gall and gumption

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Dripping

Several days into the rains of last week (9 straight days, and it's been pouring since just before sunset tonight) I started feeling like a character in one of those Victorian ghost stories: you know, someone wakes up in the middle of the night and there's a dripping presence in the room, '"Harriet," it said, in a damp, unearthly voice, "I promised I'd come back, Harriet..."' Next morning there is no trace of the apparition except some seaweed--even though the house is miles from the sea--and Harriet's hair has turned completely white! I feel more like the apparition than Harriet, though.

Victorian ghost stories are a guilty pleasure of mine that I only occasionally indulge in. They are like one of those tastes that stick with you even when you know you ought to have outgrown them. Kind of like my taste for powdered custard. My stepdad, genius of all things dessert-related, was scandalized years ago when I told him this, and promptly set about teaching me how to make real custard, with eggs and a double boiler and everything. And of making "proper custard" as he would call it is infinitely better, but I still like the powdered kind, hot, poured over a warm strawberry-rhubarb or berry crumble that isn't too sweet, the way they served it at boarding school.

Reading ghost stories is a similar return to adolescence. Basically, I read them when I visit my mother's house. These visits are my reading binges. Within a couple hours of arriving I have raided the bookshelves and pulled down everything that looks the least bit readable, and stacked them up next to the bed. That's just the first pass. There will be several more. And among them will be one or another collection of ghost stories that seems to find its way into my hands (woooo-ooooo!) and I read them and frighten myself. After I have indulged myself in say a whole volume of these stories I am likely to feel a bit ashamed of myself, the way you might feel if you sat down and ate three pizzas all by yourself. But I don't feel ashamed of myself when I read these two.

I'd put the ghost stories I like best in a time span that starts at about Dickens and ends somewhere with Saki and Edith Wharton. There are some later imitators who have sort of kept up the style, and I have no objection to the imitators--I am not invested enough in it to be a purist in that way. Probably the best of the modern imitators that I know of is a writer named Susan Hill whose novel, The Woman in Black is one of the creepiest things I have ever read and true to the Victorian spirit of ghost-story telling. I saw a dramatization of it in London years ago and despite the fact that the only furniture or scenery on the set was a big traveling trunk, and the action consisted of two characters mostly narrating or acting out their recollections of events, there were at least two moments when the entire audience screamed with fright. I can tell you that that has never happened to me in a theater before or since.

Some of the big names don't give me the charge I seek. I don't like Saki, because I suspect he's kidding a lot of the time. And I am altogether unable to take Poe seriously any more; it's pure camp and it was camp from Day One with him. In addition to the big names there were all sorts of people you've probably never heard of, and you can find them in anthologies. My favorite writers in the genre, though, are fairly big names: Edith Wharton and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

There's one by Le Fanu, "Mr. Justice Harbottle," about this house that is haunted by the ghost of the hanging judge who had lived in it, and there's one, I don't even remember the author or the title but it's about this guy who unearths this strange looking whistle with an inscription on it, something like "Whistle and I'll come to you." He blows the whistle and nothing happens. Some hours later he's alone and this ghastly creature, this sort of ghostly insane evil pathetic monster is sort of surging towards him. He manages just barely to escape from it but he's a shattered wreck of himself for the remainder of his days. Now, the way I just described it sounds more funny than anything, but I had trouble sleeping after that one. And then of course there are the first two books of Dracula, just delicious. I remember only the title of one, if it wasn't an actual Victorian short story it was a good imitation of one, it was called "Mr. Ottermole's Hands." I can't tell you what it was about but with a title like that... Then there was one of those "Adventurer goes and messes with primitive people's idol to steal jewel and idol's curse follows him back to England and makes a mess of his life" stories. Except what the evil thing did in this one was just give him the sensation that these sort of squishy squooshy slimy things were continually crawling around under his clothes and in his shoes. Edith Wharton's "Afterward" is one of my favorites, because like so many of hers it is set in the same world as her non-ghost stories. An American couple, the husband having made his fortune in mining, buys a grand old house in England that is rumored to be haunted. It is haunted, but not at all in the way they expect and much much more frightening. It's not an old ghost that haunts the house but a very new one, one that, in effect, they summoned there themselves. It's striking because it's unusual.

More typically, as you see in Dickens's fiction, the Victorian world of these stories is cluttered with all sorts of detritus from other periods, sort of moldering away in the midst of things: the little corner of London where Mrs. Todgers's boarding house is in Martin Chuzzlewit, which has, as so many London neighborhoods, these abandoned forgotten churchyards. The Circumlocution Office. Miss Havisham. In the Victorian ghost story, doubt and anxiety and fear, deep-rooted grudges and resentments, obsessions and perversities, old shabby embarrassing selves (like Mrs. Gamp's old gowns hanging above her bed and looking like a suicide)--all the things we were supposed to be enlightened out of, things that people can't acknowledge about themselves, are uneasily entombed in such places. Or not entombed in the ghost stories, I guess.

Unlike the Gothic-romantic literature from which it is descended the Victorian ghost story often has as its setting the ordinary world of trains and waiters and clerks on vacation in seaside hotels. It's the unexpected persistence of the past in this world that makes all the spookiness. Here comes Mr. Typical Modern Office Clerk or Hypochondriac Gentleman of Modest But Comfortable Means; arriving at the village of B-- with his Gladstone bag and umbrella, he steps off the train and into a world of ancient horrors, of things that progress has overlooked or hasn't taken account of. Yes, there is the old house untenanted since the Bad Thing happened; Mr. Typical finds there not the sort of violence that fills American "horror" movies but usually just emotion--anger, obsession, sadness, vindictiveness, or guilt--of such force and persistence that it threatens everything around it. The supernatural is intensity of feeling. These angry, sorrowing, leering ghosts can't move on; they have to keep retelling the story, they have to keep re-enacting it and drawing hapless tourists into it. If they could forget they would fade away. But they can't forget, or they won't forget, and they won't let themselves be forgotten. They get inside the narrator's head, too, which is more interesting than the cheesy horror genre in which the protagonists are always the same intrepid bunch of cartoon characters.

I don't know if they will yield anything more than that. I mean, basically they are still gimmicky, slight little stories. And the rain, when there's a lot of rain, makes me think of them.


At 6:58 AM, Anonymous Eleanor said...

"Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" is by M. R. James. Compelling - the shape in the bed.

You're so right about the underlying note being sadness, not violence.

Have you read 'Beyond Black' by Hilary Mantel?

At 9:33 PM, Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Our rainy season having just started, I wonder if the insistence of the watery element doesn't put us into a more suggestionable state. I certainly seem to have been put in one by your description of the weather, and then, after reading about the custard and nearly going off like one hypnotized to the kitchen in search of what I knew was not there, I found just your recounting of your reading of these tales quite spooky enough. And enlightening.

At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm writing a ghost story (novel) that takes place in the Northeast -- but I'm here in Los Angeles, as for the last 20-odd years. Gotta say, lack of writing atmosphere makes a difference. This is about the least haunted-feeling place in the world. Dripping eaves would make this all easier. Maybe I should rent a hunting cabin in Maine. Or do the Anne Rice thing and live in a planter's house covered in wisteria in the deep South somewhere.


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