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Nonfiction

The H Word: The Ghosts of November

What makes a great ghost story?

I have a few ideas that I’d like to run by you, but first:

***

Hallowe’en: A Remembrance

October: The whole damned month is ours, and we make it last. November 1st does not come at the stroke of midnight—not at all. Hallowe’en owns the night, and the first of November arrives with the sun, bringing with it the sudden, sobering intrusion of the real world.

November: Everything looks a little different—a little colder. We must clear the front lawn of dismembered rubber corpsebits. We get our decorations up into the attic as quickly as possible, and we sure as hell don’t watch a horror movie. Not for a few days, anyway, as we acclimate to wretched normality. In November, watching a good horror movie is kind of cool. In October, that shit is a sacrament.

But October is back there, and here we are, in November, talking about ghosts.

They’re different now, aren’t they, our ghosts? They’re no longer dangly white sheets and crumpled crepe paper. They’re no longer fun. They’re . . . more real, somehow, no longer reduced to harmless grinning cartoons. October captures our ghosts—makes them safe. November frees them.

Don’t misunderstand: I do not believe in ghosts. Not in the traditional sense, anyhow. I do not believe in restless, earthbound spirits anymore than I believe in dragons or werewolves or angels who help me find my car keys. I do, however, believe in the vast strangeness of the human brain. I believe in the reality-distorting power of belief, of faith. It’s powerful stuff.

***

Ghosts: We Need ‘Em

There’s a “what if” attached to ghosts, one that can sometimes tighten the scalp of even the most ardent non-believer. See—ghosts (and demons, angels, God, the Devil, the afterlife) exist in the abstract realm of the immaterial. Science and reason have dispelled trolls, goblins, vampires, and any number of mythological beasties, and the ghost lingers because we need it to. The ghost promises some retention of self, long after we’ve stopped metabolizing.

The ghost lingers, and with it—the ghost story.

***

So—What Makes A Great Ghost Story?

Two things, really:

***

1. A Sense of Dread

The great ghost story creates a sense of dread and unease. It makes us feel as if we’ve brushed against something truly weird. You needn’t believe in ghosts to be unnerved by a solid ghost story, be it filmed or the written word, because a really effective one will worm its way through the holes in your defenses and burrow beneath your flesh.

If you already believe in things that go bump in the night, the story doesn’t have to work quite so hard to reach you. In his indispensible book on the philosophy of horror, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, Thomas Ligotti declares that only the vilest of storytellers will prey upon the religious beliefs of the reader in order to frighten. This is probably a debate for another day, but, for now, let’s just say that I disagree with him: something like The Exorcist (in either of its forms) is far more successful if you’re still disentangling yourself from the rosary beads of your youth. And hell—if you’re still caught up in that scene, you may just wanna skip it altogether.

Regardless of your beliefs, a great ghost story makes you uneasy in the middle of the night when you’re sitting alone in front of your computer and something clicks or clatters at the other end of your house. You know it’s just the house settling, but you get up and look around and remind yourself that you don’t believe in that crap.

A great ghost story turns you into a child.

Dread is summoned, too, when reality is made to feel . . . out of sorts. When the unknown intrudes upon the known and the cart is toppled, the foundations shaken. A keen hand is needed, though—those mysteriously stacked chairs in Poltergeist are far more alarming than the big skull-faced, water-tank rod-puppet creature that shows up at the end of the film. Better to distort reality than to drop the utterly unreal screaming and flailing into suburbia.

***

2. Tell Us Something About Ourselves

The great ghost story must not depend solely upon its ability to inspire a superstitious tingle or to make us feel the icy touch of the unknown. It must have a substance beyond the surface conceit of “oh god this place is haunted.” A great ghost story digs deeper—it holds up a mirror, tells us something about ourselves as individuals and it proclaims a simple truth:

A house is only as haunted as the people inside it.

Belasco House and the Overlook Hotel are Bad Places, without a doubt, but Jack Torrance and the paranormal investigators of Richard Matheson’s Hell House arrive with all the tools their respective haunts will need to take them apart. The great ghost story reminds us: we’re all haunted—each and every one of us. Whether or not the supernatural exists, our ghosts are very, very real, and they’re always looking to hurt us.

If it’s well-crafted, a ghost story can get away with succeeding in only one of these two categories, but the great ghost story accomplishes both.

Oh, and corpsebits is a real word now. Because I said it was. Please use it as often as possible.

Your turn: what makes a great ghost story?

See you in December.

***

We at Nightmare Magazine like discussions. Please use the comments feature to give us your thoughts on whether the H brand is an albatross or worth holding on to.

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R.J. Sevin

R.J. Sevin (photo by Donovan Fannon)R.J. Sevin is the co-editor of the Stoker-nominated anthology Corpse Blossoms and he currently edits Print Is Dead, the zombie-themed imprint from Creeping Hemlock Press. His nonfiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Dark Discoveries, Fear Zone, Famous Monsters of Filmland Online, and Tor.com.

