Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ghost Stories by James H. Hyslop 1917

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Ghost stories lend themselves well to fiction. They leave the imagination entirely free. In ordinary fiction, especially of the realistic type, we expect some concessions to be made to facts but when it comes to a ghost story we assign no limits to the imagination. This is because the supernatural world offers us no standards for curbing our fancy. Icarus is given impunity in that atmosphere and there is no sun to melt his wings. Whatever our wishes, we do not expect ghosts to be real, and we are fancy free to invent or distort as we may. But in the twilight of human knowledge it was not thus. The boundaries of the real and the unreal were undefined and the belief in the supernatural, while it allowed the imagination free reins, revealed little difference between its creations and the ideas men held of the actual world. In this overlapping of the real and the imaginary, the ghost story arose and has never lost its interest for men, though the cold judgment of science deprived the real thing of its terrors.

As knowledge increased and extended its domain ghosts were reduced to hallucinations, much to the disappointment of lovers of the marvellous, and cultivated minds could only toy with them as objects either of literary fancy or of amusement against their less fortunate neighbours who desired to believe in them. Intellectuals who came into contact with stories like those in the Phantasms of the Living, indulgently spoke of them with a mixture of humour and tolerance which prevented them from either believing or denying them. But writers of fiction had no responsibilities and were not judged by the standards of either belief or unbelief, while the general public followed its tastes and imagination, chafed under the restraints of scepticism, and chose the easy road to satisfaction.

In the present age, which is saturated with psychic research, whatever the motive or outcome of that movement, ghost stories have been revived partly because you can invoke interest under the cloak of science and partly because of an interest in the unknown and the desire to please our fancies, and fiction, which is art and not science, can escape the duty of preaching. The psychologist, however, may detect a concealed realism in the most audacious feats of the imagination or an interest in the supernatural when the mind struggles to conceal or to ridicule it. Hence a collection of ghost stories, whatever their nature, may have their value for every class of readers. Some will want to invoke age and general human interest in behalf of certain prejudices, and others will want to quote them as illustrations of superstition. But all will like a good story well told and appealing to the imagination which always affords mankind more satisfaction than facts.

Besides a collection of them may reveal disguises which science may uncover, however deeply concealed be the respectability that will not offend science, or by the ignorance which suspects that there is more in them than is dreamt of in our philosophy. At any rate, we may read them without demanding that they shall conform to our sense of reality and without expecting science to restrain the imagination. In other words, literature and its artistic interests will excuse us for an interest in them while science will not hold us accountable for any indulgence of that interest. If the knowing can penetrate the veil and discover any truth in them far beyond the ken of ordinary mortals, all others may complacently enjoy the illusion that they are superior to both science and superstition. With Macaulay literature was more than the consolations of philosophy. This was because philosophy has only to be true while literature has only to please. Or is it because literature is nearer the truth and can please at the same time? Perhaps in this age when we are beginning to break down the barriers which science has set to the imagination, and this by an expansion of science itself, which is the Nemesis of its own prejudices and arbitrarily imposed limits, we may find the salvation of both the intellect and the will. However this may be, with apparitions as a proved fact, and on any theory not due to chance in all instances, the fancies of the past may prove to have been founded in fact, however dressed to suit the purposes of literary art.
James H. Hyslop. New York, September 15, 1917.

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