We Came Back Haunted
Ernest Rhys, 1921
In my recent Ghost Book (The Haunters and the Haunted,1921), M. Larigot, himself a writer of supernatural tales, collected a remarkable batch of documents, fictive or real, describing the one human experience that is hardest to make good. Perhaps the very difficulty of it has rendered it more tempting to the writers who have dealt with the subject. His collection, notably varied and artfully chosen as it is, yet by no means exhausts the literature, which fills a place apart with its own recognised classics, magic masters, and dealers in the occult. Their testimony serves to show that the forms by which men and women are haunted are far more diverse and subtle than we knew. So much so, that one begins to wonder at last if every person is not liable to be “possessed.” For, lurking under the seeming identity of these visitations, the dramatic differences of their entrances and appearances, night and day, are so marked as to suggest that the experience is, given the fit temperament and occasion, inevitable.
One would even be disposed, accepting this idea, to bring into the account, as valid, stories and pieces of literature not usually accounted part of the ghostly canon. There are the novels and tales whose argument is the tragedy of a haunted mind. Such are Dickens’ Haunted Man, in which the ghost is memory; Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, in which the ghost is cruel conscience; and Balzac’s Quest of the Absolute, in which the old Flemish house of Balthasar Claes, in the Rue de Paris at Douai, is haunted by a dæmon more potent than that of Canidia. One might add some of Balzac’s shorter stories, among them “The Elixir”; and some of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, including “Edward Randolph’s Portrait.” On the French side we might note too that terrible graveyard tale of Guy de Maupassant, La Morte, in which the lover who has lost his beloved keeps vigil at her grave by night in his despair, and sees—dreadful resurrection—“que toutes les tombes étaient ouvertes, et tous les cadavres en étaient sortis.” And why? That they might efface the lying legends inscribed on their tombs, and replace them with the actual truth. Villiers de l’Isle Adam has in his Contes Cruels given us the strange story of Véra, which may be read as a companion study to La Morte, with another recall from the dead to end a lover’s obsession. Nature and supernature cross in de l’Isle Adam’s mystical drama Axël—a play which will never hold the stage, masterly attempt as it is to dramatise the inexplainable mystery.
Among later tales ought to be reckoned Edith Wharton’s Tales of Men and Ghosts, and Henry James’s The Two Magics, whose “Turn of the Screw” gives us new instances of the evil genii that haunt mortals, in this case two innocent children. One remembers sundry folk-tales with the same motive—of children bewitched or forespoken—inspiring them. And an old charm in Orkney which used to run:
“Father, Son, Holy Ghost!
Bitten sall they be,
Bairn, wha have bitten thee!
Care to their black vein,
Till thou hast thy health again!
Mend thou in God’s name!”
John Aubrey in his Miscellanies has many naïve evidences of the twilight region of consciousness, like that between wake and sleep, which tends to fade when we are wide awake; so much so, that we call it visionary. Yet it is very real to the haunted folk, to Aubrey’s correspondent, the Rector of Chedzoy, or to the false love of the Demon Lover, or that Mr Bourne of whom Glanvil tells in The Iron Chest of Durley, or the Bishop Evodius who was St Augustine’s friend, or for that matter the son of Monica himself. The reality of these visitations may seem dim, but the most sceptical of us cannot doubt that, whether from some quickened fear of death or impending disaster, from evil conscience or swift intensification of vision; whether in the forms of beloved sons lost at sea or of other revenants who were held indispensably dear in life, the haunters have appeared, to the absolute belief of those who saw them or their simulacra.
