Things

Karl Miller

  • The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert
    Oxford, 504 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 19 214163 5
  • The Ghost Stories of M.R. James by Michael Cox
    Oxford, 224 pp, £12.45, November 1986, ISBN 0 19 212255 X
  • Supernatural Tales by Vernon Lee
    Peter Owen, 222 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 7206 0680 2
  • The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan
    Viking, 482 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 670 80902 0
  • Ghostly Populations by Jack Matthews
    Johns Hopkins, 171 pp, £11.75, March 1987, ISBN 0 8018 3391 4

Ghosts did not go out when electric light came in, though it could be felt at the time that this was bound to happen. They can look like a trick of the moonlight and candlelight of the past: and yet most of the pieces in the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories are taken from the well-lighted last quarter of the last century and first quarter of this one. Readers of this book could be excused for thinking that ghosts have been switched on to accompany, or to compete with, the illuminations of the modern world, that they are a relief from the exactions of reason. Ghost stories can look like a nostalgic game, a trivial make-believe, played when it was no longer widely held, by readers of books, that the spirits of the dead return to the land of the living – mopping, mowing, gibbering, giving their owl’s cries, causing the tapers to burn blue, sheeted, but never in any circumstances nude. The last of these superstitions is commemorated in a story by A.E. Coppard, chosen for the Oxford Book, in which a dressy female revenant performs a more than usually disappointing strip-tease. She is also taking part in a literary jeu d’esprit.

The editors claim, oddly, that ‘the working class and those in trade are generally too busy to concern themselves with ghosts.’ But it is certainly true that, over the last hundred and fifty years, it is those relatively wealthy people who prefer to live in old houses who have been said to see ghosts, that many of the stories have less to say about ghosts than about old houses, and that many of their authors are the sort of people who live in them – in the old houses, for example, of Oxford and Cambridge. The stories could be thought to belong to a modern world in which ghosts need to be explained, and in which they may be explained as symptoms of a disordered mind, of ‘nerves’ and exhaustion. ‘He had been working very hard lately.’ This man, in 1911, a painter haunted by a model knocked down in the Fulham Road, had been expecting something, and ‘was enough of a psychologist to know that in that state you are especially likely to see what you expect to see.’ The story is by Barry Pain.

Despite the impression which the Oxford Book imparts, ghost stories go back a long way before the 19th century. And so does their authorial explanation. Ghosts are creatures of habit, and of Hamlet: Shakespeare’s play is a ghost story which has affected the habits of ghosts in later times. Some of these times were, for some people, quiet and sedentary. Those who lie awake now at night listening to the howling of ambulances, to shouts in the street, to the speeding cars of a violent Police, may reflect that we have worse things to fear than banshees. But at the end of the last century M.R. James’s head lay easy, pillowed on Eton and King’s. In the introduction to this reissue, ‘Monty’s’ stories are made, by one of the Oxford Book editors, to look like a game which registers a displacement of the erotic. ‘Even the deepest friendship of his life, with James McBryde, stopped well short of what we should now glibly class as homosexual involvement.’ James would read his stories to gatherings of male friends, and the golden undergraduate McBryde drew pictures for the stories. ‘Monty disappeared into his bedroom,’ recalled another friend. ‘We sat and waited in the candlelight ... Monty emerged from the bedroom, manuscript in hand, at last, and blew out all the candles but one, by which he seated himself.’ In the excitements of M.R. James’s golden time, which was also that of Henry James, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, all the way from a remote and violent past, was to participate.

In the first scene of the first act of Hamlet, this ghost is awaited. The watchers are stationed on the ‘platform’ of the castle of Elsinore. The platform is a feature, not of Elsinore’s battlements, but of a gun-bearing terrace in front of the castle. Marcellus tells Horatio that the Ghost walks ‘jump at this dead hour’ – exactly at this point in what Horatio is to term ‘the dead waste and middle of the night’. When the Ghost eventually appears to Hamlet it informs him that ‘upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,’ and Hamlet has responded to the news of the murder with ‘O my prophetic soul!’ He had suspected some foul thing of this kind. Others besides him see the Ghost, though his mother is subsequently to fail to see it when he does. Barnardo says in the first act that, on that night, he has ‘seen nothing’. But Barnardo has seen the Ghost on other nights. At the very start of the play Marcellus remarks of what he and Barnardo have seen: ‘Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy.’

