Friday, October 30, 2009

"There is hardly any person of quality but what knows it to be true."

The blustery, essence-of-October night outside makes me want a simple, straightforward ghost story. So I turn back to John Aubrey, who shares, in the second edition of his Miscellanies on Various Subjects, a tale he originally encountered in the Athenian Mercury of Tuesday, June 25, 1695:
Two persons (Ladies) of quality, (both not being long since deceased,) were intimate acquaintance, and loved each other entirely : it so fell out, that one of them fell sick of the small-pox, and desired mightily to see the other, who would not come, fearing the catching of them. The afflicted at last dies of them, and had not been buried very long, but appears at the other's house, in the dress of a widow, and asks for her friend, who was then at cards, but sends down her woman to know her business, who, in short, told her, "she must impart it to none but her " Lady," who, after she had received this answer, bid her woman have her in a room, and desired her to stay while the game was done, and she would wait on her. The game being done, down stairs she came to the apparition, to know her business ; "madam," says the ghost, (turning up her veil, and her face appearing full of the small-pox) " You know very well, that you and I, loved entirely; "and your not coming to see me, I took it so ill at your " hands, that I could not rest till I had seen you, and " now I am come to tell you, that you have not long to " live, therefore prepare to die ; and when you are at a "feast, and make the thirteenth person in number, then "remember my words;" and so the apparition vanished.

To conclude, she was at a feast, where she made the thirteenth person in number, and was afterwards asked by the deceased's brother, "whether his sister did appear to her as was reported?" she made him no answer, but fell a weeping, and died in a little time after. The gentleman that told this story, says, that there is hardly any person of quality but what knows it to be true.
The veil, the oracular number, the provocative question, the closing assurance that everyone who's anyone knows this story--what more could a brief ghost story need?

And as the wind outdoes itself, scattering sweeps of leaves before it, I'll close with a reminder from Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), collected in The Oxford Book of the Supernatural:
If all the divels in hell were dead, and all the witches in England burnt or hanged, I warrant you we should not faile to have raine, haile, and tempests, as now we have : according to the appointment and will of God, and according to the constitution of the elements, and the course of the planets, wherein God hat set a perfect and perpetuall order.
Though Scot displays a faith in God's "perfect and perpetuall order" that I can't share, I nonetheless take some comfort in the reminder that the night's unwelcoming weather is the work of "the constitution of the elements" and "the course of the planets" rather than a focused malignancy--and that therefore it shall, someday, pass.

Unless, that is, a disgruntled reader out there has some powers I don't know about?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"It was only during the age of candlelight that the race of ghosts really flourished," or, Edmund Wilson as uncanny anthologist

Since first discovering the giant Modern Library anthology Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural last fall, I've admired it as much for its timing as for its quality: it was published in early 1944, when the war, though going far better than it had been a few years before, was still a long way from being over. I love picturing editors Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise drawing up a list of stories, followed by the staff at Random House diligently securing permissions, then designing and printing the book--all with the aim of putting a bit of a supernatural scare into people who had plenty of entirely natural dangers to scare them.

