Three Types of Ghost Story

Hill Woman in BlackI’ve been reading a few ghost stories lately. Most recently Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (having already seen Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV film, and the recent Hammer version), though I found it wanting in a way I didn’t with, say, Dark Matter, or my recent re-read of The Turn of the Screw. Thinking about why this was has led to a little bit of theorising about three types of ghost stories and how they work. So here goes.

The first, and purest, type of ghost story revels entirely in the protagonist’s horror of the supernatural. To make it work, the ordinariness of both the protagonist and their everyday world has to be clearly established, so when the supernatural makes its appearance, it feels truly weird and frightening. In this type of ghost story, the ‘ghost’ doesn’t even have to be a ghost, in the sense of a undead human spirit. M R James’s stories are probably the best example of this type, and his ‘ghosts’ are more often demons or elementals — embodied curses or prohibitions — and when they are human, as in, for instance, ‘Number 13’ or ‘Count Magnus’, they’re often supernaturally-tinged sorcerers or necromancers. This type of ghost story is all about technique — the way the supernatural is hinted at, built up, and finally revealed. The only emotion required of the protagonist is terror; details of his or her inner life just get in the way. You don’t get a lot of human insight from M R James’s stories, but you do get a good ghost story.

The Woman from The Woman in Black

from Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black

The second type is as much about the protagonist’s horror at the display of human qualities, such as despair or sorrow, driven to such an extreme they’ve become supernatural. The Woman in Black is of this type. (The book is, anyway. I’d say the 2012 Hammer version, upping the cinematic shock value, turned the Woman into a far more demonic creature than she is in the book.) The bulk of conventional Victorian ghost stories are of this type, too. There, a ghost lingers beyond death because either it has been wronged, or has done wrong, and needs to set things right before it can move on. With The Woman in Black, there’s no longer that Victorian feeling of a moral order keeping certain dead souls from moving on till they’ve done what they’re supposed to; rather, it’s the Woman herself, so consumed by sorrow, anger and the need for revenge that she can’t pass on. The thing about this type of ghost story is that the protagonist is still looking on the ghost as something separate — as purely a horror. Things change slightly in the last chapter of The Woman in Black (the narrator comes to experience something of what made the Woman what she is) but not enough to take this story to the next type; the Woman is still seen as something exceptional and horrific, a twisted and rare form of human being, something to be pitied and feared, not empathised with.

The Haunting of Hill House coverThe third type is about how the protagonist’s own despair or sadness is brought to the fore by encounters with a ghost, until they experience it as a manifestation of their own inner world. The ghost still exists to embody (in a ghostly, disembodied way) supernaturally-distorted human qualities, but as much as the protagonist is haunted by the ghost, they’re haunted by something inside themselves too. The ghost and the protagonist’s inner life become entangled to the point where they’re indistinguishable. This is the type of story where the ghost needn’t exist at all — or it can exist in that Tzvetan Todorov hinterland where the story never makes it clear whether the ghost is a ‘real’ ghost or is just an externalisation of the protagonist’s own mental state. Listing examples, I find all my favourites: The Haunting of Hill House, The Influence, The Turn of the Screw.

It has to be said these three types have permeable walls. (Ghosts being ghosts, they’re not going to be stopped from wandering through walls anyway.) Jonathan Miller, after all, turned M R James’s ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ from a ghost story of the first type to the third, by emphasising how the basic character-type of so many of M R James’s protagonists (academic, reserved, distant and somewhat disapproving of lesser human beings) is exactly what makes them so vulnerable to the terror of an isolating ghostly visitation.

Woman in Black 2012Overall, I tend to like examples from the first and third types. The first work best as short stories — shocks work best when kept short. (Cinematic ghost stories, more and more, tend to be overlong examples of the first type, with nothing but shock after shock after shock. I ended up fast-forwarding much of the second half of the 2012 Woman in Black, searching for morsels of story, because I got bored of being supposedly shocked.) The third type mixes the supernatural with the psychological, which is how I prefer it, and this tends to be best when done at length, with plenty of build-up to establish both the protagonist’s psychology and the ‘normality’ of their world.

The trouble, for me, with the second type, is it’s basically disapproving. It’s about marking certain humans (undead ones, admittedly) as separate from ‘us’ (as represented by the protagonist and the rest of a quietly-ordered, functioning society). It seems to be saying that most of us don’t experience extremes of emotion, particularly negative emotion, so we can safely regard those who do as alien, other, horrific. But saying this is also saying that as soon as we experience such extremes, we have to regard ourselves as now separate, alienated, and horrific, too. This is perhaps a very English thing, where reserve and social propriety can make for a ridigly-defined norm, where extreme emotion is met with an embarrassment and disapproval close to horror — meaning you have to repress such emotions, to the point of being haunted by them. Perhaps that’s why the English write so many ghost stories.

Obsession by Ramsey Campbell

Obsession_photoI first read Obsession in the late 1980s, as part of my initial burst of Ramsey Campbell-consumption (not literal — I didn’t eat him), when I worked through a local bookshop’s stock of his titles, including those with the horrible photo covers he was blessed with at the time. (Obsession, in fact, had the worst — a woman’s clenched but impeccably-manicured hands covered in what seemed to be soap suds, or perhaps dried potato juice. The book has yet to gain the cover it deserves, I think.)

