Monday, October 29, 2012

The perpetual past-ness of good ghost stories

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In his introduction to last year's Oxford edition of M. R. James's Collected Ghost Stories, editor Darryl Jones quotes from James's introduction to a 1924 anthology, Ghosts and Marvels, describing it as the "nearest James ever came to a statement of theoretical principles about his chosen form." Wrote James,
Well, then: two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and a nicely-managed crescendo.
That's fine so far as it goes, though hardly an advance on Poe. It's the next portion that I find of interest: Jones explains that James thinks
The ghost story also properly belongs in the past--not necessarily the distant past; but it is important that its setting and concerns be at least a generation out of date, in a world which pre-dates technological modernity:
The detective story cannot be too much up-to-date: the motor, the telephone, the aeroplane, the newest slang, are all in place there. For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. "Thirty years ago," "Not long before the war," are very proper openings.
Writing in 1924, James clearly conceived of his chosen form--conceived of himself--as fundamentally Victorian . . . or at best Edwardian.
I've been thinking about those lines off and on all month. Is James right? Do ghost stories, told best, belong perpetually thirty years ago? Or was that argument specific to his era, the difference between pre-war and postwar, the long sensecence of the old ways versus the birth of the modern?

Well, what's a blog for if not half-baked thoerizing? Though James's position offers nothing like a universal truth--the right writer can scare with almost anything, any time--I suspect it's still a useful way of thinking about scary stories in the near-century since he wrote it. My first inclination was to separate actual ghost stories from what I think of as the larger category of "October stories"--cull the creeps from the skin-crawlies, in essence. For ghosts, broadly defined, rather than any human manifestations of evil, were James's stock in trade. But then I thought of Ray Bradbury's perpetual 1930s--the story "The Whole Town Was Sleeping," for example, from 1950, but which tells of a slasher on the loose in a city where people still walk to the moviehouse, sit on their porches, take in boarders, chat with their neighbors. . . . Or John Collier's delicious little mousetraps, written throughout the first half of the century, but, like the stories of Wodehouse (a clear influence) located in a vague, semi-modern past. Then there are Stephen King's regular returns to a dark but also alluring 1950s. Perhaps James is on to a broader truth about how we want to take our scares?

This ties in, it's reasonable to assume, with two major threads in storytelling: the "once upon a time" compact, wherein we readers agree with the writer that if he'll tell a good story, we'll suspend disbelief, an operation more easily achieved the less we're forced to acknowledge the presence of our daily mundanity in the tale; and the fact that we first encounter stories as children, when we have the fewest intellectual and emotional defenses against them. There's a reason that writers from Tolstoy to King have obsessed over childhood--and it's not because it's some greeting card-style magic unicortopia. It's because we are still forming ourselves, and thus the world, still figuring out not only what is and what isn't, but what can and what can't be, what ought and what ought not. We are susceptible, and as adults the best way to draw us in is to remind us of that susceptibility. Make us children again, however briefly, and we're yours.

All of which leads me to a question: to keep up with James's ever-shifting window, should we now be falling for ghost stories about the early 1980s? Those years seem so plastic, so artificial, that they initially seem inhospitable to spirits.

But then you start to picture it: that party your parents threw that one hot summer night, where you and your sister were pressed into serving drinks--and told how adorable you were by James, or Jimmy, with his twitchy, red-flecked eyes, kissed on the cheek by mom's friend with the smears of glittery eyeliner. Dad's cousin got on all fours and barked like a dog and scratched at the orange shag with his leg; everyone laughed and laughed. Sheila dropped an ashtray on the kitchen floor, where it shattered, sending plumes of gray dust poofing and swirling through the room, and she said a bad word. Your sister plugged into Mom's Walkman and fell asleep early under the side table, headphones over her ears, music so loud you could hear it if you stood over there.

But you stayed awake, increasingly weary as the night drew in, like you could actually feel your bones. The conversations grew louder and more demonstrative, your mom and dad acting strange, funny and wrong at the same time. Then, feeling disoriented by the noise and smoke and music, even a little queasy, you glanced out the front window and saw on the lawn, almost glowing in the midst of the darkness, the guy in the camel-hair jacket, holding the hand of that little boy and staring, staring in at the party. And just looking at the two of them made you so sad it was like something was being taken from you, something you hadn't even known you had but now realized you desperately, tearfully wanted to keep.