But seemingly the editors knew what they were doing--or at least they weren't alone in the publishing world in thinking that readers might find eerie tales a welcome distraction: on turning to Edmund Wilson's review of the book in the May 25, 1944 issue of the New Yorker* (from which the current edition of the book takes his quote praising "a sudden revival of the appetite for tales of horror"), I discovered the review was occasioned by the publication of no fewer than six volumes of this sort that spring: The Pocket Mystery Reader, The Pocket Book of Mystery Stories, Tales of Terror (with an introduction by Boris Karloff), Creeps by Night (edited by Dashiell Hammett), Best Ghost Stories of M. R. James, and this "prodigous anthology," which Wilson rates as "the best of them" because it is so comprehensive and "not unintelligently edited." Wilson does, however, note that it suffers from
the fault of so many American omnibuses and anthologies of being too cumbersome to handle in bed, the only place where one is likely to read ghost stories.
Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, looking back, that the public displayed such a taste in the depths of the war. Wilson offers a straightforward explanation that remains convincing all these years later:
First, the longing for mystic experience, which seems always to manifest itself in periods of social confusion, when political progress is blocked: as soon as we feel that our own world has failed us, we try to find evidence for another world; second, the instinct to inoculate ourselves against panic before the real terrors loose in the world--the Gestapo, the G. P. U., tank attacks, bombing from the air, and empty cities mined with booby traps--by injections of imaginary horror that soothe us with the momentary illusion that the forces of madness and murder may be tamed and compelled to provide us with a mere dramatic amusement.
Beyond this general observation, Wilson barely bothers to treat the books under consideration in his review, except to say that, for all their merits,
I find it very hard to imagine that any of these particular could scare anybody over ten.
Instead, he uses the anthologies as a launching pad for an sketching out of his own anthology of unsettling tales:
These collections, of course, aim primarily at popular entertainment; they do not pretend to a literary standard. But I should like to suggest that an anthology of considerable interest and power could be compiled by assembling some horror stories by really first-rate modern writers, in which they have achieved their effects not merely by attempting to transpose into terms of contemporary life the old fairy tales of goblins and phantoms but by probing psychological caverns where the constraints of that life itself have engendered disquieting obsessions.
Had he lived long enough to read Stephen King, I expect Wilson would have hated his writing, but I think that as an anthologist he would have been alert to stories that define fear in the way that King did in his interview with the Paris Review in 2006:
I don't think there's anything that I'm not afraid of, on some level. But if you mean, What are we afraid of, as humans? Chaos. The outsider. We're afraid of change. We're afraid of disruption.**
The real fun comes, however, when Wilson starts putting names to the concepts:
I should start off with Hawthorne and Poe, who are represented in these collections, but I should include, also, Melville and Gogol, who are not. The first really great short stories of horror came in the early or middle nineteenth century, when the school of gothic romance had achieved some sophistication and was adopting the methods of realism. All four of these writers wrote stories that were at the same time tales of horror and psychological or moral fables. They were not interested in spooks for their own sake; they knew that their demons were symbols, and they knew what they were doing with these symbols. We read the tales of Poe in our childhood, when all that we are likely to get out of them is shudders, yet these stories are all poems that express the most intense emotions. "The Fall of the House of Usher" is not merely an ordinary ghost story; the house--see the opening paragraph--is an image for a human personality, and its fate--see the fissure that runs through the wall--is the fate of a disrupted mind. And as for Gogol, he probably remains the very greatest master in this genre. I should put in at least "Viy" and "The Nose"--the former, a vampire story, one of the most terrific things of its kind ever written, and the latter, though it purports to be comic, almost equally a tale of horror, for it is charged with the disguised, lurking meaning of a fear taking shape as a nightmare.
I'm a bit surprised that he rates Poe's lush, overheated prose so highly (though admittedly "Usher" is one of those rare Poe productions with which it's hard to find any fault), especially when he later damns Arthur Machen, arguing that his story "The Great God Pan"
seems to me to sum up in a fatal way everything that was most "ham" in the aesthetic satanism of the fin-de-siecle.
Still, it's hard to argue with Wilson's list thus far: Hawthorne's explorations of the dark underbelly of public rectitude are foundational for American strange tales, Poe's influence is inescapable, and Melville and Gogol are at their most memorable when they're at their most strange. Later, Wilson adds Conrad, Kipling, Henry James***, Robert Louis Stevenson, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare, before finally closing with Kafka, who writes
at the same time satires on the bourgeoisie and visioins of moral horror; narratives that are logical and compel our attention and fantasies that generate more shudders than the whole of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood combined. A master can make it seem more horrible to be pursued by two little balls than the spirit of a malignant Knight Templar, and more natural to turn into a cockroach than to be bitten by a diabolic spider.****
Wilson, in other words, does a fairly good job of setting the tone of his anthology, and even though none of his authors would come near qualifying as going out on a limb, the review nonetheless makes me wish he'd followed through on this idea; I would enjoy seeing how he'd flesh out the anthology.

All of which leads me to a question: where would you start if you were to compile an anthology of strange, uncanny, and/or supernatural tales? What authors would you have to include? Any you would exclude on principle?

For me, I think it would have to start with Ray Bradbury, whose unsettling mix of nostalgia and dark secrets has troubled me ever since childhood--and, I think, would have pleased Wilson (if he could get beyond Bradbury's occasionally overwrought prose); I'd probably try one of the stories from The Martian Chronicles, which I could assure Wilson--were he to pop up on the Ouija board some October night--are very much capable of frightening reasoning adults.

And for you?

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Tis like enough, that all Monasteries had Dungeons too; for they have the power of Life and Death within themselves," or, More John Aubrey

Those of you who are either scholars or obsessive dilettantes by nature will understand when I explain that the post I intended to write tonight has been temporarily derailed by too much digging. As John Crowley puts it, "The further in you go, the bigger it gets," and that's what happened tonight, as an Edmund Wilson quote on the cover of a favorite anthology of creepy tales led to a quick online query that plunged me into what clearly will need to be a more detailed post than the rapidly diminishing store of sand in tonight's hourglass will allow.

Instead, I offer tonight's other exciting discovery: some writings by John Aubrey on folklore that I'd not previously encountered. That indefatigable October companion The Oxford Book of the Supernatural pointed me to them with this extract from Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme:
This is the Lycanthropos, the French call it Garloup: and doe believe that some wicked men can transforme themselves into Woolves and bite, and worry people and doe mischiefe to mankind: When I was at Orleans I sawe in the Hospitall there a young fellow in cure whose left Cheeke was eaten (he sayd by this Garloup for sayd he had it been a woolfe he would have killed me out right and eaten me up. No doubt heretofore this opinion was in this island.
A bit of research revealed that the manuscript, first published by the Folk-Lore Society in 1881, was, like so many of Aubrey's half-finished projects, "a rough draft of what was intended to be an elaborate work." As the editor of the Folk-Lore Society's edition, James Britten, goes on to explain, "As it stands, it is disjointed, and there are numerous repetitions," which fact seems unlikely either to surprise or to deter any true lover of Aubrey. Neither will Britten's subsequent note that,
Aubrey had the faculty of collection rather than that of selection, and he was clearly inclined to be credulous, and thought to be so by some of his most noteworthy contemporaries.
Britten goes on to write,
At the present day, whatever we may think of Aubrey's credulity, all folk-lorists are glad that he did not "disdain to quote" the proverbs, sayings, and traditions of the people.
And who, as autumn draws in and darkness takes ever more of each day, could be anything but glad that Aubrey was willing to listen to--and believe, people like Mr. Brown's shepherd:
That the Fairies would steale away young children and putt others in their places; verily believed by old woemen of those dayes: and by some yet living.

