Friday, October 29, 2010

And so we bid the ghosts adieu, or, See you in the stacks!

"We were sitting, I remember, late in the evening in your drawing-room, where the lights of the chandelier were so muffled as to produce a delicious obscurity, through which the fire diffused a dim, red glow." That's Nathaniel Hawthorne, setting the scene and mood deliciously, as he does again and again his two collections of strange stories, Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse. Only, this time, he's setting a real scene, in which he once told a real ghost story: those lines come from a brief manuscript Hawthorne wrote at the behest of a friend in whose Liverpool parlor one night--when "the feelings of the party had been properly attuned by some tales of English superstition"--he told a story of a ghost he himself had encountered.

After my post last week about writers I wish would have seen ghosts and written about the experience, it seems right to close out this haunted month by giving Hawthorne, who did and did, the stage. I owe a tip of the hat to the New England Folklore blog for putting me on the track of this story, which was first published, after Hawthorne's death, in the February 10, 1900 issue of The Living Age. Fans of Hawthorne's gentle storytelling voice--which serves so well to set off the horrors of such stories as "Young Goodman Brown"--will enjoy his introduction to the piece, which continues the scene-setting from above:
[T]he lady of Smithhills Hall had just been describing that Bloody Footstep which marks the threshold of her old mansion, when your Yankee guest (zealous for the honor of his country, and desirous of proving that his dead compatriots have the same ghostly privileges as other dead people, if they think it worth while to use them) began a story of something wonderful that long ago happened to himself. Possibly in the verbal narrative he may have assumed a little more license than would be allowable in a written record. For the sake of the artistic effect, he may then have thrown in, here and there, a few slight circumstances which he will not think it proper to retain in what he now puts forth as the sober statement of a veritable fact.
It's worth reading the whole story, which, because the Google Books version can be hard on the eyes, I've posted in full over at my Notes blog, but the short version is quite simple. As a young man, Hawthorne used to spend his days in the reading room of the Athanaeum in Boston, and nearly every day he would see there an old man reading the Boston Post. In the way of libraries, Hawthorne never spoke to or was introduced to the man, but he learned from a friend that his name was Doctor Harris. One evening, after Hawthorne had seen Harris at midday, his friend happened to mention that Harris had died that morning.

Hawthorne assumes that he must have somehow been mistaken in thinking he'd seen the Doctor that day, that his imagination had created the familiar, expected figure. So the next morning,
as I ascended the steps of the Athenaeum, I remember thinking within myself, "Well, I shall never see old Doctor Harris again!" With this thought in my mind, as I opened the door of the reading-room, I glanced towards the spot and chair where Doctor Harris usually sat, and there, to my astonishment, sat the gray, infirm figure of the deceased Doctor, reading the newspaper as was his wont!
Which leads to the best line in the story, one that would serve as a punchline were Hawthorne not so matter-of-fact in his telling: "His own death must have been recorded, that very morning, in that very newspaper!"

Though for the most part, the ghost of Doctor Harris simply sits, day after day, reading the newspaper, one day he turns to Hawthorne with an almost pleading look . . . and Hawthorne displays unexpectedly steely nerves. Realizing that, following convention, the ghost desperately wants to tell him something but is waiting to be addressed, Hawthorne holds his tongue:
[R]eflecting, moreover, that the deceased Doctor might burden me with some disagreeable task, with which I had no business or wish to be concerned—I stubbornly resolved to have nothing to say to him. To this determination I adhered; and not a syllable ever passed between the ghost of Doctor Harris and myself.
Hawthorne may have disdained New England's Puritan heritage, but I think the Puritans would have recognized a bit of themselves in that harsh, even cruel exercise of willpower. How many of us, confronted with a ghost--a kindly-seeming, older ghost--would be able to summon up that sort of resolve? I think most of us would submit, would speak--even though we would know as we spoke that nothing the ghost was going to tell us would be anything we wanted to hear. Through such decisions are nightmares entered.

Which leads me to an apt line that a bookseller friend passed on today, from Javier Marias's "No More Loves":
It is quite possible that the main aim of ghosts, if they still exist, is to thwart the desires of mortal tenants, appearing if their presence is unwelcome and hiding away if it is expected or demanded.
And with that, I'll let October and its ghosts fade away once again into the mists to bide their time until next autumn. And where better to leave them than in a quiet reading room?


  1. "The Haunted Libraries Series Revisited" at the Britannica Blog includes Hawthorne and the Athanaeum:

  2. Thanks for the pointer, Dave. That's a great site! The only library on the list I've been to is the Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana, whose ghost I've long heard about, but never seen.

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  4. How terrifying that Doctor Harris appears to be kindly and meek! I would've made the same decision as I'm sure a ghost would be quite delighted to appear harmless while plotting his own schemes...

  5. Go Hawthorne. I enjoy your blog.

  6. Good blog, I enjoyed reading it.

  7. You should visit India for the amazing myths, haunted castles and deserted villages.

  8. Jamie,
    I can never get enough Hawthorne!

    I realize that in some legitimate ways this doesn't count, but I have recently been reading a collection of horror and fantasy stories by Kipling, all set in (and many dealing with legends and myths of) India. They're really good thus far.