I love old ghost stories. Mostly late 19th-century British ones. There are some good American ones, Canadian ones…but mostly British ones. They’re short, maybe five thousand words at most, and are not inhabited by ghosts so much as they are by something else. Yeah, there are ghosts, but not even half the time. There are ghosts of servants that terrify their masters…people possessed by tiger gods…cancer embodied as crabs…vampires that go about in daylight and invite one to tea.
You could call them ghosts, as a kind of general catchall, but they’re something else. You have to wonder if, at the time, the British were acutely aware of the Empire falling apart, of history being redefined by other people who weren’t British. Of things being not what they seemed.
But – I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve always wanted to write a good, turn-of-the-centuryish ghost story, but the’ve always seemed to escape me. I think it’s because I didn’t really understand them.
A couple of weeks ago, at a new thrift store (DAV), I found a curious book. It’s called The Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen by Edward Gorey. It’s just what it sounds like, twelve ghost stories with Edward Gorey illustrations. Algernon Blackwood, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins, and yes, Bram Stoker. Most of them I haven’t read before. “The Monkey’s Paw” I think is the only one, but I haven’t finished the collection yet.
I had just about finished “The Body-Snatcher” by Stevenson last night when I went to bed, which might imply that it wasn’t that interesting a story, but I was very tired, so I stuck in the bookmark and went to bed.
I woke up about two, dreaming of redlines (editing marks) that had ripped themselves off the page and were bleeding freely. It’s been that kind of week. They were after me, trying to tell me to do something horrible. Some serial killers hear gods, angels, demons–I hear redlines muttering madness to me in my sleep. At any rate, I woke up, tossed and turned for a bit, then got up and wrote a few pages in my journal, because I couldn’t go back to sleep for worrying. About money, mostly, but also about feeling like I had grown pettier and meaner recently. More likely to snarl than laugh.
I wrote. As I wrote, not before, I realized that the dream with the redlines had been a nightmare so bad that it had woken me up, and that I had kept myself from going back to sleep because I didn’t want to chance slipping back into it. Simultaneously, I figured out why I was feeling so negative; when I feel like I’m not contributing, I get angry at other people that I feel aren’t contributing, or that…well, someday I’ll write it in a story. That’s what I do when I find out something so awful that I don’t want to actually confess it about myself, but I need to get it out in the open, more or less. A story has the benefit of being fictionalized, so you can both distort the truth and let a decent amount of time pass before you have to talk about it with anyone, so you have time to heal over the wounds to your ego. At any rate, it wasn’t pretty.
Then, feeling tired but not quite willing to go back to sleep, I read the end of the Stevenson story.
It was abrupt, so abrupt that it felt lame. Maybe it was just…the time it was written…eh. Whatever.
I went to bed and had a hard time falling asleep, because my head was full of good ideas. Fortunately I did fall asleep, and I did remember the one idea that was really good. I worked on it some more this morning already. I keep going, “Oh, this is good.” It was such a relief to have the weight of all that negativity off my shoulders that my mind was full of more good things than it knew what to do with.
When I woke up again, I reread the end of the Stevenson story. Yes, still curiously lame.
But then I flipped back to the beginning.
There was the end of the story. You had to read the story like this: Beginning–>End–>Beginning. If you didn’t read the beginning again, well, you might have been able to hold the entire story in your head and mentally reread the beginning. At any rate, the beginning, after I read the end, had changed.
Aside from everything else, this got me thinking about ghost stories. Not horror. But ghost stories.
Horror is about pain, and whether you give in to pain, resist it, recover from it…pain. When you look at Edgar Allen Poe, you’re looking at horror. You don’t go back to the beginning of an Edgar Allen Poe story and find that it has changed under you. Sure, “The Purloined Letter” was there all along, but in Poe’s version of ghost stories, it’s all about madness and torture and shock, not about redefinition.
The primary element of a ghost story is haunting. And what we are haunted by is not ghosts, not things that go bump in the dark, but by our assumptions about ourselves, which are so much stronger than the facts that we observe about the world…but the world will insist on its not being entirely erased by our notions.
If we could see ourselves clearly, we would not be haunted.