My kind host has invited me to write on the above topic, so I thought I would open with a quick thought on how the ghost tale is defined. There has perhaps been a slight blurring of genre on the market place in recent years, with horror often being used as an umbrella term to cover haunted houses, vamp-lit etc, with publishers and authors having to add ‘tags’ to correctly identify their work. Yet the label ‘horror’ could be thought a little misleading: gore and torture are not necessarily prime elements in a ghost tale; and ghosts are not always to be found in horror stories.
Gothic literature encompasses a wide ‘multitude of sins’, and has left us an inheritance of works ranging from dark shadows, incest and murder to dry wit and satire, from The Monk to Northanger Abbey, from Frankenstein to Dracula and from T.L. Peacock to Edgar Allan Poe … these have informed some of the best writers of today and will continue to enthral readers tomorrow; horror and sensationalism have thrived in consequence. Vampires and phantoms, ghouls and ghosties have populated the genres, arm in arm, knitted together in ever wilder variations, conveniently labelled under the generic label of horror or gothic.
Yet a vampire doth not a phantom make, and likewise vice-versa. The steady increase in vamp-lit over recent years has left many either begging for more or begging for it to stop. Dracula can be termed paranormal. So can Turn of the Screw. Yet they contain very different entities, the one to all intents and purposes‘physical’, the other barely visible, perhaps solely the result of an over-active imagination.
The actual ghost tale itself, then – where has it been left? It has continued to trickle on, in and out of fashion, never quite disappearing: come the long winter evenings, who hasn’t ended up exchanging spooky experiences had in old hotels or Aunty Ivy’s old woodshed? There is still a fresh version of Christmas Carol to be squeezed out onto television, or another M.R.James adaptation.
For many, if not all of us, the ghost tale should hover in the background a little while after we have turned the light out – allowing us that gentle shiver without leaving us staring wide-eyed and transfixed into the dark corners. Well, perhaps just a little staring as well, then.
So what makes a believable ghost tale? At first, there might seem nothing particularly credible about a solid, physical creature materialising from an ancient etching; yet M.R.James uses this idea twice at least to great effect in two of his tales(‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ and ‘The Mezzotint.’); Joan Aitken likewise had a portrait come alive, and as for Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Ruddigore … nobody is at all bothered when people step out of portraits at midnight to dance a gavotte in the hall. Gothic literature has been informed by mythology in all its forms; Pygmalion has sat in the collective conscience for centuries, and is not alone. A.M.Burrage’s ‘One who Saw’, essentially a tale about curiosity, is based on the premise of a Medusa-like presence: it opens with a gathering where somebody enquires after Crutchley and is told he has been living quietly in Norfolk. The enquirer continues:
‘I used to adore that shiny black hair of his which always made me think of patent leather…I told him once that he dined out on it four nights a week.’
‘It’s as white as the ceiling now,’ Price remarked.
Having spoken he seemed to regret it, and Mrs Storgate exclaimed:
‘Oh, no! We’re speaking of Simon Crutchley.’
‘I mean Simon,’ said Price unwillingly.
Amidst the gay chatter and clinking of glasses we are suddenly brought up short by this revelation, and our curiosity is led along rather as Crutchley’s was until we too are drawn into discovering more than is entirely good for our night’s sleep. Again, there is no graphic description in precise anatomical detail of what Crutchley saw to turn his hair white, nor indeed any clear explanation – it is all rendered by the power of suggestion:
‘And here is the part that Crutchley can’t really describe. It was painful to see him straining and groping after words, as if he were trying to speak in some strange language. There aren’t really any words, I suppose. But he told me that it wasn’t just that … it was something much worse and much more subtle than that … He’s getting better, as I told you, but his nerves are still in shreds and he’s got one or two peculiar aversions.’
‘What are they?’ I asked.
‘He can’t bear to be touched, or to hear anybody laugh.’
Admittedly, Crutchley is not petrified in the literal sense – instead, the Medusa effect causes him to be physically and mentally transformed rather than frozen. Temptation proved too much for him, and, as in the Greek legend, he was caught in a trap like so many before him (and how believable is the idea of a single glance turning a chap to stone? Has that ever happened in real life? I think not – but it has become so deeply entrenched in Western mythology, its hold on imagination so strong that it has been used repeatedly – most recently, in slightly inverted form, the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who).
Yet what, in effect, is believable about a phantom, when he might so easily be a figment of the imagination, a carelessly tossed coat and hat, the shadow of a passer-by … ?
Suspension of belief is that handy tool of the painter who can then throw colours together on his canvas in bewildering array and allows gods and giants to wander through 18th century landscapes in time for a picnic next to one of Mr Capability Brown’s designs. What colours and combinations does the writer have to hand which could effect the same convincing results, the same suspension of belief? After the primaries of imagination, language and style, come the secondary colours of suggestion, atmosphere, and detail (Le Fanu, M.R.James and de la Mare all used suggestion, stealth and atmosphere in their own inimitable ways), followed by the complementaries of research, reading and rhetoric. With regard to the last, some turns of phrase in particular hit the spot so sharply as to stay with the reader long after the story is finished. A few personal favourites:
‘intelligence beyond that of a beast, below that of a man.’
‘The cat was on the stairs tonight. I think it sits there always. There is no kitchen cat.’
‘I am much troubled in sleep. No definite image presented itself, but I was pursued by the very definite impression that wet lips were whispering into my ear with great rapidity and emphasis for some time together.’