Obsession was published in 1985, and re-reading it, I was struck by how it in part recalls another book from the same time, King’s IT (1986). Both are about a group of kids from the late 1950s, and a past that comes back to get them in the 1980s. Rather than alternating between the present and the past as King does, Campbell’s novel opens in 1958, then makes a one-way leap to the present. There’s no element of nostalgia, or that whole ‘wonderful world of being a kid’ thing, as with King’s book. Obsession is tightly plotted psychological, perhaps-supernatural, thriller. (It’s a book that proves Campbell is as much a page-turner as a wordsmith.) But the major difference between the two books is their version of evil that the protagonists face.

In 1958, we learn how each of a group of four kids — Peter, Steve, Jimmy and (as with IT, a single girl) Robin — have one thing in their lives they want to be rid of. With Peter, it’s his nagging, controlling grandmother, recently moved in with the family and making everyone’s life a misery; with Steve, it’s a bullying teacher; with Jimmy, it’s his father’s gambling debts; with Robin, it’s a man who’s bothering her unmarried mother. Then Peter gets an anonymous letter offering to help. Writing back, he gets four forms:

“Most of each sheet was blank, not even bearing the box number. WHAT I MOST NEED IS, a line of typescript said, and left several inches of space before the dotted line above the words Without a signature this form is invalid. There was one more sentence. Your price, it said, is something which you do not value and which you may regain.

The four kids fill out the forms, which are instantly snatched away by the same sort of wind that tears the cursed strip of runic paper from Professor Harrington’s grasp in Night of the Demon. Then Jimmy’s dad wins the pools; the teacher who’s been bothering Steve has a heart attack; the man who’s been bothering Robin’s mother gets run over; Peter’s gran falls down the stairs…

obsessiontor86In 1983, things start to go wrong. Policeman Jimmy’s wife is caught in a serious accident, an accident that occurred in an abandoned property supposedly looked after by Steve’s father’s estate agency (where Steve himself works), and as a result the agency gets a bad name and starts losing business; Robin (now a doctor) is accused of dealing in drugs, mostly by her very difficult-to-live-with mother; and Peter hears his dead grandmother, then actually sees her…

But, despite the dead grandmother, who gets a few fright-moments, there’s no equivalent of Pennywise the Clown. The real source of evil isn’t the supernatural, so much as each of the four characters being caught in vice-like situations where only desperate acts seem able to free them. It’s the old saw of being careful what you wish for, or of getting something “for free” when in fact there’s a price, only not one you’d ever have agreed to. It’s in Campbell’s four very human characters, and their very human reactions to the trying situations they find themselves in, that the evil is found.

obsession_02There’s a case for saying Obsession has no supernatural element at all, despite those glimpses of Peter’s dead and dusty-eyed gran. Peter, after all, sustained a head-injury as a kid and still has powerful headaches. Plus, there’s his guilt at what he did (signing the forms being his idea). Like The Turn of the Screw, Obsession could fit into Tzvetan Todorov’s very narrow definition of “the fantastic”, to be applied only to those narratives where you can’t tell one way or the other if the supernatural is real or a delusion. (The Turn of the Screw is, I think, a very Campbellian tale, all about someone coming unravelled under both psychological and pseudo-supernatural pressures, and, as with so many of Campbell’s books, it’s about how this can lead an at-first “normal” adult to endanger the children in their care — as in, for instance, The Claw, Midnight Sun, and The House on Nazareth Hill.) One of Campbell’s characters even says: “I think the supernatural is just something people invent as an excuse for what they do or want to do themselves.”

At the end — right at the end, and only through a now-crazed, or at least highly-disturbed Peter’s eyes — there’s a glimpse that there may be something larger behind it all, but something surprising, and very much unlike Stephen King’s evil alien spider-thing:

“He’d never put a name to the originator of the forms and of all that had happened since, perhaps because he was afraid to do so, afraid to think he had signed a pact with something so evil as it had seemed to him. Yet what kind of evil was it that had shown him that giving in to temptation led to greater and greater suffering? Perhaps it was precisely the opposite of what he had assumed.”

(At one point in the novel, another character says, “If fear is taking the place of religion, so be it.”)

Obsession_ebookIn his afterword to the latest edition, Campbell calls the book (originally titled For the Rest of Their Lives, but changed by the publisher) “one of my earliest comedies of paranoia”, thus tying it in with other such Campbell novels as The Count of Eleven or The Grin of the Dark, or, come to think of it, just about all of his work. But here, the comedy is utterly straight-faced, and more a non-comedy of helpless despair than the sort of twisted slapstick of The Count of Eleven or, say, the weird Innsmouth-like runaround of his recent novella (like Obsession, set in a seaside town), The Last Revelation of Gla’aki.

In contrast to the other King novel I reviewed recently, Mr Mercedes, Campbell never disappoints when rendering a truly human evil. King’s “Mr Mercedes” is almost as much a monster as Pennywise the Clown: both are, ultimately, evil because that’s what they are, they’re evil. If Campbell’s characters are evil, it’s for the opposite reason — it’s because they’re human: weak, fallible, and caught in an awful situation, stuck in a nightmare logic that squeezes them till they pop. Obsession could be the purest example of this in Campbell’s oeuvre, an entirely situation-driven descent into four personally-tailored nightmares. It’s not one of his major novels, though I say that only because he’s written such good ones. Obsession’s still a nice little read.