Remember? All these years later, surely you remember. You have to remember, because no one else saw them; no one else would even listen when you tugged at their hands and tried to tell them. Even your sister refused to believe you the next day. But how could she? She didn't see them. She didn't have to stand there, transfixed, and read the man's lips.

Friday, October 26, 2012

City life--and afterlife?

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Some atmospheric urban horrors for your Friday night, from a letter H. P. Lovecraft sent to Bernard Austin Dwyer on March 26, 1927:
The key-note of the whole setting--house, neighbourhood, and shop, was that of loathsome and insidious decay, masked just enough by the reliques of former splendour and beauty to add terror and mystery and the fascination of crawling motion to a deadness and dinginess otherwise static and prosaic. I conceived the idea that the great brownstone house was a malignly sentient thing--a dead, vampire creature which sucked something out of those within it and implanted in them the seeds of some horrible and immaterial psychic growth. Every closed door seemed to hide some brooding crime--or blasphemy too deep to form a crime in the crude and superficial calendar of earth.
I love that "fascination of crawling motion"--and the transposition of Lovecraft's twisted rural horrors to the rectilinear city. We urban dwellers house our horrors, too, and find a place for our petrified isolation despite the press of the crowd.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"My province is that dim realm where night clutches the worlds," or, Reading Lovecraft's letters

In this too-busy week, I've been finding time to dip into Lovecraft's letters. Dipping is the only sensible approach; spend too much time with Lovecraft and his less palatable side (thoroughgoing racism) starts to show. But a bit at a time, and skimmed for commentary on writers, writing, and horror, they can be quite rewarding.

Today I'll simply share a passage from a letter Lovecraft sent to Frank Belknap Long on May 3, 1922:
To me Poe is the apex of fantastic art--there was in him a vast and cosmic vision which no imitator has been able to parallel. It is no wonder that his work was totally devoid of the sensual, because his dominant excitant lay outside the domain of human relationships altogether. His was the true awe of the atom in the presence of the infinite--the essentially intellectual wonder of one who looks out upon the whirling, grotesque, and unfathomable abysses which engulf the entire world, yet of which the sensually-minded are utterly unconscious.
Later in the letter, Lovecraft hedges--but only a bit:
There may be something rather sophomoric in my intense and unalterable devotion to Poe; a devotion which has lasted for some twenty-five years without diminution; but I do not think it is so far amiss as the average ultra-modern would hasten to pronounce it. Poe was beyond anything this age can produce, and is so far America's sole contribution to the general current of world literature. He is the father of most of the redeeming features of decadent literature, and differs from the actual decadents in that they have failed to comprehend the magnificent and ultra-human point of view on which his unique writings are based.
It does remain fascinating how, after all these years, Poe remains sui generis. What other minds, for good or bad, have we seen like his?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thirteen thoughts on reading Stephen King's It at thrity-seven, twenty-one years after I first read it

Spoilers, like ghouls, may abound in the too-long post below. Consider this your warning (about the former; as for the latter you're on your own. It's October, after all).

1 If you were a teenager diving into the work of Stephen King in 1990, two books towered over all his others: The Stand and It. There was an obvious reason: they were the biggest, easily, clocking in at 1,200 and 1,100 pages, respectively. But It loomed larger for a more important reason: where The Stand was freaky, mind-bending, and extravagant, It was scary. Everyone you knew who'd read it said it was the scariest book they'd ever read. Including your sister, who knew scary books. So you devoured it. And it was.

2 All these years later, I retain an acknowledged soft spot for King. Oh, all the people who take to book review and op-ed pages, real or virtual, every couple of years to rehash the now-tired complaints about him have plenty of points. In fact, they're usually right about most of the details of their critique. HIs prose can be clunky, even laughably shoddy at times. He is unabashed about going for the gross-out. His dialogue is often terrible. But in at least eight or ten books, that doesn't matter a whit, because they simply work: these are machines designed to frighten you, and, teen or adult, they do.

