Friday, October 05, 2012

True-life tales!

Being at best a skeptic who wishes he were an agnostic on the subject of ghosts, I tend to traffic here in actual stories of ghosts in October: created pieces, written to entertain (and frighten), rather than tales that purport to be true. Oh, I mix in the latter once in a while. Part of the fun of reading ghost stories is allowing writers and tellers to blur that line; a lot of the pleasure of M. R. James's stories, I noted yesterday, comes from their faux pedanticism and the air it lends them of veracity. But for the most part what I want from ghost stories is the enjoyment afforded by any story in which plot and atmosphere are paramount, the sensation of a well-constructed machine moving smoothly through its operations.

The past few weeks, however, have brought across my virtual desk a couple of effective stories of real-life ghosts that seem well worth sharing. The first, from the Paris Review blog, is just getting underway: yesterday writer Amie Barrodale opened a tale of a haunted apartment she once rented in Iowa City that promises to continue throughout the coming days. The first post is more tantalizing than substantive--the ghost does little to frighten--but how could anyone resist a true-life ghost story in which two people independently start referring to a closet as "the bad area" within minutes of moving in? I'm looking forward to part two.

More substantial is an article by Australian James Bradley from the new issue of the magazine Meanjin. In the course of discussing, well, "bad areas" and reports of hauntings, Bradley tosses off some really tantalizing references to ghostly experiences among his family and friends ("Another involved my brother, and a little girl he spoke to in a hallway in a hotel who could not have been there." More, please!), does a wonderful job telling a chilling story of a haunting of sorts in the sparsely settled lands of Central Australia, and shares some fascinating information about a scientific theory about the reasons some places might feel haunted. It's all worth checking out, especially the postscript, which adds another layer to Bradley's own experience of hauntings.

This passage in particular will stay with me as I read and think about ghost stories this month:
After all, any story is really two things: the experience it describes and the sense we give to that experience by arranging and shaping it. It would be a mistake to say the first is simply something that happened—no experience is that simple or unconstructed—but as soon as that experience is described or connected to other experiences it becomes something quite different, a thing charged with meaning.

This is particularly true of ghost stories, which draw their energies from the tension between our rational minds and the primitive, unsettling power of the unknown. For as long as that tension can be maintained we are moved out of the world we know and understand, into a state where meaning and the order of things are unsettled, and possibility is given play.

This frisson is both exciting and unnerving, but it can only be maintained for as long as we do not enquire too closely into what is going on.
Suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite for reading all fiction, but for ghost stories that central word, "suspension," takes on a broader meaning: for maximum enjoyment, our disbelief should not be banished entirely, but rather held in suspension, neither here nor there, as we listen and sift and ponder and wonder--and then, while still thinking ourselves in some sense rational, are jolted out of our skin, belief and disbelief alike forgotten and unimportant, overcome by the uncanny.

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