Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It's a goner!

{Manny-kin by rocketlass.}

October, that is. All Hallow's Eve is here, and the haunting of this blog is coming to an end. I hope you've enjoyed it.

But there's still time to sneak in one of my favorite unexplained scary stories, that of Spring Heeled Jack, "the terror of London" in the 1830s. Though there have been whole books written about Jack--from penny dreadfuls to relatively serious scholarship--Peter Ackroyd's brief account in London: The Biography (2000) is a good place to start. He draws primarily on the testimony of a young woman who was assaulted by Spring Heeled Jack in 1837, the year he was first spotted:
One statement, given by Jane Alsop at Lambeth Street Police Office, describes how the unfortunate girl encountered him on her doorstep. "She returned into the house and brought a candle and handed it to the person, who appeared enveloped in a large cloak, and whom she at first believed to be a policeman. The instant she had done so, however, he threw off his outer garment, and, applying the lighted candle to his breast, presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flame form his mouth and his eyes resembled red balls of fire." . . . Jane Alsop's testimony had other, equally disturbing elements. From "the hasty glance which her fright enabled her to get at the person, she observed that he wore a large helmet; and his dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, seemed to her to resemble white oilskin. Without uttering a sentence he darted at her, and catching her part by the dress and the back part of her neck, placed her head under one of his arms and commenced tearing her gown with his claws, which she was certain were of some metallic substance."
Fortunately, two of Jane's sisters, hearing her cries, were able to drag her away and slam the door, locking her assailant outside. But even then, as she explained in her testimony,
Notwithstanding the outrage he had committed, he knocked loudly two or three times at the door.
Ackroyd rightly points out just how creepy the knocking is:
This knocking at the door, so strange that it could scarcely have been invented, is perhaps the most alarming moment in an entire alarming episode. It is as if to say--Let me in, I have not finished with you yet.

Others who spotted Spring Heeled Jack over the course of the next few years emphasized other attributes: several noted that he could leap remarkably high; others heard him cackling like an insane man; many emphasized his devilish appearance. Though the public furor over Spring Heeled Jack died down later that decade, sightings continued to be reported sporadically for the rest of the century. The Wikipedia, in fact, in a very good entry for those interested in learning more about Jack, catalogs sightings as recent as the late 1980s; it also runs through a variety of explanations, of varying degrees of likelihood, that have been offered over the years.

And now, because you can never be too careful when dealing with malign spirits, I'll close October with a brief parable by Robert Louis Stevenson that I found in The Suicide Club and Other Dark Adventures. It will surely keep the demons away for a while.

{Satan, by Gustave Dore, illustration for Paradise Lost}
The Devil and the Innkeeper

Once upon a time the devil stayed at an inn, where no one knew him, for they were people whose education had been neglected. He was bent on mischief, and for a time kept everybody by the ears. But at last the innkeeper set a watch upon the devil and took him in the fact.

The innkeeper got a rope's end.

"Now I am going to thrash you," said the innkeeper.

"You have no right to be angry with me," said the devil. "I am only the devil, and it is my nature to do wrong."

"Is that so?" asked the innkeeper.

"Fact, I assure you," said the devil.

"You really cannot help doing ill?" asked the innkeeper.

"Not in the smallest," said the devil; "it would be useless cruelty to thrash a thing like me."

"It would indeed," said the innkeeper.

And he made a noose and hanged the devil.

"There!" said the innkeeper.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"The gruesomely conscious realm of ghostly fear and cold terror," or, The Haunted Commonplace Book!

{Resting, London. Photo by rocketlass.}

From a gravestone in Norfolk churchyard, collected in Everybody's Book of Epitaphs, W. H. Howe, editor
Underneath this sod lies John Round
Who was lost in the sea and never was found.

From Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society (1994, 1998 translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan):
Historians and ethnologists commonly speak of a "belief in ghosts." But what does this really mean, and how can the historian ascertain past beliefs? One of the recent advances in the "anthropology of beliefs" is to question the ill-considered uses of the notion of "belief." We must be careful not to reify belief, to turn it into something established once and for all, something that individuals and societies need only express and pass on to each other. It is appropriate to substitute a more active notion for the term "belief": the verb "to believe." In this way a belief is a never-completed activity, one that is precarious, always questioned, and inseparable from recurrences of doubt.

That seems in keeping with Shirley Jackson's argument, in the lecture I quoted from yesterday, that even those of us who claim not to believe in ghosts are a quick glimpse in the wrong direction away from changing our minds. We don't believe, but . . .

From the entry for "ghost" in David Pickering's Cassell's Dictionary of Superstitions (1995):
Measures that may be taken against encountering ghosts include, according to Scottish tradition, wearing a cross of Rowan wood fastened with red thread and concealed in the lining of one's coat.

From "Mujina" by Lafcadio Hearn, collected in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904):
Then that O-juchu turned round, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand, ;--and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth,--and he screamed and ran away.

From "The Banshee," in Jorge Luis Borges's The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967, 2005 translation by Andrew Hurley):
No one seems ever to have seen one. They are less a shape than a wailing that lends horror to the nights of Ireland and (according to Sir Walter Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft) the mountain regions of Scotland. Heard outside one's window, they herald the death of some member of the family.

{Weeping girl in Cemetiere Mont-Royal, Montreal. Photo by rocketlass.}

Most of us skeptics these days ground our rejection of the concept of ghosts not so much on our not having seen one but on basic rationality. The efforts of William James and his colleagues to find proof of spirit manifestations were, after all, a bust, and no verifiable evidence has emerged since. Rationality, therefore, demands that we at the very least put ghosts in the category of unlikely. And yet, the sun still goes down, and the autumn nights still carry their unsettling chill . . .

From Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages (1994, 1998 translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan):
A persistent yet somewhat ambiguous and contradictory refusal to admit the possibility that the dead might return in dreams or perhaps in conscious visions characterized the ecclesiastical culture of the early Middle Ages. . . . In a religious way of thinking long fragmented by a fundamental dualism--the antagonism between the devil and the saints, between the phantasmagorias of the former and the controlled apparitions of the latter--there was very little room for ghosts or for the oneiric and ambivalent revelations of ordinary dead people.

From D. J. Enright's introduction to the "Loving Revenants" chapter of The Oxford Book of the Supernatural (1994):
That these visitors rarely convey a message of much overt significance has found its reasons. What motivates them rather than the delivery of urgent intelligence is the natural desire to glimpse their children, their loved ones, to revisit places where they lived or worked (a pantry, a library, an altar), returning, in the words of Hardy's poem, to where the living person "found life largest, best." Such appearances are more for the sake of the revenant, then.

{Gravestone of an aviator, San Michele Island, Venice. Photo by rocketlass.}

Of course, unlike most of human history--or for example, thinking back to yesterday's post, the years following World War I--now we are able to pass through our days with little thought of death. It's something that happens elsewhere, to other people. Such a denial makes every aspect of modern life easier, from conspicuous consumption to support for distant wars. Death no longer visibly stalks us, and though we know that means he'll ultimately sneak up and pounce us instead, we have become very good at denying that inevitability.

From Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1921, 1996 translation by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzch):
No other age has so forcefully and continuously impressed the idea of death on the whole population as did the fifteenth century, in which the call of the memento mori echoes throughout the whole of life. Denis the Carthusian, in the book he wrote for the guidance of the nobleman, makes the exhortation that "when he goes to bed, he should imagine not that he is putting himself to bed, but that others are laying him in his grave." . . . . In the fourteenth century, the strange word "macabre" appeared, or, as it was originally spelled, "Macabré." "Je fis Macabré la dance," ("I made the Dance Macabre") says the poet Jean Le Fevr in 1376. It is a personal name and this might be the much disputed eytmology of the word. It is only much later that the adjective is abstraced from "le danse macabre" that has acquired for us such a crisp and particular nuance of meaning that with it we can label the entire late medieval vision of death. The motif of death in the form of the "macabre" is primarily found in our times in village cemeteries where one can still sense its echo in verses and figures. By the end of hte Middle Ages, this notion had become an important cultural conception. There entered into the realm surrounding the idea of death a new, grippingly fantastic element, a shiver that arose from the gruesomely conscious realm of ghostly fear and cold terror.

Ah, but us ghost story fans at least have October as our memento mori, our occasion for focusing our attentions on the fate we'll all share--and, while eschewing the comforts of religion, thinking on the possibility that it might not be the end after all.

{St. Boniface Cemetery, Chicago. Photo by rocketlass.}

From "The Girl I Left Behind Me" by Muriel Spark, collected in The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark (1994):
I opened the door and my sadness left me at once. With a great joy I recognized what it was I had left behind me, my body lying strangled on the floor. I ran toward my body and embraced it like a lover.

From Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842):
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

From Stephen King's Salem's Lot (1975):
It became unspeakable.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Now, you cannot ask a man to meet a ghost, because ghosts are not to be counted on.

{Robert Boursnel, "Self-Portrait with Spirits" (1902)}

From a 1958 lecture, "Experience and Fiction," by Shirley Jackson
I have always been interested in witchcraft and superstition, but have never had much traffic with ghosts, so I began asking people everywhere what they thought about such things, and I began to find out that there was one common factor--most people have never seen a ghost, and never want or expect to, but almost everyone will admit that sometimes they have a sneaking feeling that they just possibly could meet a ghost if they weren't careful--if they were to turn a corner too suddenly, perhaps, or open their eyes too soon when they wake up at night, or go into a dark room without hesitating first.

Shakespeare's ghosts have distracted me for a few days from my efforts to convince every single one of you to go to your nearest used bookseller and buy a copy of D. J. Enright's The Oxford Book of the Supernatural, from which I've taken Shirley Jackson's dead-on assessment of shaky skeptics. I've also drawn today's headline from the book; it appears in Oliver St John Gogarty's As I Was Going Down Sackville Street (1936) in a description of a haunted evening with the Yeatses, during which Yeats, unflappable, makes the following 2 a.m. demands of a ghost:
1. You must desist from frightening the children in their early sleep.
2. You must cease to moan about the chimneys.
3. You must walk the house no more.
4. You must not move furniture or horrify those who sleep near by.
5. You must name yourself to me.
That doesn't leave a ghost much scope for activity. I suppose he could blow on Yeats's tea and make it cool extra-quickly.

Though Yeats may be the poet best-known for trafficking with spirits, he's not alone by any means. John Donne appears in Enright's collection via a story of a dark vision featured in Izaak Walton's early biography. Having made a trip to Europe despite his (yet again) pregnant wife's "divining soul bod[ing] her some ill in his absence," Donne is found by his patron Sir Robert,
in such ecstasy, and so altered as to his looks, as amazed Sir Robert to behold him; insomuch that he earnestly desired Mr Donne to declare what had befallen him in the short time of his absence. To which Mr Donne was not able to make a present answer: but, after a long and perplexed pause, did at last say, "I have seen a dreadful vision since I last saw you: I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms this I have seen since I saw you." To which Sir Robert replied, "Sure, sir, you have slept since last I saw you." To which Mr. Donne's reply was, " I cannot be surer that I now live, than that I have not slept since I saw you: and I am as sure, that at her second appearing she stopped, and looked me in the face, and vanished."
The vision proves at least partially true: Donne soon learns that the child was stillborn and his wife, though alive, is very ill.

Then there is the poet who is a ghost, as Enright presents Harold Owen recounting in the third volume of his memoir, Journey from Obscurity (1965). On a naval ship during World War I, he enters his cabin to find his brother Wilfred--who should have been at the Western Front--sitting in Harold's chair:
I felt shock run through me with appalling force and with it I could feel the blood draining away from limbs stiff and slow to respond. I did not rush towards him but walked jerkily into the cabin--all limbs stiff and slow to respond. I did not sit down but looking at him I spoke quietly: "Wilfred, how did you get here?" He did not rise and I saw that he was involuntarily immobile, but his eyes which had never left mine were alive with the familiar look of trying to make me understand; when I spoke his whole face broke into his sweetest and most endearing dark smile. I felt no fear--I had not when I first drew my door curtain and saw him there; only exquisite mental pleasure at thus beholding him. All I was conscious of was a sensation of enormous shock and profound astonishment that he should be here in my cabin. . . . . I loved having him there: I could not, and did not want to try to understand how he had got there. I was content to accept him, that he was here with me was sufficient. . . . I must have turned my eyes away from him; when I looked back my cabin chair was empty. . . .

I felt the blood run slowly back to my face and looseness into my limbs and with these and overpowering sense of emptiness and loss. . . . Suddenly I felt terribly tired and moving to my bunk I lay down; instantly I went into a deep oblivious sleep. When I woke up I knew with absolute certainty that Wilfred was dead.
From now on, any time I read about World War I and the swathe it cut through a whole generation I'll remember the sense of deep, ultimately frustrated longing in that passage; whatever hopes or fears in Harold Owen generated that vision, they are of a piece with those that drove the postwar efforts by Conan Doyle and others to search out a spirit world that might reveal some trace of their lost loved ones. So many millions of young men were gone, and the desire on this side of the veil for any contact at all was so powerful that the bereaved of World War I would surely have agreed with this passage that Enright quotes from Margaret Oliphant's A Belaguered City (1879):
Why should it be a matter of wonder that the dead should come back? The wonder is that they do not. Ah! that is the wonder. How one can go away who loves you, and never return, nor speak, nor send any message--that is the miracle: not that the heavens should bend down and the gates of Paradise roll back, and those who have left us return. All my life it has been a marvel to me how they could be kept away.
For as often as we hear stories of ghosts who need something from us, in fact it is we who need them--need them not to forget, not to stop caring for us. It's no wonder that such a strong desire sometimes generates a response, whatever questions we might harbor about its reality.

