Who’s There?: Every Story Is a Ghost Story

August 18, 2021 | 15 books mentioned 15 min read

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted.”
Emily Dickinson

Drown Memorial Hall was only a decade old when it was converted into a field hospital for students stricken with the flu in the autumn of 1918. A stolid, grey building of three stories and a basement, Drown Hall sits half-way up South Mountain where it looks over the Lehigh Valley to the federal portico of the white-washed Moravian Central Church across the river, and the hulking, rusting ruins of Bethlehem Steel a few blocks away. Composed of stone the choppy texture of the north Atlantic in the hour before a squall, with yellow windows buffeted by mountain hawks and grey Pennsylvania skies. Built in honor of Lehigh University’s fourth president, a mustachioed Victorian chemistry professor, Drown was intended as a facility for leisure, exercise, and socialization, housing (among other luxuries) bowling alleys and chess rooms. Catherine Drinker Bowen enthused in her 1924 History of Lehigh University that Drown exuded “dignity and, at the same time, a certain at-home-ness to every function held there,” that the building “carries with it a flavor and spice which makes the hotel or country club hospitality seem thin, flat and unprofitable.” If Drown was a monument to youthful exuberance, innocent pluck, and boyish charm, then by the height of the pandemic it had become a cenotaph to cytokine storms. Only a few months after basketballs and Chuck Taylors would have skidded across its gymnasium floor, and those same men would lay on cots hoping not to succumb to the illness. Twelve men would die of the influenza in Drown.

After its stint as a hospital, Drown would return to being a student center, then the Business Department, and by the turn of our century the English Department. It was in that final purpose that I got to know Drown a decade ago, when I was working on my PhD. Toward the end of my first year, I had to go to my office in the dusk after-hour, when lurid orange light breaks through the cragged and twisted branches of still leafless trees in the cold spring, looking nothing so much like jaundiced fingers twisting the black bars of a broken cage, or like the spindly embers of a church’s burnt roof, fires still cackling through the collapsing wood.  I had to print a seminar paper for a class on 19th-century literature, and to then quickly adjourn to my preferred bar. When I keyed into the locked building, it was empty, silent save for the eerie neon hum of the never-used vending machines and the unnatural pooling luminescence of perennially flickering fluorescent lights in the stairwells at either end of the central hall. While in a basement computer lab, I suddenly heard a burst of noise upstairs come from one end of the hall rapidly progress towards the other—the unmistakable sound of young men dribbling a basketball. Telling myself that it must be the young children of one of the department’s professors, I shakily ascended. As soon as I got to the top the noise ceased. The lights were out. The building was still empty. Never has an obese man rolled down that hill quite as quickly as I did in the spring of 2011.

There are several rational explanations—students studying in one of the classrooms even after security would have otherwise locked up. Or perhaps the sound did come from some faculty kids (though to my knowledge nobody was raising adolescents at that time). Maybe there was something settling strangely, concrete shifting oddly or water rushing quickly through a pipe (as if I didn’t know the difference between a basketball game and a toilet flushing). When depleted of all explanations, I know what I heard and what it sounded like, and I still have no idea what it was. Nor is this the only ghost story that I could recount—there was the autumn of 2003 when walking back at 2 a.m. after the close of the library at Washington and Jefferson College, feet unsteady on slicked brown leaves blanketing the frosted sidewalk, that I noted an unnatural purple light emanating from a half-basement window of Macmillan Hall, built in 1793 (having been the encampment of Alexander Hamilton during the Whisky Rebellion) and the oldest university building west of the Alleghenies. A few seconds after observing the shining, I heard a high-pitched, unnatural, inhuman banshee scream—some kind of poltergeist cry—and being substantially thinner in that year I was able to book it quickly back to my dorm. Or in 2007 while I was living in Scotland, when I toured the cavernous subterranean vaults underneath the South Bridge between the Old and New towns of Edinburgh, and I saw a young chav, who decided to make obscene hand gestures within a cairn that the tour guide assured us had “evil trapped within it,” later break down as if he was being assaulted by some unseen specter. Then there was the antebellum farm house in the Shenandoah Valley that an ex-girlfriend lived in, one room being so perennially cold and eerie that nobody who visited ever wanted to spend more than a few minutes in it. A haunted space in a haunted land where something more elemental than intellect screams at you that something cruel happened there.

