The Humorous Ghost
Dorothy Scarborough, PhD, 1921
Lecturer in English at Columbia University, and author of the essay: The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction,* and editor of the anthropology: Famous Modern Ghost Stories.”
The essay below was printed in 1921 as the Introduction to the anthology G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, The Knickerbocker Press.
The humorous ghost is distinctly a modern character. In early literature wraiths took themselves very seriously, and insisted on a proper show of respectful fear on the part of those whom they honored by haunting. A mortal was expected to rise when a ghost entered the room, and in case he was slow about it, his spine gave notice of what etiquette demanded. In the event of outdoor apparition, if a man failed to bare his head in awe, the roots of his hair reminded him of his remissness. Woman has always had the advantage over man in such emergency, in that her locks, being long and pinned up, are less easily moved—which may explain the fact (if it be a fact!) that in fiction women have shown themselves more self-possessed in ghostly presence than men. Or possibly a woman knows that a masculine spook is, after all, only a man, and therefore may be charmed into helplessness, while the feminine can be seen through by another woman and thus disarmed. The majority of the comic apparitions, curiously enough, are masculine. You don’t often find women wraithed in smiles—perhaps because they resent being made ridiculous, even after they’re dead. Or maybe the reason lies in the fact that men have written most of the comic or satiric ghost stories, and have chivalrously spared the gentler shades. And there are very few funny child-ghosts—you might almost say none, in comparison with the number of grown-ups. The number of ghost children of any or all types is small proportionately—perhaps because it seems an unnatural thing for a child to die under any circumstances, while to make of him a butt for jokes would be unfeeling. There are a few instances, as in the case of the ghost baby mentioned later, but very few.
Ancient ghosts were a long-faced lot. They didn’t know how to play at all. They had been brought up in stern repression of frivolities as haunters—no matter how sportive they may have been in life—and in turn they cowed mortals into a servile submission. No doubt they thought of men and women as mere youngsters that must be taught their place, since any living person, however senile, would be thought juvenile compared with a timeless spook.
But in these days of individualism and radical liberalism, spooks as well as mortals are expanding their personalities and indulging in greater freedom. A ghost can call his shade his own now, and exhibit any mood he pleases. Even young female wraiths, demanding latchkeys, refuse to obey the frowning face of the clock, and engage in light-hearted ebullience to make the ghost of Mrs. Grundy turn a shade paler in horror. Nowadays haunters have more fun and freedom than the haunted. In fact, it’s money in one’s pocket these days to be dead, for ghosts have no rent problems, and dead men pay no bills. What officer would willingly pursue a ghostly tenant to his last lodging in order to serve summons on him? And suppose a ghost brought into court demanded trial by a jury of his peers? No—manifestly death has compensations not connected with the consolations of religion.
The marvel is that apparitions were so long in realizing their possibilities, in improving their advantages. The specters in classic and medieval literature were malarial, vaporous beings without energy to do anything but threaten, and mortals never would have trembled with fear at their frown if they had known how feeble they were. At best a revenant could only rattle a rusty skeleton, or shake a moldy shroud, or clank a chain—but as mortals cowered before his demonstrations, he didn’t worry. If he wished to evoke the extreme of anguish from his host, he raised a menacing arm and uttered a windy word or two. Now it takes more than that to produce a panic. The up-to-date ghost keeps his skeleton in a garage or some place where it is cleaned and oiled and kept in good working order. The modern wraith has sold his sheet to the old clo’es man, and dresses as in life. Now the ghost has learned to have a variety of good times, and he can make the living squirm far more satisfyingly than in the past. The spook of to-day enjoys making his haunted laugh even while he groans in terror. He knows that there’s no weapon, no threat, in horror, to be compared with ridicule.
Think what a solemn creature the Gothic ghost was! How little originality and initiative he showed and how dependent he was on his own atmosphere for thrills! His sole appeal was to the spinal column. The ghost of to-day touches the funny bone as well. He adds new horrors to being haunted, but new pleasures also. The modern specter can be a joyous creature on occasion, as he can be, when he wishes, fearsome beyond the dreams of classic or Gothic revenant. He has a keen sense of humor and loves a good joke on a mortal, while he can even enjoy one on himself. Though his fun is of comparatively recent origin—it’s less than a century since he learned to crack a smile—the laughing ghost is very much alive and sportively active. Some of these new spooks are notoriously good company. Many Americans there are to-day who would court being haunted by the captain and crew of Richard Middleton’s Ghost Ship that landed in a turnip field and dispensed drink till they demoralized the denizens of village and graveyard alike. After that show of spirits, the turnips in that field tasted of rum, long after the ghost ship had sailed away into the blue.
