Week 62: Ghost Stories

Not too scary

Not too scary

All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints’ Eve. Hallowe’en. Or, with the directness for which the North East is rightly famous, Spook Night. With the clocks going back, this is the beginning of the dark months. In times gone by, our ancestors lit fires and celebrated Samhain, which like so many Celtic words, is not pronounced as it looks and is probably nothing to do with the rather earnest festivities laid on by modern-day pagans (as mostly harmless people from Brighton with time on their hands like to be called). The fire and the fireworks have shifted a few days to mark Guy Fawkes’ Day in England, and Hallowe’en has on the whole become another shopping opportunity based on ill-understood American customs and, I’m afraid, greed. But as we start to draw the curtains at tea-time, light the wood-burner and settle down for cosy winter evenings in, what could be more cheering than some properly flesh-creeping horror?

No self-respecting bookshelf should be without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Forget Lon Chaney and staggering around with a bolt through the neck. Among the very many pleasures of reading the book is the sisterly knowledge that it is said to be the product of Mary listening quietly to Percy B and his chum Lord Byron drone on about how marvellously they would write such a story: she then popped upstairs and, unlike the chaps, sat down and wrote the definitive myth-creating novel that defines the Gothic. That showed them. It really is an extraordinary book, poised on the brink of a new age of science and deeply concerned with how we use our new-found understanding. The questions it explores remain piercingly relevant and we would do well to insist that every scientist, and certainly every politician (the ones that can read, anyway), study it very carefully indeed.

Oh, go on then, let’s have Dracula as well. Bram Stoker has much to answer for, not least bequeathing us – and especially the good citizens of Whitby – generations of whey-faced young people drooping around in black clothes and uncomfortable piercings. But the book itself has more merit than that, not least in perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of 1897, the year in which it was published, when Sigmund Freud began his self-analysis, and our sub-conscious minds were hauled out of the shadows and the way back was barred (you freudwill recall Anita Loos’s wonderful Lorelei Lee – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a must-read – being encouraged by Dr Froyd to develop some inhibitions).

Only a year after Dracula first saw – well, ‘the light of day’ might not be the happiest phrase in this context – Henry James played with our minds and undermined our certainties in his compelling novella, The Turn of the Screw. It is fabulously unsettling because it refuses ever to let us decide on a single fixed meaning for it. It gives us joyful literary theorists great pleasure, enabling us to chant our battle cry, ‘meanings are not fixed, or singular, and they can be ambiguous and even contradictory’. And Benjamin Britten’s opera is thrilling, chilling and eerie: like James’s book, it perfectly captures Freud’s idea of unheimlich, the uncanny, the ruling passion of this time of ghouls and ghosts.

The Goths spent a thousand years or so, from perhaps the third to the tenth century and beyond, happily pottering around huge swathes of Europe developing their undoubted talent for laying waste and fighting. At various times, they had a crack at the Roman Empire, the Huns, the Franks and the Moors. As the Geats of Scandinavia, they can register a claim to be the people of Beowulf, and thus enable us to indulge in the joys of re-reading Seamus Heaney’s great translation. But they are not otherwise hugely well-known for their literary bent, which makes it perhaps mildly surprising that, from Horace Walpole onwards, we have appropriated the term ‘Gothic’ to mean melodramatically romantic. This, of course, is where we came in, with Mr and Mrs Shelley and the boys in the Romantic band. Time, then, to add Jane Austen’s delicious Northanger Abbey to this week’s shelf as a helpful antidote to sensational excess. Her heroine, Catherine Morland, is a poppet, and only seventeen, making her longing for the squalid discomforts of mediaeval living almost forgiveable. We can perhaps take Austen’s cheerful practicality with us to temper the marvellous horrors of Angela Carter’s darkly gothic tales in The Bloody Chamber.

completely non-gratuitous

completely non-gratuitous

Will you be lighting the new darkness with a Jack o’Lantern? I have it on good authority that the carving of vegetables to put a candle inside them and make sinister flickering faces is an English tradition, and originally involved turnips and swedes. This is yet another awe-inspiring example of the hardiness and fortitude of the English, because, trust me, turnip-whittling is jolly hard work. How our lives have been improved, in this and in one or two other instances, by the adoption of American habits. Pumpkins are a cinch to hack away at, and a delicious conserve can be made with the resulting pile of golden flesh (think sugar, fresh ginger and lemons). Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, unites ghosts, pumpkins and headless horsemen in a highly satisfactory way.

But tonight the wind is wuthering around the house and the candles are flickering. Was that a creak upon the stair? Put away Elizabeth Taylor’s haunting story, ‘Poor Girl’: leave Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy, Macbeth and Richard III – so many ghosts!- for now: turn away, even, from the Border Ballads – yes, even Kate Rusby singing ‘The Unquiet Grave’. Snuggle up in bed with PG Wodehouse’s ghost story, ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have learned that Wittgenstein rated it as the funniest thing he’d ever read. Any fears of things that go bump in the night are at once vanquished by picturing the great, but not necessarily uproarious, philosopher, laughing his socks off.

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One thought on “Week 62: Ghost Stories

  1. Oh my goodness. I’ve got cross with swedes in the past and put them in the oven to soften them up before chopping them up for the pot.

    Frankenstein, as with the Stephen King discussion I had earlier in the evening, stayed on my mind because of its haunting portrait of how humans could treat other beings, and what that could lead to.

    Not strictly Halloween, but I was so thrilled by the atmosphere in Hound of the Baskervilles when I read that as a teenager.

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