coverParanormal tales are popular, even among those who’d never deign to believe in something like a poltergeist, because they speak to the ineffable that we feel in those arm-hair-raised, scalp-shrinking, goose-bumped-moments where we can’t quite fully explain what we felt, or heard, or saw. I might not actually believe in ghosts, but when I hear the dribbling of a basketball down an empty and dark hall, I’m not going to stick around to find out what it is. No solitary person is ever fully a skeptic when they’re alone in a haunted house. Count me on the side of science journalist Mary Roach, who in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife writes that “I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science. Certainly, most things can… but not all. I believe in the possibility of something more.” Haunting is by definition ambiguous—if with any certainty we could say that the supernatural was real it would, I suppose, simply be the natural.

coverFranco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov formulated a critical model of the supernatural in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, in which he argued that stories about unseen realms could be divided between the “uncanny” and the “marvelous.” The former are narrative elements that can ultimately be explained rationally, i.e., supernatural plot points that prove to be dreams, hallucinations, drug trips, hoaxes, illusions, or anything unmasked by the Scooby-Doo gang. The latter are things that are actually occult, supernatural, divine. When it’s unclear as to whether or not a given incident in a story is uncanny or marvelous, then it’s in that in-between space of the fantastic, which is the same place any ghostly experience has had to be honestly categorized. “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event,” writes Todorov, and that is a succinct description of my Drown anomaly. Were it to be simply uncanny, then I suppose my spectral fears would have been assuaged if upon my ascent I found a group of living young men playing impromptu pick-up basketball. For that experience to be marvelous, I’d have to know beyond any doubt that what I heard were actual spirits. As it is, it’s the uncertainty of the whole event—the strange, spooky, surreal ambiguity—that makes the incident fantastic. “What I’m after is proof,” writes Roach. “Or evidence, anyway —evidence that some form of disembodied consciousness persists when the body closes up shop. Or doesn’t persist.” I’ve got no proof or disproof either, only the distant memory of sweaty palms and a racing heart.

Ghosts may haunt chambers, but they also haunt books; they might float through the halls of Drown, but they even more fully possess the books that line that building’s halls. Traditional ghosts animate literature, from the canon to the penny dreadful, including what the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold grandiosely termed the “best which has been thought and said” as well as lurid paperbacks with their garish covers. We’re so obsessed with something seen just beyond the field of vision that vibrates at a frequency that human ears can’t quite detect—from Medieval Danish courts to the Overlook Hotel, Hill House to the bedroom of Ebenezer Scrooge—that we’re perhaps liable to wonder if there is something to ghostly existence. After all, places are haunted, lives are haunted, stories are haunted. Such is the nature of ghosts; we may overlook their presence, their flitting and meandering through the pages of our canonical literature, but they’re there all the same (for a place can be haunted whether you notice that it is or not).

coverHow often do you forget that the work that is the greatest in the language is basically a ghost story? William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is fundamentally a good old-fashioned yarn about a haunted house (in addition to being a revenge tragedy and pirate tale). The famed soliloquy of the Danish prince dominates our cultural imagination, but the most cutting bit of poetry is the eerie line that begins the play: “Who’s there?” Like any good supernatural tale, Hamlet begins in confusion and disorientation, as the sentries Marcellus and Bernardo patrolling Elsinore’s ramparts first espy the silent ghost of the murdered king, with the latter uttering the shaky two-word interrogative. Can you imagine being in the audience, sometime around 1600 when it was a widespread belief that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in our philosophies, and hearing the quivering question asked in the darkness, faces illuminated by tallow candle, the sense that there is something just beyond our experience that has come from beyond? The status of Hamlets ghost is ambiguous; some critics have interpreted the specter as a product of the prince’s madness, others claim that the spirit is clearly real. Such uncertainty speaks to what’s fantastic about the ghost, as ambiguity haunts the play. Notice that Bernardo doesn’t ask “What’s there?” His question is phrased towards a personality with agency, even as the immaterial spirit of Hamlet’s dead father exists in some shadow-realm between life and death.

