On Ghost Stories…a Modern Take?

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Illustration, ca. 1800s, by “Labeauce”. (Pinterest)

From a New Yorker interview with writer John Lanchester…

“I wanted to catch the way phones and their uses (and misuses) have become something people genuinely do think about for hours a day.” – John Lanchester

Here is a link to John Lanchester’s ghost story, “Signal”, at the New Yorker…

https://thesanguinewoods.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/signal-a-ghost-story-by-john-lanchester-the-new-yorker-2017/

‘Your story in this week’s issue, “Signal,” (see March 27, 2017 issue of The New Yorker) is set at an English country-house party over New Year’s Eve. It’s a very twenty-first-century country-house party—the host, an old college friend of the narrator’s, is some kind of finance gazillionaire (“the kind of rich that even other people who were rich considered rich”), rather than an earl. When did you first think about using this kind of gathering as the setting for a story, and how interested were you in its contemporary trappings?

A thematic element in fiction, for me, anyway, often comes from an impulse which was in the first instance structural. Here, the contemporary setting was necessary because the story was, right from the start, about the image of a strange man wandering around the halls of a big country house looking for a cell-phone signal—and then you realize that the man isn’t a man at all . . . So it had to be set here and now, to account for the fact that it all turns on cell phones. The contemporary details really grew from that, and as a kind of misdirection, because they lead the reader to think it’s one kind of story but then it turns into something else.

The narrator is there with his wife and two children, ages nine and seven. The house seems to offer everything someone seeking entertainment might want—a home cinema, a video-game room and a retro-gaming room, a swimming pool. The one thing it doesn’t have is a reliable Internet connection, leaving guests to wander, phones in hand, in search of a spot where the Wi-Fi actually works. Why did you want to write about phone signals?

Because phones and their trappings—and a signal is the most important trapping—are so central to modern life. You see different figures for it, but the consensus seems to be that smartphone users in the developed world spend around three hours a day using their phone! I’ve also noticed that nothing makes people more obsessed with their phone connectivity than when it is almost working but not really working properly. It’s like a bad relationship: the ones which really make people go crazy are the ones with people who are sometimes there, sometimes not. I wanted to catch the way phones and their uses (and misuses) have become something people genuinely do think about for hours a day.

You recently published a piece in the London Review of Books looking at advances in mobile technology. You observe, “Smartphones have also had an extraordinary impact on behavioural norms. In between the first two paragraphs of this piece, I went out to get a coffee. There were ten people in the café and nine of them were on their phones, undertaking activities which, a decade ago, didn’t exist, or did exist but couldn’t be done over the internet. Not one of them was reading a book or a newspaper or talking to anyone physically present. This is the case everywhere you go, everywhere you look: people with their heads down over the phones. I wonder if any technology in the history of the world has ever changed how people behave in public as fast as these devices have?” Did you notice how your own behavior changed over the last few years? Can you imagine going back to life without a smartphone?

I’d like to pretend to be all Olympian and above it, as if this is a phenomenon I’m observing from a great height, nothing to do with my own behavior at all—but the fact is I’m absolutely one of those people in the café staring at my phone. I think smartphones are one of humanity’s most remarkable creations: computers are amazing enough, but a supercomputer you can carry in your pocket and communicate instantly with anyone, anywhere . . . it’s no wonder they’re troublingly addictive. I’m trying to scale back and use mine only for tasks that are in some sense practical. I’m also trying to consume my news in the form of newsprint, where someone has made choices about what matters and what doesn’t, and you don’t just disappear down a hole of endless clicking. For a while I had a rule of no smartphone in bed but now I’ve upgraded to no smartphone in the bedroom. The fact that we need rules shows how much these things have invaded our lives.

In the story, a mysterious tall man, who is never without his phone, appears to take too close an interest in the narrator’s children. The narrator worries that he’s been filming them—the man, he fears, has been behaving “inappropriately.” How menacing a figure do you want the tall man to be?

Gradually more menacing as the story goes on, and ending by being properly scary. I read a draft of the story to my family and their main comment was to make him scarier, so I did. I’d like to note, though, that from his own perspective, he is a sad, maybe even a benign figure, helping the children, trying to get in touch with them. It’s not the fault of ghosts that we are so frightened of them.

At the end of the story, the mystery—a tragic one—is revealed, and it becomes clear that we’ve been reading a ghost story. Is this the first ghost story you’ve written?

Not just the first ghost story but the first short story I’ve ever written. I’ve had short fiction published before, including in this magazine, but it was cut down from longer work. I love short stories but I’ve never had the impulse to write one. Same for ghost stories. The starting point for this came from a visit to friends years ago, which was unlike the one in the story in every respect. It did give me the idea, though, to write about a house party in which one of the guests wasn’t who he seemed to be. We were visiting the same friends five years later, and I suddenly thought, I know, I’ll write that story and read it out loud on New Year’s Day, as a kind of entertainment—so that’s what I did.

Did you model it on any other stories? Are there any you’d recommend to readers?

No model as such, but I love the atmosphere of classic ghost stories, especially those of M. R. James, the provost of King’s College Cambridge, and then of Eton, who used to read them aloud to gatherings of friends and colleagues on Christmas Eve. (That’s where I got the idea of reading it aloud.) He’s very good at depicting a particular kind of psychological repression which builds slowly into something genuinely frightening. A great one to begin with is “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” which was made into an extraordinarily powerful short black-and-white film by the BBC in the sixties—I highly recommend both the story and the film (which you can find on YouTube). The greatest ghost story in the language is Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” but recommending that is like recommending “Hamlet”; all I’d say is that if you haven’t read it, do. These two stories were published in 1904 and 1898, respectively: it was obviously a good moment for the supernatural sublime.’

(The New Yorker)

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