Opening a consideration of the Ghost Story, drawing on…
…the valorization of the realm of a culture’s ghosts and phantasms as a significant and rich field of social production rather than a mirage to be dispelled… *** …a Marxist genealogy fascinated with the irrational aspects of social processes, a genealogy that both investigates how the irrational pervades existing society and dreams of using it to effect social change. Gothic Marxism has often been obscured in the celebrated battles of mainstream Marxism, privileging a conceptual apparatus constructed in narrowly Enlightenment terms. The Enlightenment, however, was always already haunted by its Gothic ghosts…
Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination
Miracles; murders; demons driven out and stones roiled from tombs. The cheap glamour did not taint the sense beneath. It was only, in the natural history of the mind, the bright feathers that drew the species to mate with its secret self.
Clive Barker, The Forbidden
I first encountered ghost stories in the sense I mean the term, the modern Ghost Story, in the spare room of the paternal grandparents’ bungalow. I used to stay with them for a week or two every summer holiday when I was a kid. They – and I suppose I mean my grandfather really – used that room to store the books he didn’t want on display. Alongside all the old issues of Readers Digest, and the condensed novels, and my father’s old football and cricket annuals, there were lots of old books. I don’t mean old books in the sense of dusty, leather-bound tomes, their pages wormy and crumbling, attached by chains to the shelves. I don’t mean Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or In Praise of Folly. I don’t mean the Tractate Middoth or the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred or The King in Yellow. I mean from the 1950s and 60s. Cheap little paperbacks, and hardbacks with tatty paper jackets of at most two colours, both usually yellow, bearing artless illustrations and prices in shillings and pence. There were more recent paperbacks too. All dogeared and ragged, some losing their yellow pages when opened, their glue binding turning to powder, their spines cracked. The anthologies of science fiction stories and ghost stories were the ones that grabbed little me. The numbered Fontana collections with their amazingly eerie covers. The trashier ones covered in studio staged photos of cobweb-draped skulls. It was here that I first encountered Lovecraft, the two Jameses (M.R. and Henry), the two Bensons (A.C. and E.F.), Machen, Hodgson, and Blackwood. Oliver Onions and Saki. Dickens and Poe and Stoker and Le Fanu. And lesser lights like Chetwynd-Hayes, and outright inferiors whose names I don’t remember – but which I often liked best at the time, if I’m honest. And so on.
Of course, this wasn’t my introduction to stories about ghosts. But it was my introduction to Ghost Stories.
If you come to think of it, the one thing which the human mind cannot grasp is the finite, not the infinite, the temporary, not the eternal.
E.F. Benson, In The Tube
We encounter stories about ghosts very soon and almost constantly for the rest of our lives. Stories about ghosts seem to be just one of those things people do. It seems logical. Stories are innate to humanity. We are the narrativizing animal. And, being the only animal (as far as we know) that has an intellectual understanding of our own mortality, also innate to us is the dream of the survival of the personality beyond death. Indeed, the ghost story looks like the inevitable outcome of the clash between our animal feeling that our self is termless and our intelligent understanding that it is not.
Putting aside any irrelevant (to this essay) and potentially obnoxious excursions into philosophising about the origins of religion, we might be able to say this: since we use the story as the primary way in which we express our ideas – only comparatively recently have we developed alternative methods such as ‘science’, ‘news’, etc – it makes sense that we would marry the two things.
But, as is so often true of transhistorical generalisations, these truisms obscure as much as they illuminate. For a start, there is a distinction between ‘stories about ghosts’ and Ghost Stories. A story about a ghost is simply that: a story with a ghost in it. A Ghost Story is an example of a particular literary form, which may encompass many more kinds of entities than simple spectres of dead souls.
In the anthologies I read as a young child in my grandparents’ spare room at night, anthologies entitled as collections of Ghost Stories, I found stories featuring not just ghosts but also vampires and werewolves and curses, incomprehensible creatures, inkblots on the fabric of reality, predatory feelings and impressions… The Ghost Story is a form tending into a genre. It is a particular kind of expression of a particular class of social feelings, generated by the anxiety, alienation, and vertigo of the modern world. There is a crack down the spine of the history of the ghost story. It is a crack which separates the modern Ghost Story from the perennial story about the ghost, to the point of making it debatable whether we are actually talking about one continuous phenomena. The crack is, of course, modernity.
Just as capitalism adapted pre-capitalist phenomena such as the nation state to its own purposes, and in so doing altered it qualitatively as well as quantitatively, to the point where the phenomena are linked by little more than a continuity of terminology, so too did it do this to the story of the supernatural irruption and the uncanny presence.
“A house is never still in darkness to those who listen intently; there is a whispering in distant chambers, an unearthly hand presses the snib of the window, the latch rises. Ghosts were created when the first man woke in the night.”
J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister
It’s hard to think of a better, more concise cameo description of the process I’m trying to describe, the process of the adaptation of the age-old story of the ghost into the Ghost Story of modernity, than this remark.
When you see the above quote it is usually truncated to just the last line. In that form, the implication becomes that ghosts are simply a manifestation of nerves, a side-effect of the nocturnal creeps, and have existed since humanity began. But in full, the statement implies – whether or not Barrie intended it this way – that ghosts are actually a psychological product of houses, a mental construct created of the architecture of the home.
We didn’t always have houses, and the houses and homes we have now are vastly different to what generations before modernity would have pictured when they thought of such things.
Barrie is invoking the bogey of the intruder, and turning that bogey into an inhuman threat. The violator of private property and private domestic territory is inherently a spectre, an uncanny monster, in this picture. The house creates a barrier around oneself and, in the process, creates the terror of that barrier being breached. The more secure the barrier, the more uncanny the force that can breach it.
