Monday, October 5, 2015

The Technique of the Ghost Story

From the Technique of the Mystery Story by Carolyn Wells 1913

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From the days of the Witch of Endor, the superhuman personage has had an exalted place in literature.

Shakespeare, Dickens, and Washington Irving number among their characters ghosts who became famous. And in latter days, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and F. Marion Crawford have given us ghosts well worthy of their literary predecessors.

The story founded on the supernatural is a distinct branch of the Mystery Story, and except for the principle of Question and Answer, has little in common with the other two branches.

The fascination of this realm of experience, which is traditional from age to age, yet always elusive, is undeniable. Few men have seen ghosts, or will confess that they have seen them. But almost everybody knows some one of the few. Haunted houses are familiar in all neighborhoods, with the same story of the roistering sceptic who will gladly pass the night alone in the haunted chamber, and give monsieur the ghost a warm welcome; but who, if not found dead in the morning, emerges pale and haggard, with a settled terror in his look, and his lips sealed forever upon the awful story of the night.

Mansions in country places are advertised for sale or hire, with the attraction of a well regulated ghost, who contents himself with driving up at midnight with a great clatter of outriders, and rumble of wheels, and brisk letting down of steps, and a bustling entrance into the house, and then no more. Staid gentlemen remember in their youth awaking in a friend's house in the summer night just in time to see the vanishing through the long window of a draped figure; a momentary pausing on the balcony outside; the sense of a penetrating, mournful look; then a vanishing; and at breakfast the cheery question of the host, "Did you see the lovely Lady Rosamond?" and a following tale of hapless love and woe.

As George William Curtis tells us, in "Modern Ghosts: "The literature of ghosts is very ancient. In visions of the night and in the lurid vapors of mystic incantations, figures rise and smile or frown and disappear. The Witch of Endor murmurs her spell, and 'an old man cometh up, and he is covered with a mantle.' Macbeth takes a bond of fate, and from Hecate's caldron, after the apparition of an armed head and that of a bloody child, 'an apparition of a child crowned, with a tree in his hand, rises.' The wizard recounts to Lochiel his warning vision, and Lochiel departs to his doom. There are stories of the Castle of Otranto and of the Three Spaniards, and the infinite detail of 'singular experiences,' which make our conscious daily life the frontier and border land of an impinging world of mystery.

"The most refined psychological speculation may extend the range of observation. But the 'mocking laughter' of desert places, the cry of the banshee, the sudden impression of a presence, the strange and fanciful popular superstitions, as they are called, in the same way that unapprehended physical conditions are sagely called nervous prostration— what is the key to them all? What is a hallucination? Who shall say conclusively that it is the thing that is not? And if it be, whence is it, and why?"

In the technical Ghost Story, as we shall now consider it, the question is certain to arise: "What was It?" And the answer must be "A ghost"—that is, an inexplicable supernatural manifestation of some sort. A rational and material explanation, as of a human being impersonating a ghost, or a mechanical contrivance responsible for mysterious sounds, takes the story out of this class at once.

Kipling's tale called "My Own True Ghost Story" is not a ghost story at all; it is an exceedingly interesting riddle story. But "The Phantom 'Rickshaw" by the same author is one of the best of ghost stories.

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And not only must the ghost be a real ghost, but the effect of the supernatural must permeate the whole story, the real people being thus more real by contrast.

Although the reader be the strictest materialist, he must, to enjoy a ghost story, put himself in an attitude of belief in the supernatural for the time being.

As Julian Hawthorne says, in "The Lock and Key Library":
"A ghost story can be brought into our charmed and charming circle only if we have made up our minds to believe in the ghosts; otherwise their introduction would not be a square deal. It would not be fair, in other words, to propose a conundrum on a basis of ostensible materialism, and then, when no other key would fit, to palm off a disembodied spirit on us. Tell me beforehand that your scenario is to include both worlds, and I have no objection to make; I simply attune my mind to the more extensive scope. But I rebel at an unheralded ghostland, and declare frankly that your tale is incredible."

