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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.


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