Saturday, October 27, 2007

"If that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death."

{Aubrey Beardsley, illustration to Poe's "The Black Cat" (1894-95)}

In recent days I've been mostly writing about ghosts and spirits who frighten, whether by their actions or simply through the way their presence disturbs settled views of the workings of the world. But it seems wrong to focus solely on the scary ghosts, when the corpus of ghost stories is rife with more benign--and more calmly received--spirits as well.

Hawthorne, for example, though a master of the gothic tale, lightened up considerably when describing the spirits who haunted his home in "The Old Manse" (1846):
Houses of any antiquity, in New England, are so invariably possessed with spirits, that the matter seems hardly worth alluding to. Our ghost used to heave deep sighs in a particular corner of the parlor; and sometimes rustled paper, as if he were turning over a sermon, in the long upper entry;--where, nevertheless, he was invisible, in spite of the bright moonshine that fell through the eastern window. Not improbably, he wished me to edit and publish a selection from a chest full of manuscript discourses, that stood in the garret. Once, while Hillard and other friends sat talking with us in the twilight, there came a rustling noise, as of a minister's silk gown, sweeping through the very midst of the company, so closely as almost to brush against the chairs. Still, there was nothing visible. A yet stranger business was that of a ghostly servant-maid, who used to be heard in the kitchen, at deepest midnight, grinding coffee, cooking, ironing--performing, in short, all kinds of domestic labor--although no traces of anything accomplished could be detected, the next morning. Some neglected duty of her servitude--some ill-starched ministerial band--disturbed the poor damsel in her grave, and kept her at work without any wages.

Similarly, though Jan Potocki's strange, captivating Russian doll of a novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (c. 1815) contains many a legitimately chilling moment, his protagonist frequently presents events with a detached irony. Even the scariest revenants, two hanged brothers who plague the narrator throughout the novel, are first presented as a focus of stories, even a point of argument:
Very strange tales were told about the two brothers who had been hanged; they were not said to be ghosts, but it was claimed that at night nameless demons would possess their bodies, which would break free from the gallows and set out to torment the living. This was taken to be so well attested that a theologian from Salamanca had written a thesis proving that the two hanged brothers were species of vampire, and that the supposition that one of them should be a vampire was no less implausible than that the other should be so: an argument that even the most skeptical were forced to agree was sound.

Even Jacob Marley--possibly literature's most famous ghost?--though he frightens Scrooge, is far from scary for the reader. Though Dickens could go in any direction after his unforgettable opening line--
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. . . . Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail
--the digression that follows establishes an, affable, conversational tone:
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Marley, in fact, for all Scrooge doesn't want to believe it, is actually a member of that seemingly common breed: the duty-bound ghost. Charged with a penitential mission, he will do his utmost to execute it--and Marley, at least, has the benefit of speech, an aid that, if lore is to be believed, is sadly denied to many a restless spirit, reduced to mutely pointing or dragging chains.

Far more rare is the ghost who, though not constrained by any long-ago wrong, helps the living of his own accord. After all, ghosts without missions have little to bind them to this earth, whereas those who do have duties are left, one assumes, with little extra time or attention. But in the right circumstances, a bargain can be struck--which is what happens in one of my long-standing favorite ghost stories, Walter R. Brooks's "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons" (1957). When young Jimmy accidentally scares a ghost haunting an old house belonging to his aunt, the embarrassed ghost, worried about exposure, offers to teach Jimmy how to vanish. A few lessons, and:
That night at supper Jimmy's aunt said, "Well, what have you been doing today?"

"I've been learning to vanish."

His aunt smiled and said, "That must be fun."

"Honestly," said Jimmy. "The ghost up at grandfather's taught me."

"I don't think that's very funny," said his aunt. "And will you please not--why, where are you?"

