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The Case of the Vanishing Phantom

John Toohey

Lord Dunsany’s ghost story “Autumn Cricket” (1949) isn’t a recognised classic of the genre, but it cottons onto something better-known examples have reached for and failed. When old Modgers comes out in the evening to sit on the bench overlooking the mist-strewn cricket pitch, does he see the spirits of WG Grace and others at the crease, or are these the hallucinations of someone in terminal senescence?

The tension in that doubt lies at the heart of the ghost story, at least as it was understood from about the 1830s until the 1950s. Throughout that time it was in high demand as popular fiction, taking the profoundly distasteful topics of death and terror and transforming them into entertainment. By the middle of last century it was going the way of all apparitions, fading into obsolescence and ultimately insignificance. Behind its decline lay rules about what could be said or left unsaid, seen, or not seen. Once those rules collapsed there was nothing left but a filigree to which ideas could be hung off without having substance.

What is a ghost ‑ the literary rather than the scientific version? The obvious answer, the spectral form of a deceased person, is not as common as we sometimes assume. In Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), the ghosts were from the present and the future as well as the past. Inanimate objects like houses, vehicles, even kitchenware, have been given supernatural agency. Generally sinister, ghosts can also be loving, petulant, driven by moral obligation or, like Lord Dunsany’s cricketers, utterly indifferent to the mortal presence. Sometimes rogue wafts of mist, they can be as tangible as a slap. In some stories they are a voice, a smell, or just a feeling.

All ghosts demand to be heard, to have someone from this side listen to them. The bog-standard spectre (white shroud, chains) uses terror as pay back for supposedly unjust suffering in the past life, but others are driven by impulses they can barely express, let alone understand. In several classic Victorian stories, the spirits roam, as baffled as the mortal protagonists as to why they remain in the old mansion or the churchyard.

In Margaret Oliphant’s “The Open Door” (1868), the ghost flits uncertainly between hallucination and fact, but even when the narrator decides there is something more to it than a bedridden boy’s feverish nerves and his own disquiet, he can’t be sure of its purpose. “The Open Door” belongs to that foggy, dimly lit, mid-Victorian era when ghost stories achieved respectability. We know that because there was scarcely a writer with any reputation worth losing who did not attempt to master the form. Thackeray, Emily Brontë, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sheridan le Fanu, Oscar Wilde, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson: pull any English speaking nineteenth century author’s name from a hat and even if they hid their best efforts, they tried to bring forth supernatural unease.

This was the age of Blackwood’s, Argosy, Cornhill, Pearson’s, The Strand: periodicals out to meet an insatiable demand for ghost stories. It was also the age of spiritualism, table-rapping, and other means of contacting the other side, and it would be a tidy thing if we understood the connection, but in truth they are as far from each other as fact and fiction can get. The latter begged for science-based evidence of an afterlife (and if that evidence was to be believed, the world beyond was disappointingly similar to this one). Ghost stories revelled in the imaginary, in atmosphere, tension and other subjective impressions, and it wasn’t necessary to believe in the hereafter to be seduced by their premises.

Victorian ghost stories are commonly described as “chilling”, which is the wrong word. More often they are infused with much more restrained gloom and bleakness. Chill suggests shivery, sub-zero temperatures, but the really successful ghost story evokes a clammy discomfort. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” from 1852, The narrator – the elderly nurse – is telling her listeners how she came to care for their mother, orphaned in tragic (though not unusual) circumstances. When the legal affairs of young Rosamond’s parents are in order, she is sent to Furnivall Manor in Cumberland with the nurse, who describes her first impressions of the place:

We had left all signs of a town, or even a village, and were then inside the gates of a large, wild park ‑ not like the parks here in the south, but with rocks, and the noise of running water, and gnarled thorn-trees, and old oaks, all white and peeled with age.

They travel up the path and catch sight of the house:

and then we saw a great and stately house, with many trees close around it, so close that in some places their branches dragged against the walls when the wind blew; and some hung broken down; for no one seemed to take much charge of the place; ‑ to lop the wood, or to keep the moss-covered carriage-way in order.

At this point the reader will know that a ghost wanders the manor.

It’s hard to say whether more people believed in ghosts in the mid-Victorian era than do today: back then the issue wasn’t surveyed, or at least not with any rigour. Attending a seance was evidence of curiosity, not necessarily belief. We also have the problem that the most compelling reference for how ordinary Victorians thought, photography, often casts them as grim and downtrodden. Nowhere is that more apparent than in post-mortem photography. The very idea of taking a recently deceased person, a child especially, dressing them, applying make-up to redden the cheeks, forcing their eyes open and breaking a limb if necessary to set it in a lifelike gesture, is to render them haunted. Which brings us to a detail about the Victorian ghost that is so obvious it is easy to overlook. What is more ghost-like than an unborn child? An invisible presence, an incorporeal weight, it literally hovers between life and death, and in Victorian Britain, perilously so.