Bloody and guilty, guiltily awake

{William Hogarth, "David Garrick as Richard III" (1745)}

Like a good dissertation advisor, Jenny Davidson from Light Reading noted that I left out some Shakespearean ghosts in yesterday's roundup--eleven of them, in fact, who levy curses on their murderer, Richard III, on the eve of his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. It seems appropriate that this most self-dramatizing of villains should suffer a haunting, but like everything else in the play, the ghosts remain overshadowed by the force of Richard's character: next to his evil ingenuity and ruthlessness, no one else seems quite alive--including the dead.

It should come as no surprise that Richard refuses to believe in the ghosts. After all, everyone in his eye is a tool or an obstacle; once they lose the potential to be either, why would they tarry in his sight, alive or dead? No, it must be a dream:
I did but dream.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Dream or not, Richard nonetheless rehearses a sort of crisis of conscience:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Yet there's little sense that the ghosts' imprecations ("Let us be lead within thy bosom") cause him anywhere near the horrors that Banquo's silence provokes in Macbeth. Macbeth, though deeply ruing the irrevocable first step that set him on his murderous path, tells himself that he has no choice but to kill Banquo because,
For mine own good
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as to go o'er.
--which renders Banquo's silent reappearance all the more horrifying, a grotesque proof that though Macbeth may plunge ever deeper into the rivers of blood, the absolving shore will remain forever distant.

Richard, on the other hand, has no false image of a distant day beyond murder--and no lost better self to regret. His crisis of conscience is in actuality little more than a batting about of the concept of his villainy. The ghosts may curse him, but he is proof against curses because there is nothing in him to damage; they lead him to worry not about what he has done but about what others might do--
O Ratcliff, I have dream'd a fearful dream!
What think'st thou--will our friends prove all true?
. Though he claims that the ghosts
Have stuck more terror to the soul of Richard
Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers
Armed in proof and led by shallow Richmond,
his only real worry is the failure of his designs.

This gets to the heart of why Banquo's ghost is chilling where Richard's chorus of victims is forgettable--and thus of one of the reasons that Macbeth is the far better play. As Mark Van Doren writes,
Richard is never quite human enough. . . . He is only stunning in his craft, a serpent whose movements we follow for their own sake, because in themselves they have strength and beauty.
A ghost, like a reader, needs some flaw in a character to latch on to; a perfect good or a perfect evil leave little for the reader to ponder or the ghost to prey on. If a man be a perfect villain, what levers does a ghost have? What threats are at his disposal? Is it even possible to haunt him at all?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

"It harrows me with fear and wonder."

{The ghost of Hamlet's father, as played at the Booth Theatre, London, 1870. Sketch by Thomas Glessing.}

In a comment to yesterday's post, Jenny Davidson from Light Reading corrected my half-assertion that Jacob Marley is literature's most famous ghost. That crown, she rightly notes, rests with the ghost of Hamlet's father, who should also, I think, get extra credit for appearing to so many more people than your usual ghost charged with a mission. He first manifests in front of two or three of the men of the guard:
Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
Horatio, however, is having none of it:
Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.
But once the ghost does appear, there's no denying its presence, nor that it is
In the same figure, like the king that's dead.
Horatio, harrowed, hails Hamlet.

Watching the ghost of Hamlet's father, it's easy to see where Hamlet gets his flair for the dramatic. After all, need he appear in the chill of the ramparts at midnight? Wouldn't the quiet coziness of Hamlet's bedchamber have served as well? Ah, but then he'd eschew the hair-raising buildup he knows the guards will give him before he appears to his son, let alone Horatio's ascription to him of the powers of a Will-o-the-Wisp:
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.
And then there's the ghost's whole, "Oh, the stories I could tell of the horrors of the afterlife!" bit:
But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine,
Only, well, it turns out he's not allowed to:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

While Hamlet's father's technique is quite effective--as he surely knew it would be, if he possessed any understanding of the character of his son--I prefer the more straightforward approach of, as Perry White would say, great Caesar's ghost, when he appears to Brutus in his tent:
Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.

Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

Why comest thou?

To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

Well; then I shall see thee again?

Ay, at Philippi.

Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

[Exit Ghost]
I suppose you could ask why Caesar bothered to appear to Brutus at all--couldn't he have just shown up at Philippi? But I appreciate his straightforwardness; it seems appropriate to a great general. And after all, shouldn't a ghost be confident that his very presence will supply sufficient drama to make whatever point he's charged with putting across?

In that regard, no one tops Banquo, who doesn't even speak--or appear to anyone but Macbeth. A model of ghostly restraint, he merely sits quietly on Macbeth's stool and shakes his gory locks a bit:
Prithee, see there! behold! look! lo!
how say you?
Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too.
If charnel-houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.


What, quite unmann'd in folly?

If I stand here, I saw him.

Fie, for shame!

Blood hath been shed ere now, i' the olden time,
Ere human statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been perform'd
Too terrible for the ear: the times have been,
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools: this is more strange
Than such a murder is.
And his encore is even better:
Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!
Now that's supernatural efficiency.

"If that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death."

{Aubrey Beardsley, illustration to Poe's "The Black Cat" (1894-95)}

In recent days I've been mostly writing about ghosts and spirits who frighten, whether by their actions or simply through the way their presence disturbs settled views of the workings of the world. But it seems wrong to focus solely on the scary ghosts, when the corpus of ghost stories is rife with more benign--and more calmly received--spirits as well.

Hawthorne, for example, though a master of the gothic tale, lightened up considerably when describing the spirits who haunted his home in "The Old Manse" (1846):
Houses of any antiquity, in New England, are so invariably possessed with spirits, that the matter seems hardly worth alluding to. Our ghost used to heave deep sighs in a particular corner of the parlor; and sometimes rustled paper, as if he were turning over a sermon, in the long upper entry;--where, nevertheless, he was invisible, in spite of the bright moonshine that fell through the eastern window. Not improbably, he wished me to edit and publish a selection from a chest full of manuscript discourses, that stood in the garret. Once, while Hillard and other friends sat talking with us in the twilight, there came a rustling noise, as of a minister's silk gown, sweeping through the very midst of the company, so closely as almost to brush against the chairs. Still, there was nothing visible. A yet stranger business was that of a ghostly servant-maid, who used to be heard in the kitchen, at deepest midnight, grinding coffee, cooking, ironing--performing, in short, all kinds of domestic labor--although no traces of anything accomplished could be detected, the next morning. Some neglected duty of her servitude--some ill-starched ministerial band--disturbed the poor damsel in her grave, and kept her at work without any wages.

