I have a soft spot for ghosts, I always have - even the books about other supernatural creatures I've enjoyed in the past, at their base, are ghosts: Carmilla comes to mind, so do, in a different way, the elves in JRR Tolkien (part of why I didn't enjoy the movie version of Fellowship - the only movie I saw - was that the nature of elves as a tragic, only half-present race felt untapped, but that's a story for another day). When I was young, I remember, in fact, imagining up ghosts, playing with the idea of them (another post for another day).
At the same time, I've seldom enjoyed ghost stories - once in a while (and I would LOVE some good recommendations), but often not, enough that I DON'T say I enjoy ghost stories. This month, ghosts have been on my mind a lot, and so the reason for this has been gnawing at my subconscious.
At heart, the problem with the 'typical' ghost story - and by this, I mean, the kind you hear around campfires, let's say - is that there is so little focus on the ghost. Ghosts are made into a sort of depersonalized spirit of horror, in this type of ghost story - something like another genre of fireside story I dislike, the classic "...and the radio said that a madman had escaped from the local prison..." story. This is fine, I'm not saying I'm morally OPPOSED to this sort of ghost story. Just ghosts feel like a rotten way to tell it, because the spirit of terror is usually terrifying because of its 'otherness' - the best example of this sort of ghost story, then, in my mind, wouldn't be a ghost story at all, but rather something more primordially alien. Say, a Cthulhu story, or maybe something like the film 'Alien'. Science Fiction stories are actually often at their BEST when they force us to confront the idea of a thinking entirely alien to our own, telling us metaphorical stories about the unbridgeable, terrifying gaps between different people's psyches (at least to me). But as ghost stories these fall short for me: because the essential tale of the ghost is of something human. Something human distilled down to its essence, and perhaps therefore losing its humanity - but still. Something human. A vampire story is (at some level, in my mind) about the animal in us and all the damage that can do. Ghosts are about the human in us.
When you hear about people's stories of 'real hauntings' (the validity of said haunting I will not take a position on), there is something to this sense of humanity. La Llorona, a popular story here by the Mexico/US border, is a good example of this - a woman who has murdered her own children and then died in the throes of regret over the act is cursed to walk by the river every night, keening for her lost babies, trying to find them again. There is two elements to this that make it powerful in my mind (and my has no one written a La Llorona novel?):
1) The utter impossibility of death. If vampires are about immortality, in a sense, ghosts are about the impossibility of avoiding death - they are not undead. They're just plain old dead. Echoes of life. Ghosts, in many if not most incarnations, are set on impossible tasks. La Llorona CANNOT find her children. Ever. They are gone. They are dead. She can save them no longer. The Bean-Sidhe of Irish myth will never wash the blood from the clothes she is scrubbing against the rocks - there is no substance left for living water to interact with. The ghost ends up telling us something truly horrible and humbling: that a day will come, when we will die, and when we die, there will be things we will never, ever, ever be able to repair. All souls carry sin, or guilt, or fear, or hate, or love, or any of a thousand other, in the end, unshakable fires, and when you die, these desires, unfulfilled, will end, and never, ever be fulfilled. There is no 'eventually' in death, there is no more hope that you'll hit your break.
2) The reduction of the soul to an organism of regret. As I grow older, this becomes more and more powerful to me, because as I age, my regrets become more hopelessly entangled with my life, and my desires become more desperate. At twenty, the desire to write a book, let us say, feels like something that will occur, but will simply take time and circumstance. At thirty, it feels like a desperate foreboding thing, something that is slowly dissolving. Every year it becomes more and more regret and less and less desire. And the trouble with regret is that the impetus behind them does not change, even as time and capacity disappear. At thirty, I can already see how much of my mind is consumed by moments that I would change, or that I would, just, understand. I can imagine, by sixty or seventy, my consciousness being gorged with this feeling. It reminds me of the poem by Emily Dickinson:
|WHILE I was fearing it, it came,|
|But came with less of fear,|
|Because that fearing it so long|
|Had almost made it dear.|
|There is a fitting a dismay,|
|A fitting a despair.|
|’T is harder knowing it is due,|
|Than knowing it is here.|