That Woman In Black: Susan Hill — a Gothic Writer for the Canon


It’s time we got one thing straight: what all seminal writers of what should become our Horror canon have in common is this – whatever they write, from wherever they come, however long they are with us, their stories shape the genre in some important and unforgettable way.

Yet at this moment in our history, we have apparently “decided” that along with writers who also write in other genres, the ones we should ignore are the ones who “reject” our genre or who write limited works in our genre.

This is stupid and a horrible, intentional oversight.

We can excuse Literary Critics who embrace their favorites based on their academic interpretations and understanding of not only what makes Literary writing great, but what qualifying mechanics they also prefer to see in their own love of Horror. But in truth, for the rest of us what truly belongs in our canon are works that drive the evolution of our genre, stories that beget stories and ever newer interpretations of Horror, tales that reinvent established subgenres so that modern times can participate in the traditions of the genre.

Yet this is not what is happening. There are certain authors whose names seem “forcibly” and reluctantly mentioned when the Establishment is pressed to supply qualifying names for our as-yet-established canon…and Susan Hill is just such a writer.

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It’s All About the Writing, Right?

Susan Hill was born in Scarborough, England, February 5, 1942, educated at a convent school, a graduate of King’s College, London. Her first novel was published while in school in 1961, and she was a freelance journalist from 1963-1968, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1972. She has been described as a “prolific writer of numerous novels, collections of short stories, non-fiction and children’s fiction as well as a respected reviewer, critic, broadcaster and editor.” (British). In 1975 she married Shakespearean actor Stanley Wells, leaving him in 2013 to move in with her current partner… “The unexpected happened to me: I fell in love with another woman who fell in love with me.” The woman is screenwriter and producer Barbara Machin, creator of Waking the Dead, for whom Hill left her husband of almost 40 years, the respected Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells….” (Kean)

Why Hill appears to be so easily dismissed by the genre seems to have an unnecessarily complicated motivation – one that may have more to do with her rejection of us…because she has indeed repeatedly tried to distance herself and her works from the Horror genre.

The question I have, is did we at any time encourage her or writers like her to just go away?

Have we gotten so arrogant in our Establishment that we banish works from writers who want nothing to do with us and do we ever ask why? When a writer recoils when called a Horror writer, should we be offended or take a much harder look at the type of works we are allowing the genre to be represented by? Furthermore, shouldn’t our Establishment be taking that very opportunity to educate both writers and readers about the true nature of our genre’s historic meanderings through so many genres, its influence on and from so many genres – and its very impressive depth?

But we also have to ask if there is something even more insidious at work here. Is our Establishment choosing and excluding writers also based not only on written content, but perhaps their own personal lives? Are we miscommunicating and even limiting the genre by our inherent “favoritisms”? And are those favorites more likely to be at least white, preferably married men, preferably within a certain agnostic or atheistic circle? Are we playing conformity games with presumed moral authority?

Is it a coincidence that Susan Hill is yet another writer in our genre who is living a nontraditional lifestyle? Whose private life is public knowledge? Who might be lesbian or bisexual or any other label so easily affixed?

We need to be asking and answering these questions. And this is not the job of the Literary Critic, but the job of those of us who collectively make up the genre. This may mean it is time for editors to explain their selections, for governing bodies to explain their rejections, and for fans to demand access to the best writers in our genre regardless of sexual orientation, lifestyle choices, or even “home” genres…

Without pressure from the Horror base, we are going to see increasingly institutionalized discrimination against new and old writers in the genre. We are going to see publication choices made that will have a chilling effect on the future trajectory and evolution of the genre. We need variety of story and voice, not censorship. And Susan Hill’s modern journey in the genre is a perfect example of what happens to writers who fall “outside” the lines… Because those other questions remain: do you know who Susan Hill is? Do you know her work? If not, why not?

Is our collective silence in the face of Susan Hill’s subsequent rejection of the genre the only reason we tend to reluctantly “mention” Susan Hill when we are talking about modern canon-elect authors? Did her rejection of us happen because she dislikes what Horror the genre is being interpreted to represent, or because she in her personal life didn’t fit the desired stereotype? And has anyone at all got a really legitimate reason why Susan Hill is never really mentioned as a foundational author in our genre?

We as a genre have begun to put out certain “vibes” that only passionate followers willing to conform to historic whim and dedicated acolytes willing reinforce emotionally-driven criteria need apply, and that everyone else who might reject or refuse to “toe the party line” will be summarily excluded. We have given the Cold Shoulder to quite a few writers and their works in our rush to enshrine Lovecraft and Poe… writers like Susan Hill, author of many well-known, well-respected ghost stories such as The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror…Does this bother anyone else out there? Does it bother anyone else that “certain” writers are given honorable mention in the most reluctant of ways – even when the general public can see a relevant contribution when it is made?

We have spent so much time in the genre clamoring for Literary writers… and Susan Hill is exactly that. Yet once again, despite the raw obviousness of her ghost stories being Horror stories, we have shrugged her off. We have come to pretend that works labelled “Gothic” aren’t really Horror because they aren’t “hard core” enough. But…the Gothic, people…. this is our foundational HISTORY.

Susan Hill walked away and we just let her go…

And yet, instead of holding the Establishment accountable, we default to blaming Hollywood, using the success or box office failure of the film to justify rejection of the work. Such is the unfortunate case with The Woman in Black (where the book is in fact, better)… Hollywood managed to botch the film – an otherwise capable tale told with substantial actors – with what looked horribly like poorly rendered, drawn-in, cartoon Dementor-like ghosts and whereupon reviewers spent most of their critical currency discussing Daniel Radcliffe and comparisons to Harry Potter films. But sadly, the presence of the film has overshadowed the wonder of the work.

Indeed, it seems that most people don’t realize that there even was a book that preceded the movie – let alone that it was fantastic in its own right. We are unfortunately today more likely to assume a work began on film instead of looking for the book that the film was created from. And perhaps – just perhaps that is a little of why we don’t really know the name of Susan Hill, but honestly the more I dug into her biography, the more I suspect something more sinister has happened to erase Hill from our present catalog of works.

Susan Hill, you see, is another author whose sexual identity is at crosshairs with the old way of seeing things, and whose works have been summarily exiled to “Literary Fiction.”

Are you seeing the same pattern I am seeing? It looks like once again exile has nothing to do with Horror. And I am embarrassed for our genre.

Furthermore, I really don’t know when we are going to get our noses out of everyone else’s personal business. But this type of “problem” we have in our genre is yet another reason I support the Literary Critical position that the author does not matter in the analysis of their work…

How can we read The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror, Dolly, or The Small Hand and ignore the legacy of Susan Hill in our genre? She has a place with us… She fills a spot emptied by the passing of the great Ghost Story Gothicists… She is a British Joyce Carol Oates, a more modern heir to the tradition of Daphne DuMaurier, her work so molecularly related to the important strands of Horror DNA that her exclusion from reading lists and recommendations is flat-out glaring.

Yet she is not touted by the genre as one of our own. Our Establishment barely acknowledges her.

Could it be because Hill rejected us first? Or because she did so very publicly?

Are we three years old and playing in sandboxes?

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Fixing Our Image Problem Is Not Done With Censorship

Susan Hill, you see, seems to shrink from any association with our genre – and while I would like to think that this is because of her age, that it has more to do with her own memories and rejection of the 1980’s shift to the sloppy work that spewed from the exhausted Boom or the emergence of the slasher subgenre – I suspect it might be the ghost of Clive Barker rising again… that once more our Establishment decided to play both moral and creative judge.

We are, I believe, losing authors due to two things in the Horror genre – arrogance in the Establishment that is both unfounded and totally undefined by established criteria, and a lack of official history in the genre that tells everyone interested in Horror exactly what genres and subgenres Horror encompasses.

The Horror genre is dominated by a collective ignorance – not because people are stupid, but because none of us are being educated about the genre today and because the Tech Boom’s obliteration of traditional publishing models is pushing our more modern “classics” from print and/or availability. Readers in the genre today are having a much harder time finding historically rendered Horror written by established or accepted top tier writers (like Poe, Lovecraft, King, Campbell, Barker, Rice)…let alone newer (and what would have been) mid-list authors or Literary cross-pollinators like Hill.

