|'The Ghosts' by Lord Dunsany, illustrated by Sidney Sime|
There is a great difference between a supposedly true ghost story and a fictional one. I used to live in a small Yorkshire village full of very old houses; the one my parents owned dated in part from the late seventeenth century. To the best of my knowledge we didn't have a ghost, but our neighbours in the even older whitewashed farmhouse down by the beck claimed to have a Red Lady who sometimes looked out of one of the small upstairs windows. And they were used to hearing footsteps cross the floor overhead when no one should be there. But that was it: there was no story attached.
Further down the road was a ford across the beck, accompanied by a medieval ‘clapper bridge’ of two huge stone slabs. This was (and still is) known as ‘Monks Bridge’ because in the days of the monasteries, Fountains Abbey had owned the land. The cottage beside the bridge was said to be haunted. Coming on foot up the narrow, unlit road one dark chilly night at about two o’clock in the morning, I was disconcerted to see someone lingering near the bridge, wearing a hooded garment which I took to be a cagoule. As I passed, the hooded person – whoever it was – slowly and very silently moved away from me, down towards the ford and the rushing water. I didn’t think ‘ghost’, I thought ‘oddball’ and hurried on. Later, I wondered. And on another occasion, close to the same spot on a pitch black night, I walked close past a person who was standing stock still in the centre of the road. I had no torch (which may have been just as well), and whoever it was did not move or speak, and it was the creepiest thing I have ever experienced.
The point about these stories is that there is no point. They have no real beginning, no middle, no end, no structure. In fact they aren’t stories at all, they are 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 prefer explanations of course, so often there’s an attempt to provide some kind of Gothic rationale for the spectre, involving hidden treasure, wicked lords, seduced nuns, suicides and murders. These are rarely convincing. ‘Real’ ghost stories (and nearly everybody has one) are open-ended oddities, and quite frequently the person involved does not realise anything strange is happening until afterwards.
Few ‘true’ ghost stories are as good as the strange tale of Margaret Richard, reported in a book called ‘The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales’ by Edmund Jones, an eighteenth century Welsh minister who compiled narratives of supernatural encounters in an attempt to prove the existence of both God and the Devil. Margaret’s sweetheart got her pregnant and then jilted her at the altar, sending word he was sick. Furious, Margaret fell on her knees and prayed he should have no rest in this world or the next. He may really have been sick though, for shortly afterwards he died and his ghost kept appearing to Margaret until finally she took his hand and forgave him. He vanished and never troubled her again, but here’s the creepy bit: ‘His hand did not feel like the hand of a man, but like moist moss.’
‘No one could have made that up!’ is the first reaction to this kind of thing. But of course, the ability to do just that is one of the prerequisites for writing a good fictional ghost story. If Edmund Jones had not been a minister, he had the imaginative and descriptive power to have become an excellent writer of such tales. Here he lies half-awake in a dank Monmouthshire bedroom, ‘partly underground and known to be an unfriendly place’, being assailed by Satan:
After I had slept some time and awaked, the enemy violently came upon me. I heard him say in my ear: ‘Here the devil comes in his strength.’ (And that was true.) He made a noise by my face, such as is made when a man opens his mouth wide and draws in his breath, as if he would swallow something. He also made a sound over me like that of dry leather and, by my left ear, a sound something like the squeaking of a pig. The clothes moved under me and my flesh trembled, and the terror was so great that I sweated under the great diabolical influence.
He must at least, if you will excuse the phrase, have been one hell of a preacher.
The least strained of traditional explanations for hauntings is that the troubled spirit cannot rest until some wrong it did or suffered in life has been put right. Here’s an account from Andrew Lang’s collection of true ghost tales, The Book of Dreams and Ghosts. Lang quotes verbatim from a seventeenth century pamphlet with the pleasing title: Pandaemonium, or the Devil’s Cloister Opened. Note 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 restless spirit was considered to be of dubious origin, suspicions soon confirmed by events. The ghost was joined by that of his second wife, after which the neighbourhood was plagued with poltergeist activities which nowadays might 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.
Hmmm… However, Fey’s master and neighbours pitied him as the simple victim of the devil’s malevolence, 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 a strange Hebridean woman, Thorgunna, at the farm of Fródá on Snaefellnes. The haunting begins when her hostess Thurid refuses to honour a promise she'd made at Thorgunna's deathbed to burn her guest's sumptuous bed-hangings (which Thurid herself had long coveted). It must be one of the best and most matter-of-fact accounts ever of ghost-as-reanimated-corpse – a phenomen which Iceland does particularly well – and it ends on another splendidly Icelandic note when the hosts of the dead are finally banished by a legal decision in a court of law. Though obviously ‘written up’ by the author of the saga, this tale retains much of the loose-ended mystery of the oral tradition. We never find out any more about Thorgunna, or quite why the violation of the taboo laid on her bed-hangings should have had such drastic consequences.
For me, the very best literary ghost stories are those which manage to combine 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 is never entirely satisfying. They are very hard things to write, especially if you want to avoid Victorian pastiche. I recommend Alison Lurie's collection of short stories 'Women and Ghosts', Robert Westall's 'The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral' (Westall was very good at ghosts), Ann Halam's 'King Death's Garden', which is brilliantly funny as well as scary, Candy Gourlay's 'Shine' and Michelle Paver's chilling novella 'Dark Matter'.
To end with, here’s a 'true' ghost story told to me many
years ago by a friend...
We were living in France at the time, and 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 little chateau – one of those elegant small eighteenth century houses with shuttered windows and walled grounds that are scattered around the French countryside. This one was somewhere north of Paris, and 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 a number of 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. And there was a small powder room off the main chamber, which might once have used as a nursery. But mainly, you never got a good night’s sleep there. You lay awake listening to noises. As if something was shuffling about, or dragging something else across the floor. That was all. But she didn’t like it.
And so when a young woman called Meredith came visiting from the States – and a visit to the chateau was proposed – and she was given the Chambre des Mouches – no one in the family said anything. Because the house was full and no other bedroom was available, and really, the whole thing was probably nonsense… but there was a certain interest around the breakfast table next morning when Meredith came downstairs.
“How did you sleep?” they asked. Meredith hesitated. “Oh, I was comfortable enough – but I didn’t sleep too well because of that darned cuckoo clock. It went off every hour, bing bong, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, and kept waking me up.” “But, Meredith,” said my friend, as an indrawn breath went around the table – “there isn’t any cuckoo clock.”