Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.

Personal Gothic

As I continue work on Nightmares with the Bible, I am reminded just how influential Edgar Allan Poe has been in my life.  It’s not that I read Poe every day, but it’s more that his stories have stayed with me since childhood.  For an English term paper in high school, the last one I recall writing, I selected Poe as the subject.  Something of the sadness of his life made me feel as though we were kindred spirits, although I could never meet him, and never let him know that he would have had a friend if he had been born a maybe a century and a half later, and if possible, in Franklin, Pennsylvania.  If his fondness for drink came with him, he would likely have met my father in such circumstances.

Even today I feel a kind of fiercely protective interest in Poe, as if his poems and stories had been written exclusively for me.  Seeing a handwritten fine copy of “The Raven” on display in the Morgan Library and Museum brought tears to my eyes.  Like Poe, I strive to make a living as a writer, but unlike Poe, I cop out.  I’m too afraid of losing everything.  Jobs necessarily interfere with writing, and some jobs actively discourage it.  Nevertheless, I still feel the shudder when I think about the first time I read many of his stories.  This was, I suspect, what fed my young interest in horror.  It wasn’t the blood and gore of the slasher film, it was the quiet, sad, disturbing atmosphere of Poe.  It has been recaptured by few, in my experience maybe only by Shirley Jackson.

Those who write are connection seekers.  Writing is a way of testing to see if we alone see the world in our own way.  Will others respond?  Poe somehow, mainly after his own lifetime, touched a responsive chord with many.  His work is now very widely known.  His visage appears on everything from bandages to socks.  His stories and poems are endlessly retold, adapted, and parodied.  When I read Poe I hear someone speaking from a life of hard knocks.  His response was to strike back, through his writing.  The life story written by one of his relatives suggests that he wasn’t as gloomy and tortured as he is generally portrayed.  Perhaps not.  Nevertheless, those of us who find gothic literature somehow redemptive know, once we close the cover, who it is we should thank.

A Writer’s Life

WeHaveAlwaysLivedSometimes, an experienced editor once told me, the author’s life is just as important as the book she’s written. I can’t pretend to know much about Shirley Jackson, beyond that she wrote compelling fiction and that her name is barely recognized today. Best known for her short story “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House, she didn’t match the output of more prolific writers and therefore, in a world driven by capitalism, didn’t receive much notice. Her work is difficult to classify. Not exactly horror, it is nevertheless unsettling by implication. There’s something wrong beneath the surface. Jackson apparently suffered neuroses for much of her adult life, and her ability to translate angst into literature has gathered her a following among fans of ghost stories. I just finished reading her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a funny, quirky, and serious story about two young women who live alone and who, one suspects, are thought to be witches by the local population.

This little novel is difficult to lay aside for long. The characters of Constance and Merricat are too compelling to leave alone for any length of time. The fact that they are pariahs makes the reader want to ensure that they are safe as they remain carefully inside the home they’ve always known. Even though you know one of them murdered her family, you want them to be happy and secure, perhaps because the whole town is against them. I wouldn’t presume to say what Jackson meant by this story, but to me it seems a clear description of xenophobia by a woman who felt she was never accepted. Women being persecuted in New England always brings witch trials to mind. Although we don’t know why one of the girls killed her family, it is easy for the mind to fill in the blanks.

Although Jackson died prematurely, her work has influenced novelists such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Uncompromising in her outlook, she allows her characters access to those strange places of the human mind where many of us wander from time to time. Merricat, for example, practices that sympathetic magic that we all, if we’re honest, admit that we attempt every now and again. Hoping in magic doesn’t make one a witch any more than prayer makes one a priest. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although as old as I am, reflects a world in which reality can’t be pinned down. Assumptions are made and challenged. Protectors turn out to be exploiters, and the only ghosts are very human characters hated by the community in which they live. Still this is an uncanny tale, haunted by a reality that women still face in even the most progressive countries. Listening to their voices, even if from beyond the grave, may demonstrate just how much a writer’s life might mean.

Christian Horrorshow

Books & Culture is the review organ of Christianity Today. Christianity Today is the evangelical answer to the more liberal Christian Century. Working in publishing, particularly in the field of religion, it is important to keep an eye on what the popular magazines are saying about our books. Well, neither is as popular as it used to be, but still. I’ll grown used to Books & Culture taking a rather wholesome reaction to books that challenge worldviews. In fact, it’s not unusual to find a fairly mild tome castigated as somewhat insidious. Negative reviews tend to sell books as well as positive reviews. Sometimes better.

I was a bit surprised to see a two-page spread in a recent edition of Books & Culture focusing on horror stories. Horror and evangelical generally don’t play well together. Well, maybe I should temper that a little bit. The first article was actually on Shirley Jackson, best known for her excellently moody The Haunting of Hill House. That particular book has spawned or inspired at least five scary movies, two of them versions of the book itself. I have to confess that this is the only Shirley Jackson novel I’ve read. The article, somewhat strangely for an evangelical magazine, had made me want to explore some of her other offerings. Horror doesn’t have to be splatter to be effective.

DSCN0216

The second review in this issue was for an Oxford anthology called Horror Stories. The reviewer, Victor LeValle, also comes out with a positive review of the collection. All of this makes me wonder if I missed something growing up as a conservative Christian who felt distinctively unsavory because his love of monsters and the macabre. I can’t remember ever not liking mild horror stories. They manage to evoke parts of my psyche that most other literature bypasses. I discovered Poe at an early age. That’s not to say that I like being afraid. Fear is not what I’m seeking here. It is a kind of strange redemption. In college many of my evangelical friends couldn’t understand my fascination. “Why don’t you watch something more uplifting?” I’d be asked. I was as surprised as anyone when one of my very few Grove City dates agreed to see Nightmare on Elm Street with me. Not even Shirley Jackson could’ve seen that one coming. I wonder how she’d respond to being written up as an evangelical inspiration?