The Floating Dead
A while back I was part of the cattle call for what became this article, and just found myself looking this email up as a student was coming to my office to talk about ghosts. So I figured it’d be good if I could see again what I think about them (I know nothing until I write it down, and then, because it’s written down, I don’t need to try to remember it). Anyway, couple of friends — Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay — got in the article, so all’s good and well. Except of course that there are ghosts. And this is how I talk about them:
If you write ghost fiction, why do you do so?
Yeah, I write them sometimes. Because they make the world magic. The premise under every ghost story is that there’s more to this world than we think we know. We’re not as alone as what we thought. Sure, after an encounter with this or that ghost, we might wish we were alone, but the thing to remember is that if there’s terrifying immaterial things like ghosts, then that’s wedging the door open, allowing all kinds of other stuff through as well. And some of it’s bound to be good. Maybe there’s a unicorn over there as well.
What appeals to you about the form?
I like the rational resistance characters — as our avatars — always initially have towards ghosts, and then their slow acceptance. That little arc of realization is inherently dramatic, is tailored for fiction. And then the question, it’s always What now?
Where do you draw the line between what is and isn’t a ghost story?
The line is always really between what is and isn’t in the character’s head, for me. And stories where each read works — where it’s both a ghost story and a guilt story, say — those are often the strongest. But, yeah, there are more lines. The Haunting of Hill House, say, that’s not, going by Hill’s definition, the leftover, immaterial part of a person. It’s more like evil permeating a place. A lot of the same surface characteristics as Henry James was playing with in his ghost stories, but the intent isn’t tied to a personality. So, most ghost stories do tend to be hauntings, but not all hauntings are ghost stories. Also, not all stories with ghosts in them are necessarily ghost stories. Hamlet, say. Ghosts are fun to us as expositional devices and plot economies — Rowling did it over and over in the Harry Potter series, yes? Always consulting the poltergeists about this or that. Ghosts are good as exposition because we can’t bind them by motivations we know — this ‘allows’ them to do whatever the writer needs at the moment — and they also, just because of what they are, can pop into any scene where you need them. The trick is just not to use them all the time.
Is it fair/appropriate/useful to categorize today’s ghost fiction as the postmodern era of the genre, and what does that really mean? In what way does it differ from earlier periods?
If it differs, it’s just in that funsy Scream way, where the writer, the reader, and the characters are all very aware of the genre fatigue going on. We all know the tropes of the story, are all formalists enough, by conditioning, that if X happens early on, in a Y setting, then we can guess at the Z coming in the third act. So what ghost stories nowadays need to do is to convince the reader that this is new, that this story doesn’t subscribe to the tried and true conventions. But then deliver those same conventions in such a way that the audience doesn’t see them coming. It’s not all easy, no, but it’s completely worthwhile. It’s why The Sixth Sense was the blockbuster it was.
What elements of the classic ghost story, e.g. those adhering to M.R. James’ “rules”, work and don’t today-and why?
The ‘familiar setting’ impetus is good, as then your ghost can be less fantastic and obviously ‘scary’ if it’s being contrasted with the mundane. If your setting is an alien carnival in 2150, though, you’re going to have to work harder to convince us this ghost doesn’t belong here. That transgression, that sense that ‘this shouldn’t be happening,’ that our world isn’t stable, that reality has holes, it’s vital to the ghost story. I would say also that it’s important nowadays that the ghost in the story have some reason for being back other than simply ”justice’ — the murdered kid from the well ‘haunting’ the new homeowners until his killer’s found, that kind of stuff. Because, first, we’ve seen that ten thousand times already, and, second, because then it imbues one ‘side’ in the story as right, the other as wrong, and at that point we know who’s going to win, and, like that, the tension’s gone. Uncertainty is what ghost stories are built upon. Don’t take that away.
Do ghost stories benefit from the absence of a fixed mythological means of dispatch-the silver bullet, the wooden stake, etc.-assuming that I’m right that there’s no equivalent for ghosts?
