A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It’s that time of year again. The time when we find ourselves seated in front of a rerun of the Great Escape, paper hat askew on our heads, torn wrapping paper round our ankles and ask ourselves (tearfully because of the sherry) about the true meaning of Christmas. Is it really a celebration of the birth of Christ, we rage as Nigella shows us how to make improbably perfect mince pies? Or is it just an opportunity for the perfume and toy industries to part us from our hard-earned, we mumble, peeling another satsuma?
Actually Christmas is neither of those things. Go back a thousand years or so and the winter solstice was celebrated in a very different way. Our Christian festival replaced a Pagan ceremony timed at the point when the day shrank to its shortest in order to persuade the gods to bring back the sun. Instead of tinsel or family sized boxes of Quality Street, think bonfires and human sacrifice. To the ancients, the solstice meant that the barrier between our world and that of the spirits was very thin and the tradition of telling ghost stories round the Christmas probably harks from that time, when people believed the long hours of darkness tempted the dead to return, to wait and to watch.
So what better time of year to think about the subject of ghosts in writing? Authors have long been fascinated by the supernatural, but have mainly stuck to using their apparitions to scare the living crap out of their readers, which isn’t at all to deride the quality of a good ghost story – from MR James to Henry James, by way of Arthur Conan Doyle – many tales of the supernatural are rightly regarded as classics. But for the purposes of this article, I want to talk about three books which use the ghost in a different way than just to capitalize on our very natural fear of the unknown; which use ghosts for meaning, not just for scares.
So take my hand, dear reader and let us take a journey across that thin divide between our world and that of the dead. The scratching at the window? No more than a tree, moved by the wind. Probably.
A Christmas Carol
And here we have the prime example of the Christmas ghost story, the firstborn child in this strange, dark family. The plot hardly needs a reprise: Ebenezer Scrooge, the Victorian version of Norman “on your bike” Tebbit, receives a visit from the shade of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. The ghost tells Scrooge that he has procured a chance for Scrooge to be saved from damnation said chance to take the form of three spirits, which will visit him on three consecutive nights.
Dickens wrote his story of haunting and redemption in a single burst of creative energy, which would put many a NaNoWriMo participant to shame, beginning work in October 1843 and with a draft ready for publication by mid-December of the same year. The novella was an instant success, credited with affecting its readers so profoundly that donations to charitable institutions measurably increased after it appeared.
Which was really the point of the book. At a time when children starved in the streets (you only have to read a few pages of Mayhew’s characters to get a sense of what being one of the 99% meant in Victorian London), Dickens’ story is a parable intended to play on the heartstrings of its audience, to raise awareness about the plight of the poor and because it is a parable, the characters within it, with a few exceptions, are representational rather than fully realized people. Apart from Jacob Marley, none of the shades in A Christmas Carol are ghosts in the sense we usually understand the term: that of the dead returning to the land of the living in supernatural form. Dickens’ three spirits “stand in” for abstract ideas, in much the same way as the old gods personified virtues and vices. The Ghost of Christmas Past represents nostalgia; Christmas Present, generosity and Christmas Yet to Come, the judgment of others. As Dickens sees it, these three ghosts are the embodiment of Scrooge’s withered social conscience, a physical representation of the small voice we all hear when we see a beggar and feel the urge to pretend we haven’t.
In this extract, the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge that its appearance of good cheer conceals something much less agreeable:
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.”
We all know how the story ends: the spirits do their work, Scrooge is redeemed and Tiny Tim lives. Mildly scary, a tearjerker, embraced by Hollywood for its sentimentality and simple moral message, the ghosts of A Christmas Carol are a reminder to us all that this is the time of year we should be giving at least as much as we get.
The Haunting of Hill House
Eleanor Vance is a spinsterish nobody, longtime companion to a sick, peevish mother, now living with and being vaguely bullied by her sister Carrie, the single distinguishing moment in her life being a shower of stones which, like a solitary expression of inner rage, battered her home for a brief period in her childhood. When an invitation arrives for Eleanor to be part of a psychic investigation into Hill House, widely reputed to drive its occupants insane, she defies her sister and brother-in-law and joins the small group gathered there. Dr Montague, the group’s leader, warns the others from the start that Hill House dislikes letting its guests leave, but as Eleanor discovers, sometimes the guests prefer to stay.