Some were led away by the Fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hakpen with corne, led a dance to ye Devises. So was a shepherd of Mr. Brown, of Winterburn Basset: but never any afterwards enjoy themselves. He sayd that ye ground opened, and he was brought into strange places underground, where they used musicall Instruments violls and Lutes, such (he sayd) as Mr. Thomas did play on.
It appears that Remaines of Gentilisme and Judiasme is available from a couple of low-rent reprint houses; methinks you'll be hearing more from that volume in the coming months.*

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"The faintest restless rustling ran all through them," or, Frost hears a ghost story

A line from Robert Frost quoted in Tim Powers's sharp gambler's ghost story "Pat Moore" led me yesterday to Frost's "Two Witches" (1923) which I'd not looked at in years. It's a two-part poem, the first part being a dialogue poem, which isn't my favorite of Frost's forms; their vernacular often feels too folksy, and their willingness to sacrifice sound and line construction to the prosaic functions of the story they're telling can be frustrating.

In "Two Witches," however, the form works: offering a flickering, October-dark story of a speaker who,
. . . stayed the night for shelter at a farm
Behind the mountain, with a mother and son.
Two old-believers. They did all the talking.
And talk they do, provoked by the mere presence of the stranger to launch into an account of the mother's witchcraft:
MOTHER. Folks think a witch who has familiar spirits
She could call up to pass a winter evening,
But won't, should be burned at the stake or something.
Summoning spirits isn't "Button, button,
Who's got the button," I would have them know.

SON. Mother can make a common table rear
And kick with two legs like an army mule.

MOTHER. And when I've done it, what good have I done?
It's a case of the vernacular working: the cranky, everyday relationship the mother has to magic, the son's pride--and his striking description--immediately conjures up these two isolated figures, which gives the ghost story that follows a convincing ground from which to grow.

The story the mother tells is of a mystery visitor climbing the steps from the cellar--
. . . two footsteps for each step,
The way a man with one leg and a crutch,
Or a little child, comes up.
--and an animated skeleton that
. . . halted helpless on the landing,
Waiting for things to happen in their favor.
The faintest restless rustling ran all through them.
Ultimately, it resolves into a tale of jealousy, murder, and the sort of secrets that can poison a lifetime, that,
We'd kept all these years between ourselves
So as to have it ready for outsiders.
But tonight I don't care enough to lie--
I don't remember why I ever cared.
Ultimately, however, it's not the ghost story itself--however atmospheric and convincing it may be--nor the bitter monologue by a dead witch that forms the poem's second half that stays with you after you close the book. Instead, it's an earlier aside by the mother that closes with the unforgettable line Powers quoted* in his own ghost story:
Rather than tip a table for you, let me
Tell you what Ralle the Sioux Control once told me.
He said the dead had souls, but when I asked him
How could that be--I thought the dead were souls,
He broke my trance. Don't that make you suspicious
That there's something the dead are keeping back?
Yes, there's something the dead are keeping back.
Even the most skeptical of materialists would have to acknowledge the ring of truth in that, ringed as we all are by the silent dead.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Whereupon being much affrighted, I fell into an extream sweat . . . "

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Tonight we'll visit with a few spirits from the fairly distant past, before the fell hands of rationality and scientific exploration began to blight their hidden precincts.

First, a couple of folk tales from the late medieval period that feature ghosts offering comfort to the bereaved that is questionable at best. Here's how Johan Huizinga relates them in his The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1921, translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch in 1996):
Martial d'Auvergne in his danse macabre of women has the little girl call out to her mother, take care of my doll, my dice, and my beautiful dress! The touching accents of childhood are extraordinarily rare in the literature of the late Middle Ages. . . . When Antoine de la Salle in "Le Reconfort" seeks to comfort a noblewoman over the loss of her little son, he knows no better way to do so than to tell the story of a boy who lost his young life in an even more cruel way; he died as a hostage. He has nothing to offer her to allay her pain other than the lesson of not attaching onself to anything earthly, but then continues with that story we know as the fairy tale of the death shroud. The tale of the dead child who comes to its mother and begs her not to cry anymore in order that its shroud might dry. And here is suddenly a much more tender single note than is heard in the memento mori that is sung with a thousand notes.
Then, to our beloved John Aubrey, whose ever-rewarding Miscellaneous Notes on Various Subjects (1696) includes a whole chapter on apparitions. Aubrey's collection of stories ranges from the briefest of sketches--
Charles the Simple, King of France, as he was hunting in a forest, and lost his company, was frighted to simplicity by an apparition.
--to the richly detailed--
T. M. Esq., an old acquaintance of mine, hath assured me that about a quarter of a year after his first wife's death, as he lay in bed awake with his grand-child, his wife opened the closet-door, and came into the chamber by the bedside, and looked upon him and stooped down and kissed him; her lips were warm, he fancied they would have been cold. He was about to have embraced her, but was afraid it might have done him hurt. When she went from him, he asked her when he should see her again ? she turned about and smiled, but said nothing. The closet door striked as it used to, both at her coming in and going out. He had every night a great coal fire in his chamber, which gave a light as clear almost as a candle. He was hypochondriacal; he married two wives since, the latter end of his life was uneasy.
I love that account: can't you just see T. M. Esq., face shadowed by the flickering of an early autumn fire, clutching Aubrey's sleeve with one hand, the other twined round a wineglass, as he desperately swears--after making sure his current wife isn't in earshot--that this story is true, by god, and help me, Aubrey, help me--what does it mean?

