In this post, ‘ghost’ is a proxy for anything supernatural: What’s the point of monsters, werewolves, and other magical fantasies?
I have a friend who disapproves of Harry Potter, but not for religious reasons — for scientific ones. His argument: stories about magic promote magical thinking, when the world needs more critical thinking. I can’t fault him on his main point, but do magical, ghostly, supernatural stories during childhood really contribute to lack of reason, and poor critical thinking?
For storytelling purposes it doesn’t really matter if ghosts are ‘real’ or not. The feelings definitely are.
To encourage readers to believe in ghosts. To encourage readers to consider there’s something beyond our own realities.
To create a temporary storyworld in which ghosts do exist, to allow us to enjoy that frisson of temporary horripilation.
To allow us insight into the way others experience fears. Supernatural stories can be allegories for mental illness or drug-induced hallucinations. The experience of non-reality as reality is indistinguishable from actual reality. If some of that fear can be provoked in us, we might achieve empathy with those people.
Supernatural elements in a story can function as part of the symbol web, leading the reader towards new (non-supernatural) insight about the human experience: longing, obsession, uncertainty and disbelief. The symbol web might signify memories of things which exist no longer, or various other fears and anxieties.
To allow scary experiences without leaving the audience in a downcast mood. Stories which genuinely scare me are about climate change, about missing children, about sickness and old age. This is a depressing kind of scary, and part of me would like to really enjoy a Stephen King novel, with beasts and supernatural beings which will never actually hurt me or my family. For most of us, ghosts are a pure, safe kind of terror.
Jehovah’s Witnesses must find some things. Knocking door-to-door on their missions, they are uniquely placed to enter the most downtrodden parts, hoping to find salvation. “A Country Killing” may sound a bit like the title of a cosy mystery set in Surrey but no, this is a story by Annie Proulx, about coercive control and domestic abuse, set in the poorest demographic of New England in the 1990s. If you want vanilla essence ruined for yourself forever, read “A Country Killing”.
The opening sentence is particularly effective at conveying a lot in just fifteen words:
Two Jehovah’s Witnesses, suffering in hot clothes, found the bodies a little before the cloudburst.
From that opening sentence we know:
The general context — because we all know that Jehovah’s Witnesses go door-knocking. So they’re at a residence.
There’s been a murder.
It’s very hot.
There’s going to be a ‘cloudburst’ — forces will coalesce to create this situation and the story will fill us in.
Do you like the idea of river fishing, without the annoying realities? One option is an afternoon plumped in front of Deliverance, starring the late Burt Reynolds. Another option is Annie Proulx’s short story “The Wer-Trout”, included in her Heart Songs collection of the late 1990s, though first published 1982. You won’t know what to expect from this one, as Proulx’s short stories can be darkly humorous or downright dark, and you might think you’re in for a Wallace and Gromit Wer-Rabbit experience. Be forewarned, this is one of the dark ones, with a little humour to make it even darker.
I’m also reminded of The Homesman,with the psychotic episode of a woman who’s stuck in the middle of nowhere with no social support (and past the point where she can seek it out herself). I’m reminded also a short story by Keri Hulme from her Te Kaihau collection, “King Bait“, which is more clearly magical realism. The magical realism in Proulx’s story could be interpreted as character invention, or part of a tall tale. The tall tale is a strong part of masculine, living-in-the-wild tradition — that’s probably where the genre was birthed.
This story is written in present tense. An interesting exercise is to look at why Proulx wrote some of these stories in past tense and a few in present. I believe it’s because “The Wer-Trout” has an element of build-up, as in a traditional supernatural tale, and the present tense is good for maintaining a suspenseful tone.
“The Wer-Trout” makes an excellent mentor text if you’re writing:
Two characters (or couples) living different but parallel lives
Creating suspenseful atmosphere
Writing a story with magical realism elements but which is nevertheless grounded in realism
Writing a character who is living in denial, pretending he doesn’t care, when his Self-revelation is that he actually does.
“King Bait” is a short story by Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, which won the Booker Prize. The setting is a magical realist New Zealand. “King Bait” is a good mentor text:
If writing in the oral tradition, inspired by the tall tale
If writing a story with supernatural elements in which the characters never understand the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon. (There’s an unwritten rule about telling such stories — read on for more.)
A good example of a short story which links opening sentence to final sentence, creating circularity and a sense of a conclusion.
“Runaway” is the first short story of Alice Munro’s 2004 collection. It was also published in The New Yorker, where you can read it online. “Runaway” makes for a great mentor text for the following reasons:
Nuance of human motivations. The desire is at the ‘complex’ end of the spectrum — our main character doesn’t actually know what it is she wants. How do you write that kind of character, when we’re told over and over that our main character has to ‘want’ something? Carla is a great case study.
A Plan which is actually a fantasy plan, but still works as a proxy.
A Self-revelation had by two characters first presented as ‘parallels’, now revealed to be ‘inverse’ characters. One achieves more insight into her own psychology; the other — we extrapolate — never will. The latter does realise something — a proxy revelation — just not about herself.
“In the Pit” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Heart Songs collection. “In the Pit” is a good example of a story with no Self-revelation for the main character. If anyone has a revelation, it’s the reader. Character arcs are not compulsory. In real life as in fiction, sometimes people simply don’t learn and they don’t change. They go their whole lives with little understanding of themselves and others. A TV series with an unchanging main character is Mad Men. Don Draper, also with the ghost of a problematic childhood, is unable to move past his backstory. Season after season he doesn’t change while around him the world changes a lot. This juxtaposition is the point of interest. Blue is a kind of Don Draper character, but from rural New England.
“The Juniper Tree”, as told by the Grimm Brothers, is a horrible tale. I don’t have a problem with gruesome. I can deal with fairytale cannibalism. The murder of the boy is comical rather than realistic and he comes back to life anyhow. No, “The Juniper Tree” is horrible for its symbolic annihilation of the mother. This is a tale written by men, for men, to reassure men of their dominance within the family hierarchy. Though it draws directly on a long history of tales in which children are fed to parents, the Grimm version inserts an extra level of female erasure.
This goes a long, long way back in history. “The Juniper Tree” is a newer take on a couple of ancient Greek stories. Medea took revenge on her husband by stewing their children. Season that story with the tale of Philomel, who transformed into a bird to sing about being raped by her brother-in-law. So her sister chops up the kids to feed to rapist dad. Because what did medieval humans use as stories? Europeans were well-schooled in the myths of Ancient Greece. It’s natural that these myths became basis for what we now call fairytale.
This is the story of a family and a commentary on family structure. But the hero is the son/father who — for symbolic purposes — are one and the same. Literally. I mean, the father eats the son, incorporating him into himself. The hero is ‘the male of the family’.
Though this is a modern interpretation, the weakness of the father is that the woman and daughter run the household. The women may be indentured — unsupported even if they do want to go out into the world and work outside the kitchen — but since women do work in the kitchens, women are also in charge of what the family eats. This gives women some power, and must therefore lead to some dark fears among men. Food, of course, symbolises something bigger: nurturing. The women have to do all the child-rearing, but they also have the privilege of doing all the child-rearing.
The great weakness of the father: He doesn’t get to control what goes on at home. He goes out to work. While he’s away, the women could get up to all sorts. And they do. Oh, how they do.
The father wants a more secure role within the family. He wants to know he is the father of the children; he wants to be involved in nurturing (and controlling) them.
The women. Women in general, symbolised by the second wife and the mean daughter who like nothing better than to kill boys and feed them to men.
It is the bird version of the son/father who has the plan to dispose of the female characters altogether. He collects a variety of things by singing his truth in the song. Then he takes them to the father. This way, the father will know he’s still alive.
The bird drops the millstone onto the mother’s head and kills her.
The father and Marlene learn what a wicked woman Marlene’s mother is, and so they are pleased when she is killed in an act of retributive justice.
For me, the revelation is that a happy ending in the culture of this story means killing off the woman (the second one), who is too powerful in her femininity to bear.
Father, little brother and Marlene are happy — well, at least until the son inherits the entire house in a culture of primogeniture which excludes women and girls. And then who knows. I suspect the father will eventually dispose of Marlene, too, when she hits adolescence and becomes a reproductive threat.
JUNIPER AND BIRTH
“The Juniper Tree” is a fairy modern tale (though as shown above, its inspirations are ancient). But in the medieval era, people used herbal remedies which have since been lost to us. Some of these were surprisingly effective (experimental medicine wasn’t against any law, so I guess that helped move things along). For instance, willow bark was given to patients with fever — much later, this lead directly to the invention of aspirin. And juniper was used to promote contractions during birth. I do wonder if the people who told early versions of The Juniper Tree knew of the connection between birth and juniper as medication. For a modern audience, there’s nothing feminine about juniper — but was this story an attempt to redistribute (re-)birthing to men?
Other writers have made the most of the link between femininity and the juniper tree. Monica Furlong named her girl hero ‘Juniper’ in her Wise Child series, which is one of those books with a cult following and which should be widely known, but which is sadly out of print.
UNUSUALLY VIVID DESCRIPTION IN “THE JUNIPER TREE”
Usually in fairytales:
Imagery and description: there is no imagery in fairy tales apart from the most obvious. As white as snow, as red as blood: that’s about it. Nor is there any close description of the natural world or of individuals. A forest is deep, the princess is beautiful, her hair is golden; there’s no need to say more. When what you want to know is what happens next, beautiful descriptive wordplay can only irritate.
But “The Juniper Tree” is unlike other tales anthologised by the Grimm brothers. The imagery is very clear, probably because it was sent to the Grimm brothers by Achm von Arnim after being written down by Philipp Otto Runge. It is already, therefore, more of a literary fairytale than those which came from the oral tradition. Philip Pullman doesn’t seem to share my own distaste for the tale:
In [“The Juniper Tree”] however, there is a passage that successfully combines beautiful description with the relation of events in such a way that one would not work without the other. […] the passage I mean comes after the wife has made her wish for a child as red as blood and as white as snow. It links her pregnancy with the passing seasons:
One month went by, and the snow vanished.
Two months went by, and the world turned green.
Three months went by, and flowers bloomed out of the earth.
Four months went by, and all the twigs on all the trees in the forest grew stronger and pressed themselves together, and the birds sang so loud that the woods resounded, and the blossom fell from the trees.
Five months went by, and the woman stood under the juniper tree. It smelled so sweet that her heart leaped in her breast, and she fell to her knees with joy.
Six months went by, and the fruit grew firm and heavy, and the woman fell still.
When seven months had gone by, she plucked the juniper berries and ate so many that she felt sick and sorrowful.
After the eighth month had gone, she called her husband and said to him, weeping, ‘If I die, bury me under the juniper tree.’
This is wonderful, but it’s wonderful in a curious way: there’s little any teller of this tale can do to improve it. It has to be rendered exactly as it is here, or at least the different months have to be given equally different characteristics, and carefully linked in equally meaningful ways with the growth of the child in his mother’s womb, and that growth with the juniper tree that will be instrumental in his later resurrection.
However, that is a great and rare exception. In most of these tales, just as the characters are flat, description is absent. In the later editions, it is true, Wilhelm’s telling became a little more florid and inventive, but the real interest of the tale continues to be in what happened, and what happened next. The formulas are so common, the lack of interest in the particularity of things so widespread, that it comes as a real shock to read a sentence like this in “Jorinda and Joringel”:
It was a lovely evening; the sun shone warmly on the tree trunks against the dark green of the deep woods, and turtledoves cooed mournfully in the old beech trees.
Suddenly that story stops sounding like a fairy tale and begins to sound like something composed in a literary way by a Romantic writer such as Novalis orJean Paul. The serene, anonymous relation of events has given way, for the space of a sentence, to an individual sensibility: a single mind has felt this impression of nature, has seen these details in the mind’s eye and written them down. A writer’s command of imagery and gift for description is one of the things that make him or her unique, but fairy tales don’t come whole and unaltered from the minds of individual writers, after all; uniqueness and originality are of no interest to them.
“Cat Skin” is a short story by Kelly Link, included in the collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, published 2010. Link says in her paragraph at the end of the tale that this is a brand new fairytale, based on on none in particular, but owes a debt to “Catskin“, “Donkeyskin” and “Rapunzel“. Link also acknowledges the influence of Angela Carter and Eudora Welty. I see similarities to Spirited Away.
“Cat Skin” is a trippy story and probably has many interpretations. This is what I get out of it, anyway.
“The Unclouded Day” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1985, included in the Heart Songs collection. Rich and poor, city and rural bump up against each other. This story is an excellent example of two narrative techniques in particular:
Santee has both an outside opponent and one from within his own group. (Earl most obviously, but also his wife.)
The revelation comes early for Santee, but the story has to conclude with Earl’s ‘fake’ self-revelation before we’re done. If you’d like to write a trickster story, “The Unclouded Day” provides a successful template.