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).
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.
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.