Three explanations of the Ghost are current in Hamlet. There is the suggestion that beholders are imagining it. People are often thought to imagine things in the play, and Hamlet and the Ghost both say that the weak imagine things. But then this may be an ‘honest ghost’, loosed from Purgatory in order to purge his sins, and to nerve Hamlet to take revenge, fulfil his prophecy. Then again the Ghost may be the Devil, or a ‘goblin’ set on by the Devil to play on Hamlet’s nerves.

        The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.

Spirits come to those in low spirits. Hamlet has already addressed the Ghost in Act One with the words, ‘Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d’, and he proceeds in this soliloquy to speak of putting his uncle to the test by means of a piece of theatre in which the murder of a king by a usurper – which is also that of an uncle by a nephew – is played before the court. If his uncle passes the test, why then

It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan’s stithy.

But the uncle fails the test. Hamlet’s mischief works, the strong imagination of this weak man proves true. It is hard not to see this as pinning the poor fellow to some course of redress, if not revenge. Having seen something, and proved it, he now has to do something. At the same time, the play has thrown doubt on what it is that he has seen, and subverts what he finds to do, souring his revenge, and causing his imaginations to be as foul as some of his actions. At the start of the play Hamlet teases Horatio: ‘Methinks I see my father’ – but it is only in his ‘mind’s eye’. And when Horatio replies, ‘I think I saw him yesternight,’ the exchange is enough to make one wonder for a moment whether he, too, may have been imagining it. In the middle of the play Hamlet says to himself – using a metaphor which could well have been familiar, we are told, to the readers of books among Shakespeare’s contemporaries – that no one comes back from the dead.

Eleanor Prosser has written a fervent book to show that, in Shakespeare’s time, revenge was seen as sinful by those who published opinions, and relayed a common knowledge, about this, and about the abuse of melancholics by demons. Bacon saw revenge as ‘a kind of wild justice’ – a description which could well have added to its appeal for certain readers of later times: but he also saw it as a bad thing, a thing which weakened the rule of law. Prosser has it that ‘we sense instinctively that the desire to effect private vengeance is an evil.’ But we also sense that it affords a kind of wild justice. Revenge is a ‘double business’ – which is what Claudius calls his repentance, soured by a conflict in which ‘my stronger guilt defeats my strong intent.’ The reader of the play is likely to reflect that revengers become killers, and to reflect, too, that revenge is a complex thing, and an imaginative thing – apt to make mistakes, and to commit its own crimes. The enigma of Hamlet can appear to lie in its sometimes seeming to be a play in which the hero sees things, sees a suitable ghost and makes up a murder, while remaining a play in which the ghost is seen by other people and in which we have to believe in the uncle’s guilt. This, too, is a double business, and it is linked to the duality which is inherent in revenge. The uncertainty of the superstitious content of the play compounds and expresses the uncertainty of revenge itself.

Hamlet’s marked ability to mean different things to different people is bound up with this. In the last few days I have read both that a Contra leader has been described in America, by a colleague, as resembling ‘Hamlet’s indecisive younger brother’, and that, in the North of this country, ‘playing Hamlet’ has meant falling into a wild rage. It is certainly no less necessary to see him as a murderer than as a paragon. Shakespeare’s tragedies often concern the humanity of a murderer, who may see things that speak to a prophetic soul, and they have in them the thought of murder as misreading. The signs may be either outlandish or mundane.

I come now to a little touch of Shakespeare in the later literature of the supernatural. When the Governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw sees her first ghost, that of the wicked valet Peter Quint, the words she uses to describe the event – which initially persuades her that her ‘imagination’ has ‘turned real’, in the person of her handsome employer – are words in which Hamlet is remembered. ‘It was plump, one afternoon, in the middle of my very hour’ – the hour when she was in the habit of taking strolls. In the words of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, to which, as to other words in the play, James seems, consciously or unconsciously, to have been attending, it was her ‘custom always of the afternoon’. ‘Plump’ here could be reckoned a mistake for ‘plumb’, given James’s nervous way with the vernacular – except that this is a mistake which the language encourages us to make and which is frequently heard, to expressive effect, in speech. But it also appears to be a recollection of Hamlet’s ‘jump at this dead hour’, in the ‘dead waste and middle of the night’, when the Ghost is in the habit of walking. When Quint is seen at Bly, moreover, it is at the top of one of the house’s two crenellated towers, on a ‘platform’. ‘Platform’ seems a possible word for the horizontal space at the top of a tower, but it is equally a word in Hamlet, for the bottom of a tower, for the terrace where ordnance is placed, and James’s use of it is a further reason to suppose that he had the play in his mind’s eye. In staging his apparition, James was guided, I think, by the opening sequence, in which imagination, fantasy, is immediately and pointedly mentioned as an explanation of the something, or nothing, untoward which is being witnessed, at a dizzy height overlooking the sea. James’s text, no less than Shakespeare’s, contemplates a need to explain the supernatural in terms of human frailty, whose name in certain contexts, for Hamlet and for many others, is woman. In dealing with a charge of rape the other day, a British judge declared, with the delicate touch of his profession, that women imagine things.

