The Spirit and the Letter

By Nicole Miller

Editor's note: Learn more about writing horror at Nicole's upcoming seminar, "Home & Horror: The Shirley Jackson-Style Ghost Story"! 

The modern-day ghost story is a subtle art.  Lost are the vampires, draughty castles, floating ladies in flowing white robes who scrape the window panes of unreliable narrators, moveable moss-covered crypts and dancing skeletons which populated the pages of its ancestor, the gothic tale. Realism effectively buried the nineteenth century gothic in the graveyard of genre fiction.   While perennially entertaining, today’s gothic tale is far from mainstream: it revels in the ruins and ghouls of bygone eras, costume melodrama, blood, gore and corpses.  We still go to it for thrills, for amusement-park rides, and slumber-party brand horror.  Literary scholars argue that twentieth century history— two World Wars, a Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and medical science— brought us horrors on a scale never before imagined. The freak-show of human nature, atrocity and obliteration shocked us out of our previous beliefs; a fascination with the headless horseman and the guillotine dropped away.  As a result, the ghost story took another turn. It curled up in the hearth and home constructed by Charles Dickens, preyed on the temple of the mind erected by Henry James, and toured the country estates purchased by Edith Wharton’s nouveau riche. During the Edwardian era, apparitions embraced science and technology.  They interfered at séances, leapt onto train tracks, used the phone.   In 1919, Freud defined the uncanny in terms of its German etymology unheimlichun- +heimlich-- the opposite of heimlich, meaning, “belonging to the  house, not strange, familiar, tame, dear and intimate, homely.” The uncanny—the unheimlich—is therefore an undoing of those things we find familiar, an unravelling of our security blanket, the turning upside-down of our cherished routines. While the gothic tale galloped into fantasy and neo-medievalism, realistic fiction and the modern-day ghost story grew up as playmates. Both lodged in home and habit, and toyed with the psychological realms expanded by William James, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung. We willfully accept narrators and characters who exhibit neuroses, psychoses, and personality disorders in novels which range from Lolita to Atonement;  broken homes, lost homes, and homecomings are normal rather than paranormal in The House of Sand and Fog, A Thousand Acres, and The Corrections.  And yet, wherever there is loss, and the past rears its head again, haunting is par for the course. The ancient plot of the stranger coming to town continues to produce new iterations; we remain enthralled by strangeness whether it be foreign, malevolent, or romantic.

The contemporary ghost story has combined and refined these familiar elements—the disturbed mind, the dysfunctional household, and the cleft community; the unwelcome visitor; the strength of inheritance and possession in terms of people (children, lovers), objects (precious books, antiques, jewellery) and places ( a flat, a church, a garden, a road). The ghost story harps on the fear we all have of losing, of forgetting and being forgotten, of being forced to change.

It is therefore not surprising that the master of the modern-day ghost story are household names in fiction—William Trevor, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Penelope Lively, A.S. Byatt, Joyce Carol Oates—and if we venture just a little further back, we see Shirley Jackson, Muriel Spark, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham and F. Scott Fitzgerald, all looking down from above.   The form is especially soft to influence, and our contemporaries self-consciously channel the spirits of their Romantic and Victorian forebears, in such instances as “The Only Story,” by William Trevor, when the depressed protagonist encounters a version of himself and his children on the same afternoon his wife and children have deserted him in the house they have lived in together for years (a twist on James’s “The Jolly Corner”).  Carter’s “The Loves of Lady Purple” borrows heavily from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and inverts the Pygmalion myth as a wooden marionette whores her way to everlasting life.   Jane Gardam’s “The Meeting House” recalls Thomas Hardy and William Wordsworth in its rural setting and its old-fashioned farming characters.  At the same time, the irreverence of a homeless family who squats in an abandoned Quaker building and unleashes their heavy metal and a Doberman pinscher on the peaceful hillside congregation, encapsulates the hostility of our contemporary urban shelters.  Alison Lurie’s “Highboy,” which revolves around a bewitched piece of furniture, will have you looking askance at your wardrobe and justifying why the Chippendale corridor in the MFA’s Colonial Wing has always set you on your heels.  The new home-owner who has taken to stripping the hideous wallpaper and garish fixtures which were left behind in the estate sale may be thoroughly worried by Penelope Lively’s “Revenant as Typewriter”; the main character, a spinster academic, feels something odd has come over her when she suddenly begins to don the tacky floral prints and plastic earrings of her predecessor, and puts down her Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic) for back issues of Hello! magazine.

The most marked feature of these stories is the immateriality of the ghost in a patently material world.  As Roald Dahl wrote in his introduction to his Book of Ghost Stories,

“The best ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them.  At least you don’t see the ghost.  Instead you only see the result of [its] actions.  Occasionally you can feel it brushing past you, you are made aware of its presence, for example, the temperature in the room drops... If a story does permit a ghost to be seen, then [it] doesn’t look like one.  [It] looks like an ordinary person.”


This is the case for the contemporary favoring of poltergeists, puppets, and impersonators, though a few novelists have dared to add a dash of folktale and a rolling head or two.  Case in point, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox, which resuscitates the brutal pirate Bluebeard in the guise of an author who repeatedly kills his heroines, and Edwidge Danticat whose ghosts in Claire of the Sea Light are criminal, and very much alive.  When asked at a recent reading how her stories came to be filled with dead people, Danticat replied that in Haitian culture the line between the living and the dead is far less definite, a co-existence taken for granted.  Of course, we readers and writers may be able to grasp this perspective better than most. Afterall, in taking up a book, one crosses that posthumous barrier all the time.

Nicole Miller is an instructor in fiction at Grub Street. She will be offering a seminar on "Home & Horror: The Shirley Jackson-Style Ghost Story" on Saturday, February 13. 

About the Author

After completing an M.Phil in English Literature at Oxford, Nicole Miller worked at The New Yorker and The Oxford English Dictionary, where she is a longstanding scholarly reader in etymology. Her short stories have appeared twice in The May Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Jill Paton Walsh and Sebastian Faulks, and her nonfiction won the Dorothy Cappon prize for the essay in New Letters magazine in 2014. She held the Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing at Emerson College, Boston, gaining her MFA in 2012.  In 2012, she was also awarded a Ph.D in Victorian Literature from University College, London. She currently edits faculty manuscripts for Harvard’s English Department and teaches creative writing at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda and the British novel at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. Her interests span the novel, short story, ghost story, essay, memoir and the translation of Modern Greek poetry. 

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