Worse, we have NO requirements. No matter what the Establishment says or implies, no one has drawn up any definitive and historically derived guidelines… they cannot even agree on tropes and conventions. They cannot even assemble those in one place with easily interpreted, applicable definitions. Instead any student of Horror will find not only variable lists of “accepted” authors and works, but additionally a wide interpretation and usage of terms whose definitions and usage vary according to the “authority’s” needs. No one EVER explains anything thoroughly in the genre…because clearly THEY don’t know either…and pretending it is a secret or that only Real Writers Know is just plain conceit.

This has resulted in a total identity crisis… And all the time we keep saying it is all about the writing.

Horror is what anyone says it is. And that has led to the exposure of yet another truth: our history (with the exception of recent efforts by Critics like S.T. Joshi and a few dedicated fans) remains predominantly and officially undocumented…

In other words, when a writer (let alone a reader) sees the “Horror” label, even today most do not see Classic Literature, Science Fiction, Detective/Mystery Fiction, Fantasy/Dark Fantasy Fiction, the Gothic, New Gothic, Southern Gothic, Gothic Romance, the Ghost Story as tributaries of a huge, historic Horror river. Instead they see Halloween, Chuckie, Nightmare on Elm Street, and all the really kitschy summer blockbusters of yore…

Is this what happened to Susan Hill? Was it her interpretations of self and works — or ours?

Our editors tend to look upon writers whose works mimic in any way the styles of earlier Horror incarnations as “bad” writers…as “uninteresting”…”too slow-paced”… “not modern enough”… They want something equally as yet undefined but that will please Critics, reinvigorate the genre, and sell like Stephen King… But they can’t tell you what it is…only what they think it isn’t.

And if you don’t like them…it isn’t. And increasingly, it also looks like if you are a gay or transgender writer, you probably don’t belong to us either…

Perhaps it was her own opinion of her own work, then, that reinforced one part of our Establishment’s opinion of her. As stated in piece by The Guardian, she tries mightily to distance herself from the genre:

“It is a ghost story – not a horror story, not a thriller – and not a gothic novel; although the terms are often used very loosely, they are not by any means the same thing…” (Mullan)

In the article, Hill explains herself, stating:

“I set out to write a ghost story in the classic 19th-century tradition, a full-length one. There have never been many, writers perhaps having felt the form would not stretch successfully. By the time I began mine, in the 1980s, full-length ghost stories seemed to have died out altogether. I read and studied the Jameses, Henry and MR, and Dickens, and I also had beside me the “bible” – Night Visitors by Julia Briggs (still the best study of the form).

“The list of ingredients included atmosphere, a ghost, a haunted house and other places, and weather. A footnote to “ghost” was a) of a human being; and b) with a purpose. There are dozens of little books of “true” ghost stories, usually sorted by geographical location, but almost without exception the ghosts have no purpose and so the stories are ultimately unsatisfying… There has to be more to fiction than that. There also has to be more than an easy manipulation of the reader’s superficial emotions – unless making someone jump out of their skin is the writer’s only aim. Not that trying to induce a delicious thrill of fear is bad – it is another form of entertainment, and what is wrong with being an entertainer? Dickens certainly considered himself to be one.” (Mullan)

Did she give our Establishment a way out of recognizing her work?

Worse, is she a product of the times when Horror had a less-than-savory reputation for mass market writing that was seriously less than Literary? Is she missing the forest for the trees? Does she not see her own importance to our genre based on the resonant DNA? Don’t WE?

Or is this about her sexuality? I cannot help but wonder…Because the writers I have loved as a fan are almost unanimously turning out to be gay or transgendered or wrestling with sexual identity (as well as excluded from the genre)… a fact I neither knew nor cared about growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s…because for me it has always been about the writing….

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Reclaiming the Gothic

I think the technical problem we have in the genre is a misplaced sense of “purity”… of pedigree that has not yet been firmly established by Literary Critics. But that fact does not give our Establishment free rein to declare who is and is not in-genre – not when the same Establishment cannot or will not provide clear definitions and guidelines for what it argues IS the Horror genre. Neither does it excuse the eviction of authors who are not straight, white, Christian-or-rebel-atheist and male…

Ultimately it will be the Literary Critic who decides about technical definitions – something perhaps we all conveniently forgot when we threw ourselves at the Literary Critic and demanded a belly-rub. And now that we are firmly in the sights of Literary Criticism, having finally arrived at a point where Poe would be proud, we are trying to shove innumerable authors under the carpet. Why?

In a time when we are hearing a demand for better, more Literary fiction in the genre, why are we dismissing so many writers as “other-genre”? Why aren’t we fighting for them?

Despite Hill’s own assessment of her work, I argue she most certainly does write Horror. Literary Horror. The kind of Horror that blooms from very old roots. And her writing these ghost stories prompts some very important questions for our ghost story subgenre – especially in lieu of S.T. Joshi (our one dedicated Horror Literary Critic) to state his belief that the ghost story is “done” as a subgenre, and cannot be improved upon after M.R. James… While many there may be limits on how ghosts are pressed into service, why are they any different than Vampires? Why isn’t it about telling stories and original angles? About scaring anew?

This could not be more important or timely. Do we really believe the Ghost Story is dead? Can it be properly adapted in both short story and novel to sustain originality expectations? Believability?

And what does this say about the Gothic thereafter? Is this the reason we have seen both Gothic and Southern Gothic go “silent” in the genre?

How we got to a point in Horror where we disavow the Gothic for heaven’s sake, I don’t know. I cannot imagine. While Gothic Romance teeters on the fringe of Horror to the point it leans into another genre entirely, the straight Gothic and Southern Gothic are right here… in our subgenres…most often as Ghost Stories.

Yet no one speaks on their behalf. Not the genre, not the readers, not the publishers… and sometimes, not even the writers…

Perhaps Hill does not wish to be identified as a Horror writer, and I understand: the 1980’s left a particularly bad taste in the mouths of many readers and Critics who wanted so much more from us. Maybe we need to acknowledge the price this decade has also had on what were then “future” writers; because even I have to admit, the 1980s is precisely when I began to drift away from Horror. Perhaps the slasher/trashier sloppiness of the published writings drove away a lot more people than has been explained as fans aging out. Hill is a perfect example; she was born in 1942, writing her first novel her first year at university (which was criticized as “unsuitable” for having been written by a schoolgirl), and writing eight novels between 1968 and 1974. She wrote The Woman in Black in 1983 – just as the publishing mills were spinning gold, but not much in the way of Literature – especially in Horror.

Yet one can only split hairs so much. The Woman In Black may be Literary, may be Gothic… but it is indisputably also a Ghost Story. We can empathize with her ambitions to write “better” than what was exemplified by Horror at the time. However Hill is definitively Gothic… even somewhat in her more recent move to Crime Fiction. Since its inception, Horror has been irretrievably linked to both Science Fiction by way of Lovecraft and Detective Fiction by way of Wilkie Collins. In leaving the genre Hill (on her own or otherwise) has not really, fully left the genre…

I argue this is not a bad thing. And I hope Hill herself will come to see it.

I would say that Horror needs writers like her in it, needs her works filling out the spice rack. Writers in the Horror genre today are writing in the dark. We have no real, definitive guidance as to who among modern writers have or are shaping the genre today… we barely have acknowledgement of which writers have partially solidified the still-fuzzy boundaries of the genre. All we have to tell us are the plethora of theme-based anthologies, tribute anthologies, editorial stylings, and Hollywood.

It’s time this changed. We are just now beginning to have Literary Criticism look at the genre. We need to help Critics plow through the massive dump of writings out there… to make suggestions as a genre as to who we find to be significant influences on modern works so that future Literary Critics can take a hard look at the nominees and see if they have the merit we sense they do.

