Skip to main content

We Have Always Lived in Haunted Houses

As my final pre-Arisia post, I'd like to tackle ghosts. Metaphorically, of course, because ghosts are intangible and also don't exist. 

Spectral Ripples by Morgan Crooks (2013) (picture of Chihuly sculpture)

I don't believe in ghosts. Not the sort of ghosts, anyway, that float around decaying old mansions or scare impressionable media personalities. Physics, at least the way I've grown up understanding it, precludes the existence of energy that cannot be detected reliably. Put another way, physicist Brian Cox stated that if ghosts existed the Large Hadron Collider would have almost certainly found one by now.

So, when I say I'm a fan of ghost stories and tales of haunted houses, am I being hypocritical? Possibly, but I also think one can appreciate ghosts and haunted houses in a different way. Even though they might not exist in a 'peer-reviewed' and 'experimentally replicable' fashion, phantoms absolutely exist as a potent symbol of the past.

When we talk about ghosts what we're really talking about is that annoying quality of the past to simply refuse to fade away. Ghosts scare us because the suggest the horrors of the past retain the power to disrupt and distort the present. We are possessed of ghosts and the houses we live in are just as much theirs as ours.

This year had a bunch of ghost-themed stories, including two that I counted on my yearly best-of list. I'd like to first revisit the way S.P. Miskowski handles ghosts in her amazing novel I Wish I Was Like You," but also weave in a discussion of Gwendolyne Kiste's Pretty Marys in A Row. Although the latter isn't precisely a ghost tale, it shares a great many of that genre's themes.

Part of the reason S.P. Miskowski's "I Wish I Was Like You" came in as my favorite novel last was its inventive treatment of ghosts. This is a story narrated by a vengeful phantom, and includes some intriguing world-building later in the novel about how ghosts interact with the world of the living. They are not powerless shades, as rendered by Miskowski, but capable of driving the living into madness and death. On the other hand, they no longer have the power to create. The tragedy of this novel is only complete after the narrator dies, because it is only in her afterlife that she has the freedom to say what she wanted. Unfortunately, as her wraith blinks forwards through years and decades, she can only speak the truth about things falling more and more into the distant past.

"Pretty Marys All in A Row," a novella written by Gwendolyn Kiste, also addresses themes of phantoms of the past. The entities in this story are not precisely ghosts but more like the embodied spirits of certain nursery rhymes and urban legends. Nevertheless, each of these spirits has the power to haunt the living world, even drawing sustenance from the terror and violence they create. However, I read Kiste's intention here is to show how the ghost of a thing is not really the same thing as the person the ghost represents. In various ways it becomes clear that Kiste's spirits each had separate, unique lives before entering their strange predatory afterlife. The tension of this story stems from concern this Mary has over the living from her actual past and her sisters she provides for. The narrator's living past haunts her spectral present.

This theme of the predatory, illusory past appears in a variety of works, including "The Shining" by Stephen King and "Beloved" by Toni Morrison. In both books the spirits of the past want something from the present. In the case of Beloved, the ghost of Sethe's two-year-old infant causes her home to become "spiteful." Overtime, Sethe's guilt over the baby's death and her own trauma at the hands of slave owners and slave catchers begins to drag her back into the past. By the end of "The Shining" (the novel) the apparitions of the Overlook Hotel have so possessed Jack Torrence that he forgets his duties as a caretaker and allows the hotel to explode. The movie version of course suggests that Jack becomes absorbed by the hotel, even appearing in a photograph from the roaring twenties. The victims of the past join the past.

Thomas Ligotti's treatment of ghosts is altogether different but no less potent. One of the best descriptions of his approach appears in the very short story, A Spectral Estate. Here, an unnamed narrator roams through an old ramshakle house, describing the subtle discomforts pervading the house. By the end of the piece the reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling Ligotti wasn't describing a physical structure so much as the warped and haunted chambers within the human mind. This is of course in keeping with Ligotti's dour philosophy; specifically the idea consciousness is as much a curse as anything, an appalling genetic mistake. We are our own ghosts, haunting the lonely realm within our skulls.
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Review of I Wish I Was Like You by S.P. Miskowski

Even 23 years later, I remember 1994 and Kurt Cobain's death. I experienced that moment as a kind of inside out personal crisis. I felt ashamed by his death. As though his exit in someway indicted my own teenage miseries. "I wish I was like you," goes the verse in 'All Apologies,' "Easily amused." I felt as though a check I hadn't remembered writing had just been cashed. 

SP Miskowski's book, named after the first half of that line, is in the words of another reviewer, a novel that shouldn't work. The narrator is unlikeable, unreliable, and dead. The plot is almost entirely told as a flashback and long sections of the novel concern the inner processes of the writer. The daily grind to summon up enough self-esteem to carry a sentence to its logical conclusion is a real struggle, people, but it ain't exactly riveting.

But the thing is, this novel works. It is one of the best things I've read all year and a real achievement in weird ficti…

What I Read in 2017

The third in my series of year-end lists is literature. As in past years, I've divided this post into two categories: Novels and short stories. Each of these stories made 2017 just a bit brighter for me and I hope this list includes at least a writer or two new to you.

I Wish I was You by SP Miskowski: This was the subject of a review earlier this year. The way I feel about this novel, the tragedy of a talented person crippled by anger and regret, transformed into a monstrous avatar of wrath, has not really left me. Beyond the perfection of its prose and its preternatural subject matter, I feel like this is one of the best evocations of the mid-nineties I've seen published. There's something about this book that lingers with me long past the concerns of its plot and characters. I guess what I'm trying to say is this work moved me. 2017 would have been a lot dimmer if I hadn't read this work.New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson: Robinson writes next-level sp…

Review of "Pretty Marys All in a Row" by Gwendolyn Kiste

Part of the reason American Gods works is that it offers a kind of reward to folk lore mavens and religious study majors. Do you have a working familiarity with obscure Northern European mythologies? Are you able to describe what Neil Gaiman got right and what he fudged a bit in terms of the Egyptian religion? Then the guessing games of that novel - just which Middle Eastern Goddess is this? - magnify its other charms. 
"Pretty Marys All in a Row" by Gwendolyn Kiste (released by Broken Eye Books), is a novella for people, like me, who are waiting impatiently for the next season of Bryan Fuller's show. It's not set in that universe, certainly, but approaches the question of folklore from a similar perspective. Namely, that myths have a definite, physical explanation and your knowledge of such things will expand your enjoyment of the work. In the case of Pretty Marys, the stories are urban legends and nursery rhymes about young women. The main character, Rhee, is named…