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)

We Came Back Haunted: An Essay on the Ghostly by Ernest Rhys (1921)

We Came Back Haunted

Ernest Rhys, 1921


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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 GHSTSGRBXN1937and 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!”

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“The Fascination of the Ghost Story” by Arthur B. Reeve, 1919

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The Fascination of the Ghost Story

An Essay by Arthur B. Reeve, 1919


What is the fascination we feel for the mystery of the ghost story?

Is it of the same nature as the fascination which we feel for the mystery of the detective story?

Of the latter fascination, the late Paul Armstrong used to say that it was because we are all as full of crime as Sing Sing–only we don’t dare.

Thus, may I ask, are we not fascinated by the ghost story because, no matter what may be the scientific or skeptical bent of our minds, in our inmost souls, secretly perhaps, we are as full of superstition as an obeah man–only we don’t let it loose?

Who shall say that he is able to fling off lightly the inheritance of countless ages of superstition? Is there not a streak of superstition in us all? We laugh at the voodoo worshiper–then create our own hoodooes, our pet obsessions.

It has been said that man is incurably religious, that if all religions were blotted out, man would create a new religion.

Man is incurably fascinated by the mysterious. If all the ghost stories of the ages were blotted out, man would invent new ones.

For, do we not all stand in awe of that which we cannot explain, of that which, if it be not in our own experience, is certainly recorded in the experience of others, of that of which we know and can know nothing?

Although one may be of the occult, he must needs be interested in things that others believe to be objective–that certainly are subjectively very real to them.

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“The Psychic in Literature” by Dorothy Scarborough, PhD, 1920

 

The Psychic in Literature

Dorothy Scarborough, PhD

War, that relentless disturber of boundaries and of traditions in a spiritual as well as a material sense, has brought a tremendous revival of interest in the life after death and the possibility of communication between the living and the dead. As France became nearer to millions over here because our soldiers lived there for a few months, as French soil will forever be holy ground because our dead rest there, so the far country of the soul likewise seems nearer because of those young adventurers. The conflict which changed the map of Europe has in the minds of many effaced the boundaries between this world and the world beyond. Winifred Kirkland, in her book, The New Death, discusses the new concept of death, and the change in our standards that it is making. “We are used to speaking of this or that friend’s philosophy of life; the time has now come when every one of us who is to live at peace with his own brain must possess also a philosophy of death.” This New Death, she says, is so far mainly an immense yearning receptivity, an unprecedented humility of brain and of heart toward all implications of survival. She believes that it is an influence which is entering the lives of the people as a whole, not a movement of the intellectuals, nor the result of psychical research propaganda, but arising from the simple, elemental emotions of the soul, from human love and longing for reassurance of continued life.

“If a man die, shall he live again?” has been propounded ever since Job’s agonized inquiry. Now numbers are asking in addition, “Can we have communication with the dead?” Science, long derisive, is sympathetic to the questioning, and while many believe and many doubt, the subject is one that interests more people than ever before. Professor James Hyslop, Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research, believes that the war has had great influence in arousing new interest in psychical subjects and that tremendous spiritual discoveries may come from it.

Literature, always a little ahead of life, or at least in advance of general thinking, has in the more recent years been acutely conscious of this new influence. Poetry, the drama, the novel, the short story, have given affirmative answer to the question of the soul’s survival after death. No other element has so largely entered into the tissue of recent literature as has the supernatural, which now we meet in all forms in the writings of all lands. And no aspect of the ghostly art is more impressive or more widely used than the introduction of the spirit of the dead seeking to manifest itself to the living. No thoughtful person can fail to be interested in a theme which has so affected literature as has the ghostly, even though he may disbelieve what the Psychical Researchers hold to be established.

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Vintage “Horror Lit”: The Supernatural in Modern Literature by Dr. Dorothy Scarborough, 1927

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Table of Contents

I • The Gothic Romance, 6Untitled

II • Later Influences, 54

III • Modern Ghosts, 81

IV • The Devil and His Allies, 130

V • Supernatural Life, 174

VI • The Supernatural in Folk Tales, 242

VII • Supernatural Science, 251

VIII • Conclusion, 281

ghost-stories-famous-modern-ghost-stories_-humorous-ghost-stories_-the-supernatural-in-modern-fiction_7040348About Dr. Scarborough

Dorothy Scarborough, PhD was a professor of English, a novelist, and a respected folklorist. She called herself a “song catcher.” She believed radio threatened the survival of folk songs, and she traveled around the Appalachian Mountains recording centuries-old ballads with a hand-powered Dictaphone. She collected as many of these songs as she could before those who sang them died¹. Scarborough believed these folksongs told stories about a community’s values and its collective history.

Novelist, folklorist, a catcher of songs, this conscientious, brilliant woman has left a legacy of great literary value; but, perhaps, her most enduring and valuable work, was her work recording the oral history of songs from America’s regional cultures and, in doing so, preserving the creative expressions of ordinary people from times past.

¹https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wind_(novel)Untitled

Michael Wehunt, the Author, His Stories, & the Sexy Cover of His New Novella: The Tired Sounds, A Wake…

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Michael Wehunt is among my Top 5 favorite writers of creepy supernatural, horror, dark fantasy—whatever you want to call it—-fiction. I am extremely choosy when it comes to reading in general, and especially this area of fiction.

Read Wehunt. His prose is sophisticated and his horrors can be subtle, even beautiful…but they are unsettling and always frightening.

Here are some links that will help you get to know this writer better. And buy his book of stories Greener Pastures, and this new novella coming soon, you’ll be glad you did.

– SW

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Books and Stories by Michael Wehunt can be found here:

https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Wehunt/e/B00BTLSUJW

The author’s website:

http://www.michaelwehunt.com

One of my favorite Michael Wehunt stories:

Read “Birds of Lancaster, Lairamore, Lovejoy”, here…

Another great story selected for Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, 2016 anthology:

Read “The Devil Under the Maison Blue”, here…

A couple other free Wehunt stories:

Read “Bookends” here…

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Cicada Lullaby by Linda Saboe, Illustration for “Bookends” by Michael Wehunt.

Read “True Life, 50 Miles, here…

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Art by Will Sullivan, Illustration for “True Life 50 Miles” by Michael Wehunt.

Wehunt Miscellany: reviews, interviews:

Read This Is Horror’s review of Michael’s creepy story collection, Greener Pastures, here…

Read the Michael’s interview over at hthe Ginger Nuts of Horror, here…

Read Haunted Omnibus’ review of Greener Pastures, here…

Reblog: The Lovecraftian stories of Stephen King

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Click the link for a list of Stephen King’s Lovecraftian short stories and novels!

Source: The Lovecraftian stories of Stephen King