Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Ghost stories

In the literature of classical Greece and Rome, it is the living who visit the dead, not the other way round. Odysseus, with the help of Circe, raises the dead and converses with them. Homer’s description of their appearance, after the sacrifice has been performed according to the witch’s instructions, reads in Chapman’s translation like a scene from a horror film.

Out gush’d the sable blood,
And round about me fled out of the flood
The souls of the deceas’d.

Virgil takes Aeneas down to the underworld where, in C.Day Lewis’s translation, he is challenged on the banks of the Styx by the ferryman.

Halt there! Keep your distance, and tell me why you are come!
This is the land of ghosts, of sleep and somnolent night:
The living are not permitted to use the Stygian ferry.

Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, tells how Orpheus tries to persuade the gods to postdate, as it were, Eurydice’s death, and let him take her back to the land of the living. They grant his wish, charmed by his music, but impose a condition which, surely, they know will be broken, because the gods know everything. The eighteenth century translation produced by Sir Samuel Garth, to which several famous names contributed, among them Dryden, Pope, Addison, Congreve and Gay, paints a vivid picture of the loving couple’s ascent from hell and their poignant parting.

They well-nigh now had pass’d the bounds of night,
And just approach’d the margin of the light,
When he, mistrusting lest her steps might stray,
And gladsome of the glympse of dawning day,
His longing eyes, impatient, backward cast
To catch a lover’s look, but look’d his last;
For, instant dying, she again descends,
While he to empty air his arms extends.

Next to visit the underworld was Dante. His Inferno is a medieval torture chamber from which Virgil holds himself aloof. Ancient Roman vices cannot compare with those of fourteenth century Florence. Dante is horrified, disgusted, angry, but not afraid. The dead, suffering in hell, are a warning to the living, not a threat.

In Shakespeare’s world, the traffic between the living and the dead goes the other way. The dead come back unbidden to haunt the living. In Hamlet and Macbeth Shakespeare gave us the two most famous ghosts in English literature, with the possible exception of the ghosts of Christmases past, present and still to come.

He also gave future writers two types of apparition, the silent ghost and the talkative ghost, each having a different narrative function. (Dickens uses them both.) The ghost in Hamlet describes at length his present torment in hell and the unnatural horror of his murder. Banquo’s ghost speaks not at all, unseen by any but Macbeth. The function of the former is to relate past events, of the latter to reveal inner torment. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to understand what is going on in Macbeth’s mind when he sees, or thinks he sees, the ghost of Banquo, or in Hamlet’s when his father’s ghost tells him what he already knew. (Nor, for that matter, in Scrooge’s when the ghost shows him his own grave.)

The hey-day of the ghost story in English literature was the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. Like any other literary movement it was a product of its time. A time of séances, table turning, fortune telling, levitation and automatic writing. An age of materialism that found escape in spiritualism. The Empire was a treasure trove of mystery and magic, with tales of fakirs and djinns, holy men and snake charmers, magic carpets and opium dens. You do have to believe in ghosts to enjoy an old-fashioned British ghost story.

Roald Dahl, in the introduction to Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, admits that very few of the stories he read in making his selection passed muster. Most of them, he says, ‘were trivial, poorly written and not in the least spooky.’ But perhaps the fault was in the reader as much as the writer. With ghost stories, a willing suspension of disbelief is not enough. You have to believe. ‘Some of the worst ones,’ he goes on, ‘were written by the most famous writers. I couldn’t believe how bad they were.’ M.R.James, reputed master of the genre, must have been one of them. To the modern reader, his stories are not in the least spooky. If you don’t want to be scared, you won’t be. If you do, M.R.James is for you.

Ghost stories are something that writers like to try their hand at. Roald Dahl confesses to having tried and failed himself. ‘Once I thought I had done it. But when it was finished and I examined it carefully, I knew it wasn’t good enough. I hadn’t brought it off. I simply hadn’t got the secret. So finally I altered the ending and made it into a non-ghost story.’

When table rappers were exposed as frauds, the ghost story became a dead letter. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice though will never lose its meaning or its appeal. There is an echo of it in Charles Causley’s poem, To My Father, in which he yearns, not to bring his father back from the dead, but to join him. He imagines seeing him in his dreams and, in the last three lines, evokes as powerfully as Ovid does in his poem, what it is that binds the living to the dead. Not fear, but love.

I speak his name. He never seems to hear.
I know that one day he must stop and turn
His face to me. Wait for me, father. Wait.

That sends shivers down my spine every time I read it.

homer 01

My next literary essay, due on 11 December, is TWO POEMS.

The next entry in my READER’S DIARY is due on 4 December and will be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.

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This entry was posted on November 27, 2013 by in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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