“It poseth me,” said Richard Baxter, “to think of what kind these visitants are. Do good spirits dwell then so near us, or are they sent on such messages?” The question, indeed, poseth most of us, but we cannot leave the inquiry alone. M. Larigot, realising this preoccupation, has in the course of his investigations, during many years, arrived at the conclusion that there is an Art of the Supernatural, apart from the difficult science of psychical research, worth cultivating for its own sake. So he has gone to Glanvil and Arise Evans and the credulous old books—to Edgar Poe and Lord Lytton and the modern writers who tell supernatural tales. He gives us their material without positing its unquestionable effect as police-court evidence, and if we recognise its artistic interest, he does not mind much if we say at last with one great visionary, “Hoc est illusionum.” But into those realms of illusion we ought not, if he is right, to enter lightly. Those who do enter there are warned that, having done so, they will not remain the same; they become aware of what Eugenius meant, who said:
“I am unbody’d by thy Books, and Thee,
And in thy papers find my Extasie;
Or if I please but to descend a strain,
Thy Elements do screen my Soul again.
I can undress myself by thy bright Glass,
And then resume th’ Inclosure, as I was.
Now I am Earth, and now a Star, and then
A Spirit: now a Star, and earth again…
We see that there is another aspect to the occultation of Orion, and a very ominous one. Aurelius appeared to St Augustine and made clear a dark passage to him in his reading, and that great Divine and Father of the Church knew it to be an enlightenment from above. But what of the other visitants from regions that are unblessed? Paracelsus has taught us to be careful in our dealings with the realities and the phantasies, as he would conceive them, of the other world; for “under the Earth do wander half-men.” And there are other and worse manifestations due to Black Magic or Nigromancy, and to the black witches and white and the false sorcerers who have violently intruded into the true mystery—“like swine broken into a delicate Garden.” Against these subtle and powerful magicians no weapons, coats of mail, or brigandines will help, no shutting of doors or locks; for they penetrate through all things, and all things are open to them.
Writing as a physician, Paracelsus sought to anticipate by his Celestial Medicine and his Twelve Signs the whole mystery of healing, and the cure of the troubled souls and bodies of men and women, which are not accorded but at odds with nature and supernature. The spirits of discord are indeed always with us; and whether you see them as witches, disguised in the living human form, or as monstrous and terrifying dream-figures, or as floating impalpable atmospheres, they are vigilantly to be guarded against. We know
“Vervain and dill
Hinders witches from their will!”
in the old herbals; but we need new drugs. As for that witch which hath haunted all of us, “Maladicta,” Lilly in his Astrology has a remedy. “Take unguentum populeum, and Vervain and Hypericon, and put a redhot iron into it: You must anoint the back-bone, or wear it in your breast.”
The haunting apparitions are not all of earth. Cornelius Agrippa, in his book of the Secret Doctrine, shows that they are astral too. The familiar spirits of Mars, in his account, are no lovelier than Macbeth’s witches:—“They appear in a tall body, cholerick, a filthy countenance, of colour brown, swarthy or red, having horns, like Harts’ Horns, and gryphon’s claws, and bellowing like wild Bulls.”
But the spirits of Mercury are delightful. They indeed are “of colour clear and bright, like unto a knight armed,—and the motion of them is as it were silver-coloured clouds.” So, if Mars has troubled the world, as in the unhappy history of our own time, we must hope for the brighter forms, and the remedial and aerial messengers of Mercury.
We may seem to have strayed from the proper boundaries in going so far. But it is one of the offices of this book to widen the area of research, and relate the ghost-story anew to the whole literature of wonder and imagination. Such sagas as that which Dr Douglas Hyde has translated with consummate art from the Irish, “Teig O’Kane and the Corpse,” which Mr W. B. Yeats called a little masterpiece; or Boccaccio’s story of the spectre-hounds that pulled down the daughter of Anastasio, or Scott’s “Wandering Willie’s Tale,” or Hawker’s “Cruel Coppinger,” or Edgar Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” are of their kind not to be beaten. And in their own way some of the later records are as telling. One can take the book as a text-book of the supernatural, or as a story-book of that middle world which has given us the ghosts that Homer and Shakespeare conjured up.
– From the Introduction to The Haunters and the Haunted, ed. by Ernest Rhys, 1921