There’s a time and a place for reading a ghost story. You can’t, for instance, read a ghost story on a crowded commuter train. Nor can you read it on a sunny afternoon in the garden . No – a ghost story should be read late at night, in the light of a solitary lamp that is casting weird shadows around the room. One may be sitting comfortably in a favourite armchair; or one may be in bed, shortly before putting out the bedside lamp and submitting to the dark. The story is all the more effective if there is a howling wind outside, making eldritch sounds at the window-pane; or, better still, if there is a deathly, still, silence – a silence that one dreads being broken.
Recently, Tom in Wuthering Expectations – not, I believe, a diehard aficionado of the genre – has posted nonetheless very sympathetic accounts of some classic ghost stories. He identified different types of ghost stories, and quite rightly disagreed with my unargued assertion that the purpose of ghost stories is to evoke fear: a ghost story, he argued, could serve any number of functions. This is certainly true enough: but it’s the ones that evoke fear that I love the best. So, before I go on to prescribe, as I fully intend to do, what does and what doesn’t make for a good ghost story – or, at least, what makes for my kind of ghost story – I suppose I should describe the kind of ghost story I am talking about.
I am not really interested in ghost stories that are comic, or satirical: comedy may act as relief to lower the tension at appropriate moments, but I remain to be convinced that one may laugh and be frightened at the same time. Neither am I interested in ghost stories that seek to evoke disgust rather than fear – a common failing, I find, with much of modern horror. I like the creepy type of story – the type that evokes in me a sense of supernatural dread. It may be said, with some justification, that it’s a comfortable type of dread: it is easy to feel fear when safely ensconced in a nice, warm bed, especially when that fear is caused by beings one knows to be imaginary. That’s true enough. But, as I was reminded during a recent visit to Hermitage Castle, irrational fear, inexplicable dread, unreasoned terror, are all too real, even if ghosts and vampires aren’t. One may be perfectly rational and not believe in the supernatural, and yet find certain places to be, for want of a better word, spooky, and prefer not to be there after dark. Why we should feel this way, I do not know: but the finest ghost stories – or, to be more precise, the finest ghost stories of the type I like – do, I think, evoke something of just this sort of fear – a fear all the more unnerving because its object remains so shadowy and vague. And that is important: as soon as the objects of fear acquires too distinct a solidity, the fear that its vagueness had occasioned naturally dissipates.
This type of ghost story is, I think, a very conservative genre: its effectiveness usually comes from doing established things well, rather than from innovation. But since, as I have been told, and as I tend to agree, my cultural tastes are conservative anyway, I don’t have a problem with that. The master of the genre is, for me and for many others, M. R. James. What James understood so well is that the irrational is frightening for the very reason that it is irrational: it is precisely because the irrational irrupts into a solid and rational world that it terrifies. This is why I have never enjoyed the short stories of Poe very much: the framework of his stories is so far removed from the everyday, and the pitch is so hysterical to begin with, that when the irrational or the macabre does emerge, it is neither surprising nor incongruous.
And I think this is also why I tend not to enjoy stories in which some sort of rationale is provided for the haunting; or when some alternative plane of existence, perfectly in accordance with the laws of nature were we to be fully acquainted with these laws, is hypothesised to explain the apparition. I am happy to suspend my normal rational frame of mind when the irrational is depicted as irrational, but when that irrational is rationalised by an alternative type of reasoning, I find myself getting bored. I have read far too many ghost stories that have been spoiled by over-explaining: what matters is the projection of a sense of terror, and presentation of some parallel fantasy world that explains the apparently inexplicable merely diminishes that sense of terror.
Similarly with over-plotting: it is enough to know that phantoms haunt; we do not generally need to know why they haunt. There is nothing objectionable in suggesting some reason, but, once again, I have read far too many ghost stories that have been spoiled by too great an emphasis on this aspect: mere mechanics of the plot are rarely interesting, and the best ghost stories – once again, of the type I like – do not give us more of this than is absolutely necessary.
M. R. James knew exactly how to do it. In story after story, he got it just right – neither complete bafflement, nor too much explanation that would detract from the terror; the terror glimpsed, as he put it, “in the corner of the retina”; and just the right depiction of solidity to make the supernatural appear incongruous, and hence, shocking. After all, we all expect unspeakable horrors in a Gothic dungeon, but when you are in your own room and you slip your hand under the pillow to retrieve your watch, and … No, sorry, I’d better stop here: I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has not yet read “Casting the Runes”.
As has often been remarked, the late Victorian and the Edwardian era – the era, in other words, in which M. R. James (and his namesake Henry James, who wrote probably the finest ghost story of them all) flourished – is the golden era for this type of story. Why this should be, I don’t know, although I am sure literary theorists have their own hypotheses on this matter: it’s probably all to do with social and economic changes, or something equally fascinating. But whatever the reason, the majority of the creepy stories I love were written in this period. And the sheer entertainment these stories have provided over the years has been immense.
As I write, we are just a few days away from Halloween, but Halloween was never – in the UK at least – a particularly major event as I was growing up, and it still doesn’t register particularly strongly with me. Traditionally, in Britain, it was Christmas that was the time for ghost stories. There is something about the darkening winter light in these latitudes that particularly lends itself to this sort of thing. But Halloween or Christmas – what matter? Now the time of year is approaching when I can once again enjoy reading these stories on dark nights before switching off the bedside lamp.
And then, the darkness.