Outside of vacuum cleaners, there’s no bullet-to-the-brain for ghosts, you’re right. Though — there are certain classes of people who are invulnerable to ghosts, aren’t there? Adults, generally; it’s always the kids who commune with the floating dead. To be more specific: adults without issues that need working out, via interaction with this or that ghost. So, be boring, stay mentally fit. Don’t hit any kids late at night on a mountain road and then think you can go somewhere else for the winter, that everything’ll be better there.
Does that give a writer more freedom?
It does give the writer more freedom, but freedom on the page isn’t always a good thing, as, if the reader can’t go into the book with a sense of the boundaries of this world, then they’ll sometimes think you’re cheating your way around this or that story problem. So, when working with ghosts, it’s good to draw the lines early on, to establish somehow that this can happen, that can’t. Without rules binding a story, keeping a world real, you the writer don’t have to innovate that much. And, so long as it serves the story, readers appreciate innovation.
Is a first-person voice better suited for ghost stories than other supernatural fiction, and if so, why? Is it that often only one person can see the ghost?
What first person can bring to a ghost story on the page is the same thing not using quotation marks can bring to fiction: we don’t know for sure if that was out loud or just in the character’s head. We don’t know if the ghost is really there or if the character’s imagining all this. It’s less that first person is the natural angle or distance from which to tell a ghost story as it is that first person is the most economic voice — you’re writing one line, but it reads two ways, thus adding depth to the work. Up to a limit, of course. King’s recent “1922,” say, that’s about as good as it gets, balance-wise, without ever sacrificing the scare.
Do you distinguish between ghost stories and tales of possession?
Definitely. Sara Gran’s Come Closer, say, or Paranormal Activity, those are explicitly possession stories, even though they’re initially pretending to be haunted house stories. But demons, we always think we know their intent: to introduce more and more evil in the world. Ghosts, though — we could just be in The Orphanage, say, where the ghosts are startling and scary, sure, but they don’t want to introduce evil into the world. They’re just lonely and scared themselves.
Are ghost stories better-suited to short stories or novellas, or is that really dependent on the author’s skill?
The single scariest story I’ve ever read, be it short story or novella or novel, is Gene Wolf’s “A Fish Story.” Which goes maybe fifteen hundred words. And it’s a ghost story. And, yeah, of course Wolfe is tremendously talented, can maybe do more in three or four pages than most writers can in a novel, so skill level definitely counts, here. But, for most of us, we need longer to instill that sense of dread, of foreboding, of uncertainty. Because what you need is an initial encounter then a few false alarms, setting the reader up such that, right when we expect another cat in the closet, there’s The Woman in Black, say. And that takes some time, and space. A long short story, anyway. Unless you’re Gene Wolfe.
Is daylight horror possible in a ghost story?
Yeah. That old Disney movie The Watcher in the Woods, say? A lot of it’s daylit, as I recall. It could even be that ghosts in the daylight are scarier, as they’re suddenly out of the boundary we usually ascribe to them: the night, the shadows, where, in being only half-seen, we imagine the rest as even worse. If they can follow us to the donut shop too, though, then what hope do we ever have for peace?
If so, who has pulled that off?
Christopher Smith’s Triangle. And isn’t it daytime a lot for John Carpenter’s The Ghosts of Mars? Or maybe it’s always nighttime in space . . .
Have any been set in the future?
Event Horizon? Though really that’s a haunted place or ship — a haunted house, using the dead as devices that themselves have no real intent, are just a projection of the fears of the still-alive characters. I guess in a sense Charlton Heston was a ‘ghost’ for Planet of the Apes, yes?
Been science-fictional ghost stories?
Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, maybe. Though it’s tempting to read that as a haunted house story. I’m not completely sure his ‘wife’ in it exists outside his own thoroughly-probed mind.
Are contemporary writers mostly writing tales set in the present-day, as opposed to Victorian times?