Clearly, we cannot rely on our Establishment to do this, at least right now. For whatever reason, heads are firmly planted in the sand. And with the internet severely cutting into the way Classic Horror is published (so many falling out of copyright protections so that “anyone” seems to be publishing them, leaving their rightful legacy unacknowledged by the authorities of the genre) that some very important names are not being given their due respect. New readers in the genre do not know who they are. And all too often, many are falling out of publication (where in the past history of publishing houses these authors might have been backlisted but they were still proudly available).

Meanwhile in our own genre, we are seeing a tendency toward separating the Literary from Horror, and wielding what looks like moral judgment.

In fact, the presence of so many Literary talents who also write occasionally in our genre should be a welcome thing. Naming them as part of the genre could be an educational thing — an elevating-our-game thing.

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When Gothic Is Horror: Is Horror Literary or Not?

After everything Poe and Lovecraft went through, and all of those marvelous essays by our genre’s writers and editors… What the hell is going on?

All of a sudden a Literary writer is not a Horror writer.

Funny. I don’t see the Establishment banning Poe or Lovecraft, two of our most Literary writers. And this means we all have a burning question for the Establishment as readers AND writers:

What do you want?

And don’t think Literary Critics won’t notice the choices being made and who is making them: Literary Critics thrive on pattern recognition…

To deny a writer because they either consistently write as Literary writers, in other genres, or even if they totally disdain our genre is totally irresponsible. By their works ye shall know them… And if that denial has anything at all to do with sexual orientation, we have and even bigger problem…

Susan Hill wrote Horror. (Sorry, Ms. Hill, but this is true. And it is awesome.)

But is this also a case of moral exclusion?

Are we again seeing a case where a writer’s personal life has colored the perceptions of our Establishment?

Especially with today’s proliferation of the internet and social media – with the amount of pure, adulterated, unfounded gossip… The very idea that Literary Criticism might be conducted with a writer’s reputation and scandal-meter in mind is absolutely horrifying. If we are, for example, excluding a writer like Hill based on the “limited” scandal of her sexuality in her time, what damage could be done to the whole of Literature if we do not firmly and immediately embrace Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author”?

If we are excluding her because she doesn’t like us, maybe we should be asking if we are like-able…Or if we are all doing our jobs properly.

It is time to put a stop to this, no matter where it is coming from. Writing, like music and any of the Arts, should stand alone, to be let to speak its truth. Knowing about the biography of the writer, musician or artist should enhance the work… not define it. A writer’s sexuality, except perhaps in its Literary influence in his or her work has nothing to do with the work.

Susan Hill belongs in our canon.

I am not a Literary Critic, so I am not sure where in it she belongs. But I DO know her writing helped bring our attention back to the ghost story. She is part of the new movement of gothic ghost story currently gaining a bit of leverage, but left to languish in the orphaned “Gothic” (which is ours and us, by the way)… writers like Canadian author Simone St. James, Australians Darcy Coates and John Harwood, and English author Judy Finnegan, and American Jennifer McMahon…

Have you heard of THOSE writers? If not, why not? We need to be asking – no – DEMANDING answers from our establishment…and we can begin by demanding recognition of Susan Hill.

To say that they are mainstream, or too other-genre, or not interesting enough is flat-out insulting. This is Horror now: we are not Poe or Lovecraft… and many of us are WOMEN… but all of us love the stories that make Horror Horror…

And that is how “trends” start… One writer at a time… with a writer who remembers the way another writer once made him or her feel…

 

Bibliography

2014 The Soul of Discretion

2013 Black Sheep

2012 Dolly

2012 A Question of Identity

2011 The Betrayal of Trust

2011 A Kind Man

2010 The Small Hand

2010 The Shadows in the Street

2009 Howards End is on the Landing

2008 The Battle for Gullywith

2008 The Vows of Silence

2008 The Beacon

2007 The Man in the Picture

2006 Farthing House: And Other Stories

2006 The Risk of Darkness

2005 The Pure in Heart

2004 The Various Haunts of Men

2003 The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper to Read

1998 The Service of Clouds

1997 Listening to the Orchestra

1997 The Second Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1995 Contemporary Women’s Short Stories

1995 Reflections from a Garden

1994 The Christmas Collection

1994 Pirate Poll

1993 Mrs de Winter

1993 King of Kings

1993 Beware, Beware

1992 The Mist in the Mirror: A Ghost Story

1992 A Very Special Birthday

1991 The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1991 The Glass Angels

1991 Air and Angels

1990 Ghost Stories

1990 The Parchment Man: An Anthology of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1990 Stories from Codling Village

1990 I Won’t Go There Again

1990 Septimus Honeydew

1990 The Walker Book of Ghost Stories

1989 Family

1989 Suzy’s Shoes

1988 Can It Be True?: A Christmas Story

1988 The Spirit of the Cotswolds

1987 Lanterns Across the Snow

1987 Shakespeare Country

1986 The Lighting of the Lamps

1986 Mother’s Magic

1985 The Ramshackle Company

1984 One Night at a Time

1983 People: Essays and Poems

1983 The Woman in Black

1983 Ghost Stories

1982 The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year

1980 New Stories

1979 The Distracted Preacher and Other Stories by Thomas Hardy

 Awards

2006 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year

1988 Nestlé Smarties Book Prize (Gold Award)

1972 Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize

1972 Whitbread Novel Award

1971 Somerset Maugham Award

 

References

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Retrieved 7/16/2019 from https://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/Barthes.pdf

British Council of Literature. Retrieved 7/25/2019 from https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/susan-hill

Kean, Danuta. Interview. “Susan Hill: I am Not Pro-Trump! Really? Do People Think That of Me?” The Guardian. March 4, 2017. Retrieved 7/15/2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/susan-hill-i-am-not-pro-trump-really-do-people-think-that-of-me

Mullan, John. Book Club Books. “The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.” The Guardian. Feb 17, 2012. Retrieved 7/15/2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/17/woman-in-black-book-club-susan-hill

Good, Evil & Supernatural Horror: Does What You Believe Color Your Fiction?


I once read an essay (now long lost) that suggested Catholic Horror writers wrote better Horror…

I don’t remember the argument or the examples, but the question has stayed with me well past my own conversion to Catholicism. I deny, of course, that I converted for the Horror. But it is fun to say. And it also means this is a question that has dogged my reading and writing career.

Is it true? Do Catholics write better Horror? And more importantly, does what you believe affect not only choices you make in writing Horror, but the quality of the stories you tell?

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The Question of Faith

One of the most interesting facets of Horror fiction is that it perpetually asks: what is the relevance of faith?

Modern characters are often nonreligious, agnostic or atheistic, and are left defenseless to confront the evils of the world – up to and including the demonic – all without the slightest understanding of the immensity of the situation. This is a blessing to Hollywood, which gets to explore all manner of special effects on the way to the protagonist’s discovery that whatever it is, it is directly from Hell, and there is no cure for the evil coming for them…

And it makes things easier for the writer, who doesn’t have to worry about knowing obscure and arcane facts, who can “learn” right along with their characters, and who can feel equally “safe” in making up solutions that eliminate or “postpone” the problem – even if it means passing the evil onto someone else – preferably a minor antagonist who “deserves” it.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have all manner of “reality” ghostbusting television shows to thank for replacing that void which not only religion, but folk and fairy lore used to occupy. We can refer or defer to them as the “authority” on how supernatural things happen, and even lessen the importance of why.

We are innocent, after all – all of us. We never, ever deserve the evil that roams the world as punisher.

But isn’t this delivery of supernatural fiction from a position of ignorance the reason modern Horror is more two dimensional than ever? Do we need a belief system in order to “dress” the details of a real religious crisis?

Is the problem that we no longer believe in a real religious crisis?

I have wondered about this for a long time – especially since I left my own Protestant church with a crisis of faith about the same time that a good deal of mainstream America was doing the same – the 1970’s. And one has only to ask “what are the main Protestant denominations today?” to see what the national restructuring of faith resulted in – a loss of consistency, a loss of definable doctrine greater than sola scriptura – or God’s Word alone.

Yet the Catholic Church was not immune from parishioner defection.

Everyone, it seemed, was having a crisis of faith – not only at the time when science and technology was again on the rise – but at the time when a U.S. President could be assassinated, when a Civil Rights leader could be murdered in the light of day, when our own government was caught in lies that went back centuries, and the first cracks in the American Dream became visible.