Miss Wilkins' story, "The Shadow on the Wall," is a perfect Ghost Story, told in a perfect way. There is no material explanation, the shadow on the wall has its own awful meaning, and the commonplace setting of the story throws into relief the weirdness of the plot.

With ghosts really seen by real people, the fictional Ghost Story has nothing in common. Hundreds of ghosts are annually brought to light in the dragnets of scientific spook catchers. But while these ghosts are interesting in and of themselves, they lack the setting of the Ghost Story of fiction, and without attempting to discuss the truth or falsity of their existence we fall back upon the assertion that a ghost belongs to the category of things naturally incredible. Notwithstanding the subconscious faith that all of us have in the possibility of phantoms, our reason refuses to accept them without proof much more conclusive than we should demand for the establishment of an every-day fact. So extreme is our reluctance to believe in such phenomena that the average man of education, if he saw a spectre with his own eyes, would, on referring the matter to his judgment, prefer to regard the apparition as an illusion, rather than accept it as a supernatural manifestation. The chances are, too, that he would be correct, inasmuch as hallucinations of vision are undeniably frequent.

Deep down in the heart of man there abides a firm belief in the power of the dead to walk upon the earth, and affright, if such be their pleasure, the souls of the living. Wise folks, versed in the sciences and fortified in mind against faith in aught that savors of the supernatural, laugh ideas of the kind to scorn; yet hardly one of them will dare to walk alone through a graveyard in the night. Or, if one be found so bold, he will surely hasten his footsteps, unable wholly to subdue the fear of sheeted spectres which may rise from the grass-grown graves, or emerge from moon-lit tombs, and follow on. For, strangely enough, the dead, if not actually hostile to the living, are esteemed dangerous and dreadful to encounter.

The real-life ghost story is largely made up of vehement protestations on the part of the narrator that "This really happened," and flat-footed inquiries as to "How do you explain it, if you don't believe in ghosts!"

But the Ghost Story of fiction tranquilly takes the reader's belief in ghosts for granted, and goes on to create delightfully harrowing conditions, an atmosphere of deepest mystery and a problem unsolvable, except by the acceptance of a ghost.

The ghost need not be an actual character, not even an entity; it may be an impalpable shadow, or an invisible form. Or it may be, as in one story, a fearful pair of eyes that scared the hero of the tale,—and incidentally the reader,—much farther out of his wits than any conventional spectre clanking his chains might do.

And yet it is the strange fascination of this fear that attracts the reader to a ghost story.

"What Was It?" by Fitzjames O'Brien, is a typical Ghost Story of horror. The dreadfulness of the experience is graphically pictured and the hold on the reader's attention is entirely that of the supernatural.

A parallel story is Maupassant's "The Horla."

This latter story is much longer and more elaborate, but the plots are almost identical. The Frenchman's story is told with a greater art, but is spun out to too great a length and in some parts the horror is mere hysteria.

Among Ghost Stories with an occult moral, Kipling's "They" stands pre-eminent. This story has the element of beauty rather than horror, but it is a perfect Ghost Story none the less.

"The Turn of The Screw" is a wonderful Ghost Story. The supernatural element of its matter, aided by the supernatural element in Henry James' manner is a combination that makes a Ghost Story of distinguishment.

For stories of sheer hair-raising horror, F. Marion Crawford's Ghost Stories stand easily in the first rank. "The Upper Berth" is quite as terrifying a conception as the stories of O'Brien and Maupassant, but the descriptive details give an atmosphere of fright unattained by the other two.

Perhaps unique amongst Ghost Stories is the one by Mr. Crawford entitled "The Doll's Ghost." It would seem difficult to conceive a story of the ghost of a little girl's doll, that should be neither melodramatic nor ridiculous, but Mr. Crawford accomplished this, and the little sketch, while a true Ghost Story, is pathetic and charming.

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