Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Around the campfire with Henry James

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In youth, the dividing lines between them, broadly drawn, and us, narrowly drawn, are relatively simple. They like that music; we like this music. They like those books; we like these books. End of discussion. Adulthood--responsibly conducted--on the other hand, finds such lines much, much harder to draw. As Jean Renoir so heartbreakingly reminds us, "Everyone has their reasons."

But there is one line that may--that, let us be clear, must--be drawn: they ask, again and again, whether the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are real or merely a product of the governess's imagination, while we explain, again and again, that that's not the point.

Ahem. Which leads me to the best $1.00 you could possibly spend this month: the cost of a used copy of the out-of-print Wordsworth Classics edition of Ghost Stories of Henry James, which, as Martin Scofield explains in his introduction,
contains all the stories by James which can strictly be described as ghost stories, in that they all contain an apparition, or at least, in the case of "The Private Life" and "The Jolly Corner," a ghostly "double."
The pleasures found in those ten stories should surprise no lover of James, for no author has had a more firm grasp on the ineluctably individual nature of consciousness than him. Our ghosts are our selves, as often as not, as Scofield writes,
Henry James's ghosts are liable to arise as much from within as from without: whatever their vivid perceptibility, they are often as much emanations from the psyche as visitants from "another world." Indeed, it is precisely the equivocation between the two that gives them their imaginative power.
Which, to press a point, could be said of all of James's writing: it is from the equivocation between internal and external, and the mutual deceptions thereof, that it derives its power.

As you may have divined from these quotations, Scofield's introduction is itself worth the trouble and cost of picking up this book. In addition to drawing the necessary connections between James and Hawthorne, and Henry and his brother William, whose interest in the paranormal took a more scientific bent, Scofield presents fascinating evidence from James's life and letters in support in his attempt to argue for James's own equivocal view of the supernatural. There's James's father's account of an inexplicable personal experience with a
"damned shape," squatting invisibly in the corner of the room where he sat, "beat upon meanwhile by an ever-growing tempest of doubt, anxiety and despair, with absolutely no relief from any truth I had ever encountered, save a most pale and distant glimmer of Divine existence," a state of mind that it took him "a good long hour" to get under control
--and which will be familiar, at least in outline, to any reader of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. And there's Henry's own take on supernatural stories, offered in a letter:
A good ghost-story . . . must be connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life.
--and the account he gave of his ghost story "Sir Edmund Orme" in the preface to that volume of his New York Edition in 1909, touching on the note of the
strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy,
and the
indispensable history of somebody's normal relation to something.
--and the reminder that
The extraordinary is most extraordinary in that it happens to you and me, and it's of value (of value for others) but so far as visibly brought home to us.
It's hard to imagine Henry James reading Stephen King, and it's hard to imagine King, bookish as he may always have been, articulating his ethos in quite that way, but that's as good a capsule summary of what King got from the first moment he jumped into the horror game as anything I've seen. What's scary is what's strange; what's terrifying is what's only a tiny bit stranger than what's going on around us all the time.

The Ghost Stories of Henry James won't send you rushing to turn on all the lights in the house the way that King at his best can do, but their insidious questioning of the reliability--and their acknowledgment of the chillingly frequent pathology--of the inescapable isolation of individual consciousness will stay with you for a long, long time.

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