4 Responses »

  1. The H brand? Do you mean your column (the H word) or Horror as a genre?

    Anyway, you make it sound like an albatross isn’t worth holding on to. Way I see it an albatross might have some fine pieces of white meat on it. Perhaps some corpsebits? I could really go for some deep fried albatross corpsebits right about now.

    Now look what you did, I’m slobbering all over my keyboard.

    And as for ghost stories I always find the reasons to be the most intriguing. Why is the ghost haunting the house/person? Something they did? Something done to them? Something they need to say or something they need to hear? Of course reasons feed right in to your second point that a ghost story should tell us something about ourselves. Because if you could come back from the dead to haunt someone or somewhere, what would make you do it?

  2. You know, this got me thinking about what may favorite ghost story might be. I’ve read quite a few, and, honestly, most of them are of the revenant-wronged sort. You know the type. “They say that you can still see Miss Pearl wandering the halls at night, looking for her head”-type of thing. I get those, but, there’s something cheap about them somehow, something that reeks of a campfire story.

    Then…

    Well, then there’s Shirley Jackson. There’s the internalized haunting. There’s Hill House. Or the castle. There’s the Demon-Lover. Sure, we all know The Lottery from our days in high school, but if you’ve read her work beyond that… Shirley wrote not about ghosts or revenants haunting places. She wrote about people haunted by their own fears, ambitions, weaknesses, and, dare I say, madness. And that woman could write.

    Sadly, I think most people remember Fritz Leiber for the fantasy work he did. You know, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. You don’t know? Damn. That sucks. Have you read Our Lady of Darkness? No? Shame. real shame. Because it’s part horror, part early geek-fest (One of these days I will have to talk about that somewhere), part of the inspiration for Ghostbusters, but mostly it’s just damned fine, scary, creepy stuff. It’s also a strange sort of tale of haunting. Of a sense. This isn’t “in your face” horror. Well, I suppose it is in the last bit. And in the first bit, too. But, what if the world were alive (you new agey fuckers can sit down, shut up, and drink your damned soy latte’s while I finish, okay?), had become sentient somehow, and we, the fleas that are humanity scrabbling around the surface of, say, Seattle were haunting that new sentience? That would be weird stuff, wouldn’t it? That’s just one of the amazing concepts of “haunted” this book throws out. Man…why don’t we have writers who can throw out a tightly-written, well-crafted, perfectly thoughtful couple of hundred pages like that now?

    My age is showing, isn’t it? Sorry about that.

    So, my favorite haunting?
    I don’t know. Because haunting isn’t just about ghosts, you know. It’s about the haunted. And there are ALL sorts of things out there (and much, much worse in HERE) that can haunt us. Don’t you agree, Mr. Sevin?

  3. Nice article. I agree with you on a lot of points you make. I have never stopped and wondered why I like a good ghost story. I just always have. Straub’s Ghost Story. Hill’s The Woman in Black. Joe Hill’s story 20th Century Ghosts and his novel Heart-Shaped Box. Everything my MR James.

    I don’t like short ghost stories. I don’t mean short stories about ghosts. I just hate those little vignettes. Flash stuff. Not for me. A sense of dread takes some time to create, develop, build in the reader. That requires some pages and skill.

    And regardless of how ghost stories have changed over time, I still like the ghost that is angry, wants to harm us, unsettled, lost, confused, wracked with guilt and longing and a hatred for not being alive anymore. That shit scares me.

    I like other types of ghosts. I hate funny ghost stories (Canterville is not for me).

    I really liked EF Benson’s How Fear Departed the Long Gallery. God that one scared me. I kept having nightmares about these little toddler-aged ghosts who had been burned alive and were now appearing in the room they died in and taking a life with them each time and they weren’t even cognizant of it — they’re babies for God’s sake.

    Good stuff.

    And I am surprised to hear you don’t believe in ghosts my friend. A sense of wonder and awe and that we don’t have it all figured out yet is necessary for the deppest, darkest, most slicing sense of dread. What if. I am almost 50 and I am not sure on ghosts’ existence. I think there is alot about energy and other planes that we are not even close to scratching the surface of. There was an interesting video you should google on You Tube. It was a man and his family visisting Gettysburg in the US. As he was videotaping the battlefield and woods in the background, he noticed shapes moving across the video screen. Upon closer inspection they turned out to be male forms moving in between the trees and in a repetitive fashion that would stop and restart as though one was cursed to reenact a scene from the war, prior to his death, over and over again into a hellish eternity unimaginable to us living beings. \

    Brought to mind what Marley said to Scrooge when describing why he wore chains.

    Food for thought.

    Thanks for the site and the mag and the column.

    Loving it.

    Leo V

  4. Here is the link it was harder to re-locate than I thought. I saw a special where this video was analyzed and found to be non-tampered with. ?? I’m just sayin….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8C40EgzZdVs

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