One text leads to another, in the ordinary way of literature. In this case, one text has returned to haunt another, and to determine the presentation and explanation of a ghost. In writing his story, Henry James displays an interest in the work of a predecessor interested in the misreading imagination. The thought might help us to decide what kind of text it is that James produced. This has been a matter of dispute; critics have conducted a running battle on the subject for many years. Is the Governess meant to be seen as mad, and are the ghosts she sees, Quint and Miss Jessel, the projections of an inflamed imagination? And does she thereby violate the innocence of her charges, poor beautiful Miles and Flora? Or is the Governess a trustworthy witness to phenomena that a reader might expect to meet in the sort of ghost story where sceptical explanations are absent? Edmund Wilson advanced a version of the projective view, while F.R. Leavis – in the course of a ‘disagreement’ with Marius Bewley on the subject which is contained in Bewley’s The Complex Fate – came out on the other side. Leavis thinks of the tale as a trivial piece of mystification and writes of it in a manner that would be appropriate to a manual of military discipline: ‘We are to accept her in unquestioning good faith as a wholly credible witness – a final authority.’ This is a lot to ask of anyone, about anything. In discussing the tale, James, too, remarks that the Governess ‘has “authority” ’, in relation to apparitions which he refers to as ‘goblins’ – Shakespeare’s word in Hamlet for bad ghosts – and which must, he thinks, be distinguished from the sightings investigated by psychical researchers. But he also refers to the tale as ‘an amusette to catch those not easily caught’. The catch, presumably, could consist in James’s making the tale accessible to both of these opposed interpretations. Another double business. To command us to trust the Governess might imply that there are such things as ghosts: were it not that such commanders clearly do not believe this, or believe that James believed it. It is then difficult to avoid the suggestion that the tale is just an amusement, and that James could on occasion be minded to offer nothing more. To suppose that he is offering something more on this occasion is to suppose him interested in imagination, and in delusion.

Leavis’s reading of the story is an impatient one. It is very difficult not to suspect that the narrative is meant to be suspicious, and the latent use of Hamlet, Act One, Scene One, with its stress on ‘fantasy’, makes it that much harder. This is a tale which is like other tales of the supernatural, and like other works by the middle James, such as The Spoils of Poynton, in that a central testimony arouses, and seems designed to arouse, suspicion. The Governess positively demands that we suspect her account of what it was for her to seek to ‘plumb’ the housekeeper at Bly and take the measure of its mysteries.

She is that romantic thing, a lonely sufferer whose weakness exerts a claim upon the reader. Like the central witness in The Spoils of Poynton, Fleda Vetch, she is, in James’s prefatory words about Fleda, more than ‘a mere little flurried bundle of petticoats’. The Governess in The Turn of the Screw is ‘a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage’ who dreams of a handsome man: but her testimony is to display her as both weak and strong. She is also a resolute psychical researcher endowed with the authority and composure of James’s prose. On her arrival at Bly, the house and its people are thought to be like ‘a great drifting ship’. ‘Well,’ she goes on, ‘I was strangely at the helm.’ She tells a strange story of a traditional sort, the story of a ‘queer affair’, and her experience, like Fleda’s, is one of flights and drops, of nerves, and of having to summon the ‘nerve’ to steer the ship. She harps on ‘the state of my nerves’, fairly warns us of ‘my dreadful liability to impressions’. Quint impresses her very much, with the ‘matters in his life – strange passages and perils, secret disorders, vices more than suspected’. And perhaps less. ‘The strange steps of my obsession’ take her to the knowledge that her truth depends on proving Miles a liar. Of Quint’s ghost she says: ‘He was there or was not there: not there if I didn’t see him.’ She thinks she sees him: but if he was never there she has been corrupting her charges. She feels ‘a perverse horror of what I was doing. To do it in any way was an act of violence.’ On the last pages, however, she rejoices in the impression that she has managed an exorcism of Quint, and speaks of possessing Miles herself. She calls him ‘my own’ – an expression that does more to evoke the work of devils than to confirm the authority of a witness.

