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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.

Lights And Action

In which we spot some filming going on, so talk about something completely different

On my way home, last night and the night before, I noticed something going on along Ashton Road. Big floodlights, lighting up the whole street: some sort of night filming was going on.

Being intrigued, I went to the internet to try to find out what it might be. And then I checked my website stats, and found that people have been coming to this site, already, to try to find out what was being filmed. They can’t have got an answer, at least not from me. I haven’t been able to find a complete one, either, but I have found that it’s a drama about “the lives of young women who are involved with drugs and prostitution“, and it’s not specifically set in Bedminster, Ashton Gate, or in Bristol in general. Cheerful, then.

It reminded me, though, to say: you’d be able to tell, just by looking at my website stats, that the new series of Being Human has started now, with new extra dark edginess and even dirtier vampires than before. You can tell, because of the number of people who are asking The Interweb where it was filmed. To be honest, the establishing shots in the new series make it even more obvious than previously: most of them clearly show the street name. For new readers: the Being Human house is 1, Windsor Terrace, Totterdown, Bristol.* The pub, going by the exterior shots, appears to be along Henry St. K and I had a debate about the location of the car park in Episode 1: she said Trenchard St, I said Prince St; and the gay vampire’s house in Episode 2 was on Redcliffe Parade – as anyone who’s visited Bristol probably realised. Handily just round the corner from the hospital, in fact, should you have an urgent need to pretend to be dead.**

* Not in Cardiff, as one searcher seemed to think, presumably as the series was commissioned by BBC Cymru/Wales.

** In fact, I’m slightly puzzled now, why he didn’t pop up in the first series? After all, if you’re going through a major crisis and the self-proclaimed Vampire Leader is promising to destroy you, and you have a friend who has helped you in the past and is probably On Your Side … and he lives about 2 minutes walk from where you work, you think you’d probably pop round at least once. Of course, I know the real reason is that he hadn’t been invented at that point, but never mind.

Ghost story non-update

In which we try to double-check a psychic’s work

If you’re not just a regular reader, but the sort of regular reader who reads all the comments too, then you’ll have noticed that Colleague M dropped by the site the other day to let me know that her sister Lydia had been asking for its address. “I think she’ll be upset,” said M, though, “to find you haven’t written about her for some time.”

Well, I originally wrote about Lydia because of her haunting problems, and as they seem to have gone away recently, I haven’t written about them for a month or so. I forgot to mention, though, that I did have a Plan.

As I’ve mentioned before, The Mother has been heavily into genealogy recently, and as part of that she has subscriptions to all sorts of websites, including ones which let you search 19th-century census data. Lydia’s friendly psychic investigator had told her that her ghosts were from the 19th century.* Furthermore, she’d also told Lydia their first names. So, my cunning plan was: get The Mother to look up who actually lived in Lydia’s house back then, to see if we had a match. If not, well, censuses are only held once per decade, so it doesn’t necessarily mean the psychic was wrong; but if we did have a match then that would be very impressive.

Unfortunately, the plan fell through, when Mother found that back in those days, the houses in Lydia’s street weren’t actually numbered. Bugger. Given that I only had a couple of first names to go on, she didn’t really fancy trawling through census returns for the whole street. After all, it’s a fairly long street. And, if we did find a match, it wouldn’t really be particularly good evidence anyway, given that we couldn’t firmly link them to Lydia’s house. All-in-all, I was a bit disappointed, which is why I haven’t mentioned it earlier. But I thought I would. Just in case you’re reading, Lydia.

* they couldn’t really be any older if they’d actually lived in her Victorian-built house

If I told you what you were thinking, would you believe me?

In which we consider being evil

The other day, Tim Boucher linked to Colleague M’s ghost story, in which M’s sister Lydia had a bit of trouble with a pair of argumentative ghosts apparently haunting her house. When I first heard about the ghosts, I was hoping I’d be able to post regular updates on the story; but there don’t seem to have been any updates recently. I asked M if anything had happened, and was told that everything has settled down quietly again. No more ghostly voices on the phone, no more things going missing, no more possibly-possessed cats. So, Lydia is able to sleep at night again.

It did get me thinking, though. There’s something I’m tempted to try, but it would be rather evil. I want to try to be a psychic myself.