Pair that with the teenage years of the Baby Boom generation, and there was a whole lot of questioning going on. And churches of all faiths were caught unaware and reacted with indignant shock.

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But this never meant we stopped craving religion, or some proof of it.

And for that proof, we cast our gaze to the very thing that robbed us of our faith: evil…the kind of evil that seems in its tenacity and freedom from judgment to run rampant in the world, savaging humanity without an apparent comment from God.

Why is God silent, if indeed he is there?

The question has haunted generations of agnostics who want more, of atheists who require tangible proof to believe more, and of the faithful who kneel in churches in the face of tragic events. And where Literature has long explored the theme, Horror has reveled in it.

Clearly humanity needs an answer, if not God Himself. We would not ponder and debate the question of His existence if we did not need Him in the most primal way – ask any psychologist, sociologist, or priest.

Faith is the scab over the old wound that never heals, the one we pick at, and point at, and deride others about for choosing faith, or choosing no faith, or the wrong faith.

Of course in our genre, we get to take matters of religion to the extremes. But we do so because the question of faith is that important to us – whether as witnesses to human arrogance, or as victims of those seeming above any laws. Clearly we need to know there is judgment of some sort… and if we can’t get God to respond, we will turn to the Devil.

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The Devil as Default

We have long sought out evil in an attempt to flush out God.

It is the most basic attempt to tease God out of Heaven, to prove His existence to us, and more importantly, to prove our worthiness, our special place in His universe.

But we have also done so by placing evil in the laboratory and under the microscope in the hope of understanding ourselves – if not excusing ourselves.

Says Susan Neiman in her book Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, c2002): “Exploring evil as historical phenomenon becomes part of our efforts to make the world more comprehensible in theory and acceptable in practice” (Neiman 44).

Knowing how to recognize evil might offer us the opportunity to eradicate it, to give us hints on how to avoid its demonic gaze. So we attempt to define it by assigning categories of human behavior to it.

The irony is not lost on Horror writers, who often then weave the demonic right back into humanity. Who’s the Devil here? And why isn’t Satan the perfect vehicle for all of our troubles?

The answer is: because if we believe in the Devil, we are also wont to believe in God. And today, that equates for many to simple superstition.

But then Horror asks (when it is really good Horror)… what if religion is real?

As though such a question represents the purist, the most preachy among us, bad or weak Horror has therefore grabbed onto the Devil by his horns and thrust him into every subgenre and every trope sacred to our genre as though to ward off any further questions.

Today it is never just a witch, but the Devil’s personal favorite. It is never just a ghost but a demon from the Devil’s right hand. It is never just a werewolf but a personal brush with a hound from Hell. It is never just a mass murderer but one possessed. It is never just a vampire, but one bewitched by the witch who is the Devil’s personal favorite… and so it goes… ad nauseum.

Today, evil just IS…

We have no real relation to it, other than to be an innocent victim of it.

Whether we are trying to explain a terrorist act or a weak fiction plot, it is just easier to drag the Devil into it. It gives us permission to become hapless victims and righteous soldiers. Says Neiman, “Belief in Providence presumes that we are innocent long after we’ve begun to look very suspicious.” (199)

We have completely missed the message of evil.

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The Exorcist and the Battle of Good and Evil

Of course, Horror took up the challenge. And the reasons for the success of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is not only why we have some pretty awesomely scary Horror to look back on today, but it is also why modern writers stay away from religious questions almost entirely in contemporary Horror fiction.

Blatty, it appeared, went just a little bit too far… not in his monster –the Devil was great in this on (and was even able to send his right hand demon for one of the first times in modern Horror fiction and as a result it was unique, and a worthy surprise for Horror audiences and lapsed Christians everywhere) – but because Blatty made the mistake of not letting the story speak for itself.

As Horror Critic S.T. Joshi says, “the sole function of his writing is to reconcile us to Catholicism…” (Joshi 61)

Blatty framed his characters in the exact moment of time in which we were living: many Americans in 1971 were no longer members of any church, even when we considered ourselves to be Christian. A growing segment of the population were self-identifying as agnostic, and many others of us were flirting with atheism while embracing our pseudo-enlightenment, rejecting the beliefs of our parents who we were coming to see as parochial and even ignorant. To a Catholic writer like Blatty, something needed to be done to herd us all back to the fold… to revisit the issue and necessity of faith.

While it is not so obvious in the film, the book reveals more of his intent… seeming “preachy” while it attempts to take a skeptical, modern reader and explain how true evil has no scientific explanation, and no solution other than what God can provide through established religion and faith. Says Joshi, “Blatty so insistently pushes his theology in our faces” that it virtually bankrupts any aesthetic value of his work (Joshi 61).

This is a consequence of Blatty’s attempt to demonstrate – much to many readers’ chagrin – that the atheistic mother of the possessed child has no choice but to exhaust all of the “logical” and “scientific” explanations for possession until the character must in abject desperation concede that only God and her reclaimed faith can save her child.

This is exactly where we all were with religion: we did it if we did it once a week, and the rest of the time we were duly enlightened.

In the book, there is the usual parade of psychiatrists, medical doctors, medications and therapies which because of our modern resistance to the metaphysical, must be explored in order to prove their irrelevance to the supernatural problem. We must be made to see ourselves in our faithless world, too busy and too oblivious to consider the truth that humanity is the unwavering target of evil. And indeed, the reader goes on this very tedious journey with her.

Blatty’s purpose, of course, is to show that true religious events are matters of faith – not science.

And to some degree, he succeeded. The message was not lost on many Catholics. And the possibility of demonic possession delivered upon an innocent child led many Protestants to rethink their baptism-as-lifetime-guarantee position. But it did not drive us all back into the pews. Instead, it ushered in the New Age and a re-visitation of spiritualism and tinkering with the arcane.

It also led to a certain reluctance among Horror writers to write anything which would label them as “preachy.” And so began the mad dash to found footage and staring for hours at empty rooms in the hopes of seeing a swinging chandelier or a door closing ever so slowly… the Devil became the default explanation for everything that could go wrong in a Horror novel.

But ironically, we seem to prefer that the Devil cannot be defeated…

We just don’t seem to want to believe in a God who makes us discover faith in a room full of demons.

We don’t want to bring in Christianity.

We don’t want anything that reeks of superstition to taint our big boy Rambo image, so we feign ignorance of religion and make the secret rites of the Catholic Church a rental option.

Fix and forget it. That’s our modern motto.

Never mind that our robotic obsession with living in a bubble might be abnormal, and the battle between good and evil, the normal. That would be too scary….and preachy.

It seems sad to me that we have ignored the greater message which does persist behind Blatty’s desire for a mass return to faith: that some things are just beyond our control because maybe-just-maybe we are not the center of the universe after all.

Yet we struggle with the concept of anyone – God or exorcist or deliverance minister – being the final answer to our problems. We are, it seems, too great a set of control freaks to let that be a default in our fiction. We’d rather just have the demon who cannot be completely banished, the mystery we cannot completely uncover. So we hide behind extinct or obscure cultures, and – if all else fails – we make things up.

This is true for Catholics and Protestants alike. Yet… do we write differently because of our own intimate beliefs?

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Catholics, Protestants, and Atheists… Oh My!

Horror has always consisted of a diverse field of writers.

With regard to that essay I referenced at the beginning, I have not found one religious (or nonreligious) persuasion to be better or more prolific than another.

Do I think a belief system or lack of one influences writers of Horror? Definitely yes: whether we write to obscure or promote our own beliefs, or in fear of having those beliefs ridiculed or to spite our parents or Critics, or because we do not believe in one religion or in perhaps even in God, religion cannot help but impose its shadow upon our genre.

Do I think it makes us better or worse as writers?

I think the temptation to overreach is there, whether a writer subconsciously mocks or feels mocked or anticipates mockery. Religion must be entered into “just so” in our genre, lest it spoil the tale. As a result, our very personal position on religion or lack of it can affect our work for better or worse.

But I don’t think it is the determiner of our fates as Horror writers…although perhaps it will contribute something to style.

