5 Things – This is Halloween edition

The Jack O’ Lantern is carved. The lentil soup and roast sweet potatoes are cooking. Time to post a few things I’ve been saving for Halloween.

Ada Calhoun, The Sisters Who Spoke to Spirits

The spirits are the least disturbing thing in this essay about the Fox sisters, whose table-rapping ways kicked off the phenomenal popularity of Spiritualism in the nineteenth century. So much weirdness here.

Documentary, Ghosts on the Underground (2006)

This documentary about spooky experiences on the London Underground terrified me when I first saw it several years ago. I hunted it down last year for a Halloween watch with my partner and was pleased to find it just as creepy as I remembered.

Roger Clarke, A Natural History of Ghosts, 500 Years of Hunting for Proof

Roger Clarke’s book is an enjoyable ramble around the last five hundred years of belief in ghosts. Most of the hauntings get debunked, but what they reveal about social history and the psychology of the people involved is fascinating.

M.R. James, ‘Oh, whistle, and I’ll come to you, my lad’ and ‘A Warning to the Curious

I love the ghost stories of M.R. James and re-read them all every few years, but I think these two are my favourites. They have given me a life-long dislike of sleeping in twin-bedded hotel rooms and walking along misty beaches on my own, but I feel they are worth it.

Vitamin String Quartet, This is Halloween

Just a great cover of a great song.

The Children in the Road: Living With My Father’s Ghosts

This is the first story that I can remember my father telling me about the ghosts.  He was driving home late one night from a duty call when the headlights of his car illuminated two children standing by the side of the road. They appeared to be a boy and a girl, around six and eight years old. My father pulled over quickly and stopped the car. He got out and walked back for another look, but there was no sign of the children. He told me that he’d asked around afterwards and heard that other people had seen the same two children on that stretch of road at night.

The children in the road were soon joined by other ghosts. There was the man my father saw running across the motorway, only to vanish when he reached the central reservation. He saw that man at least twice. There were the strange feelings he would get on family trips to old churches, cemeteries and stately homes: “There’s something in that corner, over by the stairs”.  Some cemeteries were “quiet”, others, less so. One of the experiences I remember most vividly occurred on a holiday in Scotland when I was around fifteen. We visited a ruined castle. As we wandered around the empty rooms, my father turned pale and said that he had to sit down. Later, he told us that he’d been overwhelmed by feelings of grief and loss and had an impression of children crying for their father.

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M. R. James, Count Magnus and Other Stories

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 and died in 1936.  He was a well-regarded scholar of medieval manuscripts and early Christianity at Cambridge University, but is now remembered for the ghost stories that he started writing in the 1890s as a hobby and an amusement for his friends and students. They are still considered to be among the most terrifying stories ever written.

My mother loves M. R James, so I’ve been aware of him for about as long as I can remember and have read his collected stories through at least three times. I recently acquired Penguin’s new 2 volume annotated edition of the stories and decided to give them a re-read.

Reading an M. R James ghost story goes something like this: a repressed, middle-aged male scholar/antiquarian goes delving around in something he probably shouldn’t. The story bumbles along pleasantly enough for quite a few pages, then something a bit creepy happens, then something a bit more creepy happens, and then oh. my. God. Aaaargh! Well, for me anyway.

James is very influenced by the great Victorian, Anglo-Irish writer of gothic and supernatural tales, Sheridan Le Fanu.  His stories have a similarly elegant, understated use of language and a gradual sense of slow-building terror.  But James exceeds even Le Fanu as an absolute master of ‘the uncanny‘, that is, the sense that something that should have remained repressed has come to light.  He draws on the Gothic tradition in basing his stories on an eruption of the past into the present in such a way as to defamiliarise the present.  He works a lot with defamiliarisation, the feeling that something’s a bit off with the world: a picture that seems to have a figure where it didn’t before, a room that looks smaller at night than it does by day, a figure in the distance that isn’t moving quite right:

There was something about its motion that made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.  It would stop, raise arms, bow itself towards the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the waters edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, p, 91.

His ghosts are material creatures; they threaten and sometimes manage to touch, grab, injure and even kill his protagonists.

Count Magnus and Other Stories contains fifteen of his most famous stories.  I would say that the best ones are ‘Lost Hearts’, ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘Number 13’, the famous ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, My Lad’, and ‘Casting the Runes’.   These stories are about as good as ghost stories have ever been, but almost all of the tales collected here contain moments of brilliance.  ‘Count Magnus’, a story which I thought one of his weaker ones, gave me a nightmare after reading it, and ‘The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral’ manages to make the simple line, ‘There is no kitchen cat’, pants-wettingly scary.

In terms of more serious critical issues, from a feminist perspective there is the lack of women in the stories.  In fact there are more women in the stories than I remembered, but it’s the way they’re positioned that makes them seem absent.  There are also class issues as many of the stories show a disdain for working-class people.  Some hint at very dark meanings; reading ‘Lost Hearts’ again, a tale about a man who harms children to service his selfish desires, this time I saw in it a repressed story about paedophilia.  It’s not that I think James intended that meaning, but the language of the text can produce it for us now.

James is not really spring or summer reading so I probably won’t get around to the second volume The Haunted Dolls House and Other Stories until the autumn now.

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (2009)

Dr Faraday, a lonely, unmarried, middle-aged, country GP becomes involved with the family up at crumbling Hundreds Hall where his mother once worked as a servant. This house impressed him deeply when he was a little boy, but since then the family has diminished into genteel poverty – the household now consisting of flighty Mrs Ayres, her plain, spinster daughter, Caroline, her injured war veteran son, Roddy (who has had some kind of nervous breakdown in the recent past) and a couple of servants.  As Faraday allows himself to become emotionally entangled with this family, mysterious and increasingly terrifying occurrences begin to plague their lives at Hundreds Hall.

I got the impression that lesbian readers were divided by The Little Stranger into ‘loved it’ and ‘indifferent to it’ camps.  This is not very surprising since it’s the first of Waters’s novels not to feature a lesbian relationship, or a self-identified lesbian character.  The style of writing builds on Affinity and The Night Watch, becoming even more understated, cool and precise, and even more of a slow-burn than those novels.  So if you prefer the fast-paced romping style of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, The Little Stranger may disappoint.

I absolutely loved it though, reading most of it during one train journey to Manchester and finishing it on the way back.  But my enjoyment may have less to do with loyalty to Waters than the fact that I love the kind of Gothic writing she draws on in this novel, the ‘really about what haunts society’ tradition of ghost stories.  The cool, but terrifying, ghost stories of M.R. James are clearly an influence here, as well as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I don’t know if she’s read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but that feels like an American cousin of The Little Stranger.

The ghost haunting The Little Stranger is the ghost of class resentment, the trauma of war and the post-war shift in the position of women.  You may find the strange, ambiguous (as well as very sad) ending frustrating if you like things tied up, but I enjoy that sort of thing, and it goes with the territory in the kind of tradition Waters is writing in.

Also, it’s the first Sarah Waters novel that I could allow my mother to read.

Hilary Mantel wrote a very good review in the Guardian.