Then there are the doppelgangers, the worst of which appeared to Sir Richard Nepier, MD, of London, who
When [he] was upon the road coming from Bedfordshire, the chamberlain of the inn, shewed him his chamber, the doctor saw a dead man lying upon the bed; he looked more wistly and saw it was himself: he was then well enough in health.
Good health he may have had, but you all know enough about doppelgangers to see what's coming next:
He went forward in his journey to Mr. Steward's in Berkshire, and there died. This account I have in a letter from Elias Ashmole, Esq. They were intimate friends.
My favorite of Aubrey's ghosts, however, is one of the simplest:
Anno 1670, not far from Cirencester, was an apparition: being demanded, whether a good spirit or a bad? returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume and most melodious twang. Mr. W. Lilly believes it was a fairy.
"A curious perfume" and a "melodious twang"? I think absence of minor chords and mephitic stenches are enough all by themselves to group a ghost with the good, don't you?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Loving H. P. Lovecraft

{Photo and jack-o-lantern by flickr user coldways, used under a Creative Commons license.}

A weekend of air travel--whose horrors are all too real to offer any of the pleasures of the season--allowed me finally to cross from Volume I to Volume II of the Library of America's new American Fantastic Tales. The break between volumes coincides with World War II and the concomitant shift from agrarian America to our modern, mechanized nation--but it could also be seen as representing the passing of H. P. Lovecraft, the godfather (or is it demonfather?) of American weird tales; fittingly, the second volume includes a pair of meticulous, loving homages to Lovecraft that could serve as an appropriately obscure, mildewed, and mossy grave marker.

For a fan of uncanny tales, I've read relatively little Lovecraft. He's always seemed the sort of author who is best approached as a lifetime project rather than a Roman-style feast--the post-Lovecraft visit to the vomitorium being far too grotesque for sustained contemplation. What I have read, however, has been so dense, so singular, so organically, compellingly strange, that I'm convinced of his genius* despite his uncomfortable obsessions with ethnicity and race (which, if memory serves, are well covered in this New York Review of Books piece by Luc Sante**).

So when Thomas Ligotti writes of the mysterious, Lovecraftian Professor Thoss's writings in "The Last Feast of Harlequin" (1990),
For him, the very words "New England" seemed to be stripped of all traditional connotations and had come to imply nothing less than a gateway to all lands, both known and suspected, and even to ages beyond the civilized history of the region. Having been educated partly in New England, I could somewhat understand this sentimental exaggeration, for indeed there are places that seem archaic beyond chronological measure, appearing to transcend relative standards of time and achieving a kind of absolute antiquity which cannot be logically fathomed.
--I feel that yes, yes, this is the proper back side of Thoreau's and Whitman's effusions, this is the New England I want to show rocketlass some blustery autumn. And when T. E. D. Klein's haunted, isolated narrator laments in "The Events at Poroth Farm" (1972),
[S]at down to read Lovecraft's essay on "Supernatural Horror in Literature." It upset me to see how little I've actually read, how far I still have to go. So many obscure authors, so many books I've never come across.
--I not only share the reliable despair of the reader whose quest is inevitably neverending, but also find myself reminded of the way that the ever-ramifying vista of books one ought to read mirrors the paralytic horrors of short-breathed nightmare.

Both stories are spooky, atmospheric, and memorable--honorable homages to Lovecraft. But even those efforts pale next to the work of the Propnomicon, whose meticulous constructions of Lovecraftian artifacts--as well as Miskatonic University swag--must be seen to be believed. If ever Cthulhu passeth through the land, executing judgment, surely the Propnomicon's door will be considered safely daubed.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"That book? Oh, it's shelved over there under 'Hounding Doom'," or, A volume for the John Bellairs Memorial Wing of the Invisible Library

{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Robert E. Howard's "The Black Stone" (1931):
I read of it first in the strange book of Von Junzt, the German eccentric who lived so curiously and died in such grisly and mysterious fashion. It was my fortune to have access to his Nameless Cults in the original edition, the so-called Black Book, published in Dusseldorf in 1839, shortly before a hounding doom overtook the author. Collectors of rare literature are familiar with Nameless Cults mainly through the cheap and faulty translation which was pirated in London by Bridewall in 1845, and the carefully expurgated edition put out by the Golden Goblin Press of New York in 1909. But the volume I stumbled upon was one of the unexpurgated German copies, with heavy leather covers and rusty iron hasps. I doubt if there are more than half a dozen such volumes in the entire world today, for the quantity issued was not great, and when the manner of the author's demise was bruited about, many possessors of the book burned their volumes in panic.
And that fate which so scared poor Von Junzt's readers? Oh, only to be found dead in a locked room, "with the marks of taloned fingers on his throat," the torn remains of the many pages of cribbed writing that he had not dared to include in Nameless Curses scattered about him. Lest you think the narrator is over-reacting, that Von Junzt's researches couldn't have been that bad, he informs us that,
the author's closest friend, the Frenchman Alexis Laduea, after having spent a whole night piecing the fragments together and reading what was written, burnt them to ashes and cut his own throat with a razor.
Um, Ed, I'm just going to leave this one here on the book cart for now; shelving it seems a task better accomplished in the daytime, no?