I think the push is for contemporary settings, yeah, as it introduces uncertainty into our world, not some safe and removed world. John Langan’s House of Windows, say, which has a singularly terrifying ghost buried in it (with us), and refusing to say buried. But setting a ghost story back with Dickens is tempting, of course, as, like Beavis & Butthead, we suspect that everybody from the past is stupid, and, in the midst of stupid people who aren’t paying attention and don’t know the Ghostbusters song, all kinds of wrong stuff can happen.
Which contemporary writers in the genre do you respect and why? For which of their works?
To go with something with an apt title, how about Peter Straub, with Ghost Story? It’s about as scary as it gets. Though I always dig Neil Gaiman’s light touch with ghosts, too. Or with beings that are ghostly, anyway.
Can ghost stories flourish when there’s such an appetite for explicit gore in torture porn films?
Sure. Whenever the pendulum’s swung all the way one way, as it has with the torture porn trend, then there’s always people who don’t get on that bandwagon, who prefer the creepiness of The Others, or the atmospheric kind of horror that was popular before the special effects caught up. I think a lot of the audience prefers the psychological horror over the in-your-face visceral. Though why not satisfy both audiences? Lure us in with The Innocents, then give us some Dead Alive when we least expect it.
Subtlety seems to be less marketable-is it oversimple to call ghost stories less explicit than other horror?
It’s just that ghost stories are trying to pluck different strings in the audience, and the way to those strings, it’s through the head, not the gut. Which isn’t at all to say you can’t have subtle gore or explicit ghosts. Incubi are usually pretty graphic, yes? And of course Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a lot more suggestion than actual gore.
Is it right to label all of them horror?
If it instills a sense of dread in you, if it makes you plan ahead for that light-turning-off ritual before bedtime, then it’s horror, and that’s what you want, for the story to have changed you. You want to be unable to shake it. You want to lose sleep. It’s what you’re paying for. But, yeah, people find it in different places, of course. Beautiful Boy, say, that definitely instills dread, but it doesn’t use many of the conventions of horror. And maybe that’s one of the tricks to scaring a jaded but hungry audience: slip the scare into other genres, other modes. The trick, of course, it’s getting them to browse those shelves in the first place . . .
Susan Hill has stated that ghost stories are not tales of horror or terror — agree?
I don’t agree, no. Terror is what ghost stories trade in to make their point. Granted, it’s often a secondhand kind of terror that we recognize in the character instead of feeling ourselves, but by the time it gets to us and sets within us, it’s dread. And dread is so much more effective than terror.
What writer or writers do you think have or will do the most to get ghosts on a level with vampires and zombies?
I don’t think they ever will be, for the same reason werewolves, as cool as they are, will never become a fad: their scourge index is too low. Ghost stories (and werewolf stories) are always contained, be it to this house, this person, this town. With a zombie or vampire story, though, you can look out the second story window and see a mass of them coming over the horizon. That’s a high scourge index. A roiling wall of ghosts heading your way, though? Who cares. They’ll pass right through me. I haven’t done anything to them, so how can they do anything to me? Take that movie Darkness (2002), say. I saw it in a crowded theater, and, so long as there was one ghost in that doorway back there, we were all terrified. But then there’s a point where we see just a roomful of ghosts, and nearly everybody in that theater, they kind of laughed at the ridiculousness of it. This isn’t to say Darkness (the director’s cut) doesn’t instill some dread — it definitely does — just that many ghosts aren’t nearly as scary as a lone ghost. Same with The Descent, right? One cave crawler’s pretty bad. A horde of them, though, and it’s just a race to live, a Poseidon Adventure for spelunkers. Zombies and vampires, though, from I Am Legend to World War Z, they definitely get scarier as their population increases. A very high scourge index. And I think it has a lot do with that, instead of focusing on one person or one town, they just ravage, lay indiscriminate waste.
[ then it’s just junk about books I have coming out, all that ]