Similarly, though Jan Potocki's strange, captivating Russian doll of a novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (c. 1815) contains many a legitimately chilling moment, his protagonist frequently presents events with a detached irony. Even the scariest revenants, two hanged brothers who plague the narrator throughout the novel, are first presented as a focus of stories, even a point of argument:
Very strange tales were told about the two brothers who had been hanged; they were not said to be ghosts, but it was claimed that at night nameless demons would possess their bodies, which would break free from the gallows and set out to torment the living. This was taken to be so well attested that a theologian from Salamanca had written a thesis proving that the two hanged brothers were species of vampire, and that the supposition that one of them should be a vampire was no less implausible than that the other should be so: an argument that even the most skeptical were forced to agree was sound.

Even Jacob Marley--possibly literature's most famous ghost?--though he frightens Scrooge, is far from scary for the reader. Though Dickens could go in any direction after his unforgettable opening line--
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. . . . Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail
--the digression that follows establishes an, affable, conversational tone:
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Marley, in fact, for all Scrooge doesn't want to believe it, is actually a member of that seemingly common breed: the duty-bound ghost. Charged with a penitential mission, he will do his utmost to execute it--and Marley, at least, has the benefit of speech, an aid that, if lore is to be believed, is sadly denied to many a restless spirit, reduced to mutely pointing or dragging chains.

Far more rare is the ghost who, though not constrained by any long-ago wrong, helps the living of his own accord. After all, ghosts without missions have little to bind them to this earth, whereas those who do have duties are left, one assumes, with little extra time or attention. But in the right circumstances, a bargain can be struck--which is what happens in one of my long-standing favorite ghost stories, Walter R. Brooks's "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons" (1957). When young Jimmy accidentally scares a ghost haunting an old house belonging to his aunt, the embarrassed ghost, worried about exposure, offers to teach Jimmy how to vanish. A few lessons, and:
That night at supper Jimmy's aunt said, "Well, what have you been doing today?"

"I've been learning to vanish."

His aunt smiled and said, "That must be fun."

"Honestly," said Jimmy. "The ghost up at grandfather's taught me."

"I don't think that's very funny," said his aunt. "And will you please not--why, where are you?"

I first encountered "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons" in an old paperback from my father's boyhood that I read dozens of times. It mixed stories of harmless ghosts--Jimmy's friend being one, a weeping ghost who flooded a house with its tears being another--with more worrisome creatures, including some dangerously bewitching goblin children. My favorite story, an old English tale that comes to mind every autumn when the leaves first start to swirl down the street, is a good one to return us to the creepier sort of Hallowe'en manifestation. The book disappeared long ago, so I'll have to tell the story myself:
One October evening, an old woodman was finishing up the day's cutting, feeling more than ever before the pains of age. The autumn chill had seeped into his bones, his breath came short, and his axe seemed to bite less deeply, yet stick more firmly, with every stroke. Though he knew there were malicious spirits abroad at that time of year, the slow pace of work necessitated by his age meant that he was unable to begin his long walk home until after the darkness had already begun to rise from the forest floor about him. So when his work was done he tied his lantern to his staff and, hanging it in front of him to light the winding path, he steeled himself for his long walk through the woods, keeping always in his mind a vision of his warm fireside, where his wizened wife and their black tomcat, Tam, would be waiting patiently for him to return.

As any night walker knows, the woods on an October night are alive with rustlings and shiftings. Leaves whipped up by the wind take on the appearance of a pursuer; a low-hanging branch begins to look like an arm, grasping and clawing after the solitary traveler. As the aged woodcutter trudged along, he reminded himself that the noises he heard were nothing to be alarmed about. "That one," he thought, "that one is just a clutch of acorns falling to the ground. And this one, this one is just a squirrel--like me he's caught out too late and hurrying to his warm den."

But as the depths of the forest closed in about him and the darkness pressed hard upon the wan light of his lantern, the woodcutter began to hear other noises-- more regular, more troubling. Small animals scrabbling around, he told himself; the wind whipping the leaves, he told himself. But even as he tried to dismiss the sounds, they began to resolve themselves into a pattern. He shuddered as he realized that they what he was hearing was speech--hissing, whispering, speech, the sound of dozens of voices overlapping.

"Tommy Tuppence is dead," the voices whispered. "Tommy Tuppence is dead," they hissed. "Tommy Tuppence is dead."

The woodman was glad that he had no idea who Tommy Tuppence might be, but nonetheless he was frightened, and he quickened his steps. But then as he hurried around a bend, he stopped short, for crossing the path mere yards ahead of him was a file of cats, nine of them, black as the surrounding night. Their tails in the air, they strode confidently up to him, almost as if they planned to rub familiarly against his legs; the thought horrified the woodcutter, and he was relieved when instead they described a circle around him, whispering all the while, "Tommy Tuppence is dead. Tommy Tuppence is dead." The nine cats turned a circle around the man once, twice, then they were gone, their hissing words hanging in the air behind them.

With a speed he'd not known for decades, the woodcutter took to his heels, and he didn't slow down or turn his head until he reached his cottage. As he burst through the door, his wife stared at him in horror and jumped from her chair, pitching Tam from her lap. "Oh, you look a fright, my dear! Whatever has happened?"

The woodcutter, not even stopping to catch his breath, told of the darkness, and of the nine cats. "And," he said, taking his wife by the shoulders, "though I expect you'll think I'm crazy: those cats were all talking."

"Well what on earth did they say?"

"They just kept repeating and repeating: 'Tommy Tuppence is dead. Tommy Tuppence is dead.' I've no idea who--" He broke off as the cottage filled with a terrible screeching.

It was Tam--his black fur puffed out and his tail in the air. Fixing the woodcutter with an unearthly stare, Tam cried out, "If Tommy Tuppence is dead--then I'm the king of the cats!"

With that, Tam streaked across the room, shot up the chimney, and was never seen again.

I like to imagine that the chorus of Bauhaus's "Bela Lugosi's Dead" is actually a similar secret communication, the announcement of Lugosi's death passing from goth to goth until it reaches the new king of the vampires.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Have you checked the children?

{Photo by Odlandscape.}

Yesterday I used some lines from Michel Tournier's The Mirror of Ideas to describe adult fears. Later in that essay, Tournier notes,
The child walking in the dark comforts himself with a song. Jean Cocteau tells that when he tried this remedy, he ended up being terrified by the words he invented to the song.
Children's fears burgeon that way--kids aren't yet all that good at the sort of denial of unwanted thoughts that most adults master; they're not as good at coaxing their minds away from the things that have scared them. If adult fear is rooted in death, a child's fear is rooted in a more general not-knowing: the world is large and little-understood, even by a perceptive kid. There is much to fear.

