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The history of the ghost story and what makes a great tale

MR-JamesAs many of you will know by now, my day job is running a small publishing imprint called Spectral Press. Furthermore, as its name implies, it concentrates (mostly) on fiction of the supernatural or ghostly kind (although, to be fair, as the press has expanded so has its remit, something which will continue as it grows further). It was originally set up as a mean of paying tribute to the early pioneers of the ghost story from the middle part of the nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, as well as an attempt at a continuation of this rich vein of literary gold. The names that inspired me should be very familiar to all genre fans: M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and H. P Lovecraft, to name but a few. But, these weren’t the only writers to append their bylines to ghost stories: other authors did so too, with greater or lesser degrees of success – Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Edith Wharton, William Hope Hodgson, and Edith Nesbitt. The point here is that this particular sub-genre was a popular one, with writers of all stripes eager to try their hand at penning one.

Why did this particular form of fiction hit its stride at exactly the period it did? Certainly, it caught the public imagination, but it wasn’t just because readers decided that ghost stories were the ‘in-thing’, to borrow parlance from a much later era. The stories caught a specific mood and the zeitgeist of the times: for instance, spiritualism and séances were all the rage in fashionable society circles in the latter part of the Victorian period, with personalities such as Daniel Dunglas Home, Andrew Jackson Davis, and Kate & Margaret Fox, as well as numerous others, claiming all manner of psychic abilities. Much debate surrounded the authenticity of the apports, materialisations and levitations witnesses had reported. There was even a learned grouping of researchers, founded in 1882, called the Society for Psychical Research, which still exists today: its remit then as now is to investigate psychic phenomena in a thoroughly scientific manner. As in all times, there were sceptics, the most famous of whom was Harry Houdini the escapologist, himself no stranger to illusions. (As an aside, just to show that it was considered an important discipline within science at one time, the Scientific American journal ran regular reports on investigations into psychism and the supernatural, and treated it very seriously.)

Aleister CrowleyConcurrently, there was a deeper, underground stream which also tapped into the prevailing fin de siècle nervousness of the approaching new century, that of a revival of interest in the occult. There had always been a current of esotericism lying just beneath the surface, especially in such societies as the Rosicrucians, Freemasonry (to a limited extent) and the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. Then, around about 1887, came the most famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) magical order of all: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It can fairly be said that from this group of eminent men sprang many of the currently operating secret hermetic orders. Also, of course, it gave us one of the greatest creative magicians and trickster personalities of the twentieth century: Aleister Crowley. Whatever your opinion of him, he knew how to rile people and he often did so, quite deliberately I suspect, and with something of a knowing smirk.

So, is it any wonder then that, with all this heady mix of interests and concerns beyond the ken of mortal man, the ghost story should have gained the literary prominence that it did? I suspect that the relentless progress of science also factors into the whole scenario too, as well as its encroachment on territory normally the preserve of religion. The world was gradually becoming smaller and therefore more accessible, industry was getting bigger, and marvels of invention becoming ever more commonplace. Mystery was slowly disappearing incrementally, to be replaced with the cold certainty of hard facts. The old truths about the order of creation and the world were falling away, leading to people having to deal with ever-changing circumstances. What was once thought of as solid foundations were now revealed to be nothing but quicksand. I suspect that people then looked elsewhere for their dose of mystery, and some of them turned toward spiritualism, the occult and, in literature, the ghost story. (Note: the preceding sentence should not be construed to infer that there is a causal connection between all three – while some writers, artists and poets did indeed delve into such subjects [W. B. Yeats was one such, being a member of the Golden Dawn] it is at best a red herring.)

So, given all this, it was absolutely a perfect time for the ghost story to come of age. People still clung to visions of the past – it would be fair to say that, despite material progress and Christianity being deeply ingrained into the very fabric of British life, there was a streak of pre-Christian tradition and paganism intermixed with it, the earlier beliefs surviving in far greater strength than is generally believed. Look, for instance, at the ready acceptance of the introduction of the now-familiar Christmas traditions by Prince Albert, most of which have pagan origins. I have written elsewhere about midwinter being the time of the year when people would miss departed relatives the most as well as being the Otherworld’s closest approach to the living – in the literary arena this gave rise to the Victorian/Edwardian tradition of the Christmas ghost story, popular in the periodicals of the time. However, these tales weren’t solely confined to the Yuletide annuals; after all ghosts aren’t confined to the midwinter months either. With interest in all things generally supernatural it was perhaps inevitable that ghost stories would insinuate themselves into the Victorian reader’s consciousness at all times of the year.

So, what makes a good ghostly tale? What follows is purely a subjective assessment of course, but nonetheless I think that many would agree with at least some of the elements elucidated here.

The Ritual by Adam NevillHorror is easier to write than good horror: there is certainly an art, I think, in creating an atmosphere that is truly horrific without relying on the liberal splattering of buckets of blood and gore. The British writer, Adam Nevill readily springs to mind in this regard. Indeed he has stated that M. R. James is one of his direct influences. I would also venture that the Welsh Wizard Arthur Machen is also in there somewhere. Certainly, in the case of the latter, there’s a hint in Nevill’s work of the temporal and spatial displacement that was a hallmark of Machen’s oeuvre. And that, I would aver, is one element of true horror in literature – the notion that somehow we have entered a world which is at once both familiar and yet not quite right, that there’s something amiss about one’s surroundings. It’s that unsettling feeling which produces the discomfort and disquietude of the good ghost/horror tale.

Familiarity with the ordinary and the everyday is a key factor in this. As human beings, changes of routine are unsettling and upsetting, apt to disturb one’s equilibrium. A good supernatural story makes use of that, to absorb the reader into the familiar and then tip them into a nightmare scenario. Throw in some hint of the unknown and the terror ensues.

And what’s the key to that hint of the unknown? Keep the reader guessing, and only reveal the horror gradually, if at all. It is far better from a psychological standpoint to only offer the shadow of a shadow – if we hear a noise at night in the house, we are left guessing as to what made it: was it simply the house settling after the heat of the day, or could there be an intruder? Do we dive under the bed covers, or do we venture out and investigate? If the latter, we are initially faced with a house in darkness, which could conceal anything. And that’s where the terror and uncertainty lie.

That’s what a good writer will give the reader – the equivalent of the strange noise in the night, or the darkness-shrouded house in which something is hiding. Our imaginations will provide the rest, doing half the author’s work in attempting to elicit the necessary reactions. Once revealed, or described in explicit detail, the monster (or whatever) loses a part of its power, since the protagonist (and reader) will know exactly what it is they’re facing. Keep the antagonist hidden for as long as possible, only revealing until right at the very end (or not even then in some cases), and that’s where the story’s true power lies.

There will be some who will disagree with me, of course, but that’s all to the good – the quality horror/ghost story can come in many different iterations and cover a very wide spectrum of themes and tropes. Different aspects will appeal to different readers. What I have outlined above is merely the wayIapproach of such literature – the main ingredients that I look for in a submission. That doesn’t mean that I am in any way inflexible – good writing also comes into play, and it may be that a story which contains only one or two of the elements enumerated but is exceptionally well-written will grab my attention and tick all the boxes. Above all, I am attempting to be sensitive to what the writer is trying to do and how he/she is going about it. In any case, I hope that this this has given you some little insight as to where Spectral is coming from, and how I go about choosing the stories I publish.


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1 comment

    • jessica on June 6, 2013 at 1:37 pm
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    This was a really wonderful essay. I wish more publishers would write one like that, then you’d know exactly what they wanted and what the standard was, instead of the weird self-erasing language they all seem to use. It made me want to write a ghost story, but then I remembered I already am a ghost.

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