For example, in Horror, we have the Reformation to thank for separating the ways Protestants and Catholics look at the supernatural, starting with ghosts. Says Gillian Bennett in an introduction to the Seventeenth Century chapter of her book The Best 100 British Ghost Stories:

“Catholics and Protestants agreed that the souls of bad people would not be allowed to escape from Hell and the souls of good people would not wish to leave Heaven. The only place restless spirits could be coming from was therefore Purgatory, which was conceived of as a sort of holding pen where souls could be purged of sin. It followed that if there was no Purgatory, there could be no ghosts; but if ghosts could be proved to exist, the existence Purgatory was confirmed.” (Bennett 15)

Therefore Catholics believed in ghosts, Protestants did not. Toss in the modern reluctance to consider ghosts to be anything other than demons imitating loved ones to gain access to the soul, and we lose Catholics as well…but only publicly.

In private, we all ponder the existence of ghosts, and even play at “busting” them.

Yet our religious training in where we place them and whether they are or ever were human changes the way we write ghosts and demons and influences the belief of whether or not they can or should be driven to Hell…right along with who has the religious authority to do the driving…

So yes, our religious beliefs can and do affect how we tell a tale.

As an observer, I also believe Catholics are wont to write “deeper” in the area of religious problems like death and grief, ghosts and possession. I think the possibilities that await those who stray too far from God hold a certain terror for Catholics that Protestants do not anticipate or seem willing to entertain, and maybe that has to do with our early religious upbringings. But I think Protestants write better modern characters and situational Horror. And I think atheists write better Weird and subversive monsters than any of us.

Indeed, most of Weird fiction’s prominent and founding writers have been atheists according to Joshi. And many supernatural/spectral writers are Catholic. And of course many of todays’ giants are Protestants. So while religion or lack of it is most certainly an influence, it is not an indicator of success or failure – only a comfort zone for the kind of monsters we choose to write.

Most of us writing in Horror have lapsed in our faith a time or two, whether we were able to translate our own mystic fears and worldviews into our fiction or not, whether we eventually abandoned it altogether or not. It is the nature of the Horror genre that we question reality and our place in it. So it is also natural that we question surreality and its place in our world, that we poke at boundaries and wonder about it if something dares poke back.

Horror is not and should not be about driving the masses back into the arms of a loving God or into experimenting with the supernatural or declaring ourselves proudly above religion entirely. But it is about allowing ourselves the right to believe… even if it is only long enough to drive a demon out of this world, or to experience the what if of the moment.

It is about questioning, and sometimes…discovery – even discoveries we didn’t want to make and don’t know what to do about.

Not because Catholics or Protestants or atheists might write better Horror fiction, but because if the monstrous unseen really is out there, then the monstrous human is not the worst thing to worry about. And whether religion is superstition or not, some of us would rather not contemplate a world where we are completely, excruciatingly alone.

After all, there would be no one left to read our work…

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References

Bennett, Gillian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire, Great Britain: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. c2001.

Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternate History of Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, c2002.

 

Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas: Horror From The Good Old Days


It may come as a surprise, but once upon a time folks liked their Horror at Christmas. One could surmise that the increasing hours of darkness, the howling of hungry wolves, and the entrapment of inclement weather were co-conspirators to the cause; it is far too easy to become preoccupied with one’s own mortality when the temperatures send frosty ghosts to drift across candle-lit rooms and skeletal branches claw at window panes while the animals in the walls scurry ever deeper to find warmth.

In so much dark and quiet there is isolation, and the ever more loudly heard “sounds of silence” echoing in your ears. We forget how very dark and how very quiet the world once was. And maybe that is why our modern ghost stories are often found lacking the connective tissue of eerie tales of yore.

Technology changed things; we haven’t embraced so much light since humanity learned how to make and keep fire. And we haven’t surrendered our senses to so much noise in our daily lives since…ever.

Poor, poor ghosties….all drowned out by our modern day distractions.

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God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

If we really wanted to detail the history of ghost stories and dark times, we might well have to revisit Darwin and his Theory and explore early human brain development – as far back as when the animal brain diverged into homo sapiens. We would have to give more than a passing nod to rural folk and fairy tales, myths and legends, to the very human fear of naming things we cannot control – all for the sake of mitigating the chaos when not outwitting it. Because “the ghost story is the oldest form of supernatural tale…” (Dziemianowicz  xiii)

So where has it gone? Have we simply shuttered it away with childish things and suffused it with jokes made at the expense of our own mortality, or have we simply catalogued it to death? To know for certain we have to look at the last time ghost story-telling was king…

The ghost story – as we recognize it today – is more the “modern” invention of the Literary crowd. And of course the British started it…

It was the Victorians who spurred the whole renaissance in scary tale-telling, all by focusing on an infatuation with toying with the senses and exploring mortality, gazing with fascination at the changes spilling forth from the open maw of the industrial revolution and measuring it against the loss of all things past. (Perhaps this is what happens in a strictly regimented, class-driven, repressed society exposed for the first time to the seemingly unlimited promises of a newly born culture of science.) But once our invisible friends rose from the primal ashes of campfires in caves and collided with the tradition of the Christmas serial, a ghostly bonanza of spectral fiction ensued.

That’s right: we owe our Golden Age of Ghost Stories to the weird collision of Christmas and the rise of publishing.

Many consider the writings of Charles Dickens to be the main transformative template upon which many modern Christmas traditions and many ghostly tales gone traditional had their start. And while supernatural tales were long told round winter fires in the dark months of brutal seasons in many countries, this is what happens when the right writer delivers the right tales at the right time – what we now consider the J.K. Rowling Effect – wherein entire national imaginations are captured and slain. Dickens in his time was every bit as powerful, his influence felt across oceans and continents. And he is still selling and influencing today…Which is not at all bad for a dead guy.

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With the explosion of print onto the scene, there were magazines both pulp and “professional,” newspapers and book markets seeking to pump up slower Christmas sales all jostling for the new reading public’s precious coin. Many indulged in serial publication of stories – profiting more when such were delivered by writers of Dickens’ Literary merit and standing, but taking off when connecting the supernatural with the intimidating darkness of winter months.

And what prompted him to write ghost stories? The wonderful answer is his own childhood experiences…meaning that the remembered telling of scary stories and folk and fairy lore in the short, bleak days of winter colored his imagination; the oral tradition begat the written one of telling ghost stories at Christmas. (http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/ghoststoriesforchristmas.html)

What Dickens did was Literary: he incorporated his own experiences into his stories, his own impressions – from socio-economic conditions of the London he knew to his own memories of supernatural tales told round the Yule. This elevated his tales just enough to win the hearts of his public and melt a few of the Critics’. His contributions then helped legitimize the tradition of ghost story, as well as to help inspire other Literary writers and even those lesser efforts in the creation of the subgenre. It became a kind of tradition for writers of every professional ilk and genre to try their hand at Christmas ghost story telling. Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Andersen, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, and William Locke are just a few of those Literary writers who went “rogue.” And Horror got some great foundational stuff from both the exposure and the expanded audience.

But Dickens also colored our views of the environment in which these Christmas ghosts appear. And he did it by changing our Literary and then literal expectations of the holiday itself.

Did you ever wonder why we expect White Christmases? How so many songs came to be about deep snows and blizzard conditions, bitter cold, and the starving poor? Bits of coal and prowling elves? Did anybody else have childhood trouble trying to reconcile the birth of baby Jesus with snow and wise men in deserts?

