Skip to main content

The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why?

By October 24, 2018No Comments

Source : The New York Times   –   Parul Sehgal

In 1960, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler delivered a eulogy for the ghost story in his classic study “Love and Death in the American Novel.” “An obsolescent subgenre,” he declared, with conspicuous relish; a “naïve” little formas outmoded as its cheap effects, the table-tapping and flickering candlelight. Ghost stories belong to — brace yourself for maximum Fiedlerian venom — “middlebrow craftsmen,” who will peddle them to a rapidly dwindling audience and into an extinction that can’t come soon enough.

Not since Herman Melville’s publishers argued for less whale and more maidens in “Moby-Dick” (“young, perhaps voluptuous,” they dared to dream) has a literary judgment been so impressively off the mark.

Literature — the top-shelf, award-winning stuff — is positively ectoplasmic these days, crawling with hauntings, haints and wraiths of every stripe and disposition. These ghosts can be nosy and lubricious, as in George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which followed a group of spectral busybodies in purgatory, observing the arrival of Abraham Lincoln’s newly deceased young son. They can be confused by their fates, as in Martin Riker’s new novel, “Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return,” in which a man is unsettled to discover that his essence has migrated into the body of the man who killed him. Spirits crop up in fiction about migration (Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Refugees”; Wayétu Moore’s “She Would Be King”) and complicate what might have been straightforward portraits of relationships (Ben Dolnick’s “The Ghost Notebooks,” Laura van den Berg’s “The Third Hotel,” Lauren Groff’s “Florida,” Helen Sedgwick’s “The Comet Seekers”). They terrify, instruct and enchant — sometimes all in the same book (Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” features a veritable taxonomy of the type).

M.R. James, the Edwardian master of the ghost story, once listed the crucial features of the form, including distant screams, no sex and “a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded.” But the ghost story has always floated free of such strictures. The protagonist of James’s era — the scholar in his dim library — was supplanted in our imaginations by curious young women roaming gloomy manors and innocently unleashing hell. Think “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Haunting of Hill House” or any number of Edith Wharton’s classics of the genre. Stories came lavishly garnished with sex and gore.

The ghost story shape-shifts because ghosts themselves are so protean — they emanate from specific cultural fears and fantasies. They emerge from their time, which is why Jacobeans saw ghosts wearing pale shrouds and Victorians saw them draped in black bombazine. It’s tempting to regard these apparitions as dark mirrors — Tell me what you fear and I’ll tell you who you are. I’m reminded of the governess in “The Turn of the Screw,” who arrives at her new posting and is delighted to discover that her room has two full-length mirrors, an unimaginable luxury and a clever bit of narrative forecasting; she will soon encounter mirrors of a different sort in the form of two ghosts (or are they?) haunting her young charges.

However, ghost stories are never just reflections. They are social critiques camouflaged with cobwebs; the past clamoring for redress. The writer Philip Ball has described traditional ghosts as social conservatives who enforce norms — the visitors to Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, or the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who protests the horror of his murder as well as the offense of it: “Murder most foul, as in the best it is; / But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.”

In the modern ghost story, especially the American kind, something different occurs. Ghosts protest norms — slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration — the norms that killed them. Among the slew of new books, you will find such ghosts in Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Hari Kunzru’s “White Tears,” Natashia Deón’s “Grace,” Angela Flournoy’s “The Turner House,” Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers.” These novels are impossible to generalize; they are as various as the spirits who inhabit them: the blues musician avenging himself on the white hipsters who stole his music in “White Tears,” the ghost of a young boy killed in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm prison in “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” But the spirits all speak with an authority older than any norm or nation. In “Grace,” an enslaved woman on the run is shot by bounty hunters but hovers on earth. She will not leave her child; she will try to trump death.

These ghosts are of America’s making. And in testifying to their deaths at the hands of police, poverty and racist violence, they lead us back to the nation’s foundational crimes of chattel slavery and genocide — as well as its energetic amnesia. The historian Thomas Laqueur has noted that unlike in Germany or South Africa, with their prevalence of monuments, museums and plaques to national crimes, there is “no remotely comparable memorial culture in the United States to the legacy of slavery.”

If the crimes of America’s origin are routinely whitewashed in public life, they remain central to its literature, in which the nation has been depicted not only as haunted but cursed, from Hawthorne on. His novel “The House of the Seven Gables” tells the story of the unhappy Pyncheons, who live under an ancestral hex for cheating a family out of their home. The notion of a curse flows through the work of Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy. It’s the central strand in Faulkner, as J. M. Coetzee described it: “The theft of land from the Indians or the rape of slave women comes back in unforeseen form, generations later, to haunt the oppressor.”

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” emerges from this lineage. “I like to think I know what death is,” says Jojo, the young protagonist. “I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” It turns out his path to manhood depends on it, on learning to acknowledge the dead and the persistence of the past — opening his eyes to a landscape bloated with the phantoms of Hurricane Katrina, the living ghosts rotting in prison.

But in a few of these books America becomes the ghost; America is shown to terrorize and consume. “America that green ghost, been after me for at least a couple hundred/years somehow once convinced me to do its dirty work for it sharp in a/warm bath,” the Native American poet Tommy Pico writes in his collection “Nature Poem.” “You don’t seem too haunted, but you haunted,” repeats a line in Terrance Hayes’s “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.”

In Hari Kunzru’s “White Tears,” whiteness itself is seen as radioactive, fraught with danger. Seth and Carter, partners in a New York-based recording company, are obsessed with black blues musicians, the more elusive and “authentic” the better — they want the “ghosts at the edges of American consciousness.” They cannibalize black art and awaken a frightening ghost when they forge a record. But it’s clear that there is something unsteady, almost vaporous about the men themselves: Seth with his nagging feeling of hollowness, and frenetic Carter with his blond dreadlocks and mysteriously acquired family wealth — their taste their only identity. “I pass through the world, but I leave no trace,” Seth says, echoing a line in Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” set decades earlier, in the American South. Cora, Whitehead’s heroine, escapes a brutal plantation in Georgia and takes temporary shelter in an attic in North Carolina. Through a hole in the wall, she observes white people in town, roaming in the twilight. “No wonder the whites wandered the park in the growing darkness,” she thinks. “They were ghosts themselves, caught between two worlds: the reality of their crimes, and the hereafter denied them for those crimes.”

Far from obsolescent, how hardy the ghost story proves as a vessel for collective terror and guilt, for the unspeakable. It alters to fit our fears. It understands us — how strenuously we run from the past, but always expect it to catch up with us. We wait for the reckoning, with dread and longing.

When the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears on stage, Horatio’s words to him are beautifully ambiguous: “Stay, illusion!” he commands. He might mean, Come no farther, ghost. He might mean, Remain a phantasm. He might even be speaking to himself, biding his illusions to wait a minute more, intimating that the ghost’s revelations will remake his world.

“Stay, illusion!” Horatio commands. And in the stage directions, the ghost opens his arms.

Parul Sehgal is a book critic for The Times.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.