Bewildering Stories discusses...
What Is a Ghost?
with Jeffrey M. Greene
The Picker Boy appears in this issue.
[J. M. Greene] How does one tell a modern ghost story? I’ve attempted several times over the years — I love ghost stories! — with varying success. The best ghost stories subtly suggest rather than insist and are never literal, leaving the reader with an uneasy feeling of ambiguity.
Probably the most famous example of this strategy is The Turn of the Screw, where Henry James leaves it to the reader to decide if Ms. Jessel is actually seeing the ghosts or experiencing hysterical hallucinations.
I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “ghost” in a ghost story. The entity may be something else altogether: living but not human or, perhaps, a mythic creation of the narrator’s imagination. That may or may not satisfy most readers, but I do think it’s more effective to leave explanations to them. In movies and television, ghosts may be depicted as ethereal entities, but they don’t go over as well in print as they did in the 19th century.
I doubt if we moderns are any more easy in our minds about death than people were before the Industrial Revolution. Death remains the great mystery, and for that reason I think the supernatural tale will always have a place in literature.
Unfortunately, subtlety is out of fashion. Robert Aickman, Oliver Onions, Henry James and J.S. Le Fans are rare birds, and crude violence and gut-seizing horror is more the rule than the exception these days.
[Don W.] Thank you, Jeffrey, for your brief essay’s remarkably clear-eyed view of the nature of ghost stories. I would encourage all our contributors to consider and reconsider its implications regardless of the genres they prefer.
To answer our question: A ghost is a transcendental figure; it may be a person, as in “The Picker Boy,” or it may even be an object, such as the legendary Flying Dutchman, or an abiding mystery, like the Mary Celeste and its missing crew. The “Dead Narrators” guideline in our Review Readers’ Checklist expands a little on the topic, and the alert-box note under the link “ghost stories” is somewhat humorous.
A ghost isn’t time-bound the way real people are. The apparition may come from “beyond the grave” or from the past or future or even the present. In “The Picker Boy,” Leslie Newbridge has no idea where or when the boy came from. All she knows is that others pick fruit she has already seen him gather and, after she meets him, he disappears when he turns a corner. No one else can corroborate his existence, and she can’t, either.
The question of identification — “What is a ghost?” — is really “entry level.” More important: what does a ghost do and what does it mean?
Leslie Newbridge explains to Dr. Reisz how she has spent her life trying either to answer those questions or, by obsessively washing her right hand, to rid herself of them. Perhaps the therapist will confirm what Ms. Newbridge already seems to suspect: that touching the mysterious picker boy has frozen her self-image as the one she had at age 16.Ghost stories, then, are usually — and probably at their best — parables of self-awareness. Two radically different examples:
My own ghost story, “The Flying Dutchman of MacKinnon Hall,” humorously points out that students of a second language can rely on the vocabulary they’ve acquired and their knowledge of grammar to pass an exam. The glossaries provided may help a little, but dictionaries are too time-consuming, and they won’t answer questions of meaning.
Luke concludes his version of the gospel with a ghost story. Cleopas and a friend are walking toward the village of Emmaus. They are joined by a stranger with whom they discuss the meaning of the Crucifixion. At the village, the stranger plans to continue on his way, but the two say, “The day is far spent,” and they invite him to have dinner with them. He blesses the bread and gives it to them, “and he vanished from their sight” (Lk 24:30-31). Cleopas and his friend realize they have met the risen Christ.
What on earth is Luke doing? He packs a lot into that parable. The communal meal was already a custom of the Jesus groups. Cleopas and his friend realize its meaning by inviting a stranger, simply out of kindness. And you never know whom you’ll meet or where the meeting may lead. But why tell a ghost story? Let’s remember that a ghost is a transcendental figure; in this case, it comes from both the present and the future. A scholar sums it up: “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”
In any ghost story — be it yours, Jeffrey, or mine or Luke’s — the ghost always vanishes from our sight. It’s what the ghost does that counts, and how the characters in the story interpret and respond to its meaning.