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It was Dickens. Or rather, it was the whole of Britain with an unprecedented weather event often referred to as a “mini ice age” had while in his youth that colored our imagining of the holiday. He did what he did so well and we wound up permanently entangling his magnificent tales with weather patterns none of us have seen much of since, and sweeping the images of an Arctic landscape draped over the English with snowstorms of soft powder drifting like clouds of sugar on Christmas Eve over toy stores and holiday lights even in this country…Just visit Bedford Falls…

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Or look again at The Shining… that almost-Christmas tale. Sooo much snow around the isolated “manor house” that the connection to those English ghost stories is unmistakable. Yet today most of us do not have Christmases with mounds of snow and spiritual awakenings. And as for ancestral mansions, well, we are admittedly at least working on that piece of the equation

All this time, I thought it was rotten luck – the number of years a White Christmas failed to make an appearance in my life – even here in Colorado or the mountains of New Mexico, the hills of Indiana or the swamps of Florida. No snow. No reindeer tracks. And worse, even fewer ghosts. How tainted was my expectation of the holidays…

From Shakespeare to Washington Irving, there seems to have always been some spooky business afoot during the darker days of winter. And maybe that comes from early Christians commandeering earlier (and probably scarier) winter celebrations to affix the new beliefs upon the skeletons of the old…Bones tend to poke through now and again…

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But it was Dickens who through the Miracle of Modern Publishing solidified the trend as a campy tradition. Says editor Richard Dalby, “After Dickens’s A Christmas Carol first appeared in 1843, ghost stories became an ever-popular and essential ingredient of weekly and monthly magazines, especially the Christmas Numbers…xi-xiii). Today, whether Christmas remains in the story or not, the oppressive atmosphere of those once-wintry months remains – the cold, dark isolation, gloomy weather and gloomier estates…these are now standard Horror conventions – mandatory for ghost story telling.

And it all morphed again slightly once it crossed the pond: “the ghost story became equally popular in America, following the success of Dickens and his disciples…” (Dalby xii). Whether it was cheap imitation, British envy, or a thirst for our own Literary traditions mixing with social evolution, the ghost story form was embraced by women’s periodicals as a vehicle for expressing the concerns of women’s rights and children’s rights and henceforth civil rights. With the rise of the pulps and a more literate general public with money to spend, the subgenre took off in this country. Even though it languished in the literary dens of iniquity referred to as “Sensation” fiction – a consequence of any writing designed to illicit emotion and inflame passions – flourish it did, leading to what is often referred to as “The Golden Age of the Ghost Story.”

But then the electric light banished the dark with a flick of the finger. And for the ghost story, it was THAT finger.  Soon, if it were not for Halloween and teenagers eager to explore the concept of death, the ghost and its stories would have been banished completely back to superstition and folklore. But maybe that is not altogether a bad thing… Piggybacked on the traditions of Halloween, a good ghost story can garner quite a few miles…And more importantly, the good ones get remembered.

So isn’t it a shame we seem to have abandoned that Christmas tradition? And why exactly do we whine about bad ghost stories when no one is really working the edgy, Literary ends of the subgenre?

While some may argue all versions of the ghost story have been done, I say maybe we just gave up digging around in our darker folkish roots a wee bit too soon.

Ghosts are, after all, so much more than fragments of the human soul. Sometimes they aren’t human at all.

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The Return of the Christmas Horror

“Santa Claus…

How vile your name upon my tongue. Like acid, hard to utter without spitting. Yet I find myself incapable of speaking little else. It has become my malediction, my profane mantra.” – Krampus the Yule Lord, by Brom

It’s been a long time coming…But change and Horror is once again on the wintry breath of the Holidays. The ghost story is back…slightly amended, twisting backward upon an even older arc to restart our imaginations. We are talking about the fearsome mythologies and folklore of old…all of which count as ghost story.

It doesn’t mean we get it right – there is, after all, such a thing as poetic license. But back to the depths indeed we are called.

We can easily admit that our enduring affection for Halloween just doesn’t get enough reciprocal Literary love, and that simultaneously, many of our later efforts have indeed been wanting. Something was missing – something unnamed and unnamable. But wait – the door knob has begun to turn…slowly…deliberately. Something has been waiting for the opportunity to present itself for a dramatic return… That something is old, and dark, and distant enough in our proper memories that when our primal blood curdles, a new spark has been loosed. That spark has manifested in the form of…

The Krampus.

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For those who might think it a simple and modern take of Santa gone bad, the news is much more interesting: the tradition of the Krampus is far, far older…far, far darker. It comes indeed from a time when stories whispered in bleak isolation took on such lives of their own that eventually it became difficult to discern which came first – the story, or the creature in it (whether real or misinterpreted, imagined or misremembered).

Krampus, it is said, is “not really an individual’s name, but a class of entity, e.g. ‘vampire’ not ‘Dracula’” (Ridenour 14). Imagine that…a class of entity….implying other entities, and oh so, so many interpretations…

Isn’t this the very thing that made Lovecraft, Lovecraft? Isn’t this the very thing that animates our graphic novels, our video games, our superheroes, our fan fiction, our movie sequels, our darkest fantasies? Mythic monsters, demons of folk and fairy tales, that whole concept of hell-and-afterlife thing? Of wars between gods and humanity as puppets or prizes?

Ah but it is so easy to rumor that cults and weird traditions still linger in isolated places, just enough peculiar parades and effigies and misunderstood rituals to fuel the imaginations of those of us bathed in the false security of artificial light, tainted with just enough exoticism that we cannot look away, and just enough of our ancestry that we can feel those unseen eyes upon us. And so such legends capture our primal attention…punctuate our darker nights when the power fails…

How much blood lineage is enough for an entity to track our whereabouts? Our offspring? Our sins?

Krampus represents a return to darker things at the Holidays, and yes – a diversion from the “true meaning of Christmas” which has been so long obscured by the commercialism of Christmas that even the faithful have wandered into zombie territory. We are all ripe for the return of the Krampus and all of its kind…Primal, punitive, judging. We have taken our safety and freedoms in this world for granted. We ignore our obligations to each other by pretending we are too busy to see injustice. We have turned up our noses at superstition, and considered the scientific act of relegating religion to that category. We think ourselves untouchable…on par with the unseen.

The Krampus reminds us that such hubris has been the source of supernatural come-uppance in the past. And opening our imaginations to the monsters and demons of our darker histories might well serve to remind us of why we needed our religions to begin with, of the importance of living honorably.

Even dark entities abide by rules. Does it not then beg the question of who set those rules, and provoke the question of why humanity would be exempt when all other creatures are not?

And does that not lead right back to the backbone of the ghost story – the execution of justice?

And does that not in turn lead right back to Christmas, which for Christians implies the coming of the ultimate judge?

Ah yes, Commercial Christmas pales in the light of the gifts of heaven or hell… And the Krampus is bringing us right back to our point of origins…reminding us that there is no light without the dark.

And the greater the light, the greater the dark…

“America’s recent love affair with the Krampus, like any infatuation perhaps, tends to distort the object of its interest…” (Ridenour 10) Perhaps we should be more aware of what we make light of. What if we have summoned into our awareness the sword of justice from more primal times? One can only imagine the amount of justice-letting about to ensue…

Because just as we have distorted the ghost story to fit a Hollywood Blockbuster, we have distorted the meaning of Christmas and its lessons of our place in a dangerously unstable spiritual hierarchy; we have blissfully forgotten upon which plane we reside.

As one of my own fictional story characters once said, “On this level, we are all meat.

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So why not embrace the concept of the Krampus and his ilk? The timing could not be more perfect, with so much of the world still at war with itself, with the ever constant battle of “the Other” so ever-present and just out the front window when it isn’t right in our own homes. When has there been a greater need for justice when the loudest, most obnoxious voices are the most visibly rewarded? When the simple, quiet person just trying to survive is the one who is imprisoned, humiliated, murdered, castigated, blamed and disappeared because his or her existence becomes a random affront to someone else – someone who seems to get away with it sometimes under the very gaze of the world?

Don’t we all crave judgment? Don’t we all cry out for justice? And don’t most of us understand that unless it comes from some all-seeing entity, it will not happen at all?

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And of course this begs the question: how innocent are you?

Enter the Krampus…a handy instrument of the immortals who might be watching our every thought and move. Draped in Christian accoutrement but ever so much older and less inclined to mercy… Doesn’t every one of us in a moment of selfish disenfranchisement crave the reality of his existence? And don’t we all hope it is not us who he comes for?

The Krampus is a gift to modern Horror. Here is our opportunity to take back the fundamental concept of primal judgment…of a vigilant and swift executioner of justice. Once again we can deck the halls with things quite converse to the saccharine holiday we hijacked from its original purpose, reawaken those personal awarenesses of our own stupid mistakes and arrogances that will not go unpunished or ignored if original religion and mythology are to be believed…even reawaken the fear…

Come on. Get Literary. Resurrect our dark holiday tradition.