3 One critique that the genre-guarding op-ed tut-tutters never seem to make is that King isn't funny. But he isn't--and he thinks he is. I bet he's funny (in a goofy uncle sort of way) in person, but on the page his jokes, usually found in dialogue, fall completely flat, barely eliciting a groan. As someone who prizes comedy in novels, I'm surprised again and again by how often King makes what he obviously thinks are jokes . . . and how hard it is to imagine even him actually laughing at them.

4 I remembered It being the scariest book I'd ever read. More than two decades later, it's still scary. The opening--which in the afterword to Cemetery Dance's twenty-fifth-anniversary edition King says he came up with only after figuring out the basic contours of his story--remains incredibly effective. What could be more terrifying than for a boy, having summoned up enough bravery to look into a storm drain--already a source of visceral fear of a non-supernatural sort--to see something alive down there? And to have that something be a clown? A clown who knows his name? We've all known about Pennywise for so long now that it's hard to imagine just how effective that first appearance must have been; even with foreknowledge, the scene remains satisfyingly chilling.

5 That scene--and especially the vicious, animalistic physical violence of Pennywise's attack when it comes--looms over the rest of the book, which, contrary to my memories, never quite reaches that level of fright again. And it's in part because of a relative lack of physicality: Pennywise and It spend most of the book tormenting the characters through visions rather than physical danger. Some of the visions (fortune cookies that spurt blood, for example) are plenty creepy, but for much of the book it's hard to believe the characters are in any physical danger. Whether it's because I'd encountered them before, or because I'm older and less susceptible, the visions simply weren't as frightening as I'd remembered.

6 One aspect of the book, however, is much more interesting when read in adulthood: that it all starts with a bunch of people in their late thirties receiving a phone call telling them it's time to make good on a promise that's now twenty-seven years old--a promise that, until that second, they don't remember at all. Once remembered, however, it has an irresistible power, drawing them inexorably back into the fight they thought they'd finished when they were teens.

That set-up allows King to cut back and forth between the heroes fighting It as eleven-year-olds and their struggles to work up the emotional, intellectual, and physical strength and courage to fight him again as adults. It's an incredibly effective way to dramatize the book's true themes of the difficulties of growing up and the surprising power and resilience that we have, even if we may not realize it, when we're children. It also can't help but draw us in: is there any way of being sure that we didn't make a similar promise at some point in our youth? Any way to know that we won't ever receive such a phone call?

7 In the afterword to the Cemetery Dance edition, King writes explicitly about that theme:
I worked on the book in a dream. I remember very little about the writing of it, except for the idea that I'd gotten hold of something that felt very big to me, and something that talked about more than monsters. To me, It has always been a book about making the terrible transition over the bridge from childhood to adulthood (it's no accident that the final act Bill and his friends perform as child heroes is sexual).

8 The end of that quote alludes to the moment in the book that was, when I first read it, the most shocking: when the teens, in order to seal their bond and be able to defeat it, have sex. Teenage me, you might imagine, didn't really know what to make of that, and it bulked hugely in my memory for more than twenty years. But when I returned to the book as an adult, I found that the scene passes quickly, important but not outsized, in the midst of a number of surprise and struggles. Is it just that I already knew about it this time around, or is it nothing more than a function of being older? (I've also long wondered what that scene is like for a woman to read rather than a man--since King is a man and all but one of the characters is a boy, there is an imbalance that even the teenage me found uncomfortable.) Its inclusion is a strange, gutsy, and, yes, uncomfortable decision, but it doesn't color the whole novel the way it did when I was a teen.

9 That said, the ending overall, which I'd remembered being disappointing, like so many of King's endings, actually worked much better for me this time around. When I was a teen, what I wanted was a clear, complete explanation of who and what Pennywise and It were. (Much like at the same age I wanted an explicit, numbered list of Spenser's rules for living from Robert Parker.) To find that they were essentially ancient, cosmic concepts that are almost incomprehensible was a disappointment. Older, more prepared to accept that some, if not most, things are ultimately inexplicable, I didn't find myself minding it at all.