Not a real one, you understand. However, it should be very easy to pretend to be one, if I want. I’ve still not met Lydia herself, but I do know rather a lot about her, and her family, from M. Secondly, Lydia’s job includes shifts on an enquiry-desk type of place. In other words, it’s easy to get to talk to her – all you have to do is think of a question. All I would then have to do is start telling her the things my intuition was telling me. “You seem to be a mother – I can see a lot of love in your household – but there’s a lot of strain too. Are you a single mother?” And all that sort of thing. The question is: how far would I be able to push this before she starts smelling something fishy? How much would I have to prove I know about her? Or would she just assume I could genuinely sense things about her?

Should I try this? Or would it just be too evil of me?

Ghost story (again)

Or, the story continues...

Colleague M has passed on the latest news on her sister Lydia’s ghosts. The start of the story is here.

Lydia was still worried about the argumentative ghosts that are haunting her house, according to the psychic she brought in last week. She was settling down, though, and her sleep was getting easier again. Until the other night, that is.

Her daughter – who hasn’t been told about the possible ghosts – had gone away for a couple of days to visit her grandparents, and was phoning home before bedtime. They were chatting away as normal, when the daughter said:

“Who’s that talking with you?”

Lydia had the telly on; she turned the sound off. “There’s noone here,” she said, “it must have been the TV. Can you still hear them?”

“I can still hear them, Mummy,” she said.

Lydia looked around: she definitely couldn’t hear anything herself. “What do they sound like?”

“It sounds like a man and a woman, arguing.”

So now, of course, Lydia is terrified again.

Ghost Story

In which we discover a real-life ghost story in progress

Colleague M’s sister Lydia is having trouble with ghosts.

No, really. I’m not making it up, and I don’t think M is either. I don’t know her sister, and I think that a lot of this story sounds a little unlikely. But Lydia’s scared, because she’s having trouble with ghosts.

The first M or I heard about it was a couple of weeks ago, when we were visiting M’s mum, and Lydia phoned up in a great panic. She’d gone to bed early, and had been drifting off to sleep, when a man whispered something in her ear. She awoke, startled and panicking; you can’t blame her, because her small daughter was the only other person in the house. Lydia was convinced – for no apparent reason – that this meant her father was dangerously ill and didn’t have long to live.

Anyway, leading up to this, Lydia and her daughter had been having a lot of trouble with things going missing. The sort of problems, in fact, that might be blamed on poltergeists. Little things would disappear, be unfindable, then mysteriously pop up in somewhere they’d only just looked in. Things would vanish from Lydia’s makeup bag, for example – and then would reappear impossibly, on top of it, even though it definitely hadn’t been there just before.* Secondly, just recently, Lydia got a kitten. Most of the time the kitten was happy, sleepy, purry, the way kittens usually are. Surprisingly often, though, it would start hissing and yowling, the way cats do at things they don’t like – but when there was nothing at all there. After thinking about the mysterious voice for a few days, Lydia started to wonder if all these things were connected; so, she went out and found a psychic.

The psychic she brought in was, I’m told, a very experienced psychic who is an expert at sorting out This Sort Of Thing. I’m not sure how you tell, or how you find psychics – is there a psychics category in the Yellow Pages? – but anyway, the Expert Psychic came in, sniffed around the house, and told Lydia that the house was very much haunted; which was why things kept going missing, and why the cat kept hissing at empty spaces. In fact, there were two ghosts living in Lydia’s house; they had quarrelled when they were alive, and they were quarrelling now. One of them – a man – was a nice friendly ghost; the other – a woman – was not. The friendly ghost was trying to protect Lydia from the other one, which was why she’d suddenly heard a man whispering in her ear: he was trying to warn her. The non-friendly ghost, on the other hand, kept stealing things and trying to possess the cat.** The psychic said: “I’m going to take them both away with me now – but be careful, because after a while they’ll probably come back.”

Lydia, then, is terrified. Her house has apparently been occupied by two warring ghosts who could return at any moment. At any moment, one of them might try to possess her cat, or even her daughter. Even worse, her mascara keeps going missing. As fas as she can tell, anything might happen. If anything does, I’ll try to let you know.

* I was sceptical about the significance of disappearing makeup in a house where a young girl lived; but M assures me that it wasn’t her niece doing the disappearing.

** Seriously, I’m not making any of this up. The psychic might have been, but I’m not.