Returning once more to the book that kicked off I've Been Reading Lately's ghost and monster week, 'Salem's Lot: Stephen King marks that distinction between children and adults, writing that adult fears are
pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek to jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. . . . with the thing under the bed or in the cellar every night, the thing which leers and capers and threatens just beyond the point where vision will reach. The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.
That openness to fear lines up, too, with the position held by many who actually believe in the supernatural that children are more open to and aware of the otherworldly. They haven't yet, the argument goes, set limits on which of their perceptions they're willing to accept, which to dismiss before they even reach the level of consciousness. Rebecca West, in The Fountain Overflows (1957), her somewhat autobiographical novel of growing up in a poor and talented family, allows her young characters some of that perceptiveness. For a few months the children live with--and maybe even psychically generate--a poltergeist. In another particularly striking scene, late at night in a deserted stables, the young narrator's sensitivity is nearly powerful enough to bring to life--even for her mother--the spectral horses she sees stamping and snorting in the stalls:
My mother's eyes moved to my face. The horses in the stalls became luminous shapes. We knew that if we willed it, if we made a movement of the mind comparable with the action of throwing all one's weight on one foot, we could make them visible as ourselves.
All of which returns me to my own story of seeing a ghost, about which I wrote last October:
I have no memory of it, but I've been told by my parents, no wild-eyed new-agers they, that it happened when I was three or four, while our family was being given a tour of a house in Colonial Williamsburg. I turned to my mother and, pointing to the empty corner of a room and said, "Look, Mommy--there's a ghost." The guide blanched and told my parents that the house was rumored to be haunted.

Even though it's not much of a story, and I don't remember a bit of it, that surely has to land me squarely in the large category of "I don't believe in ghosts, but . . . ."

I suppose one could keep far worse company than William James.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

October's about more than ghosts—it's about baseball, too!

{Yadi-o-lantern by rocketlass. Her Johnny-o-lantern is here and her Ozzie-o-lantern is here. Manny-o-lantern to come.}

To kick off the World Series, I've got a piece up today at the Poetry Foundation's website about baseball and poetry.

Play ball!

The unknown

{Photo by Secret Agent Martens.}

I know I rashly wrote yesterday that I was wrapping up my series of posts on ghosts and spirits, but it turns out that just like Jason Voorhees, I'm not quite finished yet. Hallowe'en's still a ways away; who knows how many times I'll lurch back into view with more scares?

From Moby-Dick (1851), by Herman Melville
Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.
Note how Melville moves from the potential, the seeming, to the definite: what we can see we cannot know, but what we cannot see we know deep in our bones. Good tellers of ghost stories have always known that; as Michel Tournier explains in The Mirror of Ideas (1994),
There is such a thing as an atavistic fear, digging its roots down to an ancestral past sleeping in our hearts; eternal humanity trembles with us in the presence of mystery. . . . It is the darkness itself that frightens--not the monsters hiding in it.
The merest hints of horror catch in the soul; the less a storyteller describes, the less he provides for our rational minds to attack and reject. As M. R. James wrote in "Ghosts--Treat Them Gently,"
On the whole, then, I say you must have horror and also malevolence. Not less necessary, however, is reticence.

Limn lightly the horror--give us, as Peter Ackroyd puts it,
the sudden stillness in a wood, or the sound of footsteps in an empty street
--and we will supply the rest. Even Stephen King, not someone usually associated with reticence, demonstrates that he knows the power of the undescribed when he uses it to create the most chilling moment in 'Salem's Lot. At midnight, a man at the gate of a graveyard raises his voice in prayer to his dark lord, then:
There was no sound but that brought on the breeze. The figure stood silent and thoughtful for a time. Then it stooped and stood with the figure of a child in his arms.

"I bring you this."

It became unspeakable.
By claiming to have come up against the limits of what language will even tolerate, King frees our imaginations to run on the darkest of paths, which of course they will do. For despite what we tell ourselves when encouraged by daylight, as the night steals in we remember that fear is built into the very structure of the universe. All that awaits us is the greater unknown of death. And while we feverishly distract ourselves from its approach, death for its part can afford to be patient.

From The Zurau Aphorisms (2004), by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hoffman
The dogs are still playing in the yard, but the quarry will not escape them, never mind how fast it is running through the forest already.
Is it any wonder that we take pleasure, however perverse, in telling ghost stories?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Premonitions and apparitions

{"The Ghost of Bernadette Soubirous," photographer unknown, circa 1890}

Too busy to do any real posting today, but in keeping with the Hallowe'en theme, how about a couple of warnings . . . (cue scary organ music) . . . of impending Death!

The first warning wouldn't have actually been all that helpful, taking as it did the form of barking. It's a memory of a story Thomas Hardy told publisher Sir Newton Flower, collected in Thomas Hardy Remembered (2007), edited by Martin Ray:
Here is an odd thing about [Hardy's dog] Wessex. One November night, William Watkins, who founded the Society of Dorset Men in London, went to call on Hardy after dinner, as was his custom whenever he was in Dorset. It was a night of wild storm. This is Hardy's story of the episode to me:

"For some reason Wessex rushed wildly round the house, growling and barking. He dashed at the front door; then came back again. Watkins and I opened the door, and Wessex ran out into the storm, still barking. I thought there might be marauders about, but we could find nobody. We came in; we got Wessex in. An hour later, Watkins, after a final cup of coffee, went back to his hotel in Dorchester, and died in his bed that night. What did Wessex know?"

Far creepier--though just as impossible to verify--is Alec Guinness's story, from Blessings in Disguise (1985), of meeting James Dean in Los Angeles; as with so many other stories this week, I owe D. J. Enright for including this one in his Oxford Book of the Supernatural:
[O]n the way back to the restaurante he turned into a car-park, saying, "I'd like to show you something." Among the other cars there was what looked like a large, shiny, silver parcel wrapped in cellophane and tied with ribbon. "It's just been delivered," he said, with bursting pride. "I haven't even driven it yet." The sports-car looked sinister to me, although it had a large bunch of red carnations resting on the bonnet. "How fast is it?" I asked. "She'll do a hundred and fifty," he replied. Exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean's kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, "Please, never get in it." I looked at my watch. "It is now ten o'clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week." He laughed. "Oh, shucks! Don't be so mean!" I apologized for what I said, explaining it was lack of sleep and food. . . . We parted an hour later, full of smiles. No further reference was made to the wrapped-up car. . . . In my heart I was uneasy--with myself. At four o'clock on the afternoon of the following Friday James Dean was dead, killed while driving the car.

A sinister, deadly automobile--sounds like a topic for Stephen King, whose appearance at Fenway Park recently was responsible for this week's delving into the ghostly in the first place.

I'll bring the week of Hallowe'en postings to close--for now!--with a passage from M. R. James's "A School Story." What's great about the passage is that you don't even need to know its context to enjoy the dread that grows through this account of a night visitation:
"I didn't hear anything at all," he said, "but about five minutes before I woke you I found myself looking out of this window here, and there was a man sitting or kneeling on Sampson's window-sill and looking in, and I thought he was beckoning." "What sort of man?" McLeod wriggled. "I don't know," he said, "but I can tell you one thing--he was beastly thin: and he looked as if he was wet all over: and," he said, looking round and whispering as if he hardly liked to hear himself, "I'm not at all sure that he was alive."

In such cases, I recommend that one err on the side of assuming that the creepy stranger is, in fact, not alive.

