’t because I object to the narrowness of the world he portrays, the world of late-Victorian and Edwardian academia in which men spend all their time in libraries and cathedrals and women are hardly ever at all visible. That was James’s world; he strongly believed that ghost stories should be set in the normal world of the everyday, so he wrote about what he knew. There are two things, really, that have always stopped me from enjoying James. Firstly, to my modern ear his writing sounds very clunky and awkward, especially for something originally written to be read aloud. This is the opening of “The Tractate Middoth”, published 1911.

Towards the end of an autumn afternoon an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers pushed open the swing-door leading into the vestibule of a certain famous library, and addressing himself to an attendant, stated that he believed he was entitled to use the library, and inquired if he might take a book out. Yes, if he were on the list of those to whom that privilege was given. He produced his card—Mr John Eldred—and, the register being consulted, a favourable answer was given. ‘Now, another point,’ said he. ‘It is a long time since I was here, and I do not know my way about your building; besides, it is near closing-time, and it is bad for me to hurry up and down stairs. I have here the title of the book I want: is there anyone at liberty who could go and find it for me?’ After a moment’s thought the doorkeeper beckoned to a young man who was passing. ‘Mr Garrett,’ he said, ‘have you a minute to assist this gentleman?’ ‘With pleasure,’ was Mr Garrett’s answer.

More importantly, though, I’ve never found there to be any true terror in James’s writing, however much horror there is. The stories are always resolved, but the resolution comes quickly and without any problems. If there is a villain then he will get his just desserts; often he will be attacked by some sort of supernatural entity, and the coroner will find his heart has inexplicably stopped. In many cases, though, the protagonist is rescued and the threat just goes away.

Regular readers might remember my post recently about Robert Graves, and in it, Graves’s (or rather A E Housman’s) test for a “true poem”: it makes your hair stand on end. That’s because, in Graves’s mind, a “true poem” must invoke terror, because it is about the White Goddess, who is a terrifying character. Regardless of what you think about Robert Graves and his intensely narrow-focused view as to what counts as genuine poetry, it’s fair to say that a ghost story should be able to invoke terror. I first read James’s stories in my teens, buying a cheap reprint,* and I remember being surprised that such famous ghost stories, despite many attempts to invoke horror, didn’t seem terrifying at all. My skin stayed entirely unprickled.

As I’ve grown up, though, I’ve started to feel that the real key to the ghost story isn’t necessarily just terror: the best ghost stories are also filled with emotion and sadness, of a constant sense of loss and longing. To say the obvious, they are about death, which means inevitability, eternity and regret. Ghost stories can be the saddest stories possible, because they reflect on the impossibility of changing the past and of undoing mistakes. In a very real sense, they are about regretting the path not taken. There is nothing like this anywhere in James: his characters are virtually emotionless and seem entirely free of introspection. This, combined with the flat, matter-of-fact style of writing, produces a curiously unaffecting text. I can read it and see, on an intellectual level, what James is trying to do, how he is mechanically advancing the plot; but there is no tension, no emotion, no way to draw me into the story.

I can remember, the first time I read James, that only one story really stood out and stuck in my mind, and it did so for entirely mechanical reasons. It was “A View From A Hill”, in which an antiquarian discovers a pair of binoculars that can apparently see into the past. He then takes them into a church, and they stop working entirely: the view becomes completely black and opaque as if you had left the lens caps on. The story ends with him discovering how they were made. I was fascinated by this story purely because of the artefact, the rules by which it operated, how it was made. It’s simply not a ghost story, though, and has no suspense, drama or action of any kind. A man finds a thing, he breaks the thing, and he is still the same person he always was.

There are, to be fair, good spots and good moments in James’s stories. One of the best is a relatively early one, “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”. The opening has a waspishly comic touch, with a line almost reused by Monty Python some seventy or so years later:

‘I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full Term is over, Professor,’ said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography

He does reuse the same joke again a few paragraphs down, but we can probably forgive him that. “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is one of James’s best stories, let down largely by an unnecessary final paragraph which he seems to have realised himself is superfluous, because it begins with the words “There is really nothing more to tell”. It has also benefited from an excellent and genuinely frightening TV adaptation made in the late 1960s by Jonathan Miller: he changes the character of the protagonist somewhat, but makes the ghost of the piece far more eerie and threatening than James’s writing itself conveys.

The success of Miller’s TV adaptation led to the BBC producing a regular series of Christmas ghost stories, the most famous of which is probably Dickens’s The Signalman with Denholm Elliott in the title role. More recently, in 2013, Mark Gatiss revived the idea by dramatising “The Tractate Middoth”. It needed quite a lot of alteration to turn it into a good enough storyline for modern TV, and to give the characters some sense of emotion and inner being. The female characters in the original story are barely anything more than ciphers, plot devices. As in “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You” the story ends with an extraneous additional paragraph, a single sentence, written almost apologetically to explain that James just doesn’t know how to write about male-female relationships; in the TV adaptation it turns into an entire subplot. Moreover, one of the big flaws of “The Tractate Middoth”, the story, is that in its first act the most significant events happen off the page. The main character, a library assistant, goes off-scene to fetch a book. The next we hear, he’s been taken ill. A scene or two later, we discover he was found unconscious among the stacks; and then he relates a description of the supernatural thing he saw that shocked him into a faint. The whole structure, I feel, doesn’t make sense. Rather, it feels as if James is slowly trying to introduce the sense that something wrong and frightening has happened, but the effect is to lessen, not increase, the fright. With TV, you can fix this: you can show the events as they happen, rather than describing them further down the line.

I realise, in writing this, that I’ve given lots of examples of what I don’t like in James’s writing, without really giving very concrete examples of how to write a good ghost story. That will, to be honest, have to wait for another day, because this essay is already as long as it needs to be. I’m also very aware that above I’ve criticised two of James’s stories for ending with a short additional paragraph that just doesn’t need to be there, so I’m doing my very best to avoid committing the same sin myself. Part of me thinks that, if I do know what makes the perfect ghost story, maybe I should try to write one myself at some point over the Christmas break. Watch this space, and we’ll see if I do.

* It was the Wordsworth Classics edition back when Wordsworth Classics were only £1 each.