Friday, October 16, 2009

"But how does not believing in them help me?"

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel uses a startlingly successful description that I recall her using before: she writes that Cromwell's adopted son Richard is "rinsed with relief" on learning that he won't be marrying into the Boleyn family. She had used a variation on that phrase before, in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), describing herself as "rinsed with nausea" on seeing a devil, or some force of pure evil, in her backyard as a girl.

I've never encountered that construction in any other writer's work, but it has now become a permanent part of my mental makeup, for it describes the sensation so perfectly--that inescapably liquid release of chemicals that accompanies, and helps us interpret, sudden, overwhelming changes in the world before us. We can feel their very movement as they course through our bodies, a cocktail of complicated feelings and sensations in their wake.

"Rinsed with fear" would seem a particularly suitable way to imagine an encounter with a ghost: it is as if at the very moment when the sight before us should be calling into question all our assumptions about the inextricable link between the corporeal and the incorporeal self, the body--with its flood of adrenaline, its horripilations, its shivers, the whole mess of reactions that Dickens located in "an agreeable creeping up our back"--is forcing us to acknowledge that for now, at least, we are here in a physical body, and its processes are the movements of our minds and emotions, whatever contrary evidence that thing in the doorway may be offering.

Which is, ultimately, what's so scary about the idea of seeing a ghost: not what it may do, but merely that it is, and the challenge that offers to our daily rationality. Which brings me to Kafka, and a passage from his story "Unhappiness" that I found in D. J. Enright's Oxford Book of the Supernatural (1994):
"What can I do?" I said. "I've just had a ghost in my room."

"You say that with the same sort of distaste as if you'd found a hair in your soup."

"You jest. Mark my words, though: a ghost is a ghost."

"Very true. But what if one doesn't believe in ghosts in the first place?"

"You don't think I believe in ghosts, do you? But how does not believing in them help me?"

"Very simple. You no longer need be frightened when a ghost actually appears."

"Yes, but that's only the incidental fear. The actual fear is fear of what causes the phenomenon. And that fear there's no getting rid of."
And now to crawl under the covers and not emerge for any sound that's not clearly made by a cat. A living, familiar cat, that is.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Our bones in consecrated ground never lie quiet."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In Willa Cather's pleasantly creepy little story "Consequences" (1915), a couple of characters--one of them haunted by an invasive, Walter Huston-esque apparition--get to discussing suicide. The unhaunted man describes the self-imposed end of a gentleman he knew:
Well, one afternoon when the tea was brought, he took prussic acid instead. He didn't leave any letters, either; people of any taste don't. They wouldn't leave any material reminder if they could help it.
Good breeding, in other words, demands as little muss, mess, and fuss from our ends as possible--which would surely make leaving any sort of ghostly residue unspeakably gauche.

That desire for complete dissolution returned to my mind a few days later, as I read the chapter on "Fame and the Afterlife" in Keith Thomas's fascinating new book The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009). In the course of charting the varieties and degrees of belief in various aspects of the afterlife in England in the years after the Reformation, Thomas notes,
[S]cepticism, implicit or explicity, about the literal reality of a future life, whether in heaven or in hell, was more widely dispersed than the clergy would have liked. The resurrection of the body had never been an easy doctrine to justify to an agricultural population who knew only too well waht happened to corpses, whether of men or animals.
At the same time, the more one reads about the period, the more one understands the power of the desire to be reunited with lost loved ones, the
increasing tendency to hold out to breaved families the prospect of being reunited in the next world.
A person fortunate enough to live to adulthood in those years would have been positively surrounded by the memories of dead siblings, parents, friends, and spouses; the idea of a place where all would be reunited--in, as Catherine Talbot put it, "a permanent state of felicity"--would have been undeniably attractive.

Thomas goes on to detail changes in funerary and memorial practices in the period, and in doing so he points out yet another reason why an early modern Englishman might have had doubts about the efficacy--or certainly the attractiveness--of actual physical resurrection: the "remarkably casual" attitude towards remains that prevailed. Writes Thomas, in his inimitably quote-driven style,
After a few years, the graves might be cleared, the gravestones sold, and the brasses reused to commemorate someone else. . . . Overcrowded graveyards were periodically cleared, the stones removed, and the graves reused. The Northampton physician James Hart noticed that graves were often dug for new guests before the bodies of the previous occupants had decayed. Even the bones of the dead, which in medieval times were customarily lifted and preserved in charnel houses, ceased to be the object of specific attention. "Gravestones tell truth scarce forty years," thought Sir Thomas Browne. "Our bones in consecrated ground never lie quiet," agreed John Aubrey, "and in London once in ten years (or thereabout) the earth is carried to the dung-wharf."
All of which led me back to an old favorite, D. J. Enright's Oxford Book of Death (1983), which offers this wry take on the problem from Christina Rossetti's Time Flies (1897):
I well remember how one no longer present with us, but to whom I cease not to look up, shrank from entering the Mummy Room at the British Museum under a vivid realization of how the general resurrection might occur even as one stood among those solemn corpses turned into a sight for sightseers.

