At a time when it would be hard to swing even Schrodinger’s cat in a bookstore’s horror section without knocking a score of zombie and vampire books from its shelves, several authors have chosen ghosts as the medium for exploring truths about human nature, rather than the walking dead or the hematophagic. As genre expert Stefan Dziemianowicz, editor of The Body Snatcher and Other Classic Ghost Stories (Fall River, July, under his Michael Kelahan pseudonym), notes, “The ghost story is probably the oldest form of weird tale, and in its speculation regarding the afterlife, it’s the first kind of story to suggest that there are things beyond mortal ken.”
Among the best of the bunch is Michael Koryta. In 2004, the 21-year-old Koryta published his first novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye (Minotaur), which introduced Cleveland PI Lincoln Perry. He followed Tonight, an Edgar finalist, with three more crime novels featuring this compelling hard-boiled detective. Then in 2010, Koryta surprised his fans by radically changing gears for his next book, So Cold the River (Little, Brown), inviting them to commune with ghosts in the small resort town of West Baden, Ind. He made the shift from gritty realism to supernatural horror without missing a beat, instantly garnering comparisons to Stephen King and Peter Straub (from Dennis Lehane, no less). And the plaudits continued for Koryta’s next two outings, The Cypress House and The Ridge, both published by Little, Brown in 2011.
While these novels had strong noir elements, featuring protagonists whom Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain would easily recognize (one is a man in love with the woman who had almost killed him), the situations both men found themselves in were decidedly otherworldly. Although the depression-era’s Arlen Wagner of The Cypress House can’t “see dead people,” he does see those who are about to die, a fate made manifest to him by visions of smoke marking the eyes of the doomed. And present-day Kentucky deputy Kevin Kimble, who can’t stay away from a femme fatale (literally), must also contend with an unearthly blue light near a land-locked lighthouse that unsettles a menagerie of big cats, and which may be a manifestation of a restless spirit.
As startling as the genre shift was for his loyal audience (one that led to his leaving St. Martin’s for Little, Brown), it was actually a natural development for the author. Koryta believes that “ghost stories really seem to be a traditional love affair for storytellers. Look beyond the genre and you’ll find that writers from Dickens to Faulkner to the Bard himself dealt with the ghost story at some point, not to mention Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Edith Wharton, Noel Coward. It’s common ground for storytellers, and that’s not surprising to me—of the great motivations for writing, addressing mortality and the unknown are high on the list. What the ghost story allows—that intersection of past and present—is so multi-layered. It can be frightening or sweet or sad or even funny, and, in the best ghost stories, it is often all of those things.”
For Koryta, writing a ghost story is appealing because of the underlying concept in such fiction that “the past is carried into the present and the two are joined. We carry the past with us in so many ways, all the time,” he says, “from our genetic coding to memories of the dead to the very world around us, walking constantly amidst places that have been created or altered by people now departed. It’s a fascinating idea to me, and I love stories in which the unknown lurks within the familiar. That’s what I pursued in the last three books.”
And Koryta’s pursuit of that idea has succeeded, both in terms of glowing reviews and commercially. Amusingly, for those baffled by the arbitrary taxonomy of fiction, his last three books did not end up, as he expected, in the horror section of bookstores, but in fiction and literature.
Straub’s Ghosts of Shame
In February 2012, Pegasus reissues Peter Straub’s extremely disturbing novella, Mrs. God, originally part of the collection Houses Without Doors (Dutton, 1990). Straub’s supernatural revenge novel, Ghost Story (Coward, McCann, 1979), is still widely cited today as a modern landmark. The plot of Mrs. God centers on American academic William Standish, who accepts an offer he should have refused, and spends time on an isolated British estate pouring through private literary manuscripts as the latest Esswood Fellow, following in the sizable shoes of Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, and Ford Maddox Ford. Although the page count is a fraction of many of Straub’s works, the book will get under many readers’ skins—and stay there long enough to become genuinely uncomfortable.
Mrs. God manifests Straub’s take on the ghost story—that ghosts “are always intimately involved with those who sense or otherwise perceive them. They represent some disavowed, split-off part of the protagonist, and usually refer to something that has caused guilt, shame or disgrace. For this reason, although ghosts rarely imply a physical danger, they do, and most centrally, involve a moral danger.” He believes that one reason that ghost stories have “always edged closer to literature than vampire or zombie stories” is the absence of an automatic association of a “dopey mythology” (such as a fixed means to dispatch the most ravenous of Dracula’s heirs).
Joe Hill’s ‘Pure Want’
Interestingly, Straub parts company on a central issue for the genre with Joe Hill, whose Heart-Shaped Box (Harper Collins, 2007) epitomizes the successful incorporation of a cutting-edge concept into the ghost story (his rock star protagonist with a taste for collecting unwholesome relics can’t resist bidding on an online auction to purchase an actual ghost). Straub, unlike Hill, does not see any value in the rules for a ghost story that M.R. James formulated a century ago in his preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (e.g., “the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day…. the ghost should be malevolent or odious”). Instead, he views such strictures as having become a “confinement, because everything that can be done within them will by now merely echo similar strategies used in older stories.” (Fans of James’s imaginative tales—however they are pigeon-holed—can look forward to Stephen Jones’s Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of Mr. James from the U.K.’s Jo Fletcher Books/Quercus in the spring of 2012.)