10 Elsewhere in the afterword to the Cemetery Dance edition, King explains why he decided to make It manifest itself in familiar horror movie forms:
I began thinking about the differences between our childhood fears--monsters, abandonment, monsters, mistreatment, monsters, bullies, monsters--and our more mundane adult fears, like whether or not our job's insurance program covers dental. It seemed to me that we forgot the vividness of those childhood fears as we grew to adults, which might make us uniquely vulnerable to them if they ever came back . . . not as the shadows of tree-limbs on the wall or an imagined movie-poster monster in the closet, but as real things.
The Lovecraftian idea of the mind broken by a horror too great for it to comprehend is a powerful one, and King plays nicely with the different ways that might work with the very different minds of adults and children. One thing I would find hard about parenting, if I had to do it, would be that: the realization that children's fears are as real and powerful as any of our own--more so, perhaps--and that there's only so much we can do to allay them. And, more to King's point, that if we had, as adults, to deal with the uncertainty, powerlessness, and sheer vivid imaginative malleability of our young lives, we just might snap.

11 King has long been obsessed with childhood, as are many imaginative writers, but It is, I think the place where he makes the best use of it (with, perhaps, the exception of "The Body"). What's long puzzled me--and perhaps should be the subject of a standalone post--is the power of his nostalgia. As a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I don't have it at all. I have fond memories of family and friends and experiences, but I'm under absolutely no illusions that things were better, or more interesting, then. King, though . . . well, I wonder. He's obsessed with the rock music of that period, for example, seeming to still view it as a liberating force. Then there are bicycles and bullies and rock fights and and muscle cars and exploring and all the other incidentals of childhood, all seen through a relatively rosy haze. And that nostalgia started early--he wasn't even forty when he wrote It. Is this a generational trait or a personal one?

12 Speaking of generational traits: one strange omission in It is Vietnam. King cleverly comes up with the idea of all his heroes being childless--a penalty, they only later intuit, for their first victory over It. But while he sketches out their lives between 1957 and 1984 in some detail, Vietnam doesn't, if I remember correctly, come up at all. Yet they should have lost friends and family members, felt the fear and horror of it themselves. It's an odd omission, and I can't figure out whether it's intentional.

13 King's generation is famously skeptical of authority. That skepticism not infrequently verged into paranoia--a paranoia that, while understandable, makes some cultural products of the late 1960s and early 1970s tough to take nowadays, when we live in a more open, if no less easy, relationship with the darker aspects of our society, our government, and our elders. That paranoia underlies much of It, in the sense that the town itself, through its silence, is complicit in the horrors of its history.

But to me what feels more powerful, and much more frightening, is the sense of the ancient nature of the evil. We are but small people in a vast cosmos, and out there somewhere in that vastness there are powers. We rile them at our risk.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"The day is broken," or, Interstices

In the midst of the delightful mess of slovenliness, failed stewardship, ennui, and self-lacerating humor that is Will Wiles’s new novel Care of Wooden Floors come this passage:
I put out the cats’ food while the kettle was boiling for my coffee. What did they do during the night? Whatever it was, it gave them an appetite, and they chugged down their chunks of brown flesh with gusto. What did they do in the sleeping city . . fuck and prowl, no doubt, glory in streets without trams and human feet. They were active, most active, in the dark and cold corners of the night.
Two pages later, Wiles writes,
Noon passed. The day was broken, cracked down the middle like a paperback’s spine.
The passages are unrelated, but together they brought to mind something the idea of the hidden places of day and night, of secret background maneuverings, of scene-setting and stage-managing, of a world assembled and performed by powers beyond our ken--but from which the mask can sometimes, especially in these October evenings, slip just enough to unmoor us.

It's an idea that I haven't been able to shake since seeing an absolutely stunning collection of strange photographs taken by Canadian artist Jon Rafman from what he's found in Google Street View. I've drawn a number of them below from a post at Demilked that introduced me to Rafman's work.

If these images give you the same sort of strange chills they do me, it's worth trekking to Rafman's site and wandering around a bit. He's made some truly amazing finds.