And at that great and awful day, what will be thought of suppositious heads and members?
Clearly, for those at both ends of the soul's spectrum--the ones with consciences clear enough to leave them confident of resurrection, and those who've left such marks as to be liable to ghostly expiation--cremation is the best, safest option.

Monday, October 12, 2009

An inner sanctum of sorts

I'm nearly finished with the first volume of the new Library of America collection American Fantastic Tales, and thus far my favorite story is "The Little Room" (1895) by Madeline Yale Wynne. Though according to the biographical note for Wynne the story is frequently anthologized, I find only a handful of listings in The Supernatural Index*

Which makes it all the more pleasant that it might as well have been written for me, combining as it does the two characteristics I love most in spooky stories, a delicate touch and a refusal to explain. In that regard, the story it most reminds me of is Robert M. Coates's "The Hour after Westerly" (1947)**. Both stories begin with minor twists on common phenomena: in "Westerly," it is a combination of deja vu and the sense one sometimes gets that a vague hour or two has passed entirely unnoticed and unmarked; in "The Little Room," it's a moment largely encountered in dreams, of unexpectedly finding a previously unseen room in a long-familiar house. Both stories edge right up to the point of making their supernatural underpinnings explicit, but ultimately shy away from anything resembling an explanation; their restraint is admirable.

However, whereas "Westerly" is an extremely good story, well worth seeking out, "The Little Room" is more effective, because Wynne tiptoes closer to an explanation--or, in a roundabout way that leaves nearly everything unsaid, several possible explanations. The tale opens with a pair of newlyweds on a train, off to visit the bride's maiden great-aunts in rural Vermont. On the train, the bride breathlessly tells her husband something strange about the aunts' house: it contains a door, behind which is sometimes a homey room and at other times is a china closet. The bride's mother told her of spending time in the room when she lived with the aunts for a while as a girl, but then being unable to find it--or even interest her aunts in the question of its absence--on her return with her husband. The bride, too, had seen the room as a girl, spending time there when visiting the aunts with her then-widowed mother, who, despite having long before written off the room's existence to childhood fancy, finds that on this visit it has returned, though the aunts continue to claim that nothing has ever changed about the house.

I won't go further than that, but you're probably already beginning to see the symbolic richness of the story, which only becomes more effective when you learn that the couch in the little room is covered with chintz that was rumored to have been the gift of a sea captain who had wooed one of the aunts, then left her unwed. The later visit to the house of a younger cousin and her friend, who from our vantage can only be imagined as partners in what then would have been known as a "Boston marriage," as well as the equivocal role played by men in the story, only compounds the mysterious aura of sex, virginity, and feminine secrets implied by the elusive room. Wynne's story offers the best sort of symbolism--not the heavy-handed one-to-one allegory of high school study questions, but the suggestive, multi-valent, organic one that has, it seems safe to presume, animated uncanny stories since the first campfires.

From the biographical note I learned that Wynne--an heir to the Yale lock fortune--published but one book, The Little Room and Other Stories. It appears to have only been printed once, in 1895, and been out of print thereafter--but Google Books came through.*** I quickly understood why the book had sunk into obscurity. Aside from "The Little Room," its six supernatural stories are mostly forgettable--not bad, but far from memorable, smoothly written for the most part but carrying nary a whiff of the truly uncanny. Most surprising, the second story is "The Sequel to the Little Room"! I began reading it with trepidation, fearing it would present answers to the many questions its predecessor had left so deliberately, intriguingly open. Instead, it failed on its own merits: whereas the dialogue in "The Little Room" is written in a light, conversational tone that felt modern, even postwar, Wynne's sequel is told largely in an awkward New England dialect that reads like a hokey facsimile of Sarah Orne Jewett that it's hard to imagine didn't seem dated even in 1895. The story offers a bit of insight into the lives of the aunts, and it flatly refuses to dispel the central mysteries of "The Little Room," but at the same time it has none of the ease and grace of that story, nothing like its jeweled strangeness.

Still, to create one perfect story is a real achievement; to have it still spooking readers more than a century later ought to satisfy any writer. Mrs. Wynne's ghost ought to rest comfortably--unless, that is, it simply prefers the pleasures of the haunt.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"I feel my capacity to experience a terror greater than any thing yet conceived by the human mind," or, The almost universal love of the Terrible!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Because the Library of America's new two-volume set, American Fantastic Tales, is more than 1,200 pages long--and I do have a day job--I expect I'll be doling out its many pleasures to you a bit at a time over the course of the month.

Today, pressed by a variety of deadlines that are not entirely un-ghoulish in character, I have only this to share, from Fitz-James O'Brien's story "What Was It?" (1859), which I mentioned in Sunday's post:
Insensibly we yielded to the occult force {of opium} that swayed us, and indulged in gloomy speculation. We had talked some time upon the proneness of the human mind to mysticism and the almost universal love of the Terrible, when Hammond suddenly said to me:

"What do you consider to be the greatest element of Terror?"