One incident which has been cited as evidence that James wants his readers to believe the Governess, for the sake of a tall tale, is the detailed description she gives of Quint to the homely, solid housekeeper – a description which enables Mrs Grose to recognise the valet, whose death had preceded the Governess’s arrival. How did the Governess know what the bad man, with the bad name, looked like? It may be that James put this in to amuse, or to confuse, those readers who would be impressed by the Governess’s vulnerability to impressions. But she could surely have picked up the details of Quint’s appearance from the gossip about him that she had listened to at Bly. ‘Haven’t I to absolute satiety heard her described? I’ll describe her for you in every particular.’ This is an explanation which comes, not from The Turn of the Screw, but from another ghost story by James, ‘The Friends of the Friends’, chosen for the Oxford Book, a story in which a man is captured by a woman whom he was always to meet in life, and whom he is thought – by a female narrator we distrust – to meet after her death. But it is an explanation which is also applicable to the ghost of Quint.

The Oxford Book supplies a further aid to the appreciation of James’s supernatural mode and of its attendant spirits within the literary tradition. It prints a story by Algernon Blackwood published in 1906, ‘The Empty House’. In an English seaside town, a pair of researchers, a man and his intrepid aunt, tiptoe round the disagreeable rooms of a haunted house where, by one of those wicked servants of the age, a girl had once been thrown down the stairwell to her death, and where the crime is now re-enacted for the researchers. Two years later, James published ‘The Jolly Corner’, in which this stealthy tiptoeing was re-enacted. A James-like cosmopolitan returns to New York to haunt the family mansion, where he encounters his might-have-been, a sinister, wounded American businessman. Perhaps it is his weakness which sees this ghost. Seeing it, at all events, he swoons: and when he recovers it is to the prospect of a happier life. He is in the lap of a woman who has in her something of a mother, or a sister, or for that matter an aunt, a woman who has liked him and could even have liked his alter ego. Blackwood’s piece is a ‘mere’ ghost story; James’s is not – occasioned by the Blackwood though it seems to have been. We are in a world in which ghosts are hardly ever seen but are often imagined, and in which the imagining of them is, at times, the imagining of something else. James’s story yields the inner conflicts of the perceiver, and the family life of the author.

The two stories contain features which had come to dominate the genre when it was elaborated in the course of the 19th century. The Oxford Book items transmit a horror of old houses which could also be called a form of approval. Old houses repel their boarders, conquering them, converting them. Their boarders will often be people of independent means, and of a scholarly or progressive turn. They are not afraid of theft or murder, but of the survival of a criminal past. And yet the past will often be seen as superior to the present, with its dreary rationalism and materialism. The ghost stories of the modern world declare themselves the testimony of the overworked, the ill, the mad: but this is a madness which expounds a metaphysics. ‘I am not a very imaginative man, nor have I any sympathy with the modern craze for spooks and spectres.’ The dull hero of this Hugh Walpole story in the Oxford Book nevertheless sees ghosts – those of an orphan girl and of a beloved male friend – which intimate that love triumphs over death.

Two stories here about grand old houses came out together at the end of the 1920s, and are alike in seeming to celebrate the life that can still be led there by the right people. In John Buchan’s, dear old glamorous Fullcircle wins over what he presents as a bloody awful married couple – ‘Hampstead’ progressives – to a pagan-Catholic frame of mind, while Edith Wharton’s house, Bells, nearest post-office Thudeney-Blazes, tries the strength of the sensible grand lady who inherits it. ‘ “Fudge!” muttered Lady Jane,’ who is ‘interested in old houses’ and in travel, like Wharton herself, and who finds out that a Regency ancestor has ill-treated his deaf-and-dumb wife, and sequestered her at Bells, with the help of an agent. The agent has triumphed over death, and now goes so far as to strangle the housekeeper Mrs Clemm (the name, by the way, of Edgar Allan Poe’s mother-in-law, who earned herself a living from the writer’s posthumous reputation while proclaiming his immortality) for betraying the records of the crime. We are not told whether this exposure of an original sin, and of a male malevolence, forces Lady Jane to quit her house and garden and move to fresh pastures.