By the time Oliphant published “The Open Door”, three of her children had died before their first year and a fourth in childhood. Knowing that gives the story an inextricable grip and meaning. It is about a condition so many Victorian women were familiar with that to declare it openly might have come across as banal, while inviting queries from men as to their fitness as mothers.

The narrator is male, as are the people who set out with him to discover the source of the disembodied voice, but “The Open Door” could not have been written by a man. They would not have empathised with that desolate voice crying out from the womb-like ruin because they’d never hear it inside themselves. In a society where most of the population were expected to remain silent: women, children, the poor, immigrants, the ghost story carried vivid and relevant analogies.

“The Open Door” turns up in a lot of anthologies, but a good place to find it is the Virago Book of Ghost Stories (2006). It comes immediately before Ella D’Arcy’s “The Villa Lucienne” (1896), another story about doubt and things unspoken. Is the titular house haunted? The three women who come to it via a neighbouring property feel it is, though they don’t have anything to base that on beyond a rising sense of dread. Only the child claims to experience something but “as she is a very nervous, very excitable child, we had to drop the subject”. Probably for the best, as nervousness and excitability were indicative of susceptibility to hysteria.

The nineteenth century obsession with hysteria cannot be extracted from ghost stories either. It is everywhere, most famously in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). Do the ghosts wander the grounds of Bly, or only the imagination of the governess? James, a man who refused to write a simple, elegant sentence when a long and ugly one was achievable, was sensitive to the physiological and social ramifications of hysteria. His sister Alice spent most of her adult life bed-ridden with what was diagnosed as hysteria. We would say she suffered from depression and medicate her, but then hysteria always served a useful purpose beyond diagnosis. It kept women quiet. Alice James was literally sent to her room, while others were shipped off to sanitoriums, or to the country for fresh air, where their condition didn’t matter so long as they were out of view.

And women didn’t need to do much to be considered afflicted. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) isn’t a ghost story, though the protagonist is convinced there is a presence in her room. Whatever the nature of that, she knows that she has been hospitalised against her will and the source of her manifestations are within her. The Villa Lucienne isn’t about hysteria per se, but it is about women whose judgements can’t be trusted, because they are women.

By the time D’Arcy wrote the story, the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot had determined that men were just as prone to hysteria as women, and trauma was increasingly understood to be a significant cause. The diagnosis of hysteria as a physiological condition was on the way out. Freud would redirect it into psychoanalysis and the theory of the unconscious. In the process he robbed the ghost story of its potency.

Sigmund Freud was a teenager (something to contemplate) when “The Open Door” was published, yet Oliphant’s story is riven with Freudian imagery, from the ruin with its dark, vine-choked entrance to the plaintive cries of “Mother” the narrator thinks he catches on the wind. Freud regarded ghost stories as associated primarily with death, the fear of it and what comes after, which is ironic, given that he is most famous for his work on the unconscious and how it manifested itself at the surface. Even if they didn’t have a name for it, the great writers of ghost stories that preceded him were acutely aware of the unconscious; it drove Oliphant , Gaskell and others to their desks. Freud missed that one, but then, psychoanalysis was in its early stages and even the most respected neurologists were making claims that sound hopelessly naive or downright appalling today.

What he did achieve was to bring the language and imagery of the unconscious into the open. By the 1920s, Freudian analysis was a parlour game. Once, writers like Oliphant and Gaskell had couched their grief in images they barely understood as cries from the oppressed. Now writers were laying out stories as a snakes and ladders of Freudian codes.

In 1900 Robert S Hichens published “How Love Came to Professor Guildea”, in which the puritanical professor doesn’t find love so much as it finds him:

I merely saw some blackish object on the bench, rising into view above the level of the back of the seat. I couldn’t say it was man, woman or child.

For sure, love haunts people, though usually after they’ve encountered it. Here it is the professor’s pathological avoidance that rouses Love. Hichens belonged to that clique of queer aesthetes that included Oscar Wilde and EF Benson. Barely read today, he anticipated a twentieth century wraith offering warnings on the danger of suppressing desire. But it was another writer with tales about monkish scholars that put an end to Victorian ghosts and redrafted them to a modern, psychoanalytical vision.

The plots of MR James’s stories read like a talking cure. Man, single, bookish, introverted, digs up a relic, finds a passage in a book or otherwise disrupts that which prefers to remain hidden, and unleashes terrible consequences, usually upon himself. Imagine Freud with notebook on his lap, listening to one of James’s feckless protagonists; it isn’t hard.

Technically, James didn’t write ghost stories, but that’s what he called them so they have become integral to the canon. The phantoms he describes are vague and shadowy, classic Edwardian renditions of the unconscious, and he opened the door to a generation of writers for whom the ghost needn’t have been human, nor even dead, so long as it effected some form of influence upon the closeted. The ghost in EF Benson’s “The Room in the Tower” (1912) appears in a dream. In his “How Fear Departed the Long Gallery” (1911) the ghosts can be confronted by someone possessing childlike innocence, something few visitors to the house can claim.