The question, I own, puzzled me. That many things were terrible, I knew. Stumbling over a corpse in the dark; beholding, as I once did, a woman floating down a deep and rapid river, with wildly-lifted arms and awful, upturned face, uttering, as she sank, shrieks that rent one's heart, while we, the spectators, stood frozen at a window which overhung the river at a height of sixty feet, unable to make the slightest effort to save her, but dumbly watching her supreme agony and her disappearance. A shattered wreck, with no life visible, encountered floating listlessly on the ocean, is a terrible object, for it suggests huge terror, the proportions of which are vailed. But it now struck me for the first time that there must be one great and ruling embodiment of fear, a King of Terrors, to which all others must succumb. What might it be? To what train of circumstances would it owe its existence?
I love the way in which O'Brien ups the ante in his second example, clause by clause, and how effective the image of the doomed woman is despite the scene's lack of a supernatural component. Meawhile, the list in toto makes me wish that someone had asked this question of Sei Shonagon--would she not surely have come up with a blood-curdling list of Terrifying Things?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Longfellow on haunted houses

{Photo by Flickr user Stitch, reproduced under a Creative Commons license.}

For the past few Octobers, I've turned again and again to a pair of indispensable anthologies that D. J. Enright assembled: The Oxford Book of Death and The Oxford Book of the Supernatural, and you'll be hearing from both throughout the month. The former touches on ghosts only in proportion to their importance to our literature on death, whereas the latter deals with death throughout--for what role could the supernatural play in a world of immortals?

When I was searching for the lines from Nathaniel Hawthorne that I quoted in Sunday's post, I turned to the latter anthology, and on the same page with Hawthorne I found the following passage from a poem by Longfellow, "Haunted Houses" (1858), which seems an appropriate addendum to Sunday's exploration of the intersection of ghosts and real estate:
All houses wherein men have lived and died
    Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
    With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the doorway, on the stair,
    Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
    A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table, than the hosts,
    Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts.
    As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
    The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear:
He but perceives what is; while unto me
    All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
    Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
    And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

The spirit world around this world of sense
    Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense
    A vital breath of more ethereal air.
This was far better, meatier stuff than I remembered from my limited exploration of Longfellow: though carefully rhythmic, it carries none of the creak of the rocking horse that dogs his more famous poems, and some of its lines--the consonance of "From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands" and the push of "Impalpable impressions on the air"--are masterly.

Further exploration, however, revealed that Enright had presented only the first half of the poem--and it was a wise decision, at least for our skeptical era, for in the second half Longfellow trades ambiguity for meaning, presence for purpose:
Our little lives are kept in equipoise
    By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
    And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
    Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star,
    An undiscovered planet in our sky.

And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
    Throws o'er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
    Into the realm of mystery and night,--

So from the world of spirits there descends
    A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O'er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
    Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.
On this cloudy night, as the wind whips and howls around my house, I'll stick to the first half, opting for uncertainty, for the invisible floating of the ghosts, purposeless but carrying on regardless, just like us the living.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Man is wolf to man

At the risk of destroying my spooky October vibe, I figure I should tell you that my review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize earlier tonight, went up this afternoon at the Second Pass. It's a brilliant, engrossing, moving novel, the work of a writer in full command of her vast talents and her agile, questing mind.

For a fan of deadly power politics, fiction doesn't get any better than this--the sparring and double-dealing and icily loaded conversations outstrip the best moments in such favorites as Ronan Bennett's Havoc, In Its Third Year and Halldor Laxness's Iceland's Bell, let alone Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, which Mantel's novel casually backhands.

And Mantel goes one better, her portrait of Cromwell reminding us why we're drawn to political maneuvering in the first place: because to survive in such deadly waters requires that a person command a range of skills that we think of as virtues--empathy, attention to the needs and desires of others, an eye for small personal detail, ease of manner--but then employ them in ways that may in themselves be the farthest thing from virtue. For a person operating in politics ultimately needs the ability to make people do what he wants them to do--and, in the best circumstances, convince them it's what they want to do, too. When that person is a king, failure is not an option, and the breath is always bated:
The king takes a deep ragged breath. He's been shouting. Now--and it's a narrow thing--he decides to laugh. "You advocate prudence. Prudence is a virtue. But there are other virtues that belong to princes."


"Yes. Cost that out."

"It doesn't mean courage in battle."

"Do you read me a lesson?"

"It means fixity of purpose. It means endurance. It means having the strength to live with what constrains you."
That passage reminds me of another aspect of Mantel's novel that I wasn't able to touch on in my review: the historical present tense she employs. Along with her close third-person focus on Cromwell, it works to keep us forever in the present moment, even as we watch Cromwell working out his next several moves; it is wearing, like Cromwell's life, and it is marvelously effective.*

Buy this book and read it. I've not read a better, more powerful novel in a long while. Congratulations to Ms. Mantel on its quality being recognized.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

2BR, 1B; steps to shops, restaurants; ghost incl. free of charge

{Photo of the view from our bedroom window by rocketlass.}
Houses of any antiquity in New England are so inevitably possessed with spirits that the matter seems hardly worth alluding to. Our ghost used to heave deep sighs in a particular corner of the parlour, 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.
That's Nathaniel Hawthorne, from "The Old Manse," the inspiration for his first collection of odd and creepy stories, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846).