Write a ghost story for Christmas… root about in the old, forbidden stories. Turn out the lights. Look your demons in the eye.

I dare you.

 

References

Brom. Krampus the Yule Lord. New Yor: Harper Voyager, c2012.

Dalby, Richard, ed. Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories.New York: MetroBooks, c1995.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, Robert H. Weinberg & Marlin H. Greenberg, eds. 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, c1993.

Moon, Jim. “Christmas Spirits Part I: The Origin of Ghost Stories at Christmas” posted 20 December 2011. Retrieved 11/30/2016 from:  http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/ghoststoriesforchristmas.html)

Ridenour, Al. The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, c2016.

The Haunting of America’s House: Have We Killed the Ghost Story?


One of the most difficult subgenres to write successfully in Horror is the ghost story, and through a century of technological intrusion and religious minimization, the task has not grown any easier. Speculation abounds: have we exhausted the medium? Have we outgrown the concept? Has everything already been done better than we can do it today?

Critics are not sure. Some are of the opinion that the masters of the medium have come and gone along with the “perfect storm” of timing – specifically the literary finesse of a better classically educated writer and the vulnerability of an audience enduring that absolution of all sin – the technological twin projectiles of electricity and the industrial revolution. Others speculate that we are somewhere on the cusp of reinvention because “in short, genres evolve – often through the influence of both aesthetic and economic factors” (Bailey 108).

Either way, there is a truth to acknowledge: our ghost stories – American ghost stories – are failing. Miserably. The question I have, is why? The British in particular are still pulling it off. And although we even might have bested them briefly, in the early 1900’s, when Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Francis Marion Crawford, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James were still part of mainstream reading, we’ve lost that precious story-telling thread: the connective tissue between the ghost and what it represents.

Real Ghosts Scare People

The last time I read a really good ghost story, it came from Iceland. The book was I remember You by international crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir… I cannot praise this book enough for bringing the power of the ghost story back to mind, and any writer who gives me nightmares is welcome on my permanent bookshelf.

How did she do it? She did it by invoking the power of local folklore muddied with the trope of the True Story, and weaving it together with the most famous of the ghost story conventions – the search for revelation and justice, creating empathy for the ghost even as she created terror of its presence. Sigurðardóttir used the possibility of a real ghost of a real person to scare the sound sleep out of us. And it worked. Because real ghosts scare people…not their image, but their possible reality and what that means for all of us.

So what are we missing?

I didn’t have to go far for the answer: we are missing the ghost. Somehow, we have managed to drift away from the actual haunting and turned the haunted house into a circus of absurdity. We have taken one of the most powerful representations of world view in Literature and neutered it, drenching it in distracting contests of evil that by their combined sheer weight, make truth and accountability impossible.

Too many times our ghost fiction is relying on a kind of absolute worst-case scenario… as in Dale Bailey’s recounting of “David Martin’s 1997 crime novel Cul-de-Sac, which pays deliberate homage to the tradition of the haunted house tale. The ill history of the eponymous house reflects the protocols of the formula: Cul-de-Sac began as a vast pre-Civil War hotel that drained the resources of its owner, served at various times in its history as a military hospital and an insane asylum, and became the site of a brutal decapitation murder. The locale is rumored to be the home of Satan, and visitors hear strains of a ghostly piano and encounter infestations of flies…” (Bailey 109).

Ye gods!

This is what the American ghost story has morphed into. And if you don’t think it is a parody of itself, read the classics, or another crime writer like Sigurðardóttir, for example – whose more subtle handling of crime and ghost are lightyears ahead of our game and seated in the real tradition of ghost story telling.

It is almost as though we have lost faith in our own ability to conjure up a ghost that can adequately scare us on its own. And maybe we have. Clearly we are not doing it right: what is more terrifying than the possibility that the afterlife is not at all what we expect it to be, and that any of us could become trapped where we don’t want to be – away from the eyes of God, away from the comfort of others, away from all chance of absolution, alone with our sins and ourselves, denied even the judgment and punishment that ends it all?

What has happened to us? The answer seems to be rooted in that infamous and ongoing battle with Britain over ruins.

That’s right. Piles of stone. Because we don’t have any. Whine, whine.

Being bereft of actual historic ruins that date back into the earliest history of man, we’ve had to improvise. For most of us, home is cookie-cutter suburbia. And when we ran out of ancient Indian burial grounds and curses, when we stopped being world savvy and we rediscovered and fully embraced Poe and his Fall of the House of Usher it occurred to us: maybe it wasn’t about the ghost after all, maybe it was the house…the home, the family, the American Dream…

What if the haunted house is the stand-in for our own twisted sense of entitlement? Eureka…

Apparently, that is most certainly something we could sink our teeth into. Says Bailey, “as long as houses remain a central symbol in American culture, our writers are likely to inhabit them with the anxieties of our day-to-day lives” (109).

This is bad news for traditional ghost story lovers. The promise is one of mundane familiarity, of boring detail, of the self-centered spoiled brat spawned in effigy as the Me Generation (I can say that being born in the thick of it), of – even worse – a kind of revisionist historical view. We have successfully re-written our past out of our spectral fiction. And we have excised the Literary root along with it. We managed to convince ourselves that the ghost is secondary… a mere appendage to wave at our vanishing birthright.

In lieu of castles, abbeys and moors, we went straight to our three-car garages and 900 square foot living rooms. We choose to mourn our own poor choices instead of taking responsibility for them, finding our worst fears materializing in our pantries and mud rooms and personal gyms… Why deal with the uncomfortable truths when you can sit on your overstuffed couch and convince yourself you earned it and the gigantic flat-screen TV guaranteed to blind any ghost in the room?

See, what I find truly sad, is that here we have an opportunity as writers to re-awaken our collective sense of responsibility by invoking the traditional ghost story. And we abdicate. We default to security cameras and found footage.

Certainly, we don’t have those awesome castles and moody moors… but we do have historic tragedies, nationally protected battlefields, ghost towns (ironically), and some pretty awesome and eerie scenery of our own. We don’t have to lurk in a covered bridge to imagine angry peoples cheated of their own heritages, to understand beheaded horsemen, exploited immigrants, stranded pioneers, massacred natives, massacred miners, fires, explosions, collapses, fraud, intimidation, theft, murder, financial ruin, domestic abuse, suicides… we’ve had them all right here without a single castle or downed abbey. For every crime there is an offender and a victim. And every one of us lives our lifetimes built on blood.

For certain, many ghost stories are meant to be nothing more than campfire tales. But do we need more than that to summon the kind of depth that follows us into the dark? The Critics think so. And they may have a point.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Boo. Boo Hoo.

Are all great ghosts Literary? Certainly not. But most of the best ghost stories are, even when they are not canon-class. Ghosts are always the after-image of something we have done… A ghost without a backstory is just a special effect. And we have seemed to embrace that formula which by its nature excludes the very humanity of ghosts and conjures unlikely scenarios to magically summon their presence in a plot. The focus is on the family-as-victim – more often the White Anglo Saxon Protestant family as victim. And to clearly not make things racist, the ghost is typically  entangled with legends of an anglo witch, a dead (or alive) psychotic murderer, or the very Devil himself.

We don’t know how to successfully include history or other peoples in our haunted houses without sounding trite. So we just simply don’t. And in creating so much of this kind of two-dimensional fiction, have we killed the American ghost story?

We’d have to turn out the lights to see… yet we are always in possession of artificial light, so we can better enjoy our artificial values. Does this mean despite the prolific dominance of technology that we are still really afraid of ghosts? That we have more than a few skeletons rotting in our closets which we are too afraid to acknowledge? I think it does.

Today the American ghost story is all hype, flash and bang with no substance. We are wrapped up in and consumed by our own sense of loss and fear of the future. What started out in the 1900’s with promise has all but languished on American bookshelves of late, victim of its own failed promises. Or maybe it is the premises that have failed.

Really. It’s Not the House That’s Haunted.

