Showing posts with label ghost stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ghost stories. Show all posts

24 December 2018

The Christmas Spirit




"Brown Eyes Crying in the Rain," my take on the Ghostly Hitchhiker legends, appears in the upcoming issue of Occult Detective Quarterly. It didn't occur to me until a few days ago how appropriate that is. Tomorrow is, of course, Christmas Day.


The British have told ghost stories as part of the holiday celebration for centuries, apparently because the winter solstice is only a few days earlier and the Christians co-opted December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and overshadow the Pagan Saturnalia. Ghosts presumably walk more freely on the longest night of the year, which celebrates the death and re-birth of the sun.

Oliver Cromwell, never the life of the party, didn't want Christmas celebrated as a holiday. He wanted the workers to labor for another long and underpaid shift. During his tenure as ruler of the Commonwealth, he even banned Christmas carols. Barrel of laughs, that Ollie.

But the ghost story is still alive and well (Is that an oxymoron?), and it may have reached its peak of popularity in the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens published short novels for the season, many of them ghostly tales. His most famous is A Christmas Carol. Does anyone even know how many films and theatrical adaptations of that one work exist? My wife and I attended a stage version at the Hartford Stage Company this year, where it has been an annual event for twenty years. It still sells out the thirty performances.

Other British writers have offered ghost stories, too. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1611), Prince Mamillius says, "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/ Of sprites and goblins." We never hear the tale because Mamillius dies before intermission. Mary Shelly Wrote Frankenstein when Byron challenged her and others to write a ghost story, and she dated the beginning of the book in mid-December. Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell revived the faltering tradition along with Dickens. Algernon Blackwood, Conan Doyle and M. R. James carried it on.

I don't remember Poe setting any of his stories at Christmas (I can't find my copy of "The Devil in the Belfry" on my shelf. Is that set at yuletide?), but Henry James sets the telling of The Turn of the Screw around the fire during a Christmas celebration.

Remember the popular (Well, in my day...) Andy Williams song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?" The third verse ends with "...There'll be scary ghost stories/ And tales of the glories..."

I seldom set stories around a holiday, the only exception being "Santa and the Shortstop," which appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine a few years ago.

But who knows? A little more eggnog and maybe I'll be in the spirit to write another ghost story for next year...

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fright.

22 December 2016

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain


As I happened to mention last year ("Ghoulies and Ghosties"), ghost stories were one of the key features of a Victorian Christmas.  And Dickens wrote more than one of them for the holidays:

One thing "The Haunted Man" shows is how obsessed Dickens was with memory, and his analysis of how memory fits in/creates who we are.  From the opening scene, where he describes a portrait with the motto, "LORD, KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN", to the very last moment, it is a novella about memory.  It has what is perhaps the first experiment in memory erasure in literature, which makes it a forerunner of Charlie Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind".  Although in this case, it isn't love that makes our self-induced amnesiac go for the darkness.  Mr. Redlaw, brilliant professor of chemistry, comes back from his overflowing lecture halls to his lonely abode and sits and broods among his beakers about the endless, unbearable wrongs that have been done to him.  Depressive, full of resentments, letting his mind feed and fester on them like rats in the walls, Mr. Redlaw is ripe to the point of rotten for any promise to get his own back. And what comes, well - here's Dickens:

Christmas Eve!  (No chains clanking, no wailing in the hallways - but on the wall, where Milly Swidger (his landlady) put it), "the healthy holly withered on the wall, and dropped—dead branches."