By chance, these all happen to be from works by M.R.James (Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and The Barchester Stalls), there are many others yet, but this is a post after all, not a treatise. Each of these for me encapsulates the maximum suggestivity with minimum of words, coupled with subtlety and menace – we know there is something more going in the background, underneath the surface, behind each twitching curtain … and what about the Treasure of Abbott Thomas, when they are in the well, about to take the bag of treasure out? No, there are too many spoilers about already, I shall not tell thee – go and read it if you haven’t already. 😛
Then there are a few images conjured up which I wouldn’t be without – by courtesy of Sheridan Le Fanu: the silhouette of a figure in a locked sedan chair, a red-eyed monkey uttering foul oaths from a shadowy corner, an owl-like presence fluttering within the curtains of a four-poster bed; each a harbinger of doom, each original, baroque and unique to the imagination that bore them.
The pot is coming to boil, but a pinch of salt is missing; so add to the ingredients the question of contrast:
“ “Three hours later I woke up. There was not a breath of wind outside. There was not even a flicker of light from the fireplace. As I lay there, an ash tinkled slightly as it cooled, but there was hardly a gleam of the dullest red in the grate. An owl cried among the silent Spanish chestnuts on the slope outside. I idly reviewed the events of the day, hoping that I should fall off to sleep again before I reached dinner. But at the end I seemed as wakeful as ever. There was no help for it. I must read my Jungle Book again till I felt ready to go off, so I fumbled for the pear at the end of the cord that hung down inside the bed, and I switched on the bedside lamp. The sudden glory dazzled me for a moment. I felt under my pillow for my book with half-shut eyes. Then, growing used to the light, I happened to look down to the foot of my bed.
“I can never tell you really when happened then. Nothing I could ever confess in the most abject words could even faintly picture to you what I felt. I know that my heart stopped dead, and my throat shut automatically. In one instinctive movement I crouched back up against the head-boards of the bed, staring at the horror. The movement set my heart going again, and the sweat dripped from every pore. … I can only tell you that at the moment both my life and my reason rocked unsteadily on their seats.”
The other Osiris passengers had gone to bed. Only he and I remained leaning over the starboard railing, which rattled uneasily now and then under the fierce vibration of the over-engined mail-boat. Far over, there were the lights of a few fishing-smacks riding out the night, and a great rush of white combing and seething water fell out and away from us overside.
At last Colvin went on: … ”
The terror is but briefly diffused by a brief return to the ship where Colvin is telling his tale; here, the contrast of a peaceful Mediterranean cruise, of water and fishing boats counterpoints and underlines the horror of the narrator’s haunting experience at the Abbey (which again I won’t reveal here – spoilers!).
Contrast combined with attention to detail: Kipling in his description of Strickland’s dog Tietjens in ‘The Return of Imray’:
“… His dog Tietjens–an enormous Rampur slut who devoured daily the rations of two men. She spoke to Strickland in a language of her own; and whenever, walking abroad, she saw things calculated to destroy the peace of Her Majesty the Queen- Empress, she returned to her master and laid information … Strickland owed his life to her, when he was on the Frontier, in search of a local murderer, who came in the gray dawn to send Strickland much farther than the Andaman Islands. Tietjens caught the man as he was crawling into Strickland’s tent with a dagger between his teeth; and after his record of iniquity was established in the eyes of the law he was hanged. From that date Tietjens wore a collar of rough silver, and employed a monogram on her night-blanket; and the blanket was of double woven Kashmir cloth, for she was a delicate dog.
Rough silver and a Kashmir cloth for an enormous dog – who is at the same time:‘delicate’; a deft description of a canine that leaves us in no doubt as to her value to her master, as well as her capabilities.
Further on, in his inimitable way, he describes the way Tietjens ‘senses’ a presence in the bungalow:
“Tietjens made the twilight more interesting by glaring into the darkened rooms with every hair erect, and following the motions of something that I could not see. She never entered the rooms, but her eyes moved interestedly: that was quite sufficient. Only when my servant came to trim the lamps and make all light and habitable she would come in with me and spend her time sitting on her haunches, watching an invisible extra man as he moved about behind my shoulder. Dogs are cheerful companions.”
Dry and to the point, with economy of line (that is, words) that quickly and easily demonstrate the way in which animals can add fear and suspicion to our surroundings. Kipling ties it up with the punch-line ‘Dogs are cheerful companions’; again, contrasting and thereby emphasising the thrill with a spark of wit. It’s a very particular balance, ticklish and so to the point when done right.
What draws me to writers like these, in addition to language, atmosphere and imagination is the humour that is allowed to flicker through; this, rather than detracting from the spookiness, adds to it by means of its contrast. That same tool so necessary to the colourist, equally requisite to the wordsmith, and handed down by such as Shakespeare, who can count at least two proper ghosts in his repertoire. Where better to go to see how a haunting scene is set?
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, more things in heaven and earth ….
Check out B. Loyd’s latest tale Ungentle Sleep
Blurb: When Aubrey Marchant’s engagement to Eleanor Maydew was announced to his friends, he received mixed blessings.
‘The Maydews are a bohemian lot – not many servants, even before the War.’
‘Keen on brown bread and vegetables – don’t expect too much in the way of creature comforts.’
‘Brave chap, I am sure you’ll find the country air bracing.’
‘And Eleanor comes of good stock, too. Never mind the burst water pipes.’
Aubrey managed to shrug off most of these under a jocular guise. One of his closest friends however, let slip something that would come back to him later.
‘I wouldn’t mind the rest of it – only I believe it may be a House of Spirits. Hope you can sleep all right at nights.’
Aubrey laughed at the time. ”
A crowded house party – with more guests on the way. Despite instructions to the contrary, the older part of the house is opened up . . .and something is inadvertently let out, to wreak mild havoc and insanity on the Maydews and their guests. That nasty incident involving Eleanor, followed by unpleasantness over Penny’s dress, and what is it Aubrey can hear, on the outer edge of his dreams?
Hysteria, missed cocktails, and something nasty in the attic.
Snrrip, snrrip. Snip, snap.
Even the rats run away.