On occasions when the ghosts in ghost stories can be read as well as seen, when there’s something there, when the frightening thing is also an interesting thing, the interest may have to do with literature, with its recurrences and resemblances – with Hamlet, for instance, as I have been claiming. On one occasion in the Oxford Book the resemblance is with T.S. Eliot: the apparition or ‘thing’ of the mere ghost story is here made over into what could almost be read as a few bars of the Four Quartets. Charles Williams’s ‘Et in sempiternum pereant’ relates: ‘The thing itself, a wasted flicker of pallid movement, danced and gyrated in white flame before him.’ This thing – the invention of a writer whom Eliot admired – has to do with a hideous, eternally punishable, human sinfulness: ‘greedy loves and greedy hates’.

Hamlet walks in the Supernatural Tales of Vernon Lee, alias Violet Paget, a friend of James, and of friends of his including Edith Wharton. Her supernatural vein would appear to be an embellishment and burlesque of the 18th-century Italy imagined by this pioneer art historian (and pacifist). One of these tales also figures in the Oxford Book: a Norwegian composer is pursued through Venice by the trills of a ravishing-revolting male soprano. In ‘Amour Dure’, a delirious Polish scholar, a ‘melancholy wretch, whom they called Hamlet’, sees, and woos, a fatal aristocratic female of previous times. ‘Why should there not be ghosts to such as can see them?’ his diary enquires, and suggests that ‘our vaunted science of today’ may eventually be seen as just ‘another superstition’.

Women imagine things. And they have been able to imagine and describe what it is that women imagine, what their weakness is, and to say how it could be defended. Enter the feminist ghost story. Edith Wharton and Vernon Lee belong to a ghostly sisterhood which, from the 1880s onwards, was to be responsible for much of the most interesting terror fiction. Among the women writers in question are E. Nesbit and the Americans Charlotte Gilman and Mary Wilkins. ‘The Little Ghost’ by Mary Wilkins, which invokes an abused child, another orphan-ghost, is arguably the most moving story in the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, which cheerfully prints American writing on the grounds that such specimens inhabit an English literary tradition, and which is for long stretches, to be sure, quite unmoving. Like the Oxford Book, the Penguin Encyclopedia is the work of well-informed devotees, and it carries entries on E. Nesbit and Gilman which bring out the concerns of this sisterhood. There is talk of ‘internal conflicts rather than external atmospheric effects’, of ‘male-female conflicts’, and of an ‘alienated feminine perspective’. Both Charlotte Gilman and Edith Wharton were patients of Weir Mitchell, a famous ‘nerve specialist’ (and novelist) of the time in America: but in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper of 1892 the female narrator expresses an unwillingness to attend this doctor, when ‘John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.’ The narrator suffers the cruel kindness of a patronising husband (himself a doctor) and founders in hallucination: and her brief confessions are now prominent in the feminist canon. John warns her against giving way to ‘fancy’: ‘He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies.’

Jack Matthews’s collection of stories, Ghostly Populations, contributes to the study of these questions; an earlier collection was entitled Dubious Persuasions. Matthews also contributes, as does Peter Taylor, to an excellent American fiction of the present time which seems to be virtually unknown in Britain, where feelings of respectful inferiority are commonly produced by other varieties of American writing: this is a fiction which tends to be regional and reclusive in character, and to prefer stories to novels. His opening story tells of a prophetic captain who had dreamt that his ferry-boat would come to grief: ‘Like Prince Hamlet, he was apparently visited by bad dreams.’ And in July 1874 his boat has duly exploded on its Midwestern lake. The story takes the form of an address to tourists of a century later who have gone in a glass-bottomed craft to stare down at the remains of the ferry-boat – a vessel as sturdy, the speaker remarks, as the one they’re travelling in now. His sententious courtesy is enough to chill most sightseers, but it begins to cast a spell. He admonishes his passengers: ‘Consider the tragedy of that bright July day a century ago: it was a secret fulcrum, real and horrible, upon which those terrible dreams and our sober reflections today pivot in ceremonious directions. But it has been scarcely more real, in our long and untroubled retrospect, than those dreams that prefigured it. And who is to say which picture of the three (yes, I include the “real”, the historical event) is more real, more abiding?’ Like Hamlet, this is a story about perception. The waters of the lake are made to seem like the waters of the past, in which all of these three pictures will be drowned. It is a story in which the dead are beautifully remembered, and which is memorably mysterious. If it is a ghost story, it can certainly be said to be about something. It reminds the reader that a place that is dreamt of, or read and thought about, can pass, in the course of a lifetime, into the condition of places that have been visited in the flesh. And then they will all, in their imagined homogeneity, be gone for good.