Image result for the haunted man dickensThen, "As the gloom and shadow thickened behind him, in that place where it had been gathering so darkly, it took, by slow degrees,—or out of it there came, by some unreal, unsubstantial process—not to be traced by any human sense,—an awful likeness of himself!"
[This Spectre, this Phantom, listens to Redlaw's litany of woe, and, finally, offers him a solution]:
“Hear what I offer!  Forget the sorrow, wrong, and trouble you have known!”
“Forget them!” Redlaw repeated.
“I have the power to cancel their remembrance—to leave but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon,” returned the Spectre.  “Say!  Is it done?”
“Stay!” cried the haunted man, arresting by a terrified gesture the uplifted hand.  “I tremble with distrust and doubt of you; and the dim fear you cast upon me deepens into a nameless horror I can hardly bear.—I would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others.  What shall I lose, if I assent to this?  What else will pass from my remembrance?”
“No knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections.  Those will go.”
“Are they so many?” said the haunted man, reflecting in alarm.
“They have been wont to show themselves in the fire, in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years,” returned the Phantom scornfully.
“In nothing else?”
The Phantom held its peace.  But having stood before him, silent, for a little while, it moved towards the fire; then stopped.  “Decide!” it said, “before the opportunity is lost!”
“A moment!  I call Heaven to witness,” said the agitated man, “that I have never been a hater of any kind,—never morose, indifferent, or hard, to anything around me.  If, living here alone, I have made too much of all that was and might have been, and too little of what is, the evil, I believe, has fallen on me, and not on others.  But, if there were poison in my body, should I not, possessed of antidotes and knowledge how to use them, use them?  If there be poison in my mind, and through this fearful shadow I can cast it out, shall I not cast it out?”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“A moment longer!” he answered hurriedly.  “I would forget it if I could!  Have I thought that, alone, or has it been the thought of thousands upon thousands, generation after generation?  All human memory is fraught with sorrow and trouble.  My memory is as the memory of other men, but other men have not this choice.  Yes, I close the bargain.  Yes!  I WILL forget my sorrow, wrong, and trouble!”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“It is!”
It is.  And take this with you, man whom I here renounce!  The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will.  Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach.  Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it.  Go!  Be its benefactor!  Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.  Its diffusion is inseparable and inalienable from you.  Go!  Be happy in the good you have won, and in the good you do!”
Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly

In case you can't guess, this does not end well.  Mr. Redlaw finds that, as he goes out into the world, he does indeed have the power to transmit the power of complete oblivion of all memories of wrong, hurt, sorrow, trouble of any kind:  and the results are horrific.  
He goes to the deathbed of Milly's brother-in-law, a man dying of alcoholism and vice, who calls to his father (old Mr. Swidger, Milly's father-in-law) “Father!  I am dying, I know.  I am so far gone, that I can hardly speak, even of what my mind most runs on.  Is there any hope for me beyond this bed?” 
But just then Redlaw touches him, just to help...  With the result that the man closes his eyes; puts his hands over his face, and then emerges, and shouts out, scowling, “Why, d-n you!  what have you been doing to me here!  I have lived bold, and I mean to die bold.  To the Devil with you!”  And dies, unrepentant, unreconciled, unloving and unloved...
And it spreads - touching the dying/dead man makes old Mr. Swidger and Milly's husband, William Swidger quarrel over the deathbed as to which of them is the more selfish, old Swidger for still being alive or young Swidger for not giving him enough, i.e., everything.

And it spreads - to everyone Redlaw touches, even with his shadow, all lose all sense of gratitude, goodness, charity, hope...  until finally even Redlaw knows that he is an infection, and he is horrified by himself.  He flees back to his lonely room, withdrawn from everyone - from the Swidgers, from a poor student he was meant to help, from Milly...  But he can't escape himself, and the worst is, perhaps, when he realizes that he destroyed all the good within himself when he sent his memory away with the Phantom. 
Redlaw and the BoyThe only one he cannot hurt is a homeless orphan off the streets who Milly Swidger took in:  "A bundle of tatters, held together by a hand, in size and form almost an infant’s, but in its greedy, desperate little clutch, a bad old man’s.  A face rounded and smoothed by some half-dozen years, but pinched and twisted by the experiences of a life.  Bright eyes, but not youthful.  Naked feet, beautiful in their childish delicacy,—ugly in the blood and dirt that cracked upon them.  A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast."  
This boy never changes.  Hard, starving, snatching, growling, snapping from beginning to end. Redlaw's touch makes no difference to this feral beast:  and, when the Phantom returns, Redlaw begs to know why.  
“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up.  No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast.  All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness.  All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness.  Woe to such a man!  Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!” 
Only one creature can touch the boy; only one creature can save the people whom Redlaw has damaged and destroyed; only one creature can (perhaps) heal Redlaw himself:  Milly Swidger.  Milly, the angel in the house, whose only child died immediately after birth, who has the answer that Redlaw has never even thought of as to why humans need the memory of trial and trouble:  
Read "The Haunted Man" and find out what that answer is.   
‘LORD!  KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN!’ 

21 February 2016

Wilkie Collins - The Dead Alive


Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins, 1853
So often the stories we enjoyed as kids don’t hold up when we reread them as supposedly mature adults. Dale Andrews discussed this in particular about the Hardy Boys and I’ve noted this recently while rereading S. S. Van Dyne.

One of the earliest novels I read in the 4th or 5th grade was a battered copy of The Moonstone, one of the many hundreds of books my family hoarded in case of cultural collapse and literary starvation. At the time, I didn’t know The Moonstone was special, that it was considered the first modern English mystery novel. I simply enjoyed it so much I would remember it for decades.

