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.

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