The modern spook is possessed not only of humor but of a caustic satire as well. His jest is likely to have more than one point to it, and he can haunt so insidiously, can make himself so at home in his host’s study or bedroom that a man actually welcomes a chat with him—only to find out too late that his human foibles have been mercilessly flayed. Pity the poor chap in H. C. Bunner’s story, The Interfering Spook, for instance, who was visited nightly by a specter that repeated to him all the silly and trite things he had said during the day, a ghost, moreover, that towered and swelled at every hackneyed phrase, till finally he filled the room and burst after the young man proposed to his admired one, and made subsequent remarks. Ghosts not only have appallingly long memories, but they possess a mean advantage over the living in that they have once been mortal, while the men and women they haunt haven’t yet been ghosts. Suppose each one of us were to be haunted by his own inane utterances? True, we’re told that we’ll have to give account Some Day for every idle word, but recording angels seem more sympathetic than a sneering ghost at one’s elbow. Ghosts can satirize more fittingly than anyone else the absurdities of certain psychic claims, as witness the delightful seriousness of the story Back from that Bourne, which appeared as a front page news story in the New York Sun years ago. I should think that some of the futile, laggard messenger-boy ghosts that one reads about nowadays would blush with shame before the wholesome raillery of the porgy fisherman.
The modern humorous ghost satirizes everything from the old-fashioned specter (he’s very fond of taking pot-shots at him) to the latest psychic manifestations. He laughs at ghosts that aren’t experts in efficiency haunting, and he has a lot of fun out of mortals for being scared of specters. He loves to shake the lugubrious terrors of the past before you, exposing their hollow futility, and he contrives to create new fears for you magically while you are laughing at him.
The new ghost hates conventionality and uses the old thrills only to show what dead batteries they come from. His really electrical effects are his own inventions. He needs no dungeon keeps and monkish cells to play about in—not he! He demands no rag nor bone nor clank of chain of his old equipment to start on his career. He can start up a moving picture show of his own, as in Ruth McEnery Stuart’s The Haunted Photograph, and demonstrate a new kind of apparition. The ghost story of to-day gives you spinal sensations with a difference, as in the immortal Transferred Ghost, by Frank R. Stockton, where the suitor on the moonlit porch, attempting to tell his fair one that he dotes on her, sees the ghost of her ferocious uncle (who isn’t dead!) kicking his heels against the railing, and hears his admonition that he’d better hurry up, as the live uncle is coming in sight. The thrill with which you read of the ghost in Ellis Parker Butler’s The Late John Wiggins, who deposits his wooden leg with the family he is haunting, on the plea that it is too materialistic to be worn with ease, and therefore they must take care of it for him, doesn’t altogether leave you even when you discover that the late John is a fraud, has never been a ghost nor used a wooden leg. But a terrifying leg-acy while you do believe in it!
The new ghost has a more nimble and versatile tongue as well as wit. In the older fiction and drama apparitions spoke seldom, and then merely as ghosts, not as individuals. And ghosts, like kings in drama, were of a dignity and must preserve it in their speech. Or perhaps the authors were doubtful as to the dialogue of shades, and compromised on a few stately ejaculations as being safely phantasmal speaking parts. But compare that usage with the rude freedom of some modern spooks, as John Kendrick Bangs’s spectral cook of Bangletop, who lets fall her h’s and twists grammar in a rare and diverting manner. For myself, I’d hate to be an old-fashioned ghost with no chance to keep up with the styles in slang. Think of having always—and always—to speak a dead language!