Finally, for those of you who are bored at work: a Google search on "I don't believe in ghosts, but" is guaranteed to keep you entertained for many an hour. It even led me to a great line supposedly from Edgar Allan Poe, which, though the attribution appears sketchy, does seem apt:
I don't believe in ghosts, but I've been running from them all my life.

Deep, dark well

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Yesterday, following a very pleasant marathon on a beautiful autumn day, I was throwing a frisbee with my father, brother, and nephew in my brother's backyard when I stumbled over a cracked slab of concrete. It was about a two feet long and a foot wide, and though my brother had mowed around it for a couple of years, he'd never looked under it. My father, however, is not the sort to leave an inexplicable slab of concrete uninvestigated, so he started prying it up.

He quickly dislodged the concrete to reveal a narrow well, edged in poorly laid brick and strung across with cobwebs. As he and my brother leaned over to drop a stone into its depths, my mind immediately started running to ghost stories, to the thought of what might have been secreted away in that well, restrained under the slab, and now unwittingly freed to do mischief.

The well was far from ancient, no more than sixty years old--but in our fast-moving culture anything undisturbed for decades begins to seem a likely repository for the ghostly or malefic. What might that well have conjured up for M. R. James, whose characters so often suffer horrible fates simply because of their curiosity about the old and unexplained? I thought of James's story, "A Warning to the Curious," which features a cursed Anglo-Saxon crown, dug up in the dead of night, that must later be reburied at the same fell hour. The man who must rebury it seems possessed:
I never saw anything like the dash with which he flung himself at a particular spot in the side of the mound, and tore at it, so that in a very few minutes the greater part of his body was out of sight. We stood holding the coat and the bundle of handkerchiefs, and looking, very fearfully, I must admit, about us. There was nothing to be seen. . . . Yet, in all this quiet, an acute, an acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility very near us, like a dog on a leash, that might be let go at any moment.
The crown is reburied, but the damage has already been done--despite his furious efforts to rectify his error, the man is ultimately hounded to his death by the spirits he disturbed. What is done can never fully be undone. And as my brother and dad replaced the concrete slab--having, it seems, angered no spirits--I thought of John Bellairs, whose frightening young adult novels so often feature artifacts whose dangers are not immediately apparent; instead, they bide their time before unleashing their deadly powers of fascination. As we left the yard, I warned my brother to beware at least until Hallowe'en, to be sure to fight with all his will against any late-night urge, however innocuous-seeming, to go check out the well.

I don't actually believe any of this. I know that there's nothing in that well aside from spiders and mud. But so much of the fun of stories is a willful succumbing, and so much of what's fun about reading at this time of year is giving in to the idea that maybe we're wrong: maybe our rationality is just a way of closing off possibilities that are too horrifying to think about--a way of setting boundaries to the universe so that we can pretend to be its masters.

I'm reminded of a passage from the introduction to Michael E. Bell's study of New England vampire folklore, Food for the Dead (2001). Bell writes about a course in his first year of graduate school at UCLA taught by folklore scholar Wayland Hand:
My epiphany came the day Wayland told us about the disappearance of giants from Europe. This was not a rapid, catastrophic event like the extinction of the dinosaurs. It was, rather, a more lengthy demise with the final death blow administered by the Industrial Revolution. As Wayland talked about the giants, I noticed that he stopped lookin at us, and his eyes seemed to focus somewhere beyond the windowless walls of our Bunche Hall classroom. His voice, naturally soft, grew softer. He spoke about how Christians stigmatized the giants as devils, in league with Satan. He described how industry's widening circle of smoke and clamor finally pushed the giants from their homes. His voice dropped to a near whisper, and I'm sure I saw tears well up, as he described how the giants shrank, deeper and deeper into the forests and caves. Demonized, and no longer able to find refuge, the giants vanished. When Wayland concluded, It dawned on me that he wasn't talking only about giants no longer appearing in the folklore record. He was describing the extinction of a species. I thought, this is incredible: Wayland Hand, a meticulous, reasoning scholar--a professional folklorist--actually believes in giants.

Of course Hand didn't actually believe in giants--but he did believe, strongly, in stories, which generate their power in part by being just convincing enough that we're temporarily willing to reject reality in favor of their slightly different explanation of the way the world works. As D. J. Enright notes Dr. Johnson saying,
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 as the wind whips past my windows, kicking up a rustle of leaves in the cemetery next door, I'm willing--for the length of one story, one novel, one October night--to think that maybe there's something to those hoary old tales. There may not have been anything in the well yesterday, but maybe we were just lucky. In a different story, on a different day . . .

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Some revenants

{"Ghost Stories," photo by Santheo.}

From "The Dreamers," by Isak Dinesen, in Seven Gothic Tales (1934)
The still night was bewildering in its deep silence and peace, as if something had happened to the world; as if the soul of it had been, by some magic, turned upside down. The free monsoon came from far places, and the seas wandered on under its sway, on her long journey, in the face of the dim luminous moon. . . . The waves looked solid, as if one might safely have walked upon them, while it was into the vertiginous sky that one might sink and fall, into the turbulent and unfathomable depths of silvery worlds, of bright silver or dull and tarnished silver, forever silver reflected within silver, moving and changing, towering up, slowly and weightless.

From "Young Goodman Brown," by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846)
"Dearest heart," whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, "prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she's afeard of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year."

From "A Useless Window," by Carrie Olivia Adams, in A Useless Window (2006)

are you hearing this?
The night sky dims:

We will lose our way
in these red chambers.

Our palms with the look
of blood already.

From Religio Medici (1643), by Thomas Browne, collected in The Oxford Book of Death (1983), edited by D. J. Enright:
I believe . . . that those apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wandring souls of men, but the unquiet walks of Devils, prompting and suggesting us unto mischief, blood, and villainy; instilling and stealing into our hearts that the blessed Spirits are not at rest in their graves, but wander solicitous of the affairs of the World. But that those phantasms appear often, and do frequent Cemeteries, Charnel-houses, and Church, it is because those are the dormitories of the dead, where the Devil, like an insolent Champion, beholds with pride the spoils and Trophies of his Victory over Adam.

From "The Double," by Jorge Luis Borges, in The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967, 2005 translation by Andrew Hurley):
In Germany, it is called the Doppelganger; in Scotland, the fetch, because it comes to fetch men to their deaths.

From Certain of the Chronicles, by Levi Stahl

Hither and Yon,
I, Doppelganger

One darkling October
I met myself going--
When I was a-coming,
I met myself going.

I looked me all over
With no way of knowing
As I was a-coming
Where I could be going.

But I knew 'tweren't right
So I took all affright
And scattered my bones
In the depths of the night,

And scattered my bones
In the depths of the night.

"There are terrible spirits, ghosts, in the air of America."

