Friday, October 22, 2010

Ghost writers

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Earlier this month, I wrote about Henry James’s ghost stories, which are among my favorites. But then I started thinking about James as a person—and realized that he’d be one of the last authors I would want to have describe an actual encounter with a ghost. Think about it: he’d circle around and around the visitation, honing his impressions to an ever-finer point, conveying each little nuance of feeling aroused by the ghost . . . and by the end, as in The Turn of the Screw, you wouldn’t even be sure he’d seen a ghost at all!

Which got me thinking: which author would be the best for reporting back on a supernatural encounter? Which of my favorites would I enter into the lists against the ghouls?

So many of my favorites would be, well, useless. Iris Murdoch would get too spiritual about it. Nancy Mitford would be too sarcastically dismissive. Evelyn Waugh would ascribe it to the DTs. Actually, any number of my favorite authors would probably ascribe it to the DTs.

But I think I’ve hit upon a couple who could be relied on to face down an apparition and come back with a satisfyingly detailed and interesting report. Here goes:

1 First, there’s William Hazlitt. If ever Hazlitt saw a ghost, there’s no record of it that I’ve found. But in his writings on English theater, collected as A View of the English Stage in 1818, he did give some idea of what he expected from a ghost.

First, there are the expected Shakespearian ghosts. In an account of a performance of Hamlet at Drury Lane in 1814, he tells us what he expects of a ghost:
We cannot speak too highly of Mr. Raymond's representation of the Ghost. It glided across the stage with the preternatural grandeur of a spirit. His manner of speaking the part was not equally excellent. A spirit should not whine or shed tears.
As for how we should behave in the presence of a presence, this appraisal of Eliza O’Neill’s portrayal of Juliet at Covent Garden in 1814, gives a good idea. O’Neill, he writes, she strikes only one false note: when she screams aloud at the sight of Tybalt’s ghost:
[T]here [is] a distinction to be kept up between physical and intellectual horror (for the latter becomes more general, internal, and absorbed, in proportion as it becomes more intense).
In other words, confronted with a ghost, Hazlitt might be terrified, but he wouldn’t lose his cool.

And an account of another stage ghost, from one of the many long-forgotten plays of the period, Frightened to Death?—a farce about a drunk whose friends, to force him to mend his ways, convince him he has died and is seeing ghosts—tells us something of the line of attack that Hazlitt might take on seeing a ghost:
A very laughable dialogue and duet here take place between the Ghost and the Ghost-seer, the latter inquiring of him with great curiosity about his ancestors in the other world, and being desirous to cultivate an acquaintance with the living apparition, in the hope of obtaining some insight into the state of that state “from which no traveller returns.”
Dignified terror and probing questions: a good starting point.

2 Then there’s Samuel Johnson. Who better than the good Doctor to tackle a ghost? I’ve quoted before—even recently—Dr. Johnson’s take on the subject of the afterlife, but it’s always worth revisiting for its characteristically Johnsonian quality of judicious language inflected by the inescapable force of human emotion:
It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
And it’s also worth remembering that, at one of the most fortuitous meetings in literary history, Johnson first appeared, if not as a ghost, then at least with the effect of one. Here’s Boswell, recounting their first meeting, on the premises of Mr. Davies’s bookshop:
At last, on Monday the 16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass door of the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us,—he announced his approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, " Look, my Lord, it comes."
Johnson, so far as we know, never met a ghost, but it’s not hard to imagine him standing up to one ferociously. I picture him demanding of the spirit credentials—some proof that its existence wasn’t the lingering effects of, as Scrooge put it, “an undigested bit of beef”—then, that established, hectoring it, absolutely unafraid, about the afterlife. Oh, the answers we could get were Dr. Johnson our inquisitor!

