Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Development of the Modern Ghost by Marjory MacMurchy 1902


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THERE is a curious distinction to be drawn between the modern ghost in life and in literature. The literary ghost accommodates itself to the requirements of the age; but the ghost in social intercourse remains unchanged. Take the earliest instances on record of supernatural appearances and you will find the same unsubstantial forms and lamenting voices, the same inability to forsake scenes of past violence and crime as may be discovered in any collection of modern records of the ghost, such, for instance, as the autobiography of Mr. Augustus J. C. Hare. But it is not so in literature. The student of the literary ghost will find in its history a gradual development, although the law of this development may not always hold good for the ghost-story in art is not a thing that has been easily come by in any generation. There is but one step between the jocose familiar and the awe-inspiring in supernatural literature; and a very slight touch of imagination will turn a thrill into a jest. Human nature cannot be terrified by the same stage property for any extended period of time; and the domination of brimstone is likely to become in a few years Charles Kingsley's thunder-box. There are, of course, shining exceptions; but the power of such imaginary scenes lies in the fact that the ghostly appearance has been united with no ordinary appeal to the heart of human nature; by a poignant reminder of the fact that these apparitions have been what men are now, and that the living at any moment may pass across that boundary. The real power of the ghost story lies in the fact that we are ignorant of so much that must lie before us. We cannot be certain that when daylight is past someone we know may not be in the dark. When we read in Homer how the Shades were driven away from the stream of blood till Ulysses could hear news of his distant home no living being can fail to recognize that inextinguishable claim that comes from being kindred.

The world has not yet outgrown the feeling of the dark any more than it can better the story of the Witch of Endor, which, whether it is considered as history or literature, maintains its position in the realm of the supernatural to this day: the frightened woman—"An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle,"— and the king, at the end of his little magnificent scope, lying all along upon the ground after the last word had been spoken, because he had no expedient left.

Beginning with the treatment of the devil in the miracle-plays, which was a kind of whistling in the dark to keep up the spirits of our sorely tried ancestors, we find the element of comedy in the supernatural. The miracle-play devil was apparently the predecessor of the modern clown in the circus. But the essence of the real ghost-story is not humorous. The Middle Ages could afford to treat the "Auld Ane" humorously, they had so many things to frighten them; we think we have so few, comparatively speaking, that it has produced a more economical treatment of the uncanny amongst our writers, with the possible exception of Miss Marie Corelli, who may not have meant to present Satan humorously, but who has not altogether failed in doing so. Mr. Stockton seems to own at present the humorous, quasi benevolent ghost, with an occasional "look-in" from Miss Carolyn Wells; but it is "a far cry" from belaboring the devil with a stick on a stage set up under the sky to the surreptitious presentation of pies in the dark. Such exploitations, however, are tours de force; they tickle the intellect, but they do not appeal to the inner fortress of man's being: it is the inner fortress only that the real ghost story is bent on storming.

It would be extremely useful to the present comparison if we could know what impression Shakespeare's ghosts made on an Elizabethan audience. Were they chilled with that sense of the presence of something fatal which ought to accompany the presentment of a visionary being, or were they only aware of how vital the ghost was to Hamlet or to Caesar, all admiring but not trembling, wrapt but not panic-stricken, as we are to-day? Certainly the witches in Macbeth afford the most humorous delight now to the exploring youngster who hunts out scene after scene to repeat their scarcely polite exhortations, leaving by choice the rest of the play unread.