For Hill, all of James’s “rules” are still valid. “Take an ordinary person; put him in an ordinary, recognizable setting; then invent a frightening and extraordinary situation for him/her to battle. These are the most basic ingredients of any suspenseful story, not just ghost stories.”
But Hill, who also has 20th Century Ghosts (Morrow, 2007), a collection of 15 stories, to his credit, and Straub are on the same page about the moral aspect of ghost stories. Hill remarks, “Ghosts are a potent metaphor for the way the past bleeds through to haunt the present. If someone has a troubled personal history, we’ll call him ‘haunted’; that isn’t any accident. Besides being a physical stand-in for history, ghosts are also an embodiment of pure want. When a ghost is swirling around a place, it’s because it intensely ‘wants’ something, it is desperately unfulfilled. And one of the first things you learn in any freshman writing course is that a character who wants something, and will do almost anything to get it, is immediately engaging.”
And despite Hill’s embrace of James’s thoughts, he emphasizes that ghost stories “are not dependent on shadows, old houses, creaking stairs, or spider webs. All they require is loneliness—isolation. The protagonist of almost every ghost story is someone with regrets, someone isolated, someone lonely, someone vulnerable. In most ghost stories, the lead character is haunted well before she ever meets the spook.”
The Light of Day
Despite the popular conception, ghost stories can even be set in broad daylight. For example, in the Ellen Datlow–edited anthology Supernatural Noir (Dark Horse, 2011), Paul Tremblay’s “The Getaway” deals with what happens to some crooks after a daytime heist. Laird Barron, whose two acclaimed short story collections The Imago Sequence (Night Shade, 2007) and Occultation (Night Shade, 2010) include some ghost stories, such as “The Lagerstatte” from the later volume (about dead doppelgangers who afflict a woman who lost her husband and son in the same disaster), insists that “an atmosphere of frightfulness doesn’t necessarily rely on darkness. The prosaic and the mundane qualities of daylight and public settings can set up a manifestation quite neatly.” The growing ranks of Barron’s admirers for his literate dark fiction can look forward to his first novel, The Croning, from Night Shade in 2012, described by its author as “kind of like On Golden Pond, if Henry and Jane Fonda were preoccupied with black magic, machetes, and cosmic horrors.”
Unsurprisingly, talented writers can use the form for other purposes than exploring humanity’s heart of darkness. For example, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (Riverhead , 2009) is set in a haunted house in England in the 1940s, “as a way of exploring some of the social tensions that were active in post-war Britain—a time when the class system was being really shaken up, and there was a lot of class resentment and hysteria around, on a very large scale. My imaginary house, Hundreds Hall, effectively stands in for a whole unhappy ‘haunted’ nation; at the same time, however, I took the ghost story traditions very seriously.” Her utilization of the first-person preserves the blurring of the lines “between the ghost itself and the mind of the person experiencing it,” as in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” another work where sunlight is no disinfectant against creepiness. And in Michael Marshall Smith’s The Servants (Eos, 2008), ghosts are an essential element in a young boy’s confrontation with his ailing mother’s mortality. Smith writes in the genre because “it can be spooky while speaking to very deep-seated ideas and concerns about mortality, friendship and love.”
John Connolly continues to introduce supernatural elements into his crime novels, including ghosts that serve as the “psychic equivalent of an echo, or the fading sound of a scream.” For him, the merger of the two genres is natural; both the mystery novel and the ghost story “are concerned with intrusions into day-to-day existence, although in one the intrusion is human, and in the other it is not.” Connolly’s 10th novel featuring Charlie Parker, an investigator who is both haunted and guided by inhabitants of another realm, The Burning Soul, is being published by Atria this month.
December brings a ghost story from Dean Koontz, 77 Shadow Street (Bantam), featuring a Gilded Age palace converted to condominiums, and with the unwelcome amenity of shadows without sources, voices whispering in unknown languages, and seemingly imaginary playmates.
As Koryta and Straub, among others, have demonstrated, there’s still plenty of life in the spectral undead, even if their horror is generally more suggestive and subtle than the gore that predominates most current horror movies. An upcoming exception will be the 2012 film adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe, one of the most successful recent ghost stories, albeit set in Victorian England.
They’ve succeeded in realizing Koryta’s aim “to remove—or at least grind down—the barrier of disbelief, to create the sense that, in the wrong place on the wrong night with the wrong wind blowing, this just might slip into your own life. If you can hold the reader’s imagination there while they turn the pages, you’ve succeeded in one of the critical tasks of the ghost story, I think.”