The humorous ghost is not only modern, but he is distinctively American. There are ghosts of all nationalities, naturally, but the spook that provides a joke—on his host or on himself—is Yankee in origin and development. The dry humor, the comic sense of the incongruous, the willingness to laugh at himself as at others, carry over into immaterialization as characteristic American qualities and are preserved in their true flavor. I don’t assert, of course, that Americans have been the only ones in this field. The French and English selections in this volume are sufficient to prove the contrary. Gautier’s The Mummy’s Foot has a humor of a lightness and grace as delicate as the princess’s little foot itself. There are various English stories of whimsical haunting, some of actual spooks and some of the hoax type. Hoax ghosts are fairly numerous in British as in American literature, one of the early specimens of the kind being The Specter of Tappington in the Ingoldsby Legends. The files of Blackwood’s Magazine reveal several examples, though not of high literary value.
Of the early specimens of the really amusing ghost that is an actual revenant is The Ghost Baby, in Blackwood’s, which shows originality and humor, yet is too diffuse for printing here. In that we have a conventional young bachelor, engaged to a charming girl, who is entangled in social complications and made to suffer mental torment because, without his consent, he has been chosen as the nurse and guardian of a ghost baby that cradles after him wherever he goes. This is a rich story almost spoiled by being poorly told. I sigh to think of the laughs that Frank R. Stockton or John Kendrick Bangs or Gelett Burgess could have got out of the situation. There are other comic British spooks, as in Baring-Gould’s A Happy Release, where a widow and a widower in love are haunted by the jealous ghosts of their respective spouses, till the phantom couple take a liking to each other and decide to let the living bury their dead. This is suggestive of Brander Matthews’s earlier and cleverer story of a spectral courtship, in The Rival Ghosts. Medieval and later literature gave us many instances of a love affair or marriage between one spirit and one mortal, but it remained for the modern American to celebrate the nuptials of two ghosts. Think of being married when you know that you and the other party are going to live ever after—whether happily or no! Truly, the present terrors are more fearsome than the old!
The stories by Eden Phillpotts and Richard Middleton in this collection show the diversity of the English humor as associated with apparitions, and are entertaining in themselves. The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde, is one of his best short stories and is in his happiest vein of laughing satire. This travesty on the conventional traditions of the wraith is preposterously delightful, one of the cleverest ghost stories in our language. Zangwill has written engagingly of spooks, with a laughable story about Samuel Johnson. And there are others. But the fact remains that in spite of conceded and admirable examples, the humorous ghost story is for the most part American in creation and spirit. Washington Irving might be said to have started that fashion in skeletons and shades, for he has given us various comic haunters, some real and some make-believe. Frank R. Stockton gave his to funny spooks with a riotous and laughing pen. The spirit in his Transferred Ghost is impudently deathless, and has called up a train of subsequent haunters. John Kendrick Bangs has made the darker regions seem comfortable and homelike for us, and has created ghosts so human and so funny that we look forward to being one—or more. We feel downright neighborly toward such specters as the futile “last ghost” Nelson Lloyd evokes for us, as we appreciate the satire of Rose O’Neill’s sophisticated wraith. The daring concept of Gelett Burgess’s Ghost Extinguisher is altogether American. The field is still comparatively limited, but a number of Americans have done distinctive work in it. The specter now wears motley instead of a shroud, and shakes his jester’s bells the while he rattles his bones. I dare any, however grouchy, reader to finish the stories in this volume without having a kindlier feeling toward ghosts!
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Humorous Ghost…..vii
The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde 3
The Ghost-Extinguisher, Gelett Burgess…..51
“Dey Ain’t No Ghosts”, Ellis Parker Butler…..69
The Transferred Ghost, Frank R. Stockton…..89
The Mummy’s Foot, Théophile Gautier…..109
The Rival Ghosts, Brander Matthews…..129
The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall, John Kendrick Bangs…..159
Back from that Bourne, Anonymous…..175
The Ghost-Ship, Richard Middleton…..187
The Transplanted Ghost, Wallace Irwin…..205
The Last Ghost in Harmony, Nelson Lloyd…..229
The Ghost of Miser Brimpson, Eden Phillpotts…..247
The Haunted Photograph, Ruth McEnery Stuart…..275
The Ghost that Got the Button, Will Adams…..295
The Specter Bridegroom, Washington Irving….315
The Specter of Tappington, Richard Barham….341
In the Barn, Burges Johnson…..385
A Shady Plot, Elsie Brown…..403
The Lady and the Ghost, Rose Cecil O’Neill…..425