Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Just popping in for a look, or, Daytime ghosts

One of many fun digressions in Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts comes when he reminds us that while in our age, midnight is the proper ghostly hour,
traditionally, ghosts are summoned by the extreme transitional stages of the clock. You are as likely to see a ghost before lunch as you are after going to bed. In later years, this tradition died out, since it seemed ghosts were inalienably connected to the night. Indeed, the whole nature of the ghostly at this period [the early eighteenth century] was linked to the vapours exhaled by the earth when the world turned dark.
Clarke goes on to share stories of several daytime ghosts from that period, including one of a soldier recorded in John Aubrey's ever-bountiful Miscellanies.

Any ghosts in earshot should definitely not take this as a challenge . . . but it is hard to picture ghosts being nearly so terrifying under bright skies. As A. Roger Ekirch writes in At Day's Close: A History of Night in Times Past, there's a reason night scares us, beyond its actual dangers:
Night dramatically transformed the communal landscape, investing innocuous landmarks with sinister portent. In a Yorkshire valley, for example, the decayed ruins of a small chapel were a "perfect paradise for boys" by day, but "not to be approached for the world by night, being haunted by a variety of strange ghosts."
Darkness invites imagination to fill it, and those we conjure as its denizens are more frightening, by far, than any spirits we could imagine encountering under full sun.

a So, tradition aside, midnight it is. Ekirch tells of laborers afraid to leave for work too long before the arrival of dawn, with its powers to chase demons:
According to the Newcastle antiquary Henry Bourne, . . "Hence it is, that in country places, where the way of life requires more early labour, they always go chearfully to work at that time; whereas if they are called abroad sooner, they are apt to imagine everything they see or hear, to be a wandring ghost."
Late eighteenth-century folklorist Francis Grose, meanwhile, writes Ekirch,
estimated that the typical churchyard contained nearly as many ghosts at night as the village had parishioners. "To pass them at night was an achievement not to be attempted by any one in the parish, the sextons excepted."
Elsewhere in his book, Ekirch notes that some communities were plagued by recurrent visits from the same ghost, including "Wiltshire's Wilton's Dog." Frustratingly, Ekirch doesn't elaborate, but the introduction of a ghostly animal does enable me to bring this post full circle, back to daytime ghosts--and the story of the only possible ghost I remember seeing. When I was a young boy, aged probably three or four, we had an black, white, and orange cat named Angel, who lived with us for probably a year, then wandered away. Much later--in my memory, it's at least three years--I was playing in our front yard one day when I looked up and saw Angel walking up the end of the driveway. I watched as she walked halfway up the drive and sat down. More confused than pleased to see her, I looked away briefly, and when I looked back, she was gone.

Oh, fine--there probably is a reasonable explanation for it. Be rational, if you must, about the lifespans and habits of wandering cats. But it's October, and the memory is powerful and clear all these decades later, so tonight I'll amuse myself by thinking that Angel, like the ghost of the dying soldier chronicled by Aubrey, who visits his mistress merely to "come to her bedside, draw the curtain, look upon her and go away," simply wanted one last spectral look at her old home.

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