That passage has been on my mind lately, as rocketlass and I have been house-hunting, her particular desire for a garden having outweighed my general desire to avoid change of any sort. And as we've been wandering through hundred-year-old bungalows and farmhouse-style wood frame houses, I've been vaguely wondering about ghosts. All those families living there over all those years. . . . A selling realtor is required by law to disclose quite a bit of information about the property being sold, if it's bad--radon, mold, liens--but the law is, appropriately, silent on the topic of ghosts. So what is a realtor's duty?

Fitz-James O'Brien's short story "What Was It?" (1859), which is included in the new Library of America collection American Fantastic Tales, opens with a rental agent in just that position. And while she feels no compunction about laughing off reports of hauntings in a building she rents on 26th Street in Manhattan, it's to no avail:
The neighborhood caught up the story, and the house remained untenanted for three years. Several parties negotiated for it; but somehow, always before the bargain was closed, they heard the unpleasant rumors, and declined to treat any further.
If, after all, there's one thing you can count on the neighborhood gossips to pass on, it's surely news of hauntings--especially ones as impressive as the ones afflicting the building inn question:
Doors were opened without any visible agency. The remnants of furniture scattered through the various rooms were, during the night, piled one up on the other by unknown hands. Invisible feet passed up and down the stairs in broad daylight, accompanied by the rustle of unseen silk dresses and the gliding of viewless hands along the massive balusters.
Ultimately the problem is solved by the recruiting of a "plucky and philosophical set of boarders," whose appreciation of opium and cheap rent overcomes any trepidation they might have felt about ghosts; terror, nonetheless, ensues.

In our own house-hunt, the question came up the other night as rocketlass was climbing into a particularly spooky-looking attic--the stairs having been lopped off partway for closet space (and maximum creepiness). As she disappeared into the darkness, I asked the selling realtor if there were any ghosts up there.

The woman laughed and said no, but that she had sold a haunted house once. It was a lovely house on a street near ours that turned over with unusual frequency, and as she was setting up for an open house one sunny afternoon, she was startled to see an old man sitting in a rocking chair in the living room. He ignored her when she asked if he was there for the open house--then the sound of the doorbell made her briefly turn away, and he was gone when she looked back at the chair.

According to her, she did feel it was her obligation--in ethics, if not in law--to disclose the fact of the ghost to the couple that made an offer on the house; they disregarded her and bought the house despite, only to put it on the market themselves within a couple of years. My realtor and I were suitably impressed: either she was very, very quick on her feet--and a good storyteller to boot--or this really was something she'd experienced, however many ways one might find to explain it away. Doubt ghosts as I may, it would take quite a house for me to make an offer after hearing of a haunting; at a minimum, I would have to hire the Scooby gang to investigate beforehand.

When I put the question of the duty to disclose hauntings to our realtor, he replied that he definitely would feel obligated . . . the minute someone brought him a positive, verifiable, scientific test. Until then . . . well, for all he knows, you might have brought that ghost with you from your old place. 'Tis good to have a hard-headed rationalist as your realtor.

All of which leaves me glad to be able to say that our house, after nearly ten years of our living here, has given no signs of being haunted by anything more sinister than our three cats. In fact, now that I think of it . . . if you're a ghost who's looking for a comfortable, convenient new home, right next to the cemetery, we are currently accepting offers . . .

Friday, October 02, 2009

"It's late October, the sun a coin barely flipped above the horizon."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall:
In the forest, you may find yourself lost, without companions. You may come to a river which is not on a map. You may lose sight of your quarry, and forget why you are there. You may meet a dwarf, or the living Christ, or an old enemy of yours; or a new enemy, one you do not know until you see his face appear between the rustling leaves, and see the glint of his dagger. For a moment, before you don't recognise her, you will think she is someone you know.
What better way, as weekend of chilly squalls emphatically ushers in autumn, to close out blogging about Hilary Mantel than to let her carry us tonally into October country. Her Thomas Cromwell, though far from superstitious, finds the dead ever-present to his agile, restless mind, his old patron Cardinal Wolsey or his late wife flitting around the edges of the rooms they once inhabited, reminders of the tenuous grip we all hold on life, even he, Cromwell, that fierce bulldog of a man.
He seems to be alone, but there is a dry scent in the room, a cinnamon warmth, that makes him think that the cardinal must be in the shadows, holding the pithed orange, packed with spices, that he always carried when he was among a press of people. The dead, for sure, would want to ward off the scent of the living.
And outside the thick walls of his house, in the winding and dangerous streets, where the night is nearly as black as in the heart of a forest, Halloween is coming--that's its voice in the chimney, its shrieking 'round the eaves.
Halloween: the world's edge seeps and bleeds. This is the time when the tally-keepers of Purgatory, its clerks and gaolers, listen to the living, who are praying for the dead.
As in previous years, this blog will spend October as haunted as I can manage to make it. Better lay in your stock of candles and comforts now, for night falls fast this time of year, and a late knock at the door is better left unanswered.