Monday 26 April 2010

Of Dreams and Ghosts

"The Book of Dreams and Ghosts" was written by Andrew Lang, famous for his many-coloured collections of fairy stories – The Red, The Blue, The Green Fairy Book and the others, which I borrowed one after another from the Ilkley Public Library when I was a child.

This is different. I came across a copy of the 1899 edition – by the way, don’t you just love an old book? – the smell, the rough, thick quality of the paper, the uneven edges, the gilt-embossed covers, the blackness of the print, and the almost tactile sense that so many other hands have held it and turned the pages? Anyway, I came across the 1899 edition some time ago in one of the passageways of my labyrinthine local second hand bookshop, and bought it at once for a couple of pounds.

And what it is, is pretty much what it says on the cover. A loose collection of supernatural or ghostly anecdotes taken from all kinds of sources: the key element being that none of them were originally offered as fiction. They are all, for what it’s worth, ‘true stories’. Most are contemporary; some are historical, but even the ones from old Icelandic sagas were intended to be read as factual accounts.

Andrew Lang has no axe to grind, no drum to bang. ‘The author has frequently been asked, both publicly and privately: “Do you believe in ghosts?” One can only answer: “How do you define a ghost?” I do believe, with all students of human nature, in hallucinations of one, or of several, or even of all the senses. But as to whether such hallucinations, among the sane, are ever caused by psychical influences from the minds of others, alive or dead, not communicated through the ordinary channels of sense, my mind is in a balance of doubt. It is a question of evidence.’

It has long seemed to me that there is a great difference between a ‘real’ ghost story and a fictional one. I used to live in a small Yorkshire village full of very old houses (the one I myself lived in dated in part from the late seventeenth century). The even older whitewashed farmhouse across the road, down by the beck, had a Red Lady who was sometimes spotted looking out of one of the small upstairs windows, and the farmer’s wife was used to hearing footsteps cross the floor overhead, when no one should be there. But that was it. There was no story attached. It was a pure phenomenon. Further down the road was a medieval ‘clapper bridge’ made of two huge stone slabs: this was known as ‘Monks Bridge’ probably because Fountains Abbey used to own much of the land: the cottage nearby was said to be haunted. Coming up the unlit road on foot one dark drizzly night at about two o’clock in the morning, I was disconcerted to see someone lingering by the ford, wearing what I took to be a cagoule. As I passed, the person – whoever it was – slowly and silently wandered down towards the edge of the stream. I didn’t think ‘ghost’; I thought ‘oddball’, and hurried on. Later, I wondered… And my own aunt was well known in the family for seeing the dead, including her husband, who once – pipe in hand – politely drew back to allow her to pass through a door in her Leeds Victorian terrace, some months after he had died.

The point about these stories is that there is no point. They have no real beginning, no middle, no end, no structure. They aren’t stories at all – just anecdotes. You hear them, you are impatient or fascinated according to your nature – and then you shrug, because there is no way to take them any further. People love explanations, of course, so sometimes you get embellishments which attempt to provide some kind of rationale: these often involve hidden treasure, wicked lords, seduced nuns, suicides and murders – and are rarely convincing. ‘Real’ ghost stories (and nearly everybody knows one) are open-ended oddities, and frequently the person involved does not even realise anything strange is happening until afterwards.

Here’s one example from Lang’s book:

The Dead Shopman
The brother of a friend of my own, a man of letters and wide erudition, was, as a boy, employed in a shop. The overseer was a dark, rather hectic-looking man, who died. Some months afterwards the boy was sent on an errand. He did his business, but, like a boy, returned by a longer and more interesting route. He stopped at a bookseller’s shop to stare at the books and pictures, and while doing so felt a kind of mental vagueness. It was just before his dinner hour and he may have been hungry. On resuming his way, he looked up and found the dead overseer beside him. He had no sense of surprise, and walked for some distance, conversing on ordinary topics with the appearance. He happened to notice such a minute detail as that the spectre’s boots were laced in an unusual way. At a crossing, something in the street attracted his attention; he looked away from his companion, and, on turning to resume their talk, saw no more of him.

In this account a number of details that, in a literary story, would require something to be made of them (the ‘dark and hectic’ features of the dead man: the curiously laced boots) are presented as mere corroborative evidence. This sort of ghost story is still very much alive and well in the oral tradition. “A funny thing happened…” “A friend of mine told me…” We enjoy listening; at least I do – but the teller is excused the structure of the literary ghost story. Because what happened is ‘real’, no other framework is necessary.