When I look at these, I feel as if I'm seeing things I'm not supposed to see--that I'm being given an inadvertent glimpse behind a curtain, a look into the workings of a machine that ordinarily operates so smoothly as to go unnoticed. They feel like elemental interstices, like the concept of the hinge that Grace Dane Mazur explores in her wonderful Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination. They call to mind the injunction against looking at the face of God, which is suffused here through all of his works--and reveals him, it's hard not to think, to be sinister, perhaps even evil.

It seems right, too, that so many of these photos should feature animals. Animals, we assume from childhood, have their own secrets, knowledge, understandings, agenda. They care not why the world is the way it is, nor are they surprised by its mutability; they move through it as natives, at home in a way that our self-consciousness will not allow. Out of our sight, who knows what they do and see?

All of which also calls to mind one of my very favorite spooky stories, Robert M. Coates's "The Hour After Westerly." I was introduced to it a few years ago by James Hynes, who, in a round-up of scary stories, wrote that it "is like opening a very familiar door and discovering that it leads someplace entirely new--a feeling that's both mysterious and melancholy."

It's a fairly simple story: a commuter on his way home starts to feel "an odd sense of dullness, or pressure," a fogginess that manifests as a feeling of being late--and that, when it lifts, leaves him with an unrecoverable hour. In its place is nothing but
an image as precise and as unrelated [to his drive home] as something one might see through a sudden parting of a fog--a group of small white houses grouped at an intersection, and a clock (was it on a steeple?) with the clock's hands pointing to ten minutes to six. there was a faint suggestion of a dirt road, too, but even as he tried to consider it, it floated off into nothingness.
It is a story more of mysteries than answers, suggestions than scares, but it's as spookily atmospheric and memorable as any October story I know. While we may scoff, reasonably, at ghosts and ghouls, we all, it suggests, should perhaps fear the unfathomability of time and space--we all just might be at risk of inadvertently, invisibly, slipping between the seams, taking a wrong turning, seeing what we're not supposed to see, being who we're not supposed to be. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, the collection in which Hynes found the story, writes,
Every man has had alternate lives, there were a million paths we could have followed when young, but we followed that one which now seems inevitable to us, the one that memory says is the only one. . . . We came so very close so many times, to being fools, to being lost, to being dead, that we marvel that we have somehow blundered through to this day and year.
That story, Rafman's Google Street View photos, and the wan October twilight itself haunt me with that mystery, the world's essential unknowableness, the inescapablity of our own finitude in the midst of the undermining infinity of time and space.

Bradbury writes,
For it is not only what life does in the material world that counts, but how each mind sees what is done that makes the fantasy complete. We are two billion worlds on a world here.
Make that seven, make it October, and the reason spooky stories hold us in their sway becomes evident: the world is a haunted mirror, and while our training is strong enough that most of the we look at it slant, we can't help but let our gaze slip to its shadowy corners, and wonder at the slithering we tell ourselves we don't see there.

Monday, October 15, 2012

If only I had the monkey's paw!

{Photo by rocketlass.]

Any fan of ghost stories knows that some of the best come from writers who are known primarily for mainstream fiction, the sort where the only scares are the usual 3 A.M. existential insomnias. Henry James is the most well-known of those writers, having written enough to fill a fat volume, but he shares company, with, among others, Edith Wharton, Muriel Spark, and Rudyard Kipling, who’ve all also written a book’s worth of ghostly tales. And then there are the here-and-there one-offs from Penelope Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Joyce Carol Oates, Donald E. Westlake--the list goes on and on.

But like a classic hungry ghost, I can't help but want more. Herewith, my wish list:

1 Herman Melville. Oh, "The Lightning-Rod Man" comes close--but only in that its lush, overripe language calls to mind Ray Bradbury, and its air of menace feels as if it's building to some supernatural revelation. The fact that it doesn't in no way prevents it from being a great story, mind you. But the autumnal extravagance of this story does make me wonder what Melville might have created had he turned his hand to the world beyond the grave. (Over in the Gotham Ghost Gazette Andrea Janes, meanwhile, has speculated, in a different way, on what might have been: a ghost story not by Melville but of Melville.)