But it is not just that. The haunting is usually within, as we know. It does not just creep in from outside. It lives inside already, with you, under you, around you. We tell stories about haunted houses – as distinct from hauntings per se – because there is something about the house that is inherently haunting. That frightening barrier is not just erected around oneself and one’s property. The house is a series of barriers and compartments within a barrier. To be inside is not simply to be behind a wall, it is to be inside a maze. The very topology of a house, in which you are surrounded by space made for habitation but empty, suggests the possibility of unknown and unlicenced and unseen habitation or agency. The presence of floors and rooms and attics and basements you cannot see makes you imagine things going on in them of which you are unaware. This is especially true of the modern home, with all its extra space, and its many nooks and crannies, its many functions, its many systems and features and layers which tick and creak and groan. As with so many things, modernity has not so much created new terrors as ramped up to previously undreamt-of degrees the horrors of old.
I used to sit up well into the night in my grandparents’ spare room, reading those books, in a silent, sleeping house. I heard things.
Both versions of Barrie’s claim – the idea that we have imagined ghosts since we started existing and the idea that ghosts are a product of settled civilisation, and then even more so modernity – have some truth to them, as we’ve seen. Ghosts, and stories about them, have probably existed since humans developed consciousness. Paredolia is a perfectly good explanation for them. Not just in the sense that we see patterns in the random because false positives are more of an advantage than false negatives are a disadvantage, but also in the sense that we seem to have a kind of innate tendency to ascribe conscious agency to the world around us.
But in full, Barrie also seems to be sensing the cultural expression of the Ghost as form/genre that I mentioned above, the Ghost as modern phenomenon.
As so often, we can observe the transition – displayed in a specimen jar, as it were – in Shakespeare. Ghosts appear in several of Shakespeare’s plays. In Macbeth, Banquo turns up to take his seat at the feast despite Macbeth having him murdered. In the text, only Macbeth can see Banquo, drenched in blood. It is a question for everyone putting on a production of Macbeth: do we put Banquo on the stage or not? The text says “Enter Banquo’s ghost”. But you’re not bound. Banquo’s ghost remains silent. Even if you put him on stage, does that necessarily mean Banquo is actually haunting his murderer? Maybe the audience is simply seeing what Macbeth, in his fearful guilt, imagines. In Julius Caesar – often strangely thought of as a spare, austere play – there are many manifestations of the uncanny. In the first half of the play, we only hear tell of them. Casca, so urbane and cynical in his first scene, has become a gibbering wreck by the time we see him again, terrified by a storm which – according to him – has brought with it myriad surreal and preternatural events. In the latter half of the play, Brutus is visited by the ghost of Caesar. Again, a murderer is haunted by the ghost of the man he killed. In this case, however, productions don’t have as much freedom: the ghost of Caesar has lines. In Hamlet, young Hamlet is told of the appearance of the ghost of his father, old Hamlet. He seeks out the ghost and ends up conversing with it. Fascinatingly, he does so in private. Just as we’re about to make a generalisation – Shakespeare’s spectres only speak when alone with one other person – slippery old Will breaks his own rule. In the later scene where the ghost apparently manifests again, Hamlet is with his mother. The ghost speaks, Hamlet hears, she does not. By this point in his development, Shakespeare can have a ghost speak and yet remain of dubious reality.
Shakespeare, herald of modernity, shows us the ghost as irresolvably both a true supernatural manifestation of a ruptured reality and a psychological symptom. Here is the paradigmatic ‘hesitation’ that Tzetvan Todorov spoke of, the text pausing in a depiction of the Fantastic before it falls down on one side or another, showing us the phenomenon as Uncanny or Marvellous. He also shows us the ghost as taking on the contours of its Gothic manifestation as a revenant of repressed History.
In Hamlet, the ghost has come from Catholic Purgatory to demand socially (and theatrically) archaic blood vengeance of a son who was educated at Protestant Wittenburg. Crudely, the ghost is the epochal schism of the Reformation personified, and is thus also a personification of the past clinging to the future, of the feudal world struggling against the newly born modern world of capitalism. This is the great historical crux moment upon which Shakespeare sits, which is why his tragic heroes are always men torn between the past and the future, struggling to reconcile conflicting social values, trying to exist in a present which is both past and future at once, both epochs overlaid upon each other. It is out of this tear in the fabric of reality, caused by the grinding of two opposing historical engines against each other, that the ghosts and spectres of Shakespeare seep. In Macbeth, the rupture of rigid feudal loyalty by ruthless bourgeois competition, Macbeth’s murderous social climbing, is both effect and cause of the intervention of weird sisters and the spirits of future kings – the descendants of the silent ghost Banquo – that they invoke. In Julius Caesar, the seesaw historical moment of Caesar’s murder, the moment of violent transition from republic to empire, is attended by Casca’s unnatural storm.
Every subsequent literary and culturally-produced ghost of modernity will echo something of this Shakespearean quiddity, not because Shakespeare is an influence but because he is the first writer with a big and lingering cultural and historical footprint to devise the modern ghost as an expression of cracked history.
Walter Benjamin makes Shakespeare one of his precursors – in the way Borges wrote of writers making past writers their precursors – when he writes of History as a great storm haunted by an Angel that it propels it hurtling into the future, catastrophe and wreckage accumulating at its back.
The modern Ghost is one of the faces of that Angel of History. It is not the Demon of History. History, for the modern Ghost, is the Demon.
The true, creative overcoming of religious illumination . . . resides in a profane illumination, a materialist, anthropological inspiration.
Walter Benjamin, Surrealism
If you enjoyed this essay, consider coming back for more in this series. In the meantime, I have a number of essays on Horror and the Gothic in my back catalogue, which may be accessed at my Patreon.