3 My final choice will surprise no longtime reader of this blog: Anthony Powell. Unlike the authors above, Powell had at least second-hand dealings with ghosts. The appearance of a ghost, offstage, plays a part in an unforgettable scene from the childhood of Nick Jenkins in A Dance to the Music of Time, as a maid is driven to breakdown by hauntings in the Jenkins family home. In his memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling, Powell revealed that the house in Dance was modeled closely on his childhood home, Stonehurst, which was itself home to ghosts: “a whiteish shape, misty, of no great density but some height” that appeared in the bedrooms of successive maids, and a terrifying, paralyzing presence that once accosted his mother as she lay abed. Wrote Powell,
Some parents would have tried to keep all this from a child of seven or eight. My father, left to himself, would probably have done so. My mother, on the other hand, regarded any such concealments as cutting off an essential aspect of life. Talk about “ghosts” was never at all curtailed on my account, and did not in the least disturb me. I have fairly strong feelings about the “atmosphere” of houses, but never, in fact, found that of Stonehurst in the least uneasy.
The choice of Powell, however, reflects less his experience with ghosts than my own sentimentality, and the nature of my preferred way of imagining a ghostly existence: if there must be an afterlife, and haunting, I’d like it to be as much like this life as possible. I want my ghosts to be congenial and chatty, retaining as much as conceivable of the concerns, amusements, foibles, and self-involvement of the living. And who better to engage that sort of ghost than Powell, as unfazed by differences of quickness as he was of rank, ever alert to oddity and humor? Who better to guide us through the land of the dead than the writer who’s done more than any other to guide me through the land of the living?

And for you? Who are your nominees?


  1. Parabéns pelo seu blog.
    Interessante conhecer esculturas principalmente de outro país.

  2. My vote would unquestionably have to go for Bradbury. The man who predicted not only such things as cell phones, pagers, big screen TVs, canned music, the suspicious nature of nocturnal pedestrianism,and interactive TV shows, but also what kind of impact they would have on society and its individuals, has proven that he has access to some conduit that allows him to see the truths that lie beyond the ken of us lesser mortals.

    Add to that his ability to write in such a way that he can touch the very core of that which scares us, that which makes us uneasy, and that which has us looking over our shoulder on dark, windy nights or in silent, empty places, as he does in such works as "Something Wicked This Way Comes", and I think you can understand my choice. His prescience and his prose make him a natural to describe and converse with the preternatural.

  3. You read so many books, you must be insanely smart by now!

    Anyway, nice blog. I'll be sure check back in.

    Check out mine:

    Tell me what you think.

  4. Never cared for all the English snobbery save Shakespeare( who leaves me rushing for a translation of his ambiguous stuff) and Dickens and the poets Browning et al~~most if it is so removed from today I dont know how anyone would waste so much time on it~I enjoy mostly American writers around the turn of the last century but their books are somewhat hard to find nowadays leastways Hemingway always seems to put the story into a box~~

  5. um, not so sure about the previous comment about why "anyone would waste so much time on" English literature. Part of understanding who we are today is based on an understanding of the past and previous cultural legacies, part of which are inherited through literature.

    Anyway, my vote would go to Emily Bronte, mainly because I'd imagine her ghost to be no-nonsense, like her characters.

    I love your blog, it's so much fun to read!

  6. Dostoevsky!!! He'd not only describe the encounter, he'll throw in philosophy, politics, religion and mad perhaps mad characters from the ghost's past. How's that for an encounter?

  7. Have you ever read any of Daphne Du Maurier's short stories? She wrote the original story for Hitchcock's The Birds and I think her novel Rebecca proves that she is a master of suspense. Saw you blog on the blogs of note's nice to find a blog about literature!

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  9. Hi Levi, a great and wonderful post. Did you exclude Crowley because he rarely describes, say, a Fairy head on? Do his atmospherics disqualify him? Lastly, I regard you blog as a first-rate success and would like to learn how much traffic you get weekly or monthly, if you don't mind my asking. Please ping me back at your convenience at, if you prefer to keep such things private.


  10. Oscar Wilde's description would definelty entertain me. It would read like an ode to the dead poem or something.
    But for the most part i'd agree, most of my favorite authors would probably not be my first choice.

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  11. Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman. That weird, nightmare producing short story "The Long Walk" has stayed in my subconscious for years.

  12. Turn of the Screw is one of my favorites!

  13. Wow! Great post. I love those Elizabethans, and your reading and researching acumen are unbelievable. I will come back and visit this blog--what great ideas!

  14. Anemone7:37 AM

    Hi, Levi,
    Extremely interesting blog! I came across it by chance looking for V. Woolf's comments on James' ghosts.I'm not too widely read, but do you think an Indian writer, Rushdie, or somebody else, would meet our concept of ghosts on the same terms? They have jins, or genii, volatile spirits, but I wonder if they are the same with revenants. I don't think so.

  15. Nice Post !!

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