Edward Parnell, in the Lancet, writes about what a ghost means. October 2020.
“Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.” Montague Rhodes James, introduction to Ghosts and Marvels
My father had an extensive repertoire of fragmentary songs he’d sing to me when I was young. He took great delight in these ditties, most of which he had made up himself, despite not being gifted with any particular musical talent. I only discovered the origin and meaning of one of my favourites, delivered as he was putting me to bed, years later when my older brother Chris explained that it was about making sure you weren’t left stranded in the dark by leaving a torch on unnecessarily. In any case, its mere mention of ghosts hooked me in, though Dad had no obvious interest or belief in the supernatural as far as I can remember.
“Waste the batteries one, two, three.All the spookies come to tea.”
Perhaps it’s no wonder that I was something of a whimsical boy – the description given to the adolescent, occult-dabbling Lord Saul in James’s short story The Residence at Whitminster—fascinated with “spookies” from an early age. I’ve no idea when this interest in the weird, the supernatural, was born, but it was already present on a 1978 summer holiday to Wales where, aged 4, I asked the Caernarfon Castle guide if the place had a ghost. This piece of family lore was told back to me years later and, although I can half-picture the incident now, I’m not sure how much of this memory is illusory or invented… (I cannot recall the guide’s answer—and none of the haunted Britain books on my bookshelves make mention of the place’s spectral associations, though on the web there are references to the castle’s floating lady, said to hover along corridors and interfere with electrical equipment).
Many excellent, recently published titles exist on the phenomenon of ghosts (and the public’s ever-changing attitudes and amount of belief in them), and of how their appearance and social purpose has morphed over time (see, for example, Roger Clarke’s 2012 A Natural History of Ghosts or Susan Owens’s 2017 The Ghost: A Cultural History). My own narrative non-fiction book Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country does not have its focus on this cultural and folkloric territory, but more on the function of fictional works—particularly the eerie short stories of several Victorian and Edwardian writers, British television adaptations of that same source material (such as the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas strand from the 1970s), or various feature-length horror films. But at its heart, Ghostland is a book in which I survey the shadows of my past, exploring ideas of memory and loss in the context of my fondness for the fictitious supernatural form.
This work was written in the aftermath of my brother’s death, when I was struggling with the rawness of bereavement and a disconnection from my sense of self (by then Chris was my only surviving close family member, the sole remaining conspirator with whom I could reminisce about childhood memories). Given all of this, a question inherent within Ghostland is what, exactly, is the work that the literary ghost story does? And is there some odd comfort to be had from these tales of otherworldly forces that might help us come to terms with our grief?
It is worth pointing out that what are often referred to as ghost stories do not necessarily contain what we traditionally think of a ghost: that is to say, some kind of physical manifestation of the dead. Take the work of one of the acknowledged masters of the form, Montague Rhodes James. The Victorian-born son of a Suffolk rector, James later became a noted medievalist and went on to hold the office of Provost of both King’s College, Cambridge and Eton’s famous public school (both of which he had himself attended). Although there are several more traditional narratives of spirits coming back to haunt those who have wronged them or caused their earthly demise (for example, Martin’s Close, in which the shade of a murdered girl is as fixated after her death on her murderer as she was in life), many of James’s finest tales are stalked by demons straight out of the illuminated manuscripts or Biblical apocrypha of the Middle Ages that he was so familiar with from his scholarship. James’s terrors are rooted in the tangible—a toothed mouth appearing beneath the protagonist’s pillow; an awful, damp, yet leather-like, suffocating guardian elemental—unlike the more ambiguous, possibly psychological horrors present in The Turn of the Screw, the ghostly masterpiece of his near-contemporary and namesake, Henry James.