2 Joseph Conrad. In response to a question about Conrad and ghosts I put out on Twitter, Mark Kohut pointed out that not only did Conrad not write any ghost stories that he knew of, but that his story "The Black Mate" was an "anti-ghost story, ghost as con job." But imagine what Conrad's ghosts would be like? They'd be called into existence as much by our own needs as hauntees as by the dead's need to haunt, manifestations of our failures of nerve and honor, our unforgettable regrets, the gnawing acid of our mistakes. They'd certainly not be for the faint of heart two whiskeys in.

3 Barbara Pym. She would be on the other end of the spectrum from Conrad: I imagine Pym's ghost stories being gentle, even cozy. The vicarage would be haunted, manifested by spoilt milk and wobbling mint jellies; the ghost would be the source of quiet worry, its relatively benign activities nonetheless way too far beyond the pale to be acknowledged in polite company, especially as it would be at its most active when unrequited crushes begin to rear their unmentionable heads. Decorum would be at risk of disruption, desire, as always, however, ultimately thwarted by reticence. The ghost, like love, would move on.

4 Rex Stout. Wouldn't it be fun to have Nero Wolfe confronted with an actual, honest-to-goodness ghost, one he couldn't banish with a "Bosh!"? Inconceivable, I realize--Stout's world has no truck with nonsense, and Wolfe would, I suspect, continue to deny the supernatural even in the face of the strongest evidence. But what fun it would be to see the battle of wits and clash of stubbornness that could ensue between two such powerful forces!

5 Iris Murdoch. Murdoch's ghosts would, I trust, be like her characters generally: flighty, impressionable, headlong, emotional. They would haunt because of love, be banished by clarity, wreak havoc in between.

These are my five. Yours? (But let's be clear: I get the first crack at wishing for these when that damned monkey's paw turns up! Then you can go. It's not like anything could go wrong, right?)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

An apology for the Hitch in blogging

I've enlisted Alfred Hitchcock--or at least his head, as seen on the endpapers to the 1977 hardcover of his anthology Witch's Brew--to help me apologize for the lack of blogging lately. It's been a bear of a week; I'd blame ghosts if I could, but really the sources of the failure are those more prosaic October regulars baseball and work.

I'll hope to be haunting this space more reliably next week.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Can't blog--too busy reading!

829 pages! Can you blame me for being a bit behind? But don't blow out the candle and breathe a sigh of September-tinged relief: the ghosts and I will be with you again shortly!

Friday, October 05, 2012

True-life tales!

Being at best a skeptic who wishes he were an agnostic on the subject of ghosts, I tend to traffic here in actual stories of ghosts in October: created pieces, written to entertain (and frighten), rather than tales that purport to be true. Oh, I mix in the latter once in a while. Part of the fun of reading ghost stories is allowing writers and tellers to blur that line; a lot of the pleasure of M. R. James's stories, I noted yesterday, comes from their faux pedanticism and the air it lends them of veracity. But for the most part what I want from ghost stories is the enjoyment afforded by any story in which plot and atmosphere are paramount, the sensation of a well-constructed machine moving smoothly through its operations.

The past few weeks, however, have brought across my virtual desk a couple of effective stories of real-life ghosts that seem well worth sharing. The first, from the Paris Review blog, is just getting underway: yesterday writer Amie Barrodale opened a tale of a haunted apartment she once rented in Iowa City that promises to continue throughout the coming days. The first post is more tantalizing than substantive--the ghost does little to frighten--but how could anyone resist a true-life ghost story in which two people independently start referring to a closet as "the bad area" within minutes of moving in? I'm looking forward to part two.

More substantial is an article by Australian James Bradley from the new issue of the magazine Meanjin. In the course of discussing, well, "bad areas" and reports of hauntings, Bradley tosses off some really tantalizing references to ghostly experiences among his family and friends ("Another involved my brother, and a little girl he spoke to in a hallway in a hotel who could not have been there." More, please!), does a wonderful job telling a chilling story of a haunting of sorts in the sparsely settled lands of Central Australia, and shares some fascinating information about a scientific theory about the reasons some places might feel haunted. It's all worth checking out, especially the postscript, which adds another layer to Bradley's own experience of hauntings.

