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.

 

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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.