Shirley Jackson’s gift for creeping psychological horror, already evident in her famous short story, The Lottery, reaches its fullest expression in this tale about narcissism, madness and isolation. In the opening paragraph of the book, Hill House is described as insane; its geometry slightly off, so no two planes are perpendicular, its rooms arranged so that it is impossible to navigate in any sensible way, its nursery decorated with creatures so fearsome they sound like the product of Chuck Addams at his nightmarish best. Whatever walks there, walks alone, Jackson tells us and that is true: we never see the ‘whatever’ and neither do Dr Montague’s hapless group. There are crashing footsteps and cold spots; Eleanor holds someone’s hand in the dark; but the ghosts refuse to become visible or to communicate with the living directly. And they may not even exist. The ghosts in Hill House may or may not be expressions of Eleanor’s own disintegrating mental state. Events seem to coalesce around her, her presence is the catalyst for most of what happens and, ignored and overlooked for most of her life, Eleanor is reluctant for this attention, sinister though it is, to end. For Jackson, ghosts are the madness we carry inside us, the forbidden urges to destroy, the clawing need for love, even in its most corrupted form. We’re haunted by ourselves and places like Hill House are just a channel for that communication between our surface and what lies beneath.
‘”Can you read it? Luke asked softly, and the doctor moving his flashlight, read slowly: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME.
“No.” And Eleanor felt the words stop in her throat; she had seen her name as the doctor read it. It is me, she thought. It is my name standing out there so clearly; I should not be on the walls of this house.’
“On the walls of this house” is, of course, exactly where Eleanor longs to be. Somewhere she is wanted and special forever. Like a lock in a key, Hill house is exactly where she fits. And luckily, unluckily, Hill House feels just the same way about her.
The Body Artist
What happens after you write the Great American Novel? In the aftermath of the rapturous reception to Don DeLillo’s masterwork Underworld, observers of the literary scene must have wondered where DeLillo would go next, what he could produce that wouldn’t be either a massive anti-climax, or in some way derivative of what had come before.
DeLillo’s answer to what-happens-next was The Body Artist. As slim and precise as Underworld was huge and complex, this story is about a performance artist, Lauren Hartke, whose much older husband leaves for a drive one morning, goes to the apartment of his first wife and shoots himself dead. Lauren’s reaction to this calamity is to return some time later to the house she rented with Rey that summer. There she finds a young man hiding. She calls him Mr. Tuttle because of a resemblance to a past teacher, she talks to him, cares for him and at the point when she is able as a body artist, to become him, he disappears.
In the great spectrum of human emotions, grief stands out as the one which takes the most solid and enduring form. The Victorian trappings of loss – the black banded stationery, the widow’s weeds, the elaborate, costly mausoleums – may seem excessive to us now, but dying of a broken heart is a very real phenomenon and these rituals might well be have served as vital comfort to the bereaved, perhaps giving them a kind of road map for their suffering. Lauren Hartke, who loses her husband in a violent and inexplicable way, suffers grief as a physical dissociation. She loses the sense of her body, forgets basic little things like how to stand. When she meets Mr. Tuttle, it is as though she’s found part of herself she mislaid. She calls this slight, sandy haired youth, the foundling and records his disjointed utterances, which at first seem to be no more than fragments of her last conversation with Rey and when played back, are only her own voice talking into space. De Lillo’s ghost is grief, an emotion so overwhelming it breaks the bounds of Lauren’s body and becomes manifest in the form of a helpless, almost mute boy. Caring for him, is nurturing herself and as he fades, she returns to the world of the living, until all that remains of him is a tone of voice she sometimes uses on the phone.
‘And in these nights since he’d left she sometimes sat with a book in her lap, eyes closed and felt him living somewhere in the dark, and it is colder where he is, it is wintrier there, and she wanted to take him in, try to know him in the spaces where his chaos lurks, in all the soft-cornered rooms and unrevealing verbs, the parts of speech where he is meant to locate his existence, and in the material place where Rey lives in him, alive again, word for word, touch for touch, and she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed.’
Ghosts inhabit the pages of many books and take many forms. Some seem as solid and human as they did in life, some are no more than a hand in the dark, others the stranger who knows all our secrets. From Dickens’ three bearers of moral messages, to DeLillo’s enigmatic intruder into a woman’s grief, ghosts are never exactly what they seem. And as Jackson’s story amply illustrates, the scariest ghosts of all, are the ones which live inside our head.
Cath Murphy has a doctorate in logic, was briefly a millionaire and is a Brit living in Norway. She learned all she knows about books by reading them, sometimes several times. She writes for a number of websites on film, television and current affairs and never fails to find the funny side of what everyone else thinks is very serious. She has a website called Diatribal and a Podcast called Scribatious.