A Dreadful Drumming

Theo Tait

  • The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead by Carl Watkins
    Bodley Head, 318 pp, £20.00, January 2012, ISBN 978 1 84792 140 6
  • A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof by Roger Clarke
    Particular, 360 pp, £20.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84614 333 5

Dickens complained that ghosts ‘have little originality, and “walk” in a beaten track’. They are reducible, he said, ‘to a very few general types’: the chain-rattler; the ghostly walker or horseman; the forlorn-looking child; the pale doppelgänger; the wronged maid; the spirit of an evil ancestor whose painting hangs in a gloomy panelled hall; the friend or relative who is dying far away. Dickens was discussing tales told around the fire at Christmas, but similar types appear in accounts that claim to be true. In The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead, Carl Watkins tells one of the earliest ‘veridical’ English ghost stories, recorded by William of Newburgh, an Augustinian canon in Yorkshire in the 1190s. It’s a tale Bram Stoker could have used, one that could feature in the more old-fashioned sort of horror film even today. A local man who became convinced that his wife was unfaithful hid in the rafters of their bedroom; when her lover arrived and the man’s fears were confirmed, he fell from his hiding place in a fury and died, full of spite, without receiving the rites of the church. He returned from the dead ‘by the handiwork of Satan’, attacking people after dark and spreading disease with his rotting flesh. People began to die, one by one, so the villagers dug up the corpse. They found it bloated to a huge size; when they cut it open with a spade, blood gushed out. The men dragged the body out of the village, tore out the heart and burned the ashes, banishing the revenant for ever.

In A Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke retells ‘the first true modern ghost story’, from Pliny’s letters, about a house in Athens haunted by ‘an old man, emaciated and filthy, with a long beard and unkempt hair’, who rattled his chains and drove the inhabitants to illness and death, or at least to alternative accommodation. Athenodorus the Stoic decided to investigate, and sat up late in the house with his books, waiting for the ghost to arrive. First he heard the chains; then he saw the beckoning ghost, which shuffled slowly to a point in the courtyard, where it vanished. In the morning a hole was dug at that spot and a human skeleton was found, complete with corroded chains. The bones were given a proper burial, and the house was no longer troubled by spirits. As Clarke points out, this could be an M.R. James or Sheridan le Fanu story. One detail – the house was suspiciously cheap for its size – features in countless modern ghost stories of the Amityville type.

There are, according to Clarke, eight main categories of ghostly phenomenon: traditional ghosts (the souls of the dead); elementals (primitive entities that squat in a single place, like kelpies in lochs or disembodied creatures in burial grounds); poltergeists; mental imprint manifestations (the figure seen crossing a particular room at a certain time); crisis apparitions (of those who are dying or in mortal danger); time-slip experiences (tourists in Versailles in 1901 find themselves in 1792); ghosts of the living; and haunted inanimate objects. In practice there’s a lot of crossover between the categories, and a vast number of accounts – at least of those that come with a backstory – include one or all of certain salient elements: a crime, an untimely or violent death, and some problem with the funeral rites or legacy. These, it seems, are what cause the veil between worlds to lift, even today. The Society for Psychical Research investigated a case in 1998 at Westwood Hall in Staffordshire. The caretaker was writing about Prudentia Trentham, who is supposed to haunt the house, when the spellcheck replaced her name with ‘dead’, ‘buried’, ‘cellar’. (Ghosts have always kept up with the available technology, invading photographs, audio equipment and even the Caterham bypass on the A22.)

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