Beyond the Fields We Know: Our Fascination With Ghost Stories
September 18, 2012
We have recourse to magic and belief in the supernatural when what exists isn’t what we want. Human desires being limitless, it is thus likely that a vestigial tropism for magic and the supernatural are likely to be with us always. Our twenty-first-century minds no longer grant credence to love charms or prophecies or spells, yet our hearts still thrill to fairy tales, ghost stories, and the wonders of the Arabian Nights entertainments. While science fiction, the literature of extrapolation, answers the question “if this goes on,” stories of the supernatural build on “what if,” or even the hushed unspoken wish “if only.” They are tales of transcendence, whether of incontrovertible facts like death or of the horrors of modern life or of the burden of our own personalities.
The fantastic pervades the world’s literatures of every time and place; our much vaunted realism is the sport, the mutant. The epic hero Gilgamesh pursues the secret of immortality, the wandering Odysseus encounters witches and monsters, Arthurian knights and Celtic bards return, transformed, to tell of the wonders of Faery. Are these interruptions in what the Greeks called the Heimarmene, the natural order of things, the accepted succession of cause and effect? Maybe, maybe not. As Hamlet reminds his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Up through the seventeenth century, at least, the very air surrounding us buzzed with both angels and spirits from the vasty deep. While Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus sold his soul to the devil in return for knowledge and power and beautiful women, in “real life,” Dr. John Dee, possessor of the largest private library in Elizabethan England, spoke with astral beings through a scrying stone. Paracelsus and his fellow alchemists soberly researched the elixir of life as well as the means of turning base metals into gold. Even Issac Newton, the very icon of mathematical science, studied what one might call the dark arts. One recent biography calls him “The Last Sorcerer.” When asked if she believed in ghosts, the Marquise du Deffand—the beloved correspondent of Horace Walpole, who initiated the Gothic novel with The Castle of Otranto—answered, no, but that she was afraid of them nonetheless.
The romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries enshrined not just the natural, but the supernatural. As a boy, William Wordsworth felt himself pursued by chthonic monsters of the Lake District,Samuel Taylor Coleridge immortalized accursed mariners and maidens wailing for their demon lovers, John Keats yearned for fairy lands forlorn and belles dames sans merci. No less than Lord Byron himself inspired Polidori’s vampire Lord Ruthven and a still fashionable line of irresistible and sexy ladykillers.
Throughout the nineteenth century, virtually every major novelist or short-story writer, on the continent as well as in England and America, produced tales of the weird and supernatural. However, such stories weren’t simply campfire entertainments. By now they were “philosophical romances,” products of a world where science and revolution had overturned the ordered hierarchies and old verities. Above all, they explored the human personality and the galaxies of inner space. For instance, through his fantastic fables, E.T.A. Hoffmann examined mesmerism, automatons, “nervous” conditions, the psychology of artists and musicians, alienation, the nature of dreams, somnambulism, prenatal influence, magnetism—all hot topics of the day, and most still of interest to us. His most famous tale, “The Sandman,” eventually gave rise to one of Freud’s greatest and most influential essays, “The Uncanny.”
In France, even pillars of realism, such as Honoré de Balzac, Prosper Mérimée and Guy de Maupassant, gravitated to the supernatural. Balzac’s earliest masterpiece, La Peau de chagrin—one of his etudes philosophiques—concerns a piece of wild ass’s skin that grants wishes, a charm that the novelist uses as a metaphor for personal and creative energy. In Mérimée’s “The Venus of Ille,” a mysterious statue of the ancient goddess provides a lesson in tough love and the proper valuation of women. As for Maupassant, this student of Flaubert and the human heart regularly uses the weird tale to explore psychological disorder. In his famous tale, “Le Horla,” a man detects an unseen presence in his daily life, then grows gradually convinced that this invisible entity has moved into his mind and may be controlling his actions. In “Who Knows?” the narrator imagines that his furniture is alive.
As should be clear, the supernatural is the habitual mode by which writers explore the irrational and the subconscious: As within, so without. Dickens’ Fat Boy used to whisper “I wants to make your flesh creep,” but most practitioners of the weird tale aim for a bit more than just that. It is, I think, significant that the great age of occult fiction—particularly in England—runs from the 1860s through the 1930s. The Oxford Movement and the Catholic revival after Newman, a disgust with the dehumanizing aspects of modern industrial society, the 1890s fascination with the decadent and Satanic, the scientific investigations of the Society for Psychical Research, the widespread belief in spiritualism and Theosophy, the pioneering modern psychology of William James and Sigmund Freud—all these fueled the period’s growing conviction that there were unacknowledged, unconscious or unseen forces at work all around us…