Our Ghosts: A History Drawn by Roger Clarke

As you might have guessed by now, I am a huge fan of anything ghost-related. I love ghost stories and scary movies, I have a deep curiosity for old buildings and family histories. But I often find myself disappointed by both books and cinema on the subject. Other than the classics —M.R. James, Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft— I no longer read ghost stories. I have instead turned to accounts of “real” hauntings and sightings of ghosts, and that is how I came to buy myself Ghosts: A Natural History by Roger Clarke.

I adored this book not only because it’s honest and well paced, but also because it succeeded in sending chills down my spine. It had been a while since I had felt that need to look behind me or that strange gut feeling while reading a book.

Clarke begins explaining his obsession with ghosts and tells us a story with which many of us are familiar, the family ghost, an eerie spot in an old house where you get the chills. He later recounts his reading on the subject and his initiation as a “ghost hunter” and the Society for Physical Research.

“In a basic sense, ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them.”

As the title says, this book is better described as a natural history of ghosts though. Clarke tries to approach not ghosts but ghosts sightings across Britain as a scientist would approach any phenomenon. And doing so reveals many interesting facts about ghosts and societies: how ghosts have changed, how specters and poltergeists have appeared in ages of moral and political turmoil, even how ghosts have changed their “clothing” depending on the epoch.

To illustrate this natural history, Clarke divides the book into various famous ghost stories from different times, such as the ghost of Hinton Ampner, the Enfield Poltergeist, the spectres of the Tower of London, some renowned spiritist, and so on. Thus, the book is full of the charming mystery that surrounds old fashioned ghost stories.

Illustration by Edward Gorey

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in ghosts, believers and non-believers, or anyone interested in history, for this book is as much about ghosts as about the people that has claimed to see them and the societies that shaped these people.

I am currently reading another ghostly and ghastly tale, The Hunt for the Skinwalker, about which I’ll be writing soon. What are you guys reading?

Spooky Reads

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
—Alfred Hitchcock

The days get gloomier and my load of work for uni gets heavier and heavier: time for some spooky reads. I have always enjoyed reading about ghosts, vampires, superstition, magic and curses. I think the supernatural and otherworldly has always been a strong subject in literature, coincidences and oddities have always fascinated writers, and the unexplicable is always a great presence in our lives. Perhaps that is why we read about ghosts and haunted mansions, or perhaps we just need a scare every now and then. Either way, there is no greater season for unsettling reads than fall.

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

If we get technical, there is a difference between horror and terror. Terror is anticipating something dreadful, fearfully expecting that those slight knocks on your windowpane are not the skinny fingers of a ghost. Horror is going out to actually find a dead corpse knocking on your door; it is the shock of actually seeing something dreadful. I honestly side with Ann Radcliffe, a pioneer of the gothic novel and sickly heroines, when she said terror dwells on indetermination and therefore requires more from the reader. Gothic novels, for example, could be categorised at terror, and also the reads I am about to suggest… although I can’t guarantee that the monsters and creatures that creep in their pages won’t actually come out of under the bed. As always, read at your own risk.

The Monkey’s Paw“, W.W. Jacobs

First things first. I think this short story is one of the greatest examples of terror. Could write about what it is about, but it’s so short you should just read it right now. Let’s just say, be careful what you wish for.

 

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

As it title lets out, this is about a haunted house. This house is supposed to have driven out its inhabitants for years and now, a scientific is determined to prove that it is not haunted by bringing a group of peculiar people who are likely to perceive anything that is amiss in the house— among them an artist, a clairvoyant, a reclusive young woman—. So is the house haunted? Strange things definitely happen, but the thing with Shirley Jackson’s writings is that you should always fear people more than you fear ghosts. Did I mention Jackson was also a witch?

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

 

Night Shift, Stephen King

What do quitting smoking, cornfields, trucks and a laundry press have in common? Basically that, when passed through King’s imagination, they can turn out to be pretty damn scary. In the stories that compose this volume you’ll find a wide variety of subjects; from creepy children to killing machines. It is really scary at times, but also entertaining and unsettling in more than one way. From King I have also read The Shining, which scared me a lot, and Pet Sematary, which I coulnd’t even finish.

Collected Short Stories, M. R. James

When it comes to ghosts, there is no one better than M. R. James. These the old fashioned ghosts than have been shaping nightmares forever, and another perfect example of “anticipating the bang”. The settings for Jame’s stories are also phenomenal: old abbeys, boarding schools, deserted inns, foggy paths in the night. Definitely read this, start right here with Number 13.

The October Country, Ray Bradbury

This small book of short stories might be Bradbury at its best. Ghosts, circus entertainers and mummies lurk in the pages of these stories, that I would describe as creepy. What is wonderful of this book is the way that the strange and the grotesque mix with human emotions such as nostalgia and love.

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Illustration: Edward Gorey

Of course, one should never skip the classics: Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deserve a space on any spooky shelf. If short stories are more your thing, then most of Edgar Allan Poe‘s tales will definitely creep you out, an the same goes for the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens and E. T. A. Hoffman also wrote a considerable number of short stories that involve ghosts. There’s Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper and Daphne DuMaurier’s “Don’t Look Now”. Ans also the American Classics, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. There are also many very good anthologies, like Late Victorian Gothic Tales from Oxford University Press.

 

Happy reading…

and be careful 🎃

Summons
Illustration: Edward Gorey.

 

P.S. Currently I am reading Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed, so I might be adding it to the list. Next for me is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What are you reading? Anything you would include in this list?