As might be expected, ghosts were not popular in the late seventeenth, or in any part of eighteenth-century literature. It might be worth while for someone who is interested in the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy to look up Bacon's attitude toward the supernatural; but the whole fabric of that discussion is impervious to proof on the one side and the other. Dryden and Pope could find no use for ghosts other than merely intellectual superstructures; nor could any of these gay dramatists (using the adjective in the sense of Mr. Pinero's "The Gay Lord Quex") whose works no really proper person is supposed to have read. Ghosts came in again with the romantic revival; but during this period they are too picturesque to be terrifying to a present-day audience, whatever they were to the squires and ladies who read "The Mystery of Udolpho." We cannot help sympathizing with Miss Austen, who, with malice of forethought, laid a washing bill with emendations written in red ink in the secret hiding-place which the amiable young heroine of Northanger Abbey was so certain of finding. Scott's ghosts are all romantic; but one can find few better things than romance when it is associated with genius. The figure of Claverhouse in "Wandering Willie's Tale," sitting at the nameless banquet with his hand over the place where the silver bullet had gone in has not yet been dimmed by time. Stevenson chose that tale from Scott as one of the finest short stories that had ever been written; and when he came to write his own of the tailor, the appearance of whose body danced on the rock surrounded by the sea while he still seemed to his neighbors to be sleeping at his work, Scott's story was not far from his mind.

The ghost romantic was followed by a return to the ghost jocular, although it is not clear that Dickens did not mean to frighten his audience as well as his miser when he brought Scrooge up to Marley's ghost in the first place. But the coat-tail buttons settled that question; no modern public could be terrified of a ghost the appearance of whose visionary buttons was of more consequence than the spirit himself.

A writer in the Spectator once affirmed that thousands of people would welcome any proof of the appearance of a ghost, since it would be an indubitable indication of the continuance of existence. This attitude is, perhaps, responsible for a later development of the supernatural in literature, the ghost heavenly, of whom no one has written more vividly than Mrs. Oliphant. Her account of a visitation of spirits to a town in France, which is to be found in "A Beleaguered City," is supposed by good authorities to be her strongest bid for immortality. The very tremor of anxious souls presses out from the book; but sweetly, as if an angel had sobbed. Those who have a liking for good ghosts, the ghost in high places, cannot do better than read Mrs. Oliphant's "Stories of the Unseen"; and after making the acquaintance of "A Little Pilgrim," no one of discernment could think poorly of the spiritual insight of a generation that produced an author who could imagine such a country and people who found a keen degree of satisfaction in reading of it.

It is evident that as the modern ghost in literature develops it becomes more subtle, suggestive, and mysterious. The writer of a modern ghost-story has a far more difficult task than he would have had a hundred years ago, or any number of hundred years that one can count. But when the effect of the supernatural is once produced in modern times it is more lasting and cannot be so readily shaken off, because a ghost-story has now to be psychically true. The ghost-story in any age must be aimed at what men believe in that age. To-day we believe in the soul, and in the effect of sin and virtue; we are not supposed to believe in many things, but we do believe in that with ever-increasing earnestness. For the effect of virtue we have the work of Mrs. Oliphant. For the consideration of what men can reach, if they let themselves go long enough, we find at least one example in the work of Mr. Henry James. What shall we call Peter Quint and "the woman with the dreadful face" — the ghost intensive? There is no later development at present than Peter Quint, nor is there any sign that & later development will be needed for some years: we have not got accustomed to his horror yet. He belongs to the essence of a ghost-story and would daunt—well, anyone who thought about him. It is significant that there is not a hint in "The Turn of the Screw" that Peter Quint lives anywhere but where he used to live when he was supposed to be, at least, more materiaL How modern that is, and how sufficient to make us stop and wonder! There is no hint of any punishment, or, indeed, of any explanation; but a furtive watching and an endeavor to keep some power. What a world Peter Quint and his companion are away from Mr. Stockton's amiable quiddity, the pieman! Mr. James's is the real ghost, the legitimate descendant of "the sheeted dead who did squeak and gibber about the streets of Rome." Pete Quint establishes at least one thing, that the modern ghost has become an appeal to a spiritual condition, not to a physical one. The modern ghost is what we have been taught to call a soul; and that, even in the present generation, affords an inexhaustible theme for consideration. We know so little about spiritual eye; and it means so much. One of the strongest canons of art calls for reticence, a canon, indeed, which Mr. James does not violate. The next development of the ghost-story in literature scarcely foreshadows itself; but if the work of the Psychical Society is to count for anything, the plot ought to be found in the regions of spiritualism— spirit-writing, perhaps.
Marjory MacMurchy.

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