The least strained of traditional explanations for hauntings is that the spirit cannot rest until some wrong it did or suffered in life has been put right. Here’s another account from Lang’s book, verbatim from a seventeenth century book with the pleasing title: Pandaemonium, or the Devil’s Cloister Opened. Notice again the use of incidental details to lend verisimilitude:

About the month of November in the year 1682, in the parish of Spraiton, in the county of Devon, one Francis Fey (servant to Mr Philip Furze) being in a field near the dwelling place of his said master, there appeared to him the resemblance of an aged gentleman like his master’s father, with a pole or staff in his hand, resembling that he was wont to carry when living to kill the moles withal… The spectrum…bid him not to be afraid of him, but tell his master that several legacies which by his testament he had bequeathed were unpaid, naming ten shillings to one and ten shillings to another…

This being the sixteen hundreds, the restless spirit was considered of dubious origin – suspicions soon gratified by events. The ghost was joined by that of his second wife, and the neighbourhood was plagued with poltergeist activities which nowadays point to the aptly named Francis Fey himself as the source of the problems:

"Divers times the feet and legs of the young man have been so entangled about his neck that he has been loosed with great difficulty: sometimes they have been so twisted about the frames of chairs and stools that they have hardly been set at liberty."

But Fey’s master and neighbours pitied him as a victim of the simple malevolence of the devil, and no further explanation seemed to be required.

Lang’s book touches upon all kinds of occult anecdotes, from premonitory dreams (“mental telegraphy”) to the full blown and richly detailed ghost story of the ‘Hauntings At Fródá’ from Eyrbyggja Saga. Too long to retell here, the tale follows the disastrous series of events following the death of the strange Hebridean woman Thorgunna at the farm of Fródá on Snaefellness, when her hostess Thurid refuses to honour a deathbed promise to burn Thorgunna’s sumptuous bedhangings (which she had long coveted). It features one of the best and most matter-of-fact accounts ever of the ghost-as-reanimated-corpse – a phenomenon which Iceland does particularly well – and finishes on another splendidly Icelandic note (since that country is the real mother of parliaments) when the hosts of the dead are finally driven away by legal decision in a court of law.

This, though obviously ‘written up’ by the author of the saga, retains much of the loose-ended mystery of the oral tradition. We never find out much more about Thorgunna, or quite why the violation of the taboo laid on her bedhangings should have such drastic consequences.

I think maybe the very best literary ghost stories, such as those of MR James, manage to combine the best of both worlds – enough of a structure to provide a balanced, causal feel to the story, enough open-ended mystery to fascinate. A ghost story which is tied off too tightly isn’t really satisfying. They are very hard things to write well, and in my post for next week I’m going to talk about ghosts in children’s fiction.  Oh, and here's a little competition.  The four black and white illustrations in this post are from M.R. James' 'Ghost Stories of An Antiquary'.  The first three people who can tell me, in correct order, which stories they match, will win a signed manuscript copy of my own ghost story "Danse Macabre".

To finish up with, here’s a ‘true’ ghost story which a friend told to me some years ago when I lived in France.

My friend was an American woman married to a Frenchman. They lived in a modern house in Fontainebleau, but her husband had elderly aunts who owned a chateau – one of those elegant small 18th century houses with shuttered windows and walled grounds that are scattered around the French countryside. This one was somewhere north of Paris, and from time to time the family would descend upon it for get-togethers at Christmas and Easter.

The bedrooms all had names, a charming custom – the Chambre Rouge, the Chambre Jaune, etc – but, said my friend, there was one bedroom everyone hoped they wouldn’t get, which latecomers would unavoidably be stuck with – the ‘Chambre des Mouches: ‘The Bedroom of the Flies.’

It wasn’t just, my friend said, that there always seemed to be flies in the room – big, sleepy, buzzy flies, crawling on the windows. One of the windows had been walled up, which was a little creepy. There was a small powder room off the main chamber, which may once have used as a nursery. But, mainly, you never got a good night’s sleep there. You lay awake and heard noises. As if something was moving about, or dragging across the floor. That was all. But she didn’t like it.

And so, when an American friend called Meredith was visiting from the States and a visit to the chateau was proposed, no one wanted to say anything when Meredith ended up getting the Chambre des Mouches. Because, really, it was probably all nonsense… but there was a certain interest around the breakfast table next morning when Meredith came downstairs.

“How did you sleep?”

Meredith hesitated. “I was comfortable enough, but I didn’t sleep so well. It was that darned cuckoo clock. It went off every hour, bing bong, cuckoo, cuckoo, and kept waking me up.”