Its author, Wilkie Collins (1824–1889), is recognized as one of the great authors of the Victorian era, reaching his peak during the 1860s. It was during this decade he published The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866), and The Moonstone (1868). Also during this time his friendship with Charles Dickens grew and developed to the point of collaboration.

Bully

Many of us feel a particular distaste for school bullies, but Collins credits a class tormentor for awakening his creative talent where he “learnt to be amusing on short notice.” When Collins was 14, he appeased his in-residence persecutor with stories. “It was this brute who first awakened in me, his poor little victim, a power of which but for him I might never have been aware. … When I left school, I continued story telling for my own pleasure.”

The Dead Alive
The Dead Alive ebook PDF
ebook PDF

The Dead Alive
The Dead Alive print PDF
print PDF
Today’s The Dead Alive, sometimes called John Jago’s Ghost, features at least one bully and arguably a second. Note Collins’ smooth, modern style. While not as ‘deep’ as his friend Dickens’, Collins’ writing isn’t nearly as dense. Some Victorians require intense mental mastication, but Collins’ words dissolve on the tongue like a well-made pastry.

A few reviewers believe Abraham Lincoln’s Trailor Murder Mystery was answered by this Wilkie Collins’ story. That assessment is likely a mistake. While it’s impossible to determine whether Collins was aware of Lincoln’s case, it’s far more certain Collins based his story on another American case, that of the Boorn Brothers in Vermont. Not only will readers will find the parallels irrefutable, but Collins himself admits such in his afterword.

And now, a tale by Wilkie Collins…

31 December 2015

Ghoulies and Ghosties


On this Seventh Day of Christmas (seven swans a-swimming...), I'd like to discuss a Victorian tradition:  Ghost Stories for the holidays.
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
  - Traditional Scots prayer
ghost photo woman scared by apparition
1860s : Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Or, it says in Andy Williams’ classic Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

In Victorian England, Christmas Eve (and pretty much the whole Twelve Days of Christmas) was the traditional time to tell ghost stories.  People would rake up the fire, sit there with their mulled wine and roasting chestnuts, and scare the bejeezus out of each other.  M. R. James, the provost of Kings College, Cambridge, had a tradition of inviting students and friends to his rooms on Christmas Eve where he'd read them a ghost story he'd written. Charles Dickens published ghost stories every year at Christmas in his periodical, All the Year Round, as did other contributors like Wilkie Collins.  And, of course, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in which four ghosts are prominent characters (you have to include Jacob Marley!), and the Ghost of Christmas Future was supposed to give you nightmares.

But if you really want nightmares, read Dickens' The Chimes.  Toby Veck, a poor ticket-porter, and his daughter, Meg - about to be married to Richard, a young laborer - are confronted by Alderman Wick.
Alderman Wick and company
‘You are going to be married, you say,’ pursued the Alderman.  ‘Very unbecoming and indelicate in one of your sex!  But never mind that.  After you are married, you’ll quarrel with your husband and come to be a distressed wife.  You may think not; but you will, because I tell you so.  Now, I give you fair warning, that I have made up my mind to Put distressed wives Down.  So, don’t be brought before me.  You’ll have children—boys.  Those boys will grow up bad, of course, and run wild in the streets, without shoes and stockings.  Mind, my young friend!  I’ll convict ’em summarily, every one, for I am determined to Put boys without shoes and stockings, Down.  Perhaps your husband will die young (most likely) and leave you with a baby.  Then you’ll be turned out of doors, and wander up and down the streets.  Now, don’t wander near me, my dear, for I am resolved, to Put all wandering mothers Down.  All young mothers, of all sorts and kinds, it’s my determination to Put Down.  Don’t think to plead illness as an excuse with me; or babies as an excuse with me; for all sick persons and young children (I hope you know the church-service, but I’m afraid not) I am determined to Put Down.  And if you attempt, desperately, and ungratefully, and impiously, and fraudulently attempt, to drown yourself, or hang yourself, I’ll have no pity for you, for I have made up my mind to Put all suicide Down!  If there is one thing,’ said the Alderman, with his self-satisfied smile, ‘on which I can be said to have made up my mind more than on another, it is to Put suicide Down.  So don’t try it on.  That’s the phrase, isn’t it?  Ha, ha! now we understand each other.’
And things only get worse from there.  Poor Meg!  Poor Toby!  And when Toby, looking for solace on a cold New Year's Eve, goes up to the church to hear the bells, and falls to his death, his ghost is shown a future complete with his darling Meg now abandoned, starving, with a newborn, no hope or mercy anywhere on earth, and racing for the river...  Let's just say that The Chimes is so bleak that it makes Cormac McCarthy look like a comedian.  Yes, Dickens does supply the mandatory happy ending, but until then...  it's a treatise on the ultimate result of Victorian economic theory (primarily Utilitarianism and Malthusianism), and a legal system designed to eliminate the poor the hard way. This fun read for the holidays is available for free here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/653/653-h/653-h.htm

But not all ghost stories were so obviously political or polemical.  Most were just designed to scare people.  The above mentioned M. R. James was very good at this. He said that every ghost story must "put the reader into the position of saying to himself, 'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'"  Allow me to recommend "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come To You, My Lad" (http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/150).   "Rats" isn't bad, either.