The first time I heard that phrase it turned me a bit on my ear. It was kind of thought-provoking, an interesting theory about ghosts, a reversion to “the purposeful ghost” of the seventeenth century whose dogged appearance was motivated by “the need to address wrongs, warn of danger, reveal secrets, or cure sickness” (Bennett 18). Such promise lies with those ghosts. Such promise in the phrase itself… But then we really tinkered with it, and before long it also smacked of our American penchant for “evil” … the need for speed in accelerating our terror element beyond the capacity of the story itself. And once we get started, we can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Here we are not revising or expanding the ghost story, we are simple trampling it. And the truly weird thing is that we are using things we profess to not even believe in to do it. Is it any wonder we aren’t scaring anyone?

One has to ask why a country so at ease in dismissing the interaction of God, Heaven and Hell in real life cannot keep our mitts off of Pure Evil for Evils’ sake (even in our fiction). And why is that supposed to scare anyone? If the Reformation purged the reality of ghosts from our midst (a view coincidentally enhanced by the electric light), how can any mere ghost hope to advance an agenda without it? Yet if we don’t accept the duality of magical thought – that neither good nor evil exist without the other – have we not reopened the very argument the Reformation was meant to seal forever? And doesn’t a reluctance to advance at least the questions asked by religion sabotage the ghost before it can walk? Is that why we dust off the devil so often?

Tradition would suggest so. Because the ghost story tradition is all about accountability, justice for the marginalized. If The Devil Made Us Do It, are we not absolved? Blameless? Innocent as newborn babes?

The British writers of spectral fiction clearly know this is a cop-out. And let’s face it, the Reformation started in their neighborhood. If anyone was going to be derailed by Protestantism in the ghost story, it should have been them. Yet there is no such disorientation in British ghost stories. The weird gyrations are all ours, and that makes the explanation all the more personal.

From what I see as a reader of ghost stories, the problem is the American aversion to the confession of sins. Maybe it is our Protestant roots showing, or maybe it is our more alarming contemporary tendency toward historical revisionism. But the ghost story is all about confronting our own sins and the American ghost story has morphed into a blame-the-victim plot point. By victim, I do not mean the haunted person, or the haunted house; no, our victim has become the ghost itself and everything it stands for

What better way to proclaim our own innocence?

We do not seek to empathize with the ghost, to solve the mystery, to bring it peace, to wish it well, to coax it into The Light. Instead, the hapless spirit becomes the tool of something bigger, larger, worse. The Worst. The Worst EVER.

That way, we can set out to banish it. We can blow up the house it inhabits, the very same way our dreams have been imploded by those we cannot quite reach as they build ever larger mansions above us.

Remember, it’s not the house that’s haunted. It’s poor us. We are the victims.

Yet we built the house. And the house is the problem.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There. You. You Who?

In his Critical look at the ghost story, American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, Dale Bailey states, “The contemporary haunted house formula dispenses not only with ghosts, but the ontological uncertainty – did anything spectral really happen? … Instead, the formula opts for a flatly prosaic depiction of the supernatural in which the house itself is sentient and malign, independent of any ghosts which may be present (and very frequently none are)” (5-6).

Vengeful ghost trouble? We’ll fix you… Responsible for building a wondrous country on a hideous legacy of genocide, child labor, slavery, and misogyny? No problem. Tah dah! It was the house…Evil happens. Not our fault then. Still not our fault.

Yet the house itself is a “tell.” And it is telling on us.

Says Bailey, “…the tale of the haunted house, while rooted in the European gothic tradition, has developed a distinctly American resonance…In part, I think, the answer grows out of the clash between American ideals and realities, the three or four key themes in American life to which the house, and especially the haunted house, naturally lends itself as a vehicle for commentary…Good haunted house novels… often provoke our fears about ourselves and our society, and, at their very best, they present deeply subversive critiques of all that we hold to be true – about class, about race, about gender, about American history itself. In part because of the formulaic construction, such novels frequently employ their settings not only to indict American culture, but to suggest ways it might be profitably reformed” (5-6)

Try hiding from that under your bedsheets…

So the house itself, in becoming home, also became a symbol of the American Dream and by its placement in neighborhoods, its illustriousness of walls, it defines who gets to participate, who is nurtured by the Dream and who is devoured by it, or worse, who is sacrificed in its name.

The irony is that no one is immune. Forget the ancient Indian burial ground: we are our own personal devils. Continues Bailey, “The afterglow of the American Revolution had barely worn off when a new generation of American writers began to suspect a startling and unpleasant truth: that they had toppled King George only to raise King Dollar in his stead” (7). The centuries since, have informed all of us that equity was not going to be part of the promise kept.

So where is the writer in all of this? Why aren’t we hearing a voice of outrage cast in luminous ectoplasm?

Maybe we’re just too busy trying to baffle ’em with bullsh**t. Or maybe we are afraid we won’t get published if we call it like we see it. Or maybe it’s a little of both.

Chaos is Not Enough

In reading Literary Critic S. T. Joshi’s critical essay on Horror author Peter Straub, I found phrases that seem to apply alarmingly frequently to the modern American ghost story. For example, we too often neglect to “account adequately” for a viable origin of the supernatural element, (Joshi 204), or even occasionally fail to commit to whether the supernatural is even really involved at all, leaving the reader to stew over the reality of events (205), or we sabotage the climax with an anti-climax in some misconstrued attempt to surprise the reader with some misbegotten truth (205). Too often we share what Joshi calls “an awkwardness in writing a plausible conclusion’’ (206), or even a “penchant for happy endings… [including] the complete elimination of the horror, whether it be natural or supernatural” (207).

Why are we doing this? And if it isn’t ignorance or ineptitude, is it fear?

In my opinion, Joshi nailed all of our coffins closed with one essay. American ghost stories today come across as lazily conceived, half-baked, over-anticipated opportunities for special effects. And if you love ghost stories – really love them – you know that the worst always happens in your own head.

The classics were written with this very awareness. We were not plagued with mundane details, the minutiae of ordinary life and boring characters designed to lull us into a false sense of security… because why pay to read what we all already live? Yet it seems we can’t stop ourselves. And the result is mind-numbing; we see more and more ghost story fiction that seems to be taking its tradition from screenwriting in place of Literature, utilizing the idea of the mind-as-camera, foisting us –willing or otherwise – into the long preamble of a supernatural event being developed as we read, absent of creative control and abandoning all hope of Literary intent.

Once again I discovered useful and appropriate phrasing within the context of another Joshi essay, this time on Robert Aickman, addressing the need for logic in supernatural fiction. Because I also see the obvious suspension of logic being used as an excuse for “mystifying” the reader, or dazzling the reader with alleged arcane detail that simply has no connection to events that the reader can make or appreciate…as though making the reader murmur, “I don’t get it” is supposed to imply that the writing is “deep” when it is just convoluted.

Therefore, I find myself in agreement with Joshi in his quote of L.P. Hartley, “a master of weird fiction…” who stated, “The ghost story writer’s task is the more difficult [i.e., than the detective story writer’s] for not only must he create a world in which reason doesn’t hold sway, but he must invent laws for it. Chaos is not enough. Even ghosts must have rules and obey them” (220).

So have we ruined ghost fiction and the story of the haunted house? I think not, but it’s time for a change from our current trajectory. We have explored this spur of the track as far as it goes and it is a dead end (no pun intended). We have to stop the chaotic dance that makes our spectral fiction read like a cartoon and Hollywood salivate. We are fiction writers, and our tradition is to poke the beast, not bribe it.

Is our haunted house really the American Dream? Maybe. But nobody likes a whiner, and right now, to write our ghosts disguised as mourning the ease of access to the American Dream which was itself a unique phenomenon in an unrepeatable period of American history is no less than whining. Our ghosts are better than that, and so are we. Maybe we should look at the poetic justice of it… And channel ghosts – real ghosts – in much smaller, age-appropriate houses.

Now that would be terrifying.

 

REFERENCES

Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, c1999.

Bennett, Giliian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

Joshi S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2001.

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa. I Remember You: a Ghost Story. New York: Minotaur Books, c2012.