If psychoanalysis didn’t actively invite itself to the reading of these stories it was never far away. The best ghost stories were always entertainment for the masses, often written by people who felt alienated from them. But if some men had discovered ghosts were useful vehicles for expressing ideas best left unsaid, some women were moving into completely new territory.

Edith Nesbit’s 1910 story “The Violet Car” begins in a place far removed from Oliphant and Gaskell’s foggy, inhospitable England. Her South Downs are gentle and accommodating, except that for one old couple they are haunted by the ghostly car that killed their daughter. The grieving father’s rage at the car (that only he sees) also conveys anger at the way loud, speeding automobiles have spoiled the landscape. It can be read as a very Victorian protest against modernity, though Nesbit, who helped establish the Fabian Society and flouted convention by wearing trousers and smoking in public, was hardly as fusty as the story’s underlying thread might suggest.

Go forward to 1926, to a story that spells the end of the traditional ghost, which is to say that if it didn’t actually kill it, it is a useful place to mark its death. The premise of Margery Lawrence’s “The Haunted Saucepan” – there in the title – demands that the reader suspend disbelief before beginning the first sentence. There are nods to Wodehouse, and because its narrator is marginally more competent than Bertie Wooster there’s the strong possibility that we are witness to idiocy rather than the supernatural. Ironic then that of all the writers so far discussed she was the most categorical believer in the paranormal, in fairies certainly.

At the story’s centre is something we’ve all done; personify inanimate objects. We not only agree with the narrator that the saucepan is watching him, it seems to do so coyly, like a cat eyeing a stranger in the room. That suspicion underscores the problem of the disappearing ghost. By the 1920s the traditional phantom was a spent force. The intensity that Dickens, Oliphant and others from two or three generations earlier had brought to the story, with all their restrained apprehension and pain, meant nothing to people who looked back on that age as something grim, joyless and thankfully past.

Technology offered one route to salvation, and for a lot of twentieth century writers (Stephen King, obviously) it was never far from the haunting, either as cause or manifestation. The figures in Robert Aickman’s stories “The Swords”, “The Same Dog” or “The Inner Room” are not ghosts in the proper sense, but it is easier to put them in that category than anywhere else. A few writers grasped the contemporary problem. Penelope Lively’s “Black Dog” (1986) could have a ghost, or it could be a husband’s indifference to his wife’s fragility. Likewise, Muriel Spark’s ghosts (“The Portobello Road”, “The Girl I left Behind Me”) have conditions any pompous shrink would recognise.

Other than the rare bright spark, the contemporary ghost story is homage, pastiche, or failure of imagination, depending where your sympathies lie. In any case, it is essentially an exercise in nostalgia, pushing some aspect of the story into their own times but otherwise keeping to formulae: the decaying mansion, a distant grievance, dim light and dropping temperature.

The last ghost story of any note, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, (1983) is nearly forty years old. It is also one of the most successful ever written, with a television, film and two radio adaptations, and the play has been in continuous production in the West End since 1989, making it the second-longest-running after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Yet its success depends entirely on its use of every single archetype of the classic ghost story, of every moment being immediately recognisable to devotees of the genre. It opens on Christmas Eve, with the family wanting to tell ghost stories (tick), returns to a distant past (tick), to a village well out of the protagonist’s comfort zone (tick), but mild compared to the fog-strewn house on the marsh (tick). There isn’t a sentence that does not carry the weight of the genre, even if it does so lightly. It depends upon readers being so thoroughly familiar with the tropes that they’ll already feel sick with dread the moment Arthur Kipps sets out to look into the room up the stairs.

When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818, a doctor successfully stitching together a new man from old body parts had to be equal parts brilliant and mad. Today, we expect any surgeon can do it. Something similar has happened with the ghost. In the age of the Internet, no one need be silent anymore, even when, as thousands of bloggers have discovered, nobody else is really listening. And technology has wreaked its own damage on our imaginations. Every day we encounter disembodied voices, invisible watchers and shifting dimensions without missing a beat. And what we thought of as ghosts are relatively innocuous given what we can create with multimedia technology.

Like poetry, the Western and Impressionism, the ghost story is dead, not sleeping. And no doubt best left that way.

1/12/2020

Most of the stories discussed above have been frequently anthologised and can be found in the collections listed below.
Cynthia Asquith, The Second Ghost Book, Pan, 1973
EF Benson and Seth, “How Fear Departed the Long Gallery”, Bibioasis, 2017
Michael Cox, The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories, Oxford University Press, 1997
Richard Dalby, The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, Virago, 2008
Susan Hill, The Woman in Black, Vintage, 2018
Otto Penzler, The Big Book of Ghost Stories, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard/Vintage Books, 2012
Herbert A Wise and Phyllis Fraser, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, Modern Library, 1994

[email protected] is a writer and photographer back living in Perth, Western Australia after nearly twenty years away working in Istanbul and Montreal, where he is still finishing his PhD on British landscape photography in the Edwardian era. His books include Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare, reissued by Skyhorse in 2019. Recently he won the Lawrence Wilson Art Writing Prize for 2020. His work has appeared in The Conversation and Public Domain Review.

 

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