Themes and Thoughts
Food From Thought

11 Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories

Stories by M. R. James (many editions and printings, and also television versions).


I love a good ghost story – sitting with kindred spirits around a roaring fire, perhaps at Christmas time (or at least when it’s dark outside), a comfy chair beneath me, and a glass of port in my hand, and a nice, kind man – perhaps white around the temples, bald in places – recounting events from long ago, when, travelling far and wide among the ruins of venerable civilisations, garnering mysteries and disturbing tales, he … And then there is the moment of delicious unease that  slowly creeps upon one, spine-tingling, perhaps, unnerving, leading, finally, to a climax of … pure … terror … What, oh what, could be more satisfying!

Recently on television, we have been treated to a re-run of Mark Gatiss’s 2013 documentary about that legendary writer of ghost stories, the Cambridge academic M. R. James (1862-1936), and the repeating, also, of several James stories, including one directed by Gatiss himself (the James stories were originally told by their author, at Cambridge, in precisely the kind of setting I’ve attempted to describe). I’m sure I saw all these programmes the first time around, but was keen to see them again. I have a book of the stories somewhere, and books of other horror/creepy stories by other people, from the well-known, such as Poe, Dickens, and Henry James (The Altar of the Dead) to the less-well-known; and  Agatha Christie’s The Last Séance is about the least-pleasant story I know of (no cosy village biddy in this one, shrewd or otherwise). And, as you might expect, I often think to write a ghost story myself (I do, after all, write stories – about three a year, at the last count). Unfortunately, I always seem to be stymied, stumped, brought up – but slowly, not fast or hard – against reality, the way things really are, which is what, I consider, writers should be writing about (however pleasant a little falsehood or two would be). Spirits and demons of the literary (and, of course, filmic) variety are not quite real. People who write a story – or produce a film, play, graphic novel or even computer game – have to do just that, I realise, produce a story, they have to engage readers; but once you draw, for your subject-matter, upon evil, you need, I consider, to have an idea (exact, or at least vague) of what evil actually is.

No, I’m not going to give a preachy this-worldly remonstrance that “evil” is just bad people who do awful things, like bombing shopping centres, killing elephants, or spreading bad ideas like racism, and that all those supernatural things found in ghost stories don’t really exist; no, being an orthodox Christian I believe firmly in a spiritual realm, which exists around and within the material one we directly know. It is the habitat of a vast wealth of entities, of many different kinds (including morally), and hierarchies, and varieties of organisation and intent. Such beings (or at least, the malevolent ones) are the entities found in our ghost stories and horror films. The stories, films, plays and the rest, are, indeed, full of them – but do their originators really believe in the existence of such things? I wonder this, but I suspect not, for I consider that most people in our society today (certainly those whose work fills the media, and the places of power and influence) are thorough materialists (materialist in that they think – indeed, feel certain – that everything has come into being by chance, impersonal, undirected processes, and that this life, and the material realm, is the sum total of existence, and all that there ever will be). Such beliefs, above all, are very comforting, for they remove the dread possibility that we all may one day be subject to something above and beyond ourselves, something we cannot ourselves control, or even rationally discover; death – extinction – is far less awful than that. Of course, for some of such people, the “pull” of ghost stories may be that their subject matters may seem to offer a part-subliminal questioning of their materialist assumptions (if so, I suggest that a corrective reading of Darwinism – which claims not to be fictional – will quickly cure them).

Yes, the real spiritual realm, and the activities of its inhabitants, are rather different, in my view, from the stuff we (mostly) find in stories and films. Leaving aside the visual media, we have things made of words – we have nought else – and the words found in ghost stories would, I fancy, include such as: dreadful, fascinating, chilling, spooky, unease, curiosity, mystery – and others; “awful” and “awe-full” would, of course, figure prominently in such a list – but these are very complex words, requiring a long explication of their own (even more so “numinous” –  and also “Gothic”, which only had its modern connotations of the dark and dreadful since the 17th century).

No, the person who ignores the reality of spiritual evil may one day come to regret it considerably (or one who attempts – and this is worse, I think – to “rationalise” it, or translate things into purely-human terms). I have known Christian deliverance ministers (also known, inaccurately, as “exorcists”) who have struggled with “men” who have developed exceedingly super-human strength, and chaotic anger and violence, when the name of Jesus is mentioned; a young woman who wept as she recounted a hideous satanic ritual that was forced upon her (no, it wasn’t just about sex); a woman who for years – while having much attention, and care, from deliverance ministers – struggled with a malevolent spiritual presence within her (also known, also inaccurately, as “possession”; in reality she, despite her loathing, in a sense possessed the thing, not the other way round). The materialist assumption quickly turns these things into mental illness, hysteria, and a variety of complexes and pathologies. Of course such illnesses exist and harm people; but to see reality in terms of one kind of thing alone is to attempt foolishly to see reality through narrow, unimaginative eyes that will look at one dimension only, it is nothingbuttery and reductionism of the most feeble kind; of course there is mental illness, but there is also something else. It is common (particularly, I fancy, in religious circles) to claim that to understand evil as being somehow connected with non-human beings is an evasion, an unwillingness to see humanity as it really is. I (as is usual with me) see it the opposite way: that the evasion is theirs, since not having to commit oneself to non-material things is much more comfortable (except commitment to belief in the nice things, of course, the things one would want to have).

The reality of spiritual evil, I would suggest, is not the stuff of stories, because it is not anything to which the above words could be applied. Rather, encountering it and its agents is a rather dark, grim affair; it is not fascinating, but boring, not so much awful as deathly dull; words we might use would include: colourless, hopeless, lifeless, broken, drab, despair, regret, emptiness. Things of evil promise much (most satanists, I’ve read, worship nothing; they’re only in it to acquire power) but deliver only death, obliteration. None of which make a good story. But do ghosts? Mark Gatiss recalls the question that M. R. James, like most ghost story writers, was inevitably asked (“Do you believe in ghosts?”), but he fails, like most people concerned with these things, to ask (or say if James asked) the question that must hang in the air above us: What is a ghost? I firmly believe that the real inhabitants of the spiritual world are not, and never have been, anything to do with formerly-alive people (despite the many, many claims made to the contrary, some, by humans) or our dead forebears, dismally waiting in some dreary place until a desperate descendant calls them hither, perhaps with the aid of not-disinterested agencies of dubious intent.

I must confess that I have myself written a novel which proceeds from the Gothic (the real Gothic, though, the beguiling remnants of half-understood ancient ruins, within and among worldly, slumberous Georgian Christianity) – but ends with the reality of spiritual evil, and the (only) means of its defeat (Beyond This Wilderness, 2011), and also a modern-day story concerning such things (Billyriddle, 2009). But should I write more, suspend belief, and attempt to describe dark, silent watchers, threatening figures upon an empty shore, rampant bed-sheets, and curious dust floating in time-locked libraries … well, maybe – might go down awfully well next Christmas …

January 2018



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