On Halloween, it’s interesting to wonder what exactly it is that makes things scary. The Slaves of Golconda have read The Woman in Black this month and it is a classic ghost story that combines all the usual elements – a lonely, isolated house linked to the mainland by a causeway over marshes that flood, local villagers who refuse to speak of the place, tragedies of the past recounted in a bundle of letters, and a ghostly figure in black with a ravaged, wasted face who is out to seek evil revenge. It’s well known territory but sometimes even the most reliable of literary codes and conventions can fail. My son saw the West End production of The Woman in Black on a school trip and I asked him how it was. ‘It was good, and quite scary in parts,’ he said. ‘But there was one moment when the characters were supposed to be saving a dog from quicksand, and there were only these two actors on stage, and no real dog, so watching them trying to pull an invisible dog to safety was quite funny really.’ It’s a terrible bit in the book, one that has real dramatic tension, but I could quite see how it would take some acting skills to express the peril of a drowning dog on a London stage with no dog in sight. Fear, like pain, relies enormously on the power of the imagination to anticipate consequences. But unlike pain, which is best evoked by the instrument that will inflict it, fear needs a dose of the unknown to be effective. We have to not know what will happen next, to be radically uncertain, before fear can really take hold.

Having read so many other wonderful reviews of the book (and just click over to the site if you want to see them), I felt I should do something different and think about what it is that lies beneath the figure of the ghost in literature. The word ‘ghost’ itself originates in the German Geist, which is defined as a spirit, an inspiring principle. To be human is to have a spirit or a soul, and the difficulty of confronting our mortality often leads to the belief that what must remain after death is this very spirit. But ghosts in stories show themselves to be more than just any old human spirit, hanging around still once the party is over. Ghosts are always in limbo, and they induce anxiety or they set tasks for those still living. Literary criticism borrows the mathematical term ‘the indivisible remainder’ to talk about them – it means the bit that gets left over, the small, niggling element that remains when every other part of the equation is finished, after all the other numbers have neatly folded in on themselves and disappeared. Ghosts represent the indivisible remainder of life; problems unresolved, and emotions of fear, rage, horror, distress, that are too big for the grave to swallow them up. The neat and tidy borderline between life and death becomes blurred by the appearance of the ghost, as does the boundary between what is real and what is fantastic. They are there to trouble what ought to be most certain to human life by suggesting that something will always elude co-option into the clear-cut or the fenced-in. It’s one reason why ghost stories so often begin with a scene of exquisite comfort – roaring fires, a happy, assembled company, houses locked up tight against the winter chill. Even, maybe especially, in the most secure environment, fear and horror and grief can find its way in, seeping through the cracks and chinks in the best domestic armour.

But the appearance of the ghost is not always understood as an intrusive threat to mental and emotional serenity. The experience of being haunted is usually described as being indistinguishable from the experience of mental anguish, and associated with melancholia, alienation and anxiety. (Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black has to be on his own, in the dark and cold, cut off from the possibility of rescue and invaded by a sense of despair for the black fear to really take a hold on him). But this is often only as an imperative to action. Many ghosts come to awaken an ethical imperative in the haunted, to ensure justice for the future as well as appeasement for the past. Whatever has been left undone, whatever cannot be subsumed into family or social history, becomes the burden of the next generation. The Gothic genre is particularly keen on this ambivalence between horror and justice. The vindictive, chain-rattling ghosts of its tales haunt family homes in order to indicate the presence of a terrible secret, usually one that threatens the legitimate transfer of an inheritance.  If there’s one thing the Victorians were really afraid of, it’s that the family bloodline would be corrupted, the money diverted and the house passed on to the undeserving.

So most ghost stories, of whatever kind, press for resolution and closure. For uncovering secrets, healing old wounds and tidying up the essential human boundaries. And they derive their fear factor from the great nebulous unknown that surrounds human anguish and the unexplained pull of the past. What we don’t know DOES hurt us, often in surprising ways.

15 thoughts on “Hauntings

  1. Having just read Audrey Niffenegger’s new book Her Fearful Symmetry, which is a ghost story set in and around Highgate Cemetery, this post is particularly apposite. Your last sentence should be a tagline on the front cover of the book. You are so spot on, Litlove. One day I hope you earn vast sums of money for your insightful reviews.

  2. Fantastic post. And what we don’t know, our pets do I might add. I know this is an aside, but I really enjoyed the dog as companion and allayer of fear. Even did a little side reading about animals and the supernatural. Had never heard this before, and knowing that many believe animals see ghosts that humans do not also lent clarity to the story’s end. Good Halloween fun!

  3. Interesting take on ghost stories, and I definitely think you’re right that ghosts represent a lack of closure. For me, the most exciting thing about ghost stories is their unresolvability – if that makes sense. I hate it when they lay the ghost and everything’s fine and everyone lives happily ever after. To me, it’s much more fun when closure doesn’t happen for those still living, and the ghosts kind of win, and get to carry on being spooky and evil. 🙂

  4. What a wonderful post, Litlove. I had never really thought about the why of a ghost before. I wonder if the Woman in Black ever gets her unresolved problems or in her case, unresolved anger and anguish resolved. Or is she just destined to keep repeating her malevolence over and over? And I wondered too about why it was Arthur that had to pay–because he was happy? She certainly bided her time and took her revenge at the worst possible time. It’s interesting to see how ghost stories are are put together. And how funny about the invisible dog in the stage production–it was a very tense moment in the book!

  5. Charlotte – oh thank you! What a lovely thing to say, and my goodness, wouldn’t that be wonderful? I’m hoping to read the Niffenegger soon, too. Did you enjoy it? I’m also extremely interested in how you get on in Litopia. I am very tempted to post my work there, and only the demands of term are stopping me at the moment.

    Frances – thank you so much! And I quite agree about animals. When I’m on my own at home and I hear strange noises, I always check out the cats. If they are sleeping peacefully, all is well. Of course, they are often the ones responsible for the strange noises in the first place… And I loved Spider in the book. He was such a great character.

    Lilian – thank you! 🙂

    Jenny – oh then The Woman in Black is the perfect read for you. Ambiguity all the way. When I was reading your comment I found myself thinking about the dullness that comes when a magician explains his tricks although I am not sure it is a good analogy!

    Danielle – now those are excellent questions and I only wish I had some really good answers. I wondered about Arthur, too, and only came to the unsatisfactory conclusion that he was just the innocent lamb to the slaughter. He challenged black magic, stood up to it, and was therefore brought low. But that of course has all kinds of implications. And it also suggests that there can be no resolution or forgiveness for some events in life – hence I imagine the woman in black keeps haunting. I always find it interesting how asking questions about books makes a reader confront their own deepest feelings. As I wrote that I was thinking – but I DO think that there can always be a resolution, although of course, that isn’t truly the case. I found that bit with Spider so scary – but when I asked my son about the production, it was the first thing he remembered! 🙂

  6. Fear, like pain, relies enormously on the power of the imagination to anticipate consequences.

    That’s a great observation, as is the remark that ghost stories are about resolution and closure. I’m pretty hard to scare, whether in print or onscreen, but The Turn of the Screw still genuinely terrifies me, and remains, I think, an object lesson in how to write psychological horror … the unspecified nature of Myles’ crimes at school, juxtaposed with the illicit sexuality of the ghosts, makes the whole thing almost intolerable, and so strangely modern. I suppose many people are barred from the story by James’ opaque use of language, which is a shame, since the issues at the heart of the story are downright prophetic, they’re so relevant to modern life. Is Miss Jessel seeing what nobody else has the courage to see — the unforgivable corruption of two children’s innocence? Or is she a frustrated virgin intent upon projecting her own fixations upon the children in her care? The reader will never know, and the genius of the story is that either way, it’s horrifying.

  7. What a wonderful analysis! Ghosts are so often about the things left unresolved so does that mean they are a lesson against procrastinating and comin to terms with our issues? I agree with your assessement that the woman in black is not done haunting. I’m not sure what would finally put her to rest.

  8. Loved this, Litlove. A good ghost story is such fun. But let’s not forget the nice ghosts – Captain Daniel Gregg (The Ghost & Mrs. Muir) and the Canterville Ghost come to mind. Wouldn’t mind either one haunting my house.

  9. This post is so useful as an accompaniment to all the reviews of Hills book — thank you! Thinking of ghosts as the “indivisible remainder” is such a useful concept. It captures why they are so scary — they represent our inability to ever pin things down and get things fully under control. We keep trying and trying to understand and control everything, but it always eludes our grasp. Frightening!

  10. David – always glad to know you are human enough to make a teeny editing error! I am a fan of The Turn of the Screw and used to teach it for the hysteria paper (which produced all sorts of occasions for joking about with the students, particularly near exam time). My take was that it was not simply a novel that was (possibly) about hysteria, but a hysterical novel itself, one that could not decide what it wanted to be. I don’t think I’ve come across another text that manages to be opaque at the level of each and every sentence. It’s quite something.

    Becca – It was a good, classic ghost story – save it up for when you need such a thing!

    Stefanie – I wondered just that about The Woman in Black; it was a suggestion, I felt, that some things could never be atoned for (which I don’t think is true), and that some evil was simply permanent. We don’t have any reverence for death these days, we’re just terrified by it, and so we don’t do that settling of accounts that our ancestors did. More fool us, probably!

    Grad – oh I firmly believe that the ghosts who make us do stuff are fundamentally on the side of right and honor, even if they are a bit pushy! 🙂

    Dorothy – I’m so glad you like that! I love that term and you put your finger on what it means exactly right.

  11. It’s very hard for those of us who like to dabble in writing ghost stories to figure out exactly what is going to be universally scary. And, of course, most of what is has already been done-to-death by the great masters (which is why I loved The Woman in Black, because she took so much of the “classic” ghost story and put it all into one book). I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it’s impossible, that what scares some won’t scare others, so that shouldn’t be the point of a good ghost story. The point should be, as Dorr notes, to remind us of the mystery in life and how we have so little control and to keep us questioning about psychology and “human-ness,” while exposing all the shades of gray between “good” and “evil.”

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