“But Meredith,” said my friend gently, as an indrawn breath went around the table, “there isn’t any cuckoo clock.”


  1. I heard one such 'anecdote' recently. My wife used to work at the British Medical Association, which occupies a set of old buildings. Apparently, various hauntings have been reported, and one was notable in that two individuals claim to have witnessed the same thing. I am told (and I must point out that this is second or third-hand hearsay) that the individuals were two security guards, both of whom refused to go back to their jobs after what they saw. And what they saw, allegedly, on a staircase inside one of the old buildings, was a pair of feet descending the steps of the staircase... but only a pair of feet.

  2. Lovely post, Kath! I know one of those illustrations but not the others....and no time to reread James and find out. Loved the Coloured Fairy books too as a child.

  3. Loved the cuckoo clock anecdote! It sent a shiver up my spine. I wishfully believed in ghosts for most of my childhood, then stopped when I became an adult (tho' never stopped believing in magic) and since then have had a couple of strange experiences with my dead best friend which has thrown all logic out the window and made my beliefs unsteady. Just one more question that will be answered for me after I die, I suppose.

  4. I sold my last house because it was haunted - it was part of a converted workhouse and had a very hostile atmosphere on occasions. I've never actually seen a ghost, but often feel/smell presences so I certainly believe in them! Also, your post reminds me how much I love browsing in second-hand bookshops...

  5. Your post has made me realised I need to find a decent second hand bookshop near to home, I used to spend hours in one where I went to university - trouble was I felt guilty for just going in and erm, stroking books, so I now have a few old books I really don't need but now can't part with.

    I don't know what I believe in as far as ghosts and spirits go - but I do know that when i was a child after we lost the family cat my mother regularly used to hear him crying at the door to be let in.

  6. Aha... I was sure some ghost stories would emerge from this. Love the feet, Nick. And Jo, Kate, I think these kinds of experiences are more common than one might suppose. The interpretation is a different matter, but I think it should be a personal one.

    On the matter of the pictures, though - come on, folks - surely you are all familiar with the wonderful M.R. James - the MASTER of the ghost story? If not - do take my recommendation and read some. But not alone. And not at night.

    The challenge is still wide open!

  7. What a lovely post, Katherine! I recognise two of the illustrations - I'll have a think about the third.

    I have lots of ghost stories/experiences, and write ghost stories occasionally myself - I love it. This weekend, I was in Norfolk and looking for a beach for the setting of my current one, which is very much steeped in M R James. The first scene-setting thing I did when I started it was to re-read Whistle and I Will Come to You. His stories are the pinnacle of great ghost writing, aren't they?

    We must get together and talk about ghosts! I'll FB you :-)

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Right! I have my first set of correct answers (deleted, above, so as to allow others still to have a go.) Keep trying - and if you can't get all of them, the other copies of my ghost story will go to the nearest correct answer.

  10. I would just like to say that K did not delete my post because I was rude or abusive :-) I think.

  11. No no! Only because it was THE CORRECT ANSWER!

  12. Fantastic post, Katherine. Made me want to spend the afternoon in a good secondhand book shop (lucky you, yours sounds fabulous), which I couldn't do, and revisit MR James (which I did). Looking forward to ghosts in children's fiction.

  13. I can't resist a challenge, but I hadn't read the MR James stories (although I will do now after reading your post and quickly dipping into them - they're chilling reading for this time of night when my husband and children are in bed!).
    I think the order is:
    1.Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad
    2.Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book
    3.Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad
    4.Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book
    I'm not sure if finding the book online is counted as cheating so feel free to disqualify me (and I'm tired so I've probably got it wrong anyway!). I'm happy to have discovered the stories anyway. This is the great site I found the book on:
    I didn't know about that Lang book either - what a lovely find!

  14. I don't see why you shouldn't qualify, Claire - especially if I've made another convert to M.R. James's spine-chilling tales! And thanks for the site, too. If you would like a signed copy of my ghost story, could you email your postal address to me at (or I can send you an email copy if you'd prefer that).

    Well done all - I now have my three winners (some of whom facebooked me with the answers).

    Now for a happy week delving into children's ghost stories. I ought to be writing, of course. Must try and fit that in!!

  15. Wonderfully spooky post, Kath. I read masses of ghost stories when I was at school and worked on Saturdays in a library so could borrow unlimited books; M R James was a terrifying favourite, but I don't remember the stories well enough to enter the competition. Have never had a ghostly experience myself - touch wood, quite happy with that, thank you - but have heard lots of tales from those who have. Hm...