When I picked up Peter Ackroyd's The English Ghost (2010), I expected the usual sort of magpie archive mouse approach* we're accustomed to from Ackroyd: all the famous English ghosts we've known since the Scholastic Book Fair sold us a slim volume on Anne Boleyn's severed head back in second grade, plus a healthy dose of obscure historical notes, lost stories from East London, and little-known specters.
There is some of that in the introduction, where Ackroyd reveals, for example, that "The word [ghost] is of Anglo-Saxon derivation, yet, curiously enough, the Anglo-Saxons did not see ghosts." And that
Reginald Scot, in The Discoverie of Witchcraft published in 1584, remarks upon "the spook, the man in the oke, the fire-drake, Tom Thombe, Tom Tumbler Boneless and such other BUGS."And that
In south-western England ghosts were known as "hobs." They often performed the role of nightwatchmen, and under cover of night and darkness their footsteps could be heard. One Somersetshire woman became so accustomed to the tread that she would call out "Hello there, I'm quite all right, thank you." Then the hob would depart.The hobs, Ackroyd goes on to note, were known in Yorkshire and the North Midlands as hobbits.
But the bulk of the book is something else entirely--and, much as I enjoy Ackroyd's style of history, it was a pleasant surprise:The English Ghost is truly a book of ghost stories, from the sixteenth century on, reprinted from old books and periodicals and presented in their original words. Though the styles vary, for the most part the accounts share a satisfying matter-of-factness, a plainspoken evidentiary tone that generates a sense of reasonable indifference: this is what happened, these tellers seem to be saying, and if you choose not to believe it, I'm not going to press you on it.
So we get the following account, from a 1774 issue of the Gentleman's Magazine, about a haunting in the village of Beamish. Some boys who were playing outside their school were startled by the sound of preaching, then of a choir. On entering the school to retrieve a pen, one boy spotted a coffin lying across the benches, and, on returning with his playmates, saw the figure of a recently deceased schoolmate, John Daniel.
The first who knew it to be the apparition of their deceased school-fellow was Daniel's half-brother; and he, on seeing it, cried out "There sits our John, with such a coat on as I have!" (in the lifetime of the deceased boy the half-brothers were usually clothed alike) "with a pen in his hand and a book before him, and a coffin by him. I'll throw a stone at him."Which would of course be your reaction on seeing the ghost of your six-weeks-dead half-brother? I was once a ten-year-old boy, I suppose. It worked, at least--the boy shouted, "Take it," as he threw, and the ghost disappeared.
I was also charmed (if not wholly convinced) by this account, quoted from a newspaper (whose name has been lost) in the Reverend Frederick George Lee's Glimpses in the Twilight, from 1884, the height--at least until World War I--of ghost mania. In the course of telling of a poltergeist that broke dishes, threw saucepans, and even set clothes on fire at a farmhouse near Ellesmere, the Reverend relates,
Mr. Lea decided to get some of the things outside, as they were being damaged, and accordingly he took hold of a barometer and carried it out. He returned, and was in the act of reaching for the gun, when he was struck by a loaf of bread, and at the request of his wife he left the house.Mr. Lea returned to the house later, and,
with assistance, succeeded in getting a number of articles out of the house; and once, when he was coming out, a large kitchen table which stood under the window followed him to the door, and it probably would have gone further if the width of the door would have allowed it.The image of the table banging fruitlessly against the door frame conjures up one of my favorite Onion headlines: Haunted Tape Dispenser Unsure How to Demonstrate Hauntedness. Oh, and no knowledgeable follower of poltergeists will be surprised to learn that a fourteen-year-old girl is involved. Such, it seems, has always been the way with that sort of spirit.
I'll probably draw on this book more before the month is over, but for now I'll leave you with these lines, emblematic of the position in which a well-told ghost story should leave us, from a late nineteenth-century account of a haunting that appears in a memoir of Sir John Sherbroke:
The reader of the above story is left in the difficult dilemma of either admitting the uncertainty of the facts or of doubting the veracity of those whose word it were impossible even for a moment to suspect.Quoth the raven, "Indeed."