Five ghost stories without any ghosts in them.
I once had a conversation with a friend who told me they hated ghost stories because, in their view, they were all the same. I don’t remember what my response was at the time, I suspect it wasn’t particularly erudite or witty. I probably just said something like “Bollocks, they’re great. I mean, ghosts, you know? Wow.” And then, very likely, I went to get another round in and was distracted by something else to get unnecessarily upset about. So in the tradition of l’esprit de l’escalier, I’d like to present a slightly — very slightly — more cogent argument.
In terms of Hollywood ghost stories, my friend was arguably correct. Around ninety percent of contemporary Hollywood ghost stories appear to involve an unfortunate resident of a town with preternaturally awful weather, being subjected to Very Angry Special Effects until they finally figure out they have to perform a specific task. Essentially, Hollywood ghosts are entitled little shits who spend all their time throwing tantrums when they’d be better off composing a polite but pointed email with bullet points.
One of the reasons I love ghost stories is because they’re not by any means the same, and sometimes, they can even be mistaken for other genres. The definition of what makes a ghost story is remarkable in its flexibility, and varies wildly from one part of the world to another. The tradition of ghosts, and how they are perceived, reflects the cultures they haunt. There aren’t really any accepted rules, a ghost’s form and purpose are entirely subjective, and usually depend on who is recounting the story of their manifestation and why.
Additionally, unlike straight horror stories, there’s no real requirement for a ghost story to be frightening. They can be, certainly, a lot of them undoubtedly are, but these are stories rooted in confrontations with death, loss and history. It’s a deceptively wide gamut to explore. Some are deeply sad or moving, others are bittersweet, others are gently funny. Some are all of the above at once.
In a short-hand attempt to demonstrate, here are five excellent ghost stories that don’t even have ghosts in them. You see? Ghost stories can do that.
There are no real ghosts in Manderly, but the shadow cast by the late Rebecca DeWinter is so tangible, it doesn’t stretch the imagination to picture her lurking just off the page, never quite granting an audience to the young, naive successor whom everyone agrees is beneath her. DuMaurier’s splendid and suffocating Gothic romance revels in the anxiety of its heartbreaking heroine who remains nameless and diminished while the unseen Rebecca is everywhere, even claiming the book’s title as her own. Rebecca’s charisma lingers after her: she is a deity, a tyrant and — most crucially — a victim. The shifting relationship between her and her successor is beautifully drawn.
The new Mrs DeWinter is abandoned by her cold new husband and harried by the malevolent housekeeper, she is forced confront — and rise above — her predecessor’s legacy and influence on her own. She succeeds, but arguably at the cost of becoming complicit in Manderley’s dark history.
There’s something of DuMaurier in Nina Allan’s award winning novella: a precise perfection to the prose that masks the growing sense that something horrible is waiting in the wings. Denis Beaumont, returns from the horrors World War I not quite as a revenant, but almost. He haunts the corners of the life he left behind, the city that has suffered its own trauma, the fiancee who has found independence without him. In turn, he is haunted by a troubling encounter on the battlefield in which he was saved by one man and failed to save the life of another. Perhaps he has come home irrevocably changed, or perhaps this moral ambivalence was there all the time. Neither possibility is particularly comforting.
Another writer might present this material as the origin story of a sociopath, but Allan is far too subtle and interesting for that. Instead, she considers Beaumont’s gentle pivot into darkness, primarily through his varying relationships with three very different women. There’s a pivot for the reader too, when our sympathies are first tested, then sent reeling, appalled.
The Victorian Chaise-Lounge
In many respects, ghost stories and time travel stories are opposite sides of the same coin. Laski’s slim, cruel novella takes place in the 1950s. Melanie, pampered and patronised by the men in her life has recently given birth, but has yet to hold her new child because she is still recovering from TB. She awakes one afternoon to her find the Victorian Chaise-Longue she was sleeping on is no longer the antique it once was, the room around her has changed completely and — most troublingly — she is now Milly, whose battle with the same disease, many years earlier, is considerably more precarious.
Laski locks the story down to a single point of view in a single location, teasing her narrative outwards with a parade of visitors to Milly’s sickbed. Both Melanie/Milly and the reader are completely trapped and as Milly slowly comes to terms with the particulars of her increasingly unsettling situation, the gradual accumulation of detail builds remorselessly, creating a claustrophobic, nightmarish tableau. If Milly dies in the past, will Melanie wake up in the present? Does it even matter? Any means of escape becomes desperately urgent, no matter how drastic or dangerous it might seem.
Dorothy K Haynes
In Thomas Hardy’s The Withered Arm, a woman is told that she might be cured of her ailment if she touches the neck of a recently hanged man. In The Cure, Dorothy K Haynes plays straight and unsparing with the same superstition. A widow leads her young son through baying village crowds to the gibbet where her husband’s body has been hanging in the sun for the past few days. The father was convicted of stealing food for his family and the widow is left desperate for a cure to the boy’s simpleness so he can earn a crust for himself. Haynes’ story is nasty and surprising and doesn’t quite go where you think it will. It’s a near perfect piece about both the fear of the supernatural and the desperate, destructive need for it to be true.
Dorothy K Haynes’ stories — each sharpened by a keen social conscience — don’t appear to be in print at present, but she has a centenary coming up in 2018, so someone should start a petition to secure her the same treatment Robert Aickman received a few years ago on his. It would be worth it.
The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon
In some stories, ghosts manifest as evocations of loss, guilt or memory. Elizabeth Hand’s novella might be science fiction, it might be straight realism with a hint of magic, but it also feels like a story about a group of friends attempting to lay a ghost. At its simplest, The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon involves Robbie, Leonard and Emery, a trio of one-time employees of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Aviation and Aerospace in Washington DC, who plan to fake footage of the eponymous flying machine for the benefit of a dying colleague. Margaret Blevin, the friend in question, sits out much of the story, but she’s there on every page regardless: a tangible sense of her, subtly shaping each of the three protagonists. Given that it’s written by Elizabeth Hand, of course, it’s a lot more than that too. It’s a lovely, humane, achingly sad story, yet so light-footed and nimble it can take you by surprise.
In a sense, its characters are writing a ghost story of their own, something that reaches back, longingly through the intervening years, something impossible that despite everything, is absolutely worth believing in.
One story that isn’t a ghost story but does have a ghost in it.
The Late Breakfasters
Robert Aickman has written plenty of ghost stories, most so ambiguous and strange that I could easily fill a list such as the one above five times over with his work alone. His first novel (his only one, aside from the posthumously published novella, The Model) is a little different. First published in 1964, The Late Breakfasters concerns the splendidly named Griselda de Reptonville, who is invited to a house party at the country estate Breams, and falls in love with Louise. It’s a relationship that will not last, leaving Griselda searching desperately for compromise in an attempt to recreate something, anything of the connection she experienced.
It’s a strange, bittersweet comedy of manners evoking PG Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis or perhaps even Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point. It begins as something frivolous and arch, but it darkens considerably as it inches closer to its quietly devastating last lines.
Its strangeness depends partly on the reader. Those unfamiliar with Aickman’s work will find it curiously off-centre, those who have read his ghost stories maybe be surprised by how unlike them it is.
It does, however, have a ghost in it. At least, I’m pretty sure it does.