I first encountered "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons" in an old paperback from my father's boyhood that I read dozens of times. It mixed stories of harmless ghosts--Jimmy's friend being one, a weeping ghost who flooded a house with its tears being another--with more worrisome creatures, including some dangerously bewitching goblin children. My favorite story, an old English tale that comes to mind every autumn when the leaves first start to swirl down the street, is a good one to return us to the creepier sort of Hallowe'en manifestation. The book disappeared long ago, so I'll have to tell the story myself:
One October evening, an old woodman was finishing up the day's cutting, feeling more than ever before the pains of age. The autumn chill had seeped into his bones, his breath came short, and his axe seemed to bite less deeply, yet stick more firmly, with every stroke. Though he knew there were malicious spirits abroad at that time of year, the slow pace of work necessitated by his age meant that he was unable to begin his long walk home until after the darkness had already begun to rise from the forest floor about him. So when his work was done he tied his lantern to his staff and, hanging it in front of him to light the winding path, he steeled himself for his long walk through the woods, keeping always in his mind a vision of his warm fireside, where his wizened wife and their black tomcat, Tam, would be waiting patiently for him to return.

As any night walker knows, the woods on an October night are alive with rustlings and shiftings. Leaves whipped up by the wind take on the appearance of a pursuer; a low-hanging branch begins to look like an arm, grasping and clawing after the solitary traveler. As the aged woodcutter trudged along, he reminded himself that the noises he heard were nothing to be alarmed about. "That one," he thought, "that one is just a clutch of acorns falling to the ground. And this one, this one is just a squirrel--like me he's caught out too late and hurrying to his warm den."

But as the depths of the forest closed in about him and the darkness pressed hard upon the wan light of his lantern, the woodcutter began to hear other noises-- more regular, more troubling. Small animals scrabbling around, he told himself; the wind whipping the leaves, he told himself. But even as he tried to dismiss the sounds, they began to resolve themselves into a pattern. He shuddered as he realized that they what he was hearing was speech--hissing, whispering, speech, the sound of dozens of voices overlapping.

"Tommy Tuppence is dead," the voices whispered. "Tommy Tuppence is dead," they hissed. "Tommy Tuppence is dead."

The woodman was glad that he had no idea who Tommy Tuppence might be, but nonetheless he was frightened, and he quickened his steps. But then as he hurried around a bend, he stopped short, for crossing the path mere yards ahead of him was a file of cats, nine of them, black as the surrounding night. Their tails in the air, they strode confidently up to him, almost as if they planned to rub familiarly against his legs; the thought horrified the woodcutter, and he was relieved when instead they described a circle around him, whispering all the while, "Tommy Tuppence is dead. Tommy Tuppence is dead." The nine cats turned a circle around the man once, twice, then they were gone, their hissing words hanging in the air behind them.

With a speed he'd not known for decades, the woodcutter took to his heels, and he didn't slow down or turn his head until he reached his cottage. As he burst through the door, his wife stared at him in horror and jumped from her chair, pitching Tam from her lap. "Oh, you look a fright, my dear! Whatever has happened?"

The woodcutter, not even stopping to catch his breath, told of the darkness, and of the nine cats. "And," he said, taking his wife by the shoulders, "though I expect you'll think I'm crazy: those cats were all talking."

"Well what on earth did they say?"

"They just kept repeating and repeating: 'Tommy Tuppence is dead. Tommy Tuppence is dead.' I've no idea who--" He broke off as the cottage filled with a terrible screeching.

It was Tam--his black fur puffed out and his tail in the air. Fixing the woodcutter with an unearthly stare, Tam cried out, "If Tommy Tuppence is dead--then I'm the king of the cats!"

With that, Tam streaked across the room, shot up the chimney, and was never seen again.

I like to imagine that the chorus of Bauhaus's "Bela Lugosi's Dead" is actually a similar secret communication, the announcement of Lugosi's death passing from goth to goth until it reaches the new king of the vampires.

1 comment:

  1. I like these ghost posts! (I had mixed feelings about Marina Warner's book Phantasmagoria, but might be worth a look?) However I must observe that I think the Ghost in Hamlet is more famous than Jacob Marley...