Friday, October 21, 2011

I realize that a haunting can vex, creating situations for which one has no experience to draw on, no codes of behavior to fall back on, no axioms to call up. A ghost by its very nature upends all our certainties, so it’s no surprise that encountering one can lead to a lapse of manners.

Nonetheless, I do have to find fault with the homeowners in the following account found in Peter Ackroyd’s The English Ghost: Spectres through Time, taken from John H. Ingram’s late-Victorian Notes and Queries. A Mr. T. Westwood tells of a visit to a country house inhabited by two elderly maiden sisters. He opens his tale with a bit of proper English mood-setting:
I well remember my walk thither. It led me up a steep ascent of oak avenue, opening out at the top on what was called the “ridge road’ of the Chase. It was the close of a splendid afternoon. On reaching my destination the sun had already dipped below the horizon, and the eastern front projected a black shadow at its foot.
Greeted by a servant, he’s taken to a quiet room and left to spruce up for dinner, then:
No sooner was he gone than I became conscious of a peculiar sound in the room—a sort of shuddering sound in the room, as of suppressed dread. It seemed close to me. I gave little heed to it at first, setting it down for the wind in the chimney, or a draught from the half-open door; but moving about the room I perceived that the sound moved with me. Whichever way I turned it followed me. I went to the furthest extremity of the chamber—it was there also.
The sound accompanies Westwood “on the landing, on the stair,” even to the dinner table, where, “when conversation flagged [he] heard it unmistakably several times,” so near as to seem as if he were likely sharing his chair with the source. No one else, however, seems to notice the sound at all. When the party breaks up and he heads for home, he is grateful beyond belief to be able to leave the noise and its presumably ghostly source behind.

Now we get to the breach of manners. When next Westwood meets the maiden ladies who had been his hosts, they’re at someone else’s house, and he feels free to mention his experience:
On my telling them what had occurred to me, they smiled and said it was perfectly true, but added that they were so used to the sound that it had ceased to perturb them. Sometimes, they said, it would be quiet for weeks, at others it followed them from room to room, from floor to floor, pertinaciously, as it had followed me. They could give me no explanation of the phenomenon. It was a sound, no more, and quite harmless.
I could imagine a situation in which it is the proper response of a host to pretend not to notice a spirit—when, for example, a spirit arrives with a guest and hovers malevolently about, hurling imprecations or oozing ectoplasm, it is the better part of manners to ignore it. But when the spirit is local to one’s home, and familiar enough to be disregarded, it’s no less than one’s duty to afford one’s guests a warning at the same time that they are extended an invitation. Delicate guests should always have the chance to opt out of a possible haunting. Then, when the haunting itself is occurring, I can’t imagine Miss Manners or Ann Landers wouldn’t advise a host to politely acknowledge the problem, apologize for the distraction and discomfort, and reassure the guest that no harm is likely to befall them. Then offer to pour them another, perhaps stiffer, drink.

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