{Etching for The Inferno by Gustave Doré}

So said D. H. Lawrence in a 1924 piece on Edgar Allan Poe. One would think that Lawrence ought to know a thing or two about vampires. He suffered from tuberculosis, the disease often thought to be at the root of a lot of vampire lore, and he was relentlessly concerned with issues of sex, power, the will, and transgresion, concepts that are central to vampire stories. Who knows--maybe Lawrence even was a vampire? Maybe I should ask Geoff Dyer what he thinks?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, was a determined skeptic, taking up the topic in a letter to Christophe de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris, in 1763:
If there is in the world one attested story it is that of the Vampires. Nothing is missing: proces-verbaux, certificates from Notabilities, Surgeons, Priests, Magistrates. The juridical proof is most complete. With all this, who believes in Vampires? Shall we all be damned for not having belived?

I found both the above quotes in The Oxford Book of the Supernatural (1994), which is edited by D. J. Enright and, like any Enright production, is jammed full of endlessly quotable stuff. Sadly, it's out of print, but it's readily available used. I'll probably try to steal more from it between now and Hallowe'en, but for today I'll just give you Enright's rundown of some reported causes of vampirism:
The sins and misfortunes reckoned to lead to the condition have included some weird items: committing suicide, of course, but also working on Sundays, smoking on holy days, drinking to excess, and having sexual intercourse with one's grandmother; more innocently, those born on Christmas Day are doomed to the same fate in punishment of their mothers' presumptuousness in conceiving on the same day as the Virgin Mary.
Though I don't know any . . . ahem . . . grandmotherfuckers, a couple of other items on that list, if accurate, would lead me to conclude that there must be more vampires out there than I had previously thought.

Do you think that buzzing a vampire into the foyer counts as inviting him in? The Wikipedia is unhelpfully silent on the topic. Methinks I'll eschew the buzzer at least until Hallowe'en has passed. And regardless, I'm going to have to be more careful about whom I invite over to our baseball open house.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Entering October Country

{Purported nineteenth-century kit for killing vampires, made by a Professor Ernst Blomberg.}

After seeing Stephen King slagging Fox Sports during Friday's Red Sox-Indians game, I decided to honor his forthrightness by reading 'Salem's Lot (1975). Back in high school, I plowed through thousands of pages of King's novels, but aside from The Colorado Kid (2005), the novella he published with Hard Case Crime, which I wrote about here, I hadn't read anything by him for fifteen years. As a teenager, I had found his books terrifying, impossible to put down--even brilliant. But what would I think as an adult?

The verdict? Still frightening. Still hard to put down. And, while 'Salem's Lot certainly isn't brilliant, I'm not disappointed.

King made his name by injecting horror into carefully drawn scenes of everyday life. The nightmares in his novels are frightening precisely because he's locating them in the most innocuous of small towns--but, as writers from Sherwood Anderson on have reminded us, small towns teem with dark secrets. (King even name-checks Anderson and Edward Arlington Robinson--an odd coincidence, since I'd just been reading about both in Edmund Wilson.) He shows how easily an uncanny, supernatural evil can prey on, exploit, or even arise from the ordinary meanness and evils of small-town life. In the case of 'Salem's Lot, that evil takes the form of a millennia-old vampire, the perfect creature, metaphorically, to feed on the late-night, basement, and close-shuttered underbelly of a town.

In the early part of the novel, King depicts a Maine town that despite its 1970s setting seems trapped in the late '50s: boys still build models of Universal movie monsters, teens still hang out at the soda shop, men still live in a boarding house. Yet, as King himself acknowledges in his Introduction, where he admits, "I have always been more a writer of the moment than I wanted to be," the creeping malaise and toxicity of the early '70s are never far from the surface.

King spends a lot of energy and pages establishing the town and its people, and though his dialogue frequently ends up sounding a bit too much like Sheriff Tupper telling Miss Fletcher about the strange doings in Cabot Cove, for the most part his work establishing characters pays off. His creations don't always come to life--the three primary male characters are essentially interchangeable--but when they do they nudge us just enough farther in our suspension of belief to tip the scales from shock to horror. This line from a boy whose father has just been killed is a good example, rendered simultaneously sad and chilling by the fact that we've come to trust the boy's precocious perceptiveness:
It's better this way. My father . . . he would have made a very successful vampire. . . . He . . . he was good at everything he tried. Maybe too good.

Once the action starts, King slathers on the gore, as he is wont to do. But what's much scarier are the quiet moments when fear first enters a room. Take this scene, where a young woman sits in the kitchen of her old English teacher's house, trying to convince him that he had not heard a vampire sucking dry his houseguest the previous night. As they talk, he breaks in:
"Be quiet."
He had cocked his head forward. She stopped talking and listened. Nothing . . . except perhaps a creaky board. She looked at him questioningly, and he shook his head. "You were saying."
Moments later, midsentence,
He ceased again, listening.

This time the silence spun out, and when he spoke again, the soft certainty in his voice frightened her. "There's someone upstairs."
The "soft certainty" of those moments when the trustworthy and rational convince us that it's time we start believing the unbelievable are King at his best.

I was surprised to find that King is also quite good at describing the landscape and the play of the seasons. Though his prose in these passages sometimes tiptoes to the edge of purple, it rarely crosses over, despite his efforts to invest the whole of nature with a human dread. Here he writes of a Maine autumn:
It stays on through October and, in rare years, on into November. Day after day the skies are a clear, hard blue, and the clouds that float across them, always west to east, are calm white strips with gray keels. The wind begins to blow by the day, and it is never still. It hurries you along as you walk the roads, crunching the leaves that have fallen in mad and variegated drifts. The wind makes you ache in some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that says Migrate or die--migrate or die. . . . And if there are no cars or planes, and if no one's Uncle John is out in the wood lot west of town banging away at a quail or pheasant; if the only sound is the slow beat of your own heart, you can hear another sound, and that is the sound of life winding down to its cyclic close, waiting for the first winter snow to perform last rites.

'Salem's Lot gets less interesting as the ratio of humans to vampires begins to fall; it becomes a race to an end that we can see coming--there are only so many ways to kill a vampire, after all. But that's nothing like the galactic disappointment I felt at sixteen at the end of 1,100 pages of It, nor is it a disingenuous abjuration of the very idea of an ending, like he employed in The Colorado Kid, so I won't complain.

But now it's a drizzly, windy October night, and it seems wrong to read something that's not scary. Time to curl up with my well-loved copy of The Oxford Book of the Supernatural and some M. R. James. No sneaking up on me, please.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ignorance and Impudent Puppies, or, A Postscript to Edmund Wilson Week

Though I'll continue reading away at the new Library of America volumes here and there for a good long while, I'll close Edmund Wilson Week with two entries from James Laughlin's wonderful autobiography in scrapbook form, The Way It Wasn't (2006):

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up went through about five printings and we keep it in print. But it got me in Dutch with Edmund Wilson because the papers came from him and I didn't show him proofs until it was too late. He had systematically crossed out the name of every friend they'd had at Princeton, though the book said nothing bad about them. And I put the names back in, John Peal Bishop and this one and that one. Edmund wrote to me on one of his cards, "You are an impudent puppy."