This passage in particular will stay with me as I read and think about ghost stories this month:
After all, any story is really two things: the experience it describes and the sense we give to that experience by arranging and shaping it. It would be a mistake to say the first is simply something that happened—no experience is that simple or unconstructed—but as soon as that experience is described or connected to other experiences it becomes something quite different, a thing charged with meaning.

This is particularly true of ghost stories, which draw their energies from the tension between our rational minds and the primitive, unsettling power of the unknown. For as long as that tension can be maintained we are moved out of the world we know and understand, into a state where meaning and the order of things are unsettled, and possibility is given play.

This frisson is both exciting and unnerving, but it can only be maintained for as long as we do not enquire too closely into what is going on.
Suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite for reading all fiction, but for ghost stories that central word, "suspension," takes on a broader meaning: for maximum enjoyment, our disbelief should not be banished entirely, but rather held in suspension, neither here nor there, as we listen and sift and ponder and wonder--and then, while still thinking ourselves in some sense rational, are jolted out of our skin, belief and disbelief alike forgotten and unimportant, overcome by the uncanny.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Walking in the woods with M. R. James

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The new Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James that Oxford published last year is full of the usual James pleasures, but it also includes a number of stories that I'd not previously encountered. My favorite thus far is a very brief, decidedly minor story, "A Vignette," which was the last that James ever wrote. He sent it just before his death in response to a request for from the London Mercury, and he described himself as "ill-satisfied" with it. It's true that the story is far from one of James's best--it's much more a sketch than a fully fleshed out story--but its straightforward, relatively unbaroque relation of some vaguely spooky sightings on the edge of the forest around James's boyhood home is nonetheless effective. Much more than the typical James tale, which generates a pleasant, if unconvincing atmosphere of veracity from its superstructure of references and second-hand accounts, "A Vignette" feels remembered, as if, as Michael Cox writes, in M. R. James: An Informal Portrait, it is
the memory of something that seemed real to him at the time and that shaped his subsequent attitude towards the supernatural.
The ultimate fright in the story I won't quote, since that seems unfair--but I will share these lines, which are nicely chilling in their noting of a common truth and the way they then apply it to a very frightening specific:
To be sure, it is difficult, in anything like a grove, to be quite certain that nobody is making a screen out of a tree and keeping it between you and him as he moves round it and you walk on. All I can say is if such a one was there he was no neighbour or acquaintance of mine, and there was some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded.
The delicacy of James's description here brings to mind that other, more famous James, and a description I've quoted before, from an anecdote told by E. F. Benson, another writer known for his ghost stories:
He described a call he paid at dusk on some neighbours at Rye, how he rang the bell and nothing happened, how he rang again and again waited, how at the end there came steps in the passage and the door was slowly opened, and there appeared in advance on the threshold, "something black, something canine."
Even when he wasn't writing ghost stories, Henry James was writing ghost stories.

It also calls to mind Kenneth Patchen's deliciously frightening "Come now, my child":
Come now, my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest?
That could be the very voice of October.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Walking with William James in the afterlife

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Who better to lead us into October than William James, wishful skeptic?

Late in The Master, Colm Toibin's novel of William's brother Henry, William and his wife are in London to see some specialists in cardiology, as William's heart seems to be weakening rapidly. Tiring of the overly cautious solicitude of his wife and Henry, William tells them that he will "expire on them immediately" should they show one more sign of pity or worry. He goes on to make the most delicious threat of afterlife activity:
And I should warn you both that the hauntings will not be ordinary. No mediums will be required. I will pounce directly.
Threats aside, a William James haunting would I suspect be remarkable less for its horrors than for its persistence: if he failed to get your attention with, for example, table tapping, he would surely turn to furniture moving, then to attic thumping, and so on and so on. It would be merely one more field to which he could turn his indefatigably curious mind.

And as far as that goes, is there anyone you'd rather have at your side in the presence of a ghost than William James?