Friday, November 17, 2006


From Macbeth, Act 3, Scene IV
Prithee, see there! behold! look! lo!
how say you?
Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too.
If charnel-houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.


English writers toss out references to ghosts with remarkable casualness; they seem to take the default position that they will be believed when they talk about hauntings—the opposite, I would argue, of the position Americans and American writers take. Ghosts are around, the body of literature seems to say; sometimes people see them. There's no controversy. I suppose that if your national history is one of knights and ladies and dank castles, ghosts come naturally—though I would also expect that if your national history included the largely ignored story of the extermination of the ten million people who were living in the land when your forebears arrived, you would have quite a few ghost stories, of an extremely unpleasant variety.

Yet it is England, not America, that is rich with ghosts. And, unlike the ghost of Banquo (which, understandably, greatly frightens Macbeth just by his appearance), most of the ghosts I've come across in English novels—and especially in English memoirs—are unthreatening, ordinary, even quotidian. Penelope Fitzgerald, for example, tells of Keats's ghost haunting the then-pastoral village of Hampstead when she was a girl, and in her novel The Bookshop (1978) a ghost troubles the heroine, though never in a particularly menacing way. Anthony Powell, in his memoir, To Keep the Ball Rolling (1983), mentions a ghost that haunted one of his childhood homes; that ghost, transmuted like all the facts of his life, appears in his fiction as the driver of a particularly vivid domestic scene. Rebecca West, in The Fountain Overflows (1957), a thinly veiled retelling of her childhood, includes ghosts, poltergeists, and magic, invisible horses. Unexplained presences manifest themselves here and there in Iris Murdoch's writing, and—perils of being away from my bookshelves!—I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.

Halloween, of course, put me in mind of this topic, as I was reading ghost stories (of which the English are the masters (followed closely by the Japanese?)). And then I was thinking about William James (because of a new book on his paranormal researches), the first chapter of whose The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) includes several stories of ghostly encounters that James collected. But it was Hilary Mantel who really brought it to a head, with the opening pages of her enthralling memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003):
About eleven o'clock, I see a flickering on the staircase. The air is still; then it moves. I raise my head. The air is still again. I know it is my stepfather's ghost coming down. Or, to put it in a way acceptable to most people, I "know" it is my stepfather's ghost.

I am not perturbed. I am used to "seeing" things that aren't there. Or—to put it in a way more acceptable to me—I am used to seeing things that "aren't there." It was in this house that I last saw my stepfather, Jack, in the early months of 1995: alive, in his garments of human flesh. Many times since then I have acknowledged him on the stairs.
She talks herself back from that certainty a bit, offering the reader a chance to believe her sightings are the result of migraines; but throughout the book, presences abound, flickering at the edge of consciousness like ideas too large and unwieldy for childhood apprehension. They aren't exactly benign, but Mantel gives the sense that their danger is more potential than actual, like the shadowy adult secrets that quietly define childhood.

Childhood is when I, too, reportedly saw a ghost. I have no memory of it, but I've been told by my parents, no wild-eyed new-agers they, that it happened when I was three or four, while our family was being given a tour of a house in Colonial Williamsburg. I turned to my mother and, pointing to the empty corner of a room and said, "Look, Mommy--there's a ghost." The guide blanched and told my parents that the house was rumored to be haunted.

From Hilary Mantel's Giving Up the Ghost (2003)
One night, I hear my mother and Jack, discussing. I am lurking in the cold Glass Place, coming in from the lavatory. "Well," she says, "so? So what do you think it is?" Her voice rises, in an equal blend of challenge, fear, and scorn. "What do you think it is? Ghosts?"

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