Which isn't as bad as the assessment of Wilson himself that one of Laughlin's authors delivered:


I should have spotted from something he said when I first took him out to lunch that Edward Dahlberg was going to be a problem. Over a BLT on 4th Street (no New Directions author has ever been lunched at the Four Seasons) Edward told me, quite seriously, that Edmund Wilson was "a very ignorant man."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Vaudeville has alway been an American specialty," or, Edmund Wilson Week concludes

Earlier this week I gave Edmund Wilson the edge in moral standing over V. S. Naipaul, because Wilson's pointed critiques of the work of his friends Ring Lardner and Scott Fitzgerald were delivered when the men were alive and could respond--either with anger or, what was surely Wilson's hope, better writing--while Naipaul's dismissal of his friend Anthony Powell's work appeared only after Powell was safely dead. To be fair, therefore, I should write about another piece in the first Library of American volume of Wilson's critical work, "The All-Star Literary Vaudeville," which he published anonymously in a multi-authored collection called American Criticism (1926). In it, Wilson runs through seemingly every working writer of the period, totting up their many faults and their relatively few successes. His opening disclaimer, that
he feels a certain human sympathy with all [the American literary movement's] manifestations, even with those of which, artistically, he disapproves
and that he has,
for his own satisfaction, for the appeasement of his own conscience, made an attempt to draw up a balance-sheet of his opinions in regard to his contemporaries, not merely in disparagement of those whom he considers rather overrated but in justice to those he admires,
falls a little flat when cloaked in anonymity. Say what you will about the reviewing approach of Dale Peck, but he at least signs his name to his bloodbaths.

Wilson further compromises himself with the closing sentence of that initial paragraph:
If he succeeds in disturbing one editor or reviewer, in an atmosphere where now for some time politeness and complacency have reigned, he will feel that he has not written in vain.
That stated desire to provoke seems even more to require that Wilson be up-front about his identity; if he felt, as he apparently did, that the world of reviewing had grown too comfortable, then he ought to have been willing to accept some of that discomfort as the price of honesty. That he wasn't is understandable, but at this distance of years it's difficult to excuse, both on his part and on the part of his editor. (Alongside of all this is the question of just who Wilson would have fooled. I may have to pick up a biography to see how quickly he was outed--the piece certainly reads like Wilson's usual work.)

It's easy to see why the essay, properly attributed, would have made for uncomfortable cocktail parties. In a note to The Shores of Light, the collection in which it was reprinted in 1952, Wilson mentions that Maxwell Bodenheim described him as "a fatuous policeman, menacingly swinging his club," and it's hard to disagree--even though Wilson also notes that he "qualified or softened" some of his initial judgments for the reissue. To take a few:
Dos Passos is ridden by adolescent resentments and seems given to documenting life from the outside rather than knowing it by intimate experience.

Sinclair Lewis, with a vigorous satiric humor, has brought against certain aspects of American civilization an indictment that has its local importance, but, when one has been through Main Street and Babbitt, amusing though they certainly are, one is not left with any appetite to reader further novels by Lewis: they have beauty neither of style nor of form and they tell us nothing new about life.

To follow the moral disintegration of Hurstwood in Sister Carrie is to suffer all the agonies of being out of work without being rewarded by the aesthetic pleasure which art is supposed to supply.

Vachel Lindsay's best poems . . . are spoiled by the incurable cheapness and looseness which are rampant in the rest of his work.

[Eugene] O'Neill is hysterically embittered.

Robert Frost has a thin but authentic vein of poetic sensibility; but I find him excessively dull, and he certainly writes very poor verse.

H.D., like Carl Sandburg, writes well, but, like Sandburg, there is not much in her.

Even H. L. Mencken, whom Wilson claims is "underrated as a writer of English prose" and whom he calls "perhaps a prophet rather than a critic," comes under fire for his ideas, which are "neither many nor subtle."

Yet once we get over the shock of Wilson's baldly brutal phrases, his opinions hold up pretty well eighty years later. As an Illinoisan, I'm supposed to leap to the defense of Dreiser, Sandburg, and Lindsay, but the only one of the three I've ever found congenial is Sandburg, and even there I have to agree with Wilson, who locates Sandburg's appeal in his skill with language, while lamenting that "his ideas seem rather obvious, his emotions rather meager." I can't speak to his assessments of H. D. or Dos Passos, not having read them, but his take on Sinclair Lewis is dead-on, succinctly marking the difference between the satire of Lewis and the richer, more pointed, and better-written work of Evelyn Waugh. Moreover, two of the writers whom Wilson chooses to single out for unmitigated praise, Edith Wharton and Stephen Crane, have only seen their reputations grow since the '20s.

Wilson does make some mistakes, of course. Frost he misjudges--I could see how one might deem some of Frost's story-like poems as "poor verse," but I don't understand how he could be viewed as dull. Wilson undervalues Marianne Moore, seeming not to get her organic strangeness, while Edna St. Vincent Millay (with whom he'd conducted a disastrously passionate affair) he overrates slightly, calling her "perhaps one of the most important of our poets." Edward Arlington Robinson, meanwhile, whom he heralds as "one of the poets of our time most likely to survive as an American classic," has survived, but feels remarkably dated; in fact, it's hard to see how he wouldn't have already seemed a bit musty in the late '20s.

What I find most surprising in "The All-Star Literary Vaudeville," however, is just how many of the poets and writers of the period have survived. Very few of the artists Wilson notes are entirely unfamiliar, and the majority of them would be recognized by even a relatively casual fan of American literature. Wilson's individual assessments--correct or not--aren't as interesting in themselves as they are as a whole, the record of a period of impressive creative flowering as it appeared, in the moment, to a particularly astute reader whose general interests and tastes we already know. Quibble with Wilson as I will over his failure of nerve, I'm glad to have this record. And his dazzling closing paragraph, a perfect example of his way with brief, effective descriptions, is so good as to almost make me forgive him his anonymity:
When time shall have weeded out our less important writers, it is probably that those who remain will give the impression of a literary vaudeville: H. L. Mencken hoarse with preaching in his act making fun of preachers; Edna St. Vincent Millay, the soloist, a contralto with deep notes of pathos; Sherwood Anderson holding his audience with naive but disquieting bedtime stories; Theodore Dreiser with his newspaper narrative of commonplace scandals and crimes and obituaries of millionaire, in which the reporter astonishes the readers by being rash enough to try to tell the truth; T. S. Eliot patching from many cultures a dazzled and variegated disguise for the shrinking and scrupulous soul of a hero out of Henry James.
And if those writers are the vaudeville acts, Wilson places himself in the role of their emcee, or possibly their clown. I can't help but imagine him typing that last period, then wiping his brow and taking a tiny little bow.