FS Coburn. Photograph: British Library/Robana via Getty

And The Paris Review has a great blog post listing five forgotten Christmas Ghost Stories (check it out here http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/19/ghosts-on-the-nog/).

Why did the Victorians love ghost stories at Christmas? Well, it was dark and cold and beside a good fire was the place to be.  The nights are extremely long, and all the old, pre-Christian traditions knew that the veil between here and there was very thin around the winter's solstice.  And Christmas Eve - with Christmas Day coming almost immediately - was a time when ghosts could walk the earth and finish their unsettled business, relatively safely (for humans at least).

There was also, among the wealthy, the little issue of gas lighting, still in its infancy, which emitted carbon monoxide, which had a tendency to make people see things.  And, sticking with the wealthy, let's not forget that, in a Victorian world where almost everyone had servants, and yet those servants were expected to be almost invisible, leading to houses with separate entrances, staircases, even hallways for servants, people would be unexpectedly popping in and out of dark places on a regular basis.  Were they always people?

And the poor, huddled around their fire and their candlelight, both sending shadows and ripples of shadows, flickering in the never-ending drafts (there's a reason people - even skinflint Ebenezer - had bedcurtains), squeaky windows, rattling latches, shuddering shutters, and corners dark as the devil's foot...

Besides, people just like to be scared.

Speaking of which (and part of what sparked this blog), I recently read a ghost story by Dylan Thomas called The Followers.  I can't find a free e-text, but go check out Dylan Thomas' Complete Short Stories, and enjoy a story that starts out perfectly normal, nothing strange going on, as two young lads try to find something to do on a dull, boring, wet night in a city...  I can assure you, it adheres to Mr. James basic rule:  'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'

But it's still not as scary as "The Monkey's Paw":  Keep the lights on.

Happy New Year!

15 October 2014

Ghost Story Story



by Robert Lopresti

You will no doubt be thrilled to know that the world is now richer by one more book.  I have just released into the wild Shanks on Crime, a self-published collection of thirteen stories about a curmudgeonly mystery writer named Leopold Longshanks.

It is available on Kobo and Kindle. If you consider buying it, bless your heart, I would recommend Kobo, since you can purchase it through your favorite independent bookstore and throw some much-deserved cash their way.  If you want an autographed paper copy, see me.  I can fix you up.

Most of the stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and I have written about each of them here or at Criminal Brief, So I thought I would  tell you about one of the four brand-new tales, and this being the month of Halloween I decided to introduce "Shanks' Ghost Story."

For the origin we have to go to Ramat Rachel, Israel in the summer of 2009, where my wife and I had volunteered for an archaeological dig.  (The photo above shows me finding a cup handle.)  It was great fun, but exhausting, and yet somehow the writer part of my brain found time to think up a story idea.  Being deep in a semi-tropical summer my thoughts turned to –  winter in Pennsylvania.

Hmm. How'd that happen?  Who knows?  The writer's brain is not particularly interested in logical patterns.

But somehow I got to thinking about one of my favorite gimmicks, the story-within-a-story, in which  a bunch of characters gather to hear one of them tell a tale.   I decided to try the English tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time.  (And let me urge you to read Jerome K. Jerome's Told After Supper, a hilarious Victorian book that pokes fun at half a dozen versions of the traditional ghost story.  Unlike mine, Jerome's is free.)

I decided that Shanks, my hero, would share my attitude toward the supernatural.  (We differ on many other points, by the way, like music and exercise.)  So, as a skeptic, Shanks attitude toward the ghost stories his friends tell would be polite disbelief.

Ah, but he is far too much the storyteller to let his turn pass.  So he decides to tell a story about being a ghost writer.   Early in his career, it seems, he was hired to produce what would supposedly be the last novel by a recently deceased bestselling crime writer.  

So, no ghost.  But hold on a moment.  Is that bestselling author really dead?  Because Shanks begins to get…

Well, that would be telling.   I hope those of you who are suffering from scorch marks on your clothing where currency has burst into flame will consider reducing your fuel load by picking up the book.  For the rest of you, tell your library to buy it for you. They are public servants, after all.  Command them.