“Do I believe in ghosts?… I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me. I heard one cry in the night, and I heard one laugh afterwards. If I cannot forget that, I shall not be able to sleep again.” – M.R. James
Today’s image: the ghost
We may think of stories of ghosts and ghouls as a Halloween matter today, but the practice of ghost stories at this time of year is a long one. It’s associated, of course, with the long nights we have in the northern hemisphere. Nature has also died back around us, and it’s a wistful season. One for thinking, perhaps, of those who are no longer here, even of our own mortality. The origins go back to an oral tradition of story-telling, sitting around the fire to entertain one another with tales of darker matters, fitting to the early nightfall all around.
It’s probably fair to say it’s in danger of becoming a forgotten institution. Perhaps that’s because more of a winter custom than a specifically ‘Christmas-time’ one, and doesn’t chime well with a focus on jollity and making merry. In his article ‘A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories’, Colin Dickey reminds us of the ancient nature of the custom, inherited from the ancient Pagan holiday of Samhain, which took place at the start of winter. But also that it’s something we’ve let slip due to the pre-eminence of Halloween, but weeks earlier. Dickey notes that ghost stories do not only serve to thrill, but also to teach, to remind us of our own humanity and of simple truths on how best to live (Dicken’s A Christmas Carol being an obvious example).
One of the best known ghost story writers was the English author and academic M.R. James (1862 –1936), who is quoted at the top of the page. I remember reading his classic ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ whilst at School, and finding it haunting. I cannot sleep in a room with a second, empty bed (for instance in a hotel) without remembering it. James even set out a list of ten creative writing tips for writing ghost stories in his introduction to the anthology Ghosts and Marvels.
In search of this ancient art, I am currently reading the short story collection: Ghosts of Christmas Past: A chilling collection of modern and classic Christmas ghost stories. This contains a varied selection by authors past and present, including M.R. James himself, E. Nesbit, Muriel Spark, and Louis de Bernières set, as you will have guessed, in both past and present. Not all are up-front frightening, as such, but they tend to creep up on you – last night I read ‘Dinner for One’ by Jenn Ashworth, and it is still playing on my mind next day.
Below are some memorable literary ghosts… These were partly chosen because of their time-honoured nature, all being set in spooky old isolated houses – with nobody nearby to hear your screams. Just right for a winter’s eve.
1. Most manipulative ghosts: Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1998)
In keeping with the theme, this story is related one Christmas Eve spent in an old house. A governess is hired to look after two children in the English countryside. She begins to spot the figures of a strange man and woman about the grounds. She suspects that the children are aware of their presence, too, and comes to realise that the spirits are exerting an unhealthy influence.
2. Most amusing ghost: Sir Simon de Canterville in The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde (1887) It’s not all doom and gloom. In this Oscar Wilde story, wealthy American Hiram B. Otis moves his family into English country house Canterville Chase (there’s that ‘old house in the countryside theme). It is, as one might hope, haunted, by one Sir Simon de Canterville. However, for all his flamboyance and determination, Sir Simon, alas, is inept at scaring away the pragmatic and upbeat Otis family, who simply refuse to acknowledge fear and doubt. The hapless ghost even falls victim himself to the childhood pranks of Otis twins. Only the eldest Otis daughter, Virginia, really sees our humbled anti-hero.
3. Most vengeful ghost: Jennet Humfrye in The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983)
Christmas Eve again, and we find young lawyer Arthur Kipps at home with his wife Esme and four stepchildren, telling ghost stories, but Kipps is haunted by a tale too terrible to relate. Flashback to another isolated house in the countryside, a series of unexplained noises and screams, followed by appearances of a woman in black. Each of her appearances, they say, foreshadows an imminent death. Shaken, Kipps returns to London to be reunited with fiancée Stella… but does not manage to leave the ghost behind him. A truly chilling tale.
4. Most mysterious ghosts: the unseen ghosts in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
Here we have a motley range of characters within the remote and labyrinthine Hill House, rented by Dr. Montague, a parapsychologist hoping to scientifically prove the existence of the supernatural. The house is a good choice – even caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Dudley refuse to stay the night thanks to its sinister history. Things soon begin to go bump in the night, including an eerie laughter, for which the guests cannot quite find rational explanation. Increasingly, the activity becomes directed at one of the guests, Eleanor Vance who, despite its terrors, finds it hard to flee from the house. The reader is left uncertain as to whether the ghosts were ‘real’ or a psychological manifestation.
As M.R. James himself noted, ‘‘It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable.”
Colin Dickey ‘A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories’ Smithsonianmag.com 15 December 2017.
M.R. James (M.R. James on Writing the Perfect Christmas Ghost Story) Wordsworth Editions.
Smaller photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash