The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy

The Tricksters Margaret Mahy dark cover

The Tricksters is a young adult novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, first published in 1986. Mahy wrote many stories for children, but The Tricksters seems to be one frequently talked about in scholarship circles, alongside The Changeover and The Haunting, which both won The Carnegie Medal. The Tricksters is a rare example of the new female mythic form, in which a main character (often femme, sometimes not) thinks and feels their way through a problem rather than leaving home to go on a journey and fight a bunch of opponents.

A large number of stories deal with the concept of ‘many selves’, often by creating some kind of mask (a false way of presenting to the world) and then having it ripped off (happily) at the end. Only once we live our authentic selves can we be happy… That’s the general message in such stories. The tricksters in this book are three corporeal representations of a single person — they all share the same memories, for instance. This is another way of dealing in fiction with the concept of the many selves.

These three iterations of the tricksters line up with Matt Bird’s head/heart/gut theory:

Ovid: head, a master of metamorphoses. (The mind usually believes he is the leader of the group, and he usually isn’t.)
Felix: heart, submerged in life but striving toward dominance in the course of the story. Felix and Harry fall in love.
Hadfield: gut/instinct—at one point he tries to rape Harry.

American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925-2015) divided sex into three separate aspects:

  1. Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
  2. Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
  3. Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.

The Tricksters is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is coming to terms with the various aspects of sex. Some aspects are thrilling; other aspects terrifying. When she conjures up three different manifestations of the same lover, she is imaginatively exploring and codifying these conflicting aspects. Unlike many young adult authors of the 1980s, Mahy does not punish her young women for exploring sex. She celebrates it. Though we are used to celebrations of sexuality in contemporary young adult literature, Mahy was ahead of her time.

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A Glossary of Genie and Djinn Words

Abu Al-Jann — Father of the Jann.

Aforetime — God said he created the djinn ‘aforetime’. Stories of the djinn predate the Quran. The concept of the djinn is ancient.

Aladdin — Disney’s Aladdin is a presentation of a stereotypical genie as we view them in the West. Aladd in is only loosely based on the folklore of the djinn. Like “Ali Baba”, “Aladdin” is a French-Syrian tale dating from the start of the 1700s. “Aladdin” is such a popular and widespread story that it forms its own tale type (ATU 561). There’s a simpler version known as a Magic Ring tale (ATU 560). In these tables a poor young man with the help of a magic object builds a palace more beautiful than the king’s. He marries a princess. But he loses his palace and princess due to a second magic object. He recovers everything lost.

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The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg

The Widow's Broom Chris Van Allsburg cover

“The Widow’s Broom” is a 1992 picture book by American author illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like many of Van Allsburg’s books, this one remains popular with teachers, partly because this is a storyteller who requires the reader to do a little work. Students can practise their inference skills in class.

Like all good stories which rely on reader imagination, this picture book can be interpreted in a number of ways.

THE DUAL AUDIENCE OF THE WIDOW’S BROOM

This is an example of a story which will be used one way in the infant classroom and quite differently in the senior Language Arts classroom.

A broom which ‘walks’, feeds chickens and plays piano will appeal to children at an early stage of development, which Piaget described as spatial egocentrism. He also talked about child development and animism, the worldview that non-human entities possess consciousness and a life of its own. In modern picture books animism tends to finds an outworking in animals who walk and talk like humans.

[A]nimism…is the belief that everything in nature has consciousness and life…. When Christopher Robin, the child in Winnie-the-Pooh, talks to his woodland friends, a donkey, a tiger, an owl, a pig, and a bear, he is engaged in what Jean Piaget has called ‘animism’. As do the majority of picture books that feature animal characters, a child engaged in animism, readily accepts that animals can and do behave as humans. An example is Olivia, Ian Falconer’s character who has resonated with adults and children alike and is the protagonist of [more than] five titles.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books

Go back in time, to the early 1900s and before, and you’ll find plenty of children’s stories in which household objects come alive. This trend mostly seems to have gone away. (Likewise you won’t find so many moons with actual faces on them in contemporary picture books.)

Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting - 1882 Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)
Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting – 1882 Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)

When picture book storytellers do utilise animism to bring household objects alive, it’s generally to hark back to an earlier time. Here, to the pre-Christian world of superstition, modern ideas about Paganism, and fairytale. Therein lies the historical interest for older readers, culminating in a quite sophisticated message about humankind.

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In A Dark, Dark Room And Other Scary Stories

In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories

In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories written by Alvin Schwartz was first published in 1971 for emergent readers ready for scary… but not too scary. I recently looked closely at a modern picture book called Creepy Carrots, another excellent example of a ‘scary’ story perfectly pitched at 4-6 year olds. This collection is for emergent readers and is a bit more creepy than that. The adult reader is unlikely to be scared by any of these, but many adults today have wonderful memories of A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories.

Table of contents illustrated by Victor Rivas
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Illustrating Ghosts

Ghost mother and child (In Abol Tabol)... Originally published in the year 1909 Painted by Sukumar Ray
Ghost mother and child (In Abol Tabol)… Originally published in the year 1909 Painted by Sukumar Ray
Alberto Martini (1876 - 1954) for an Edgar Allan Poe poem ghost girl art deco
Alberto Martini (1876 – 1954) for an Edgar Allan Poe poem ghost girl art deco
The Case of Mr Helmer
The Haunted Auto from Puck Magazine
Het Spook, John Pettit, after Frederick George Byron, 1789
Het Spook, John Pettit, after Frederick George Byron, 1789
Spook's Number by Rea Irvin, 1909, Life Magazine
Spook’s Number by Rea Irvin, 1909, Life Magazine
Draugen, ca. 1891 The Sea Ghost, Theodor Kittelsen
Draugen, ca. 1891 The Sea Ghost, Theodor Kittelsen
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi also known as taiso yoshitoshi (1839-1892), kiyohime turning into a snake at the hidaka river, from the series new forms of thirty-six ghosts, 1889-1892
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi also known as taiso yoshitoshi (1839-1892), kiyohime turning into a snake at the hidaka river, from the series new forms of thirty-six ghosts, 1889-1892
How To Make Friends With A Ghost the ghost
How To Make Friends With A Ghost
Fern Bisel Peat (US, 1893-1971) was art director  dancing with ghost
Fern Bisel Peat (US, 1893-1971) was art director of Play Mate magazine at this time. A girl dressed as a witch dances with another child dressed as a ghost.
comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

Whether they appear wispy or solid, often a full-bodied, non-Bedsheet apparition is depicted in values of only one color, often white/grey or blue. If there is an exception, however, it will be for the eyes.

Monochrome Apparition at TV Tropes

Man-Size In Marble by Edith Nesbit

Louis Haghe - Tomb de Lalaing Hoogstract 1850

“Man-Size in Marble” (1893) is a gothic short story by Edith Nesbit. You can read it at Project Gutenberg, as part of Nesbit’s Grim Tales collection. This tale is her most widely anthologised short story.

What must it be like to be ahead of one’s time? It’s happened to scientists over the years. The guy who worked out there are an infinite number of infinities ploughed a lonely furrow — none of his contemporary colleagues bought his whacky theories about that. In the end, decades later, whaddaya know, he was right.

When it comes to writers ahead of their time, a standout example is E. Nesbit. For more on why, I’ve dedicated a separate article.

In this story, Nesbit is critiquing gender essentialism of the day, in which men were seen as rational and dynamic while women were seen as sensitive and passive. She does not critique this with a simple gender inversion. As I have noticed in the past, the gender flip is not especially good as a vehicle for critique anyway.

Interestingly, Nesbit was famously scared of the dark.

I spend a bit of time on book recommendation sites and modern parents are still buying Enid Blyton. I wish someone, once in a while, would place E. Nesbit in the hands of modern kids, if we insist that classics aren’t classics unless they’re 50 to 100 years old. You’ll find Nesbit’s children’s books have aged far less terribly than everyone else’s.That’s because Nesbit was a leftie feminist. And here’s the thing about leftie feminism: What looks radical today looks sensible after a few decades, even to conservatives.

Aside from children’s literature, Nesbit wrote short stories (for adults). “Man-sized In Marble” is her best-known example, though most people who know of Nesbit probably don’t know her for her short stories at all.

THE GOTHIC TRADITION

As explained below, Nesbit chose gothic conventions to convey her ideas. What are gothic conventions, exactly? I have wondered that myself and went into it here.

‘Man-Size in Marble’’ (1893) is both a successful Gothic chiller and a more politicized investigation of the plight of the artistically ambitious New Woman under patriarchy. It posits that while Gothic’s anti-feminism during the fin de siècle (end of the [nineteenth] century) is an increasingly familiar topic of study, little attention has yet been paid to the ways in which Gothic can also serve as a means of critiquing such attitudes. Through a close reading of Nesbit’s story and a comparison with other relevant texts of the era, the essay suggests that the author’s own radicalism, often overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children*, encourages her to expose the violence inherent within late nineteenth-century social systems. For Nesbit, the Gothic is the perfect instrument for such a project.

abstract of E. NESBIT’S NEW WOMAN GOTHIC by Nick Freeman
*Though it’s doubtful meant this way here, the phrasing of ‘overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children’ may encourage an interpretation that, had Nesbit ONLY been a writer for children, this would have indeed been a lesser thing. This is an attitude that has plagued children’s literature since the beginning of children’s literature. In fact, children’s literature must appeal to both adults and children and is therefore one of the most difficult things to write.
  • Mrs Dorman the housekeeper is a classic Gothic archetype. She’s the Cassandra figure who warns of impending doom but no one believes her. She’s the Madwoman or the Old Wife. However, in this feminist story she is more than an archetype. She is indeed old and wise with a deep store of local knowledge. She refuses the neat division between legend and history. She is presented as the inverse of a Londoner. Mrs Dorman has a symbolic name. She oversees the transmission of stories between the ancient village and its newcomers.
  • Laura is the virginal character (although not literally, since she’s newly married).
  • The narrator is the hero of his own story, according to him. If he wet his pants and ran away screaming, he’s not going to tell us, is he.
  • The setting of the church and graveyard is a classic setting for Gothic horror.
  • Your typical gothic horror includes members of the clergy. In this tale the clergy are conspicuous by their absence — the ending does not encourage us to believe there’s a God looking after us all, though that’s what Jack thinks.
  • By the 1890s gothic fiction was becoming increasingly violent. This story is quietly, off-the-page violent, but shocking for its time. There are several reasons why readers were developing a higher tolerance for gore — newspapers were reporting crimes in greater detail; the library system collapsed and this led to relaxed censorship; writers of realist fiction were pushing the boundaries with stark horror; magazines wanted shorter short stories which meant writers were cramming in more content via shock value.
  • The symbolism is Catholic, which makes this part of British Gothic tradition — a ‘Latinate, idolatrous and regressive world at odds with the progressive rationalism and secular statehood inaugurated by Henry VIII’s break with Rome’. (Women and the Victorian Occult).
  • This story belongs to a subcategory of the gothic tale, about sinister ceremonies, anniversaries and rites. These are pagan in origin. Other examples: “Pallinghurst Barrow” and “Wolverden Tower” by Grant Allen, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. In film we have The Wicker Man, which ends in fire. However, Nesbit’s rites have their origins in Catholicism.
  • Nesbit made use of folklore and Gothic conventions but some of it is her own invention completely.

STORYWORLD OF “MAN-SIZE IN MARBLE”

BRENZETT

“Man-size In Marble” is set in Brenzett, which today has a population of about 400. There’s not much to it. Nesbit herself lived in Kent most of her life, though she was born in what is now Greater London. When I looked Brenzett up on Wikipedia I learned that this story is one of the most famous things about it. On the map you’ll find it about halfway between Hastings and Dover.

1893

This story was published in 1893, a significant year for New Zealand women such as myself. In September 1893 New Zealand became the first self-governed nation to extend the right to vote to women. In England suffrage came much later — they needed a world war to prove women’s mettle. But Edith Nesbit would’ve been well aware of these changes on the wind.

THE NEW WOMAN

1893 was the era of the so-called “New Woman”. Even without the vote, British feminists were encouraging independence, and advised women receive an education of their own. Of course, it was only women from the middle and upper classes who could afford to take this advice. Almost all of the fertile women in England who remained unmarried in the second half of the 1800s were from the upper classes and I surmise they preferred it that way. But these women were considered useless to society (what is a woman for, if not to provide sex and children for men?) and some put forth arguments that these women should be shipped off to the colonies, where there was a wife drought. (I wonder how many women were shipped here to Australia for that reason, against their will?)

MEN ARE MEN AND WOMEN ARE WOMEN!

During the 1880s and 1890s, there was a moral panic about how they were living in ‘sexual anarchy’ (according to writer George Gissing). All the established rules about sexual identity and behaviour were felt to be breaking down. This upsets conservatives.

I believe we have entered another moral panic in the last five years or so, as trans people are finally having their moment, and as non-binary people are requesting we use their preferred pronouns.

HALLOWEEN

The Catholic All Saints tradition is now expressed in America as Halloween. All Saints Day wasn’t the only date associated with the supernatural. People used to stay up all night ‘porch-watching’. They would stay up all night in the church porch hoping to see the wraiths of all the local parishioners parade by. This would let them know who would die in the coming year. However, this wasn’t an All Saints thing to do — most people would’ve done it on St Marks Eve (April 24).

Girls were thought to have special access to these supernatural powers. They’d be able to perform acts of divination and learn who their future husbands would be. People would light bonfires. Go back far enough (into the Medieval era) and Christians thought that souls in Purgatory would be purged by the holy fire. The feast of All Saints was an attempt to relieve the ghosts stuck in Purgatory.

Protestantism rejected all this supernatural nonsense and All Saints was removed from the English church calendar in 1559. Still, all of this remained useful to writers of gothic horror.

KNIGHTS IN CHURCHES

To better understand this story, it’s important to know the Catholic tradition of burying knights in important places — the closer to the altar, the more important they’d been. Supposedly.

Another impressive feature of [Saint John’s Co-Cathedral] is the collection of marble tombstones in the nave in which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. These tombstones, richly decorated with in-laid marble and with the coats of arms of the knight buried below as well as images relevant to that knight, often telling a story of triumph in big struggle, form a rich visual display in the church.

Wikipedia
Atkinson Grimshaw - Woman on a Path by a Cottage
Atkinson Grimshaw – Woman on a Path by a Cottage

STORY STRUCTURE OF “MAN-SIZE IN MARBLE”

The plot of “Man-size in Marble” isn’t the most interesting thing. Far from it. If this short story contained only the surface layer of the spooks in a church, I’d have called it underwhelming. Instead, the most interesting thing about this story is the characterisation of the young newly wedded man, whose attitude towards his wife comes through during his night of indescribable terror. In true Gothic convention, the story opens with a paragraph in which the narrator tells the reader the events contained within are indeed true. As you’ll see below, we are to read this ironically. This is a story critiquing Jack’s ‘rationalism’. The narration is a first person male, which fooled quite a few people at the time into thinking the author was male. This was useful.

SHORTCOMING

Man, I don’t like this Jack guy. How much of this was intended by Nesbit and how much is my modern interpretation? There’s an unanswerable question, even bearing in mind Nesbit was ahead of her own time. Jack has been described as a ‘floppy-collared aesthete’. I’m reminded of Nathaniel P from the following contemporary novel:

Waldman’s novel ‘offers a mercilessly clear view into a man’s mind as he grows tired of a worthy woman‘, which isn’t what Nesbit’s story does, but both offer insight into a man who, on the surface, is feminist but dig a little deeper and although he is not sexist, he is nonetheless constitutionally inclined to uphold the system of misogyny. (For a clear delineation between sexism and misogyny, go no further than Down Girl by Kate Manne.) Jack doesn’t treat women as adults. He treats his wife like a child by refusing to tell her what he has learned about the house from Mrs Dorman, as it might upset her. Nathaniel Piven, a thirty-something-year-old Brooklyn novelist and burgeoning public intellectual, is thoughtful yet careless, open-minded yet absurdly entitled.— The New Yorker review

Jack reminds me of Nathaniel P. because both are New Age Guys (for their era); neither are alpha males; both are aesthetes; both are writers and both appear to be in touch with their emotions. When Jack finds Laura crying he tries to comfort her with “don’t cry, or I shall have to cry too, to keep you in countenance, and then you’ll never respect your man again”. This snippet of dialogue tells us layers of things about Jack:

  • He is blithely dismissing his wife’s emotions
  • He makes a show of having emotions himself
  • But the code of masculinity dictates he couldn’t possibly give in to them
  • Because his job as husband is to be first and foremost respected by his wife.
  • Ergo, this is performative empathy.

As I read the opening to “Man-size In Marble” I’m reminded of that show Escape to the Country and all those city people who go touring various country houses — oftentimes none of the houses are good enough and we learn the city folk didn’t really want to move to the country after all. Well, these two do eventually find a house to their liking, fussy as they are, and then the husband complains they don’t have any money. Next minute they’ve employed a ‘peasant woman’ to do all the housework.

‘Poor’ is such a variable concept, isn’t it? These two aren’t poor poor. They are living in ‘genteel poverty’, like the women in Sense and Sensibility. I mean, if you can afford to employ someone from a lower class to do all your drudgery work, you ain’t poor. When the peasant woman housekeeper takes off, this guy won’t believe her reasons. She tells him her niece is sick. He doesn’t buy it because the niece has always been sick. It doesn’t occur to him that sick people often get sicker — no, it’s all about him.

Jack speaks for Laura and Mrs Dorman throughout the story, refusing to take either of them seriously. He loves folklore but treats Mrs Dorman as a Victorian anthropologist might a tribal elder — perhaps here, Nesbit is satirizing the folklore “collectors” of the period such as Edward Clodd — and patronizes Laura with a pet name “Pussy”. He also persistently trivialises her art despite the fact that it seems to be their only earned income; while Laura is writing, he passes his time in sketching “wonderful cloud effects”. Whether her tales are “little magazine stories” or stories for the little magazines that were so much a feature of the 1890s’ literary scene, Jack sees them as insignificant, fit only for the “Monthly Marplot”. His disdain for “the jingling guinea” is what one would expect from an aesthete of the period, but it shows, too, a worrying inability to face up to the economic realities of his marriage.

Nick Freeman

At this point I refer you all to The Wife (both book and film), by Meg Wolitzer. Jack’s rationalism is at odds with the outlook of the story’s women: it is his adherence to it that ultimately brings about his “life’s tragedy”.

The story begins with a confession of rationalism’s limits, a frequent Gothic device as well as a rebutt fo the positivism that was making Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes so pouplar in the early 1890s. … For much of the story, howeer, he is quite happy to live by rationalist principles, signally a clear divide between himself, the seemingly superstitious female characters, and maybe, by extension, the villages as a whole: the Irish outsider, Dr Kelly, is after all the “only neighbour” with whom Jack socializes. The more intuitive Laura is less imprisoned by this gospel, though…her sensitivity is not enough to save her from an awful fate, perhaps because her attitudes to social class are less radical than Nesbit’s own. The “village people” are, she says, “awfully sheepy”, and if one won’t do a thing, one may be quite sure none of the others will”.

Nick Freeman

His wife, Laura, is the one who won’t listen to the housekeeper (according to Jack), and is very much down in the dumps about losing Mrs Dorman — this means they will have to do all the housework themselves. And by ‘they’, we do mean Laura, don’t we. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” the husband tells her. “There will still be time to do art even if we have to do everything ourselves.” Meanwhile, it’s a point of pride that he’s useless around the house. He tells us he has surprised himself by doing an excellent job of washing the plates. Well, if you’ve ever seen that documentary series where they take a modern family and make them live like it’s 1900, you’ll already know this, but the loss of the housekeeper really does mean the loss of the young wife’s artistic life. The husband doesn’t realise it because he’ll be swanning around doing the bare minimum at home (a bit of polishing here and there, fixing what’s broken and so on) but the day to day drudgery of cooking, cleaning and washing will be the dawn-to-dusk job of his wife. Soon children will arrive and there will be literally no time for her to pursue her creative goals.

In short, this guy has plenty of Shortcomings. But it’s up to the reader to pick up on those, because it’s written in first person so we have no detached narrator to guide us in this direction. Would a guy from 1893 have had the same reaction as I just had?

DESIRE

At the beginning of the story, the narrator’s number one Desire is to find a nice country house for himself and his new wife so they can lead an artistic country life together.

OPPONENT

They find themselves a housekeeper but it goes tits up when she leaves. Now he will have less time to pursue his creative goals. The Minotaur Opposition is of course the spooks in the church.

Faced with Mrs Dorman’s absence, Laura worries that “I shall have to cook the dinners and wash up all the hateful, greasy plates … and we shall never have any time for [creative] work.”. The statues will not stand for her transgressions, and a collision between flesh and blood and calcified tradition is inevitable. In this respect, it is notable that they no longer have names, for they are less individuals in themselves than representatives of a reactionary brutality that destroys those who oppose it.[…] Quiescent for most of the time, the forces embodied by the stone knights have not been wholly vanquished by those of progress and modernity and are yet capable of wreaking havoc when roused.

Nick Freeman

If that last paragraph isn’t a perfect description of misogyny, I don’t know what is. Nesbit’s Stone Knights = misogyny.

Sexism is the ideology that supports patriarchal social relations, but misogyny enforces it when there’s a threat of that system going away. — Kate Manne

PLAN

He will try to persuade their excellent housekeeper to come back. He will also wheedle out of her why it is she has left, presumably so he can tell her that her reasons for leaving are not adequate. He doesn’t exactly set out to solve the mystery of What Spooked The Housekeeper, but he does happen to wander into the church at the exact time on All Saint’s that the statues are meant to come to life. (Coincidence works fine in gothic fiction, which is inherently melodramatic.)

BIG STRUGGLE

While the narrator is chatting to the local blokes about spooks his wife is busy getting murdered. This happens off-the-page. Though at first pretty comical, consider this a symbolic rape and the finger as phallus. Not so comical now. No wonder that was left off the page. Writers are often advised to put the Battle on the page, otherwise the reader feels cheated. A lot of build-up over nothing. Bear in mind that this story is a Gothic ghost story in the same way that Alice Munro’s “The Love Of A Good Woman” is a murder mystery — i.e., not at all. Readers expecting genre fiction may be disappointed. Why did Nesbit choose the husband as narrator, which meant he wouldn’t be there to see his wife get murdered? Well, first, what we can’t see is indeed more scary. So there’s that. But also, this isn’t about the spooky walking statues at all. It’s about the young husband and his patriarchal attitude towards his wife.

ANAGNORISIS

In her ghost stories Nesbit uses the supernatural as a catalyst to precipitate an emotional crisis. This technique achieved criticism of Victorian proprieties.

Nesbit has used Catholic iconography to critique traditions of divination. After we learn she is dead we realise Laura was not protected by all those candles at all. She is ‘wedded’ to the stone knights, not to her mortal husband. Nesbit’s marble knights were once men, part of a Roman Catholic tradition which allowed their wealthy relatives to buy them a place beside the altar, even though the knights had done terrible things (‘deeds’) in their lifetimes. Of course, they’re continuing to do terrible things beyond the grave. They have no place beside the altar. Nesbit is critiquing the practice. And if we haven’t realised it by now, we know that if Jack had treated his wife as a fully-functioning adult and warned her of impending doom, Laura might still be alive.

NEW SITUATION

The ending has been described by David Stuart Davies as “cruel and unhappy”. Unlike more straight-up gothic horrors, there’s no suggestion that the characters are being protected by Providence.

EXTRAPOLATION

I extrapolate that this guy won’t be getting his housekeeper back. I guess he’ll leave the area and find another wife, and he’ll never be quite the same again. If the young woman was killed, can this be a feminist story? The question has been asked. I argue that it can because, as I keep saying, subversion works better than inversion (in which ‘inversion’ would result in an ending in which the vulnerable maiden toughens up and defeats her opponents).

“Man-Size In Marble” is instead an example of subversion, but not at a plot level — at a metaphorical level. Nesbit kills Laura not to punish her, but to demonstrate the latent violent inherent in the sexual politics of the period. Many New Women are confronted by representatives of the patriarchal order, but the encounter is usually staged in solidly realist surroundings like those of Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). By injecting Gothic fantasy into what seems at first an unexceptional tale of newly wedded bliss, Nesbit is able to provide both the shock expected of the genre, especially in short stories, and imbue her fiction with an underlying sense of ideological dissatisfaction.

Nick Freeman

When Everyone Else Is A Ghost

Sergeant Maaka stands outside a ghost house in Wellington Paranormal

You may not believe in ghosts to enjoy ghost stories. I don’t either. But once you understand how ghost stories work, you’ll understand how tools of persuasion are used in other realms. Studying the ghost story is a fun way to study the techniques of persuasion.

Ghost stories have plenty of other functions, too.



There is a category of ghost story in which an ordinary person from the living world encounters not just a single scary ghost, but an entire room full of uncanny individuals. We suspect they are ghosts; this is subsequently confirmed.

What is so appealing about these stories, and what deeper psychological need do they satisfy in the audience?

Also, if you want to write one yourself, how are they structured? Once we learn the template writers can put our own fresh spin on it.

I’ll be looking at two stories of this category. The first is presented as a factual first person encounter — the “Lost In Time” episode of WYNC’s Spooked podcast (Episode 2 of Season 1). You can subscribe to the Spooked podcast via any podcast app for free. I don’t for a second believe this story as truth. After studying the story, this becomes obvious.

The second example has a completely different tone, presented as horror comedy — the “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” episode of New Zealand’s Wellington Paranormal series (Episode 3 of Season 1). This episode is currently available via SBS in Australia, and you can purchase it via YouTube from elsewhere.

This is the general tone of the show. The show is a spoofy blend of The X-files and reality cop shows which are popular in New Zealand and in Australia, such as Police Ten 7.

There is already a comedy element to this show, though the comedy is somewhat muted by the fact we are laughing at the misfortunes of real people, often disenfranchised, often addicted to substances.

Another similar show is NZ Police College, only the police officers are new recruits.

Because of the inherent comedy factor, these shows are therefore ripe for a spoof treatment. And horror is the perfect blend. (Comedy and horror often go really well in stories for kids as well, e.g. Courage The Cowardly Dog.)

THE APPEAL OF GHOST WORLD STORIES

  • In these stories the audience gets a taste of what death beyond the grave might look like. Since no one really knows what death will be like, fictional possibilities are endlessly fascinating.
  • Likewise, the idea that time can stand still is appealing, especially when it feels life has sped right up and will be over very soon.
  • Supernatural element aside, we love stories in which characters have a near death experience but come out the other side unscathed.
  • We are drawn to the uncanny, and these stories are nothing if not uncanny.
  • Related tropes are The Inn of No Return (parodied in the Courage the Cowardly Dog pilot) and Hell Hotel. At TV Tropes, the theory is that hotels are inherently uncanny — they feel familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. This room with a bed in it… it’s kind of like your own bedroom, but it’s really not. I wonder if Foucault might call the hotel room a heterotopia.
  • The hotel or pub is therefore a popular setting for an uncanny story, but basically any everyday setting can be seconded for this treatment. All the writer needs to do is make it familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. Details are therefore important.

WRITING TEMPLATE FOR ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS A GHOST’ GHOST STORY

Individual stories will differ, but here’s a classic example and a place to start. Notice how this structure is carefully set up with the main purpose of persuading the audience this really happened.

Note, too, how the audience starts off in audience superior position (knowing more than the main character), then we are alongside them, and finally we are learning from the main character. The writer has guided us from a superior position to an inferior one. The narrator/viewpoint character has been turned into our mentor and guide. The audience doesn’t even know this has happened because we are caught up in the spookiness of it all.

This is the power of persuasion at work. Tall tales of any kind work in the same way.

  1. SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD — the more every day and realistic, the better. If you can’t be specific about place (because it didn’t happen), at least be very specific about season/day of the week/time of day.
  2. SHORTCOMING OF MAIN CHARACTERS — likely to be that they don’t know supernatural dangers when stumbling headfirst into it, refusing to believe their own intuition
  3. DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE — what did the main character(s) set out to do before they ran into these ghosts?
  4. ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD — emphasis on the entry, like a portal fantasy
  5. ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG — emphasise the uncanny
  6. OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS — who may act like nothing is wrong and also robotically
  7. DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS — anachronous details, out-of-place objects, creepy details
  8. DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT — one object will stand out as wrong and weird
  9. AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS — not a revelation to us, just a confirmation
  10. CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION — like us, our characters can’t believe this is happening
  11. PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD — they still can’t believe it even though the audience knows what’s going on
  12. REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD — then, after us, they do believe it
  13. BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER — the ghosts no longer act robotically. They ‘snap’.
  14. ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD — may be a chase scene
  15. BACK TO SAFETY — emphasis on details of the every day world, and how nothing feels dangerous here
  16. DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? — character thinks they are losing their mind
  17. POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED — character may return to the scene or encounter someone else who confirms a similar experience, or read some document etc.
  18. NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT — if the story is set in the past the writer delivers us safely back to the present. The link between past and present is established to create an Overview Effect and we are further persuaded to trust the writer/narrator with our psychological/emotional safety.

Those last three steps function as a unit, as a kind of epilogue and you may get a simple Self-Revelation phase right after the Battle instead.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “LOST IN TIME”

SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD

Northwest Wisconsin, 20 years ago, 3 a.m. “A place with tiny communities and people living far apart from one another.” The woman telling this story comes from the city. She feels like a ‘stranger’ coming into these wild parts. “It’s hard to get reactions out of people. They’re friendly enough but you don’t really get close.”

‘Coming back from’ a bar in Ashland Wisconsin, which is a real, geolocatable place, but the place where this happens is described ambiguously. If I wanted to find this place I wouldn’t be able to. There are many roadhouses around Wisconsin, and all could go by the name of ‘Roadhouse Saloon’.

Pitch black, starless night. “You couldn’t see past the headlights. The forest on each side was swallowed in darkness.” With the verb ‘swallowed’, the setting is described as if it is alive.

SHORTCOMING

Glynn Washington who introduces these Spooked stories has this to say, and it applies to the ‘shortcoming’ of all the main characters:

“We ignore the warnings. We jump the fence, we peek through the keyhole and open up the dark closet”.

In other words, our human shortcoming is that we don’t believe inexplicable things when we first encounter them. We get into things that are way over our heads. When we escape with our lives, we are lucky.

In this particular story, the problem faced by the two main characters is that they are in the middle of wilderness Wisconsin in the middle of the night and they need a rest stop. (I’m not sure what that means because it’s not a local phrase — do they need to use the toilet? This is a hole in the story, because the narrator doesn’t actually use the toilet once she gets to the bar — instead she has a drink. The last thing you want when you’re busting to use the loo.)

The woman telling the story walks with a cane, which is good for the story because it lampshades the reason why she can’t just crouch on the side of the road. In the ‘pitch black’ and with no one else around this wouldn’t otherwise be a problem, right? There’s another good reason for the cane — this is a very identifiable thing specific to her, which comes in handy at the climax.

DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE

Characters who find themselves in a spooky, supernatural world didn’t actually mean to find themselves there. They set out on a journey with another goal in mind. What is that goal?

Here, narrator and Bob want to get home after spending the night at another bar. They want to find a rest stop.  At first they appear to get what they want: The Roadhouse Saloon.

ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD

Like portal fantasy, the narrator must focus on the entry to the supernatural world. In this story, the swinging doors of a saloon are emphasised numerous times. This world is inexplicably uncanny.

ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG

‘Uncanny’ describes the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. Therefore, the writer must go out of their way to present the setting as both familiar and off-kilter.

OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS

UNSURPRISED GHOSTS

The other characters are not at all surprised to see Bob and the narrator. This helps the characters feel like nothing is wrong, but we know something is wrong because we know we are reading a ghost story. A helpful trick for the characters in these other worlds: Make them look like they are expecting the newcomers, as if fate has a hand in all this.

DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS

There’s a weird vibe in here — normally, as the narrator explained earlier, people turn away to newcomers, but these ones are unusually friendly.

This makes the audience suspect these people are false allies.

The setting contains anachronous objects, i.e. the old jukebox (which doesn’t look worn). It plays “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker. Although this story is set 20 years ago (the late 1990s), this is a song from 1961.

DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT

In this story there is an old mural on the wall of a saloon scene with swinging saloon doors, women sitting at a bar, gamblers sitting at a gambling table. “It had perspective but it was really unusual, garish perspective. It was almost tunnel-like but not quite, almost floorlit.” Bob notices that the men at the pool table are the same as the men playing cards in the bar. Gradually it dawns on them that all the characters in the bar are also in the painting. And there is no one else in that painting.

AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS

They realise they are the only people in the bar who aren’t also in the painting. The audience has it confirmed that the characters are ghosts. Of course, we knew that all along, so the revelation is simply a creepy confirmation rather than a revelation.

CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION

Bob and the narrator try to rationalise the scenario: Clearly these people in the bar and in the painting are regulars, so a painter must have made a cool mural starring locals.

PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD

The narrator tries to ask the bartender about it. But he ‘shrug nods’ as if he doesn’t understand the words. The ladies don’t change expression at all when they are asked. These are clearly horror archetypes, with their robotic behaviour.

This is also a feature of comedy archetypes, which is why horror can so easily tip towards comedy, and why the horror-comedy blend is so often successful. This particular story is a genuinely scary story, especially for those who believe it’s true.

REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD

The characters in the setting are not going to help them to understand this scenario, so the narrator and Bob rely on their own powers of deduction and observation:

The only people taking a sip of their drink are the narrator and her companion Bob.

BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER

The people in the bar all start to watch the newcomers. During this big struggle phase, various tropes are utilised:

VIEWPOINT CHARACTER STILL ISN’T AS SCARED AS THE AUDIENCE IS

Now, if we, the audience were in this situation, we would get out of there. But the main character in a horror story has the shortcoming that they don’t really understand how close they are to death. So curiosity overrides fear. In this case, Bob isn’t scared and persuades the narrator to stay even when it’s clear to the audience that they should get out of there.

Everything is on repeat

“Let’s Twist AGAIN” is ironic. Ghosts stuck in an earthly realm are doomed to repeat a single night for the rest of eternity. Presumably, their motivation is to mix things up a bit by welcoming people from the live world into their ghostly fold.

Rule of Three in Storytelling

“When someone plays a song twice that could be their favourite song, but when they play it a third time, you know something is wrong.”

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE

The mural changes to include two shadowy figures outside the door. They get closer to the figures in the mural. These figures resemble Bob and the narrator. The woman in the mural is walking with a cane.

It looks as though those two figures are ‘being filled in’ on the mural. Narrator, Bob and audience know in unison: These people are near death. If they stick around they will become one of the ghosts.

ESCAPE FROM SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD

Bob and narrator hightail it for the door. Every one of the ghosts stands up and turns to them.

CHASE SCENE

The guy who has been playing the record comes after them.

BACK TO SAFETY

But as soon as the door shuts the music stops instantly. The lights in the window go out. It is silent and black as if everything inside no longer exists. There are no cars in the carpark this time.

They speed out of there shaking, trying to catch their breath.

DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?

10 miles down the road they ask each other if it really happened. Two people have experienced the exact same thing. Folie a deux (shared psychosis) is a thing, but we’re not meant to consider that. The fact that two people saw the same thing is supposed to be a confirmation.

POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED

In this sequence, something from the real world must connect to something from the supposed supernatural world.

Bob and narrator tell an outsider (narrator’s sister). They all return to the scene to check it out. The audience learns that this place itself does exist.

JUXTAPOSITION BETWEEN COSY PRESENT AGAINST FREAKY PAST INCIDENT

The characters ‘feel compelled’ to go back into the saloon. The place is full. People are having food and drinks. The narrator recognises none of the faces but the people in the mural are all still there.

CHARACTER CHECKS DETAILS

Like a classic amateur detective, the narrator checks the scene for evidence. She notices the jukebox is no longer the Wurlitzer. Chubby Checker isn’t even on there.

The bartender is a young woman, not a man. The bartender tells the narrator (and us) that she and her dad are the only ones who tend bar, and they closed at midnight on Saturday night.

NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT

The saloon is still there. Now it’s part of a strip mall with an all night gas station and gift shops. But the mural is still there.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THINGS THAT DO THE BUMP IN THE NIGHT”

The Bump is a type of dance introduced in the 1970s.

SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD

The historical setting of a 70s party makes a mockery of the fact that most ghost stories go further back in time e.g. back to a Gothic era. New Zealand doesn’t have a Gothic history to speak of, either. So this one is set in a Wellington house.

SHORTCOMING

Officer Kyle Minogue (a joke about Australian singer Kylie Minogue) and Officer O’Leary have the same shortcoming in every episode of Wellington Paranormal — they blunder forth doing their jobs as low-mimetic characters who aren’t very good at what they do. Especially considering their profession, they are wholly unobservant. They never learn from past incidents, like true comic characters.

So when Minogue and O’Leary stumble into a ghost world, they are too unobservant and grounded in the safety of the real world to be much perturbed. They will come close to death but they won’t realise the extent of it.

DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE

Minogue and O’Leary talk to the camera and tell us the goal: To get the party music turned down. In conversation between each other, they both agree it’s not their type of music.

ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD

Minogue and O’Leary enter the house as police officers might, narrating their steps for us while using police-esque language such as ‘proceed with caution’. The narration allows us to focus on the portal entry. As mentioned above, this part can’t be skipped or glossed over.

Entry to the other world is given extra emphasis with insertion of the intro credits after this point.

ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG

Wellington Paranormal has a way of handling this which is utilised across all of the different episodes:

Minogue and O’Leary see something wacko, they take it back to their boss at the station (Sergeant Maaka), who makes up some bullshit, super wacko theory to explain what they actually saw.

In this case, Sergeant Maaka draws a ridiculous picture of a creature with antennae, using them as a ‘self-defence mechanism’. The pseudo-scientific language of Sergeant Maaka coupled with the ‘police-esque’ language of Minogue and O’Leary make for a comedy with plenty of language based humour.

Minogue and O’Leary get drawn into this story, but they eventually land on the theory of ‘poltergeists’, which is correct for the setting.

OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS

When we first meet them, these ghosts don’t register the existence of the police officers. The officers resort to speaking to unruly ghosts like school teachers, which is a technique writer Jemaine Clement uses on the character of Murray in Flight of the Conchords. This undermines authority when no one takes him seriously.

A secondary opponent is brought in — the medium Chloe Patterson, a false ally. This medium derails the goal of getting the noise sorted out at this residence. Minogue thinks his grandpa is talking to him. (It is revealed subsequently that the grandpa is still alive.) This sequence is satire of the medium genre of TV shows. This establishes Chloe as a fake.

DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS

Minogue and O’Leary revisit the empty house with the medium. They walk around with their torches and we see all the details.

DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT

In this story, the central supernatural object is a birthday cake with candles on it. The birthday cake itself isn’t especially imbued with powers, but stands for the 20th anniversary nature of the party.

AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS

“It’s a seventies ghost!”

Minogue

This works especially well for a dumb character because we’ve already worked that out.

CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION

Because Minogue is basically stupid, he doesn’t realise he’s walked in on ghosts in the hot tub. He thinks he’s walked in on real people. So this step is subverted.

PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD

Minogue does realise something’s amiss when the medium gets sucked into the spirit world.

Now he attempts to understand the situation by:

  • Working out there are two toilets in the house, by agreeing to rendezvous at this point
  • Making heavy use of the walkie-talkie

They conclude, falsely, that they might be in the ‘upside down’, an allusion to Stranger Things.

AM I GOING CRAZY?

At one point O’Leary says, “Are you sure you’re not just fantasising?” Minogue replies “My fantasies are set in the nineties” (when he would’ve been a teenager).

REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD

The toilet gag derails these characters, which means this step is subverted. These two never really work things out, or never really seem to.

When lipstick draws on the mirror, O’Leary says, “I think I’ve got a bit of a situation here,” which means she knows something is going on, but not to the point where she can put it into words.

BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER

Subverted. A ghost writes words on a mirror in blood (lipstick). At first it appears to say ‘Welcome to Hell’ but the gag is that it continues writing: ‘Welcome to Helen and Ray’s 20th Anniversary’.

The terrifying becomes far less terrifying. “I thought it was going to be way more scary than that.”

However, they’ve still lost the medium.

“I just saw a hideous face at the window!”

It turns out to be Sergeant Maaka who has turned up to help. The near death experience is subverted as he tries to climb down from a very low window. “I appreciate the assist.” He has come with new information. The house used to belong to “Raymond Saint John. The party king.”

Borrowing from the detective genre, the name of the opponent (the criminal) is now known. The amps up the (comic) danger.

Sergeant Maaka delivers a metadiegetic backstory of one horrific night in 1977 when a series of events took place. Two people were found deceased when a table lamp fell into a spa pool. A man died when he got tangled up in a crocheted blanket.

Sergeant Maaka flops into a chair dramatically when learning of the ghosts.

The crocheted blanket rises up so they taser it. (New Zealand cops don’t normally carry guns.) While this near death experience is going on, O’Leary comically narrates what’s going on.

REVELATION ABOUT HOW THE SUPERNATURAL WORLD WORKS

This is where “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” departs from the structure of the Spooked episode above. The Spooked episode has a drawn out, multiple step ‘epilogue’ sort of sequence in which the characters return to the scene of the supernatural happenings.

Here, Minogue has a more classic revelation (which comes after the near-death Battle. Comically, Minogue is trying to work out a pattern. He opens and shuts the toilet door, each time expecting the toilet to transform from the 1970s to the present. But instead, it’s always just a normal toilet.

O’Leary summons them back by asking nicely.

But the Billy T. James ghost character proves to be belligerent and cheeky and won’t listen to requests to shut the noisy party down.

Inspired by a typical high school scenario, there is a juvenile scene in which the officers confront the ghosts. The Party King insults O’Leary by calling her a man and then a Nana.

ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD

O’Leary tells the party goers that they’re all deceased. They take the news on the chin and each leave, because it turns out some of them are over it. At the bottom of the stairwell they fall into a hole in the ground with flames coming out of it.

BACK TO SAFETY

The officers manage to persuade the ghosts to move on to the afterlife. We see them outside, in front of their patrol car, which is how we saw them in the very first scene. The story is now circular.

DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?

This step is subverted in a comedy. The funniest thing about Minogue and O’Leary is their partial obliviousness. So in lieu of this, we get Sergeant Maaka talking to the camera, assuring us that they are doing their job and the general public has nothing to worry about.

POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED

At first the audience is encouraged to doubt if this is really a ghost story because the sergeants have the Party King in the back seat of the patrol car.

As the underling sergeants deliver a moral lecture to the camera saying, “You can party til you drop, just not after you drop,” the Party King floats up through the roof of the vehicle and scurries off.

As usual, the episode ends with the NZ Police slogan: “Safe communities together”.

Ghost Stories Are Not About Ghosts

A Red Skel(e)ton In Your Closet, edited by Red Skelton, illustrated by Jim Flora, pub Grosset & Dunlap 1965

What’s the point of ghost stories?

A really good and scary ghost story focuses me. It pulls me from my ordinary, self-focused fears and connects me with something older and more mysterious. 

Claire Cronin at Rumpus

The ghost story was designed for the short form. It emerged a long time ago, from folklore and oral legends; some of our oldest stories are ghost stories. In horror literature, one place where the genre first appeared was through inset narratives in Gothic novels. Within a larger story, one character would tell a tale of the returning dead. This served not so much to further the larger plot as to deepen and derange it. Like a ghost itself, the ghost story is an interruption of the present. And the scene of a ghost story’s telling is, like a nightmare, a vivid and emotional reality inside a larger, more mundane one.

WHAT TO READ WHEN YOU WANT A GHOST STORY, OLD OR NEW
BY CLAIRE CRONIN

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.

‘I believe in whatever these feelings are.’

Meg Rosoff
The Ghost Stories by M R James, 1973, Illustration by Charles Keeping
The Ghost Stories by M R James, 1973, Illustration by Charles Keeping

PERFECTLY GOOD REASONS FOR WRITING GHOST STORIES

  1. To encourage readers to believe in ghosts. To encourage readers to consider there’s something beyond our own realities.
  2. To create a temporary setting in which ghosts do exist, to allow us to enjoy that frisson of temporary horripilation.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

GHOSTS AS PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS

In many ghost stories the ghost is a projection of the psychology of the person to whom it appears. If a character is seeing a ghost, this means there’s something unresolved in the character’s psychology. The Dickens ghost is a great example of this. Here’s how those stories go: Once the character’s issues were resolved they aren’t seeing the ghost no more.

For this reason, some storytellers call character flaws and psychic wound theghost.

GHOSTS AS EXPRESSIONS OF EMOTIONS

The following is excerpted from a 1974 young adult novel by Penelope Lively, and explains how old ghost stories can still be relevant in modern times. In a metafictional discussion about a school performance of Macbeth, 14 year old Clare speaks to Aunt Susan and Aunt Anne:

Aunt Susan didn’t agree. “They are psychological ghosts. You shouldn’t see them. They are an indication of Macbeth’s private guilt and anguish.”

“Surely you are being too modern?” said Aunt Anne, retrieving hair. “To the seventeenth-century mind ghosts were perfectly acceptable. Portents, maybe, expressions of guilt, if you like, but quite real and visible.”

The aunts argued, gently. The library clock whirred, clicked, struck five.

“What do people have now, then?” said Clare. “Instead of ghosts?”

“Have?”

“Have in their minds, instead of ghosts. If they’re in a state about something, like Macbeth?”

“I suppose obsessions would be the modern substitute,” said Aunt Susan. “Neuroses of one kind or another. Burying anxiety in some kind of obsessive fancy.”

Imagining something was going on that wasn’t?

“That kind of thing.”

The House In Norham Gardens

The uneasy feeling that we are not alone is remarkably common. So common I’d guess almost everybody has experienced it:

About halfway up the steps, every time, I was overcome with an unshakeable certainty that there was a monster behind me, chasing me. I won’t say I never get that feeling anymore, but I force myself to walk up the stairs slowly and calmly when it happens now, swallowing my fear. That’s called being an adult.

The sense of someone near you when no one is actually there is called “feeling of presence” or FOP

The Brain Makes Its Own Ghosts

I am a dark spirit, the ghost announced grandly. I am your inheritance, your grandmother’s legacy. I am yours to command.

Suraya is delighted when her witch grandmother gifts her a pelesit. She names her ghostly companion Pink, and the two quickly become inseparable.

But Suraya doesn’t know that pelesits have a dark side—and when Pink’s shadows threaten to consume them both, they must find enough light to survive . . . before they are both lost to the darkness.

GHOSTS AS EXPRESSIONS OF ONE’S OWN MADNESS

Claire Messud touches upon the relevance of ghost stories to modern life in her novel The Woman Upstairs:

There is a story by Chekhov…that had fascinated me in college. The black winter of my second year, assailed by doubt at not having gone to art school, I’d read it over and over. ‘The Black Monk’: about a man who imagines himself visited by a ghostly monk, with whom he has life’s vital conversations, about creativity, and greatness, and the meaning of existence. The monk assures him of his importance, of his exceptional talents. Then he realizes that the monk isn’t real; that he himself must be mad. But how much better to be made in the company of the monk, than to be sane, and constrained in his aspirations, and alone.

“The Wer-Trout” by Annie Proulx is not a ghost story but draws from the supernatural ghost story in a tale which is realism. In classic modern horror story, the supernatural creature of the story is made up by a drunk man’s imagination, but in the Anagnorisis phase he sees himself reflected and reflected back is the face of the creature he’s concocted to scare his fishing buddy. The function of the Wer-Trout in Proulx’s story is very similar to the function of the ghost in Messud’s novel: imagined supernatural creature as outworking of one’s own frightening parts. This is generally how modern writers use ghosts, monsters and supernatural events — to allow a character insight into the inner darkness of themselves.

Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it, can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling.

This can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.

Psychology Today

WRITING SUPERNATURAL STORIES

For storytelling purposes, I divide supernatural stories into two separate groups:

  1. The supernatural element is part of the plot. The writer creates a full fantasy setting in which supernatural elements are not only explained, but they also have their own detailed lore. Enjoyment from reading these stories derives partly from getting to know a supernatural milieu so different from our own. Twilight would be an example of that.
  2. The supernatural element is part of the symbol web. The writer is probably writing a story set in the real world, or something quite close to it. The origin of the supernatural element is never explained. It comes, it makes its impact on the main character(s), and it may leave at the end, or hang around to create chaos beyond the story. “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is an example of that kind of story. We don’t know where the whitebait river came from, or anything about it, but Hulme uses the supernatural fish to say something about the human condition. Neil Gaiman’s short stories are often like that, too: teenagers gatecrash a party and find they’ve gatecrashed an alien party. We don’t know where the aliens came from or why they’re at the party — the story is only about the human experience of encountering something very strange and beyond us.

Related Links

The Science of Ghosts: What’s Really Happening When Your Brain Detects a Ghoul? from Big Think

Header illustration: A Red Skel(e)ton In Your Closet, edited by Red Skelton, illustrated by Jim Flora, pub Grosset & Dunlap 1965

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Ghosts, Flaws and the Psychic Wound in Fiction

psychic wound

There are various words to describe the event from a main character’s past which holds them back in the present: the fatal flaw, the psychic wound, the ghost.

“Our culture believes strong individuals can transcend their circumstances. I myself don’t much enjoy books by Hardy or Dreiser or Wharton, where the outside world is so strong, so overwhelming, that the individual hasn’t a chance. I get impatient, I keep feeling that somehow the deck is stacked unfairly. That is the point, of course, but my feeling is that if that’s true, I don’t want to play. I prefer to move to another table where I can retain my illusion, if illusion it be, that I’m working only against only probabilities, and have a chance to win. Then if you lose, you can blame it on your own poor playing. That is called a tragic flaw, and like guilt, it’s very comforting. You can go on believing that there really is a right way, and you just didn’t find it.”

Marilyn French

The word ‘ghost’ may come from Ambrose Bierce:

Ghost: The outward and visible sign of an inward fear. 

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

I’ve even heard the word ‘scars’.

A character becomes their scars. That’s not to say they’re defined by them, but their responses to them are.

@SamSykesSwears

Fatal flaws aren’t always fatal and suggest they tend to be inborn. Fatal flaw refers to what I prefer to call the psychological shortcoming, and the ghost is a bit different.

‘Psychic wound’ is good, but other people use the word ‘ghost’. (e.g. Karl Iglesias) This is even better because I can visualise this thing as an alter-character following the main character around, actively getting in the way of their goals. However, ghosts refer to supernatural creatures, so let’s stick with ‘psychic wound’.

Most often, the Ghost involves traumas such as abandonment, betrayal, or a tragic accident which leaves the character permanently injured or disfigured, or causes guilt if the character feels he has caused another’s death. It can also be the death of a loved one. Basically, any traumatic incident that created a sense of loss, or a psychological emotional wound. […] The difference between Backstory and Ghost is that the first molds the character’s personalty, whereas the latter is still an open wound which haunts the character in your story and affects his inner need. Both, if interesting, can add emotional complexity and fascination to your character.

Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Notice Iglesias mentions injuries and disfigurements. A disfigured character is a trope of yore, and modern writers need to be careful about that one. In these more enlightened times we know that a disfigurement or injury or missing right hand does not actually say anything about that person at all, but earlier stories conflated physical wounds with evil and mal-intent.

MOST COMMON TYPE OF PSYCHIC WOUND

The ghost itself acts as one of your main character’s opponents. One of. It’s rarely enough in a story to make your main character their ‘own worst enemy’. The ghost will be an add-on to your opposition — not the main bread and butter. (Unless you’re writing an experimental short story.)

THE FATAL FLAW

The most devastating ghost or psychic wound is sometimes called a fatal flaw.

In The Secret History, Donna Tartt opens Chapter One with the following paragraph:

Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I ued to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

Donna Tartt

The concept ‘fatal claw’ is clearly well-known, in everyday language as well as among storytellers, or Tartt’s metafictive opening wouldn’t work.

DO CHILD CHARACTERS NEED PSYCHIC WOUNDS?

What if your character is very young? A toddler in a picture book probably doesn’t have a psychic wound. They haven’t lived long enough. And if they are already damaged individuals, you’re probably not writing a children’s book. In a carnivalesque story they definitely won’t be damanged, because a carnivalesque story is all about having fun — for both the character and the reader.

Even a middle grade kid who has made it all the way through primary school doesn’t necessarily have a psychic wound. A lot of middle grade characters are a stand-in for The Every Child, where plot is given preference.

PSYCHIC WOUNDS AND UTOPIAN SETTINGS

Less common is the story in which a ghost is not possible because the hero lives in a paradise world. Instead of starting the story in slavery — in part because of his ghost — the hero begins free. But an attack will soon change all that.

This second type of ghost is far more common in children’s literature than in adult film. This makes sense, since children’s literature is where you will find many more genuine utopias (well, up until middle grade).

What about the first category, though? Do kids ever have ghosts/psychic wounds in books starring kids, for kids?

CHILDREN WHO DO HAVE PSYCHIC WOUNDS

Being an orphan is a pretty popular psychic wound for children, and there are many, many orphans in children’s literature. For the writer, this gets the parents right out of the way so children can have their independent adventures but it works doubly to create a psychic wound. The great thing about orphans is, even for child readers who are not themselves orphans, the fear of becoming an orphan is ever-present.

PARENTS WHO TRANSFER THEIR OWN PSYCHIC WOUNDS

Oftentimes the parent is the one with the ghost. This ghost affects the child, because the child is completely under the control of the adult.

Perhaps the child isn’t an orphan but has lost someone close — commonly a grandparent. Lyndsey’s character arc is set off in Freaks and Geeks after the death of her beloved grandmother, when she decides things are going to have to change around here. Suddenly aware of her own mortality, she seems to realise she can’t lead her one and only best life if she lives it like her own parents are.

In middle grade and above, rejection might take another form as the main character realises they don’t have the friends they want. Peer rejection.

This moves into possible romantic rejection in young adult literature, though the main character usually finds someone by the end, following ‘a Jack for every Jill’ ideology.

One thing is clear: fear of abandonment and rejection crops up time and again in children’s stories. This is no doubt connected to the fact that children are developmentally unable to care for themselves. Without adults in their lives, they would not survive.

Fear of abandonment morphs into fear of romantic/professional/social rejection in stories for adults. This, alone, is not a ghost but a psychological shortcoming, but once the audience is told that the main character has suffered from actual abandonment in the past, this is a ghost.

HOW TO WRITE A CHARACTER GHOST

The ghost is connected to the main character’s psychological shortcoming and desire, so get that out of the way first.

WITHHOLD DETAILS

Most writers don’t let the audience in on the ghost right away. They keep it as one of their plot revelations.

That said, occasionally the ghost appears in the first few scenes. Ghosts don’t have to be used as plot reveals. They can be introduced early as points of interest.

HOW TO REVEAL CHARACTER GHOST

Commonly in film: another character explains the hero’s ghost somewhere in the first third of the story. If writing cinematically, novelists may choose to do this also, but we don’t have to. The narrator can reveal the backstory of the ghost in the narrative summaries without it having to come via dialogue.

IRONIC BACKSTORY

There is a case to be made for keeping backstory right out of any story unless it is ironic backstory. In other words, leave out the backstory the audience could have guessed anyway. If your main character is a 9-year-old boy who lives in the middle class suburbs of midwestern America we don’t need to be told about how he started elementary school when he was five, likes to watch Pixar movies and loves to eat pie. This boy’s backstory becomes ironic if you tell us his family used to live in their car, won the lottery and moved to this suburb last year.

Does advice to avoid non-ironic backstory apply equally to this specific type of backstory — the fatal flaw? I’ll argue no.

Case in point: sometimes we’re given the backstory of a villain which explains why they’ve ended up so villainous. If a villain became a villain because they were mistreated in the past this isn’t ironic — it is fully expected. However, the story of the fatal flaw must be inherently interesting and, if introduced at all, will probably have its own fully-formed story attached. (Some might call this a subplot.)

Note that a fully-formed story does not have to be lengthy. A 20 second TV commercial will be a fully-formed story.

COMMON TROPES RELATED TO THE PSYCHIC WOUND

Some of these tropes work well time and again — others you might avoid for ethical/overdone reasons.

In crime fiction, time and again we find the alcohol/tobacco addicted, workaholic, mechanically driven cop who is bad with people but can somehow read people well enough to apply their knowledge in their detective work. Most lately we have a number of autistic savants, or characters who tend to be read that way by an audience who know that one variation of autism (without the other bits which make up an entire individual).

In some romance imprints there are a lot of laconic men who are nevertheless good in bed because they absorb what their partners want by osmosis, or by relying on some kind of naked animal instinct. In supernatural romance, sometimes these men really are actual beasts of some kind. He may have been hurt by women in the past, or let down. Finally, in this story, he meets a woman who is not like all the others. Works as a fantasy; not good if applied to real life.

Mothers in horrors are almost always ‘fatally flawed’. Hana Shafi explains why this is a problem:

Marge [Nightmare On Elm Street] and her alcoholism, Wendy [The Shining] and her nervous passiveness, Maureen [Scream] and her infidelity. For centuries, real-life mothers have been blamed for social ills, both perceived and real. Mothers who work are neglecting their families; mothers who don’t work aren’t contributing to society or progressing the women’s movement; mothers who try to do it all are just kidding themselves. We plaster celebrity mothers on the covers of magazine and put them on informal trials: Are they good mothers or bad mothers? Are they worthy mothers? Are they capable of protecting their child? Will they make the right sacrifices, and often?

If horror movies are warnings, then they also act as our prescriptive fantasies for what happens if you’re a “bad” mother, if you don’t pay attention to what your kid is doing, if you opt out of the nuclear family dynamic. They say: be better or, essentially, be punished. Horror movie audiences are encouraged to feel critical of mothers. We might ask, “Will the monster win?” but it often feels like the true questions in horror are the same ones we ask of celebrity mothers, and of mothers everywhere: Are they good enough? Is everything bad that happens to the child the mother’s fault? Just as in real life, it seems, mothers are held responsible for anything and everything, no matter what they do.

The Walrus

RELATED CONCEPT: THE SOUL TOUPEE

This is a concept invented by writer/cartoonist Tim Kreider and his friend. He writes about this in his essay “The Csar’s Daughter” in the collection We Learn Nothing. This essay is a wonderful example of a character sketch — a ‘fabulist’ (liar) friend who leads Kreider into a profound series of insights into why people lie and how others are complicit.

Here, he explains the Soul Toupee, which I feel is related to the Ghost:

Years ago a friend of mine and i used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink Very Large Beers from 32-ounce Styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLBs, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee. Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted. Most of the time other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Hey—got ’em all fooled!

Tim Kreider

This concept is so useful for writers because it links two vital aspects of characterisation:

  1. The Ghost
  2. The Mask, which I have written about elsewhere.

FURTHER READING

Brainstorming Your Character’s Emotional Wound by Angela Ackerman

How to Write Essential Backstory Elements from Stavros Halvatzis

Fiction’s Wounding Event: Where Character and Incident Meet by Michelle Hoover

Character Secrets from Writer Unboxed