coverA ghost’s status was no trifling issue—it got to the core of salvation and damnation. Protestants wouldn’t believe that souls could wander the earth; they would either be rewarded in heaven or punished in hell, while ghosts must necessarily be demons. Yet Shakespeare’s play seems to make clear that Hamlet’s father has indeed returned, perhaps as an inhabitant of that way station known as purgatory, that antechamber to eternity whereby the ghost can ascend from the Bardo to skulk around Elsinore for the space of a prologue. Of course, when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, ostensibly good Protestant that he was, he should have held no faith in purgatory, that abode of ghosts being in large part that which caused Luther to nail his theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral door. When the final Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were ratified in 1571 (three decades before the play’s premier), it was Article 22 that declared belief in purgatory was a ” thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God.” According to Stephen Greenblatt’s argument from Hamlet in Purgatory, the ghost isn’t merely Hamlet’s father, but also a haunting from the not-so-distant Catholic past, which the official settlement had supposedly stripped away with rood screens and bejeweled altars. Elsinore’s haunting is not just that of King Hamlet’s ghost, but also of those past remnants that the reformers were unable to completely bury. Greenblatt writes that for Shakespeare purgatory “was a piece of poetry” drawn from a “cultural artery” whereby the author had released a “startling rush of vital energy.” There are a different set of ambiguities at play in Hamlet, not least of which is how this “spirit of health or goblin damned” is to be situated between orthodoxy and heresy. In asking “who” the ghost is, Bernardo is simultaneously asking what it is, where it comes from, and how such a thing can exist. So simple, so understated, so arresting is the first line of Hamlet that I’m apt to say that Bernardo’s question is the great concern of all supernatural literature, if not all literature. Within Hamlet there is a tension between the idea of survival and extinction, for though the prince calls death the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” he himself must know that’s not quite right. After all, his own father came back from the dead (a role that Shakespeare played himself).

covercoverShakespeare’s ghoul is less ambiguous than those of Charles Dickens, for the ghost of Jacob Marley who visits Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is accused of simply being an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Note that the querying nature of the final clause ends in an exclamation rather than a question mark, and there’s no asking who somebody is, now only what they are. Because A Christmas Carol has been filtered through George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, and the Muppets, there is a tendency to forget just how terrifying Dickens’s novel actually is. The ultimately repentant Scrooge and his visitations from a trinity of moralistic specters offer up visions of justice that are gothic in their capacity to unsettle. The neuter sprite that is the Ghost of Christmas Past with holly and their summer flowers; hail-fellow-well-met Bacchus that is the Ghost of Christmas Present; and the grim memento mori visage of the reaper who is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (not to mention Marley padlocked and in fetters). Dickens in the mold of Dante, for whom haunting is its own form of retribution, a means of purging us of our inequities and allowing for redemption. Andrew Smith writes in The Ghost Story 1840-1920: A Cultural History that “Dickens’s major contribution to the development of the ghost story lies in how he employs allegory in order to encode wider issues relating to history, money, and identity.” Morality itself—the awesome responsibility impinging on us every second of existence—can be a haunting. The literal haunting of Scrooge is more uncertain, for perhaps they’re gestated from madness, hallucination, nightmare, or as he initially said, indigestion. Dickens’s ghosts are ambiguous—as they always must be—but the didactic sentiment of A Christmas Carol can’t be.

covercovercoverNothing is more haunting than history, especially a wicked one, and few tales are as cruel as that of the United States. Gild the national narrative all that we want, American triumphalism is a psychological coping mechanism. This country, born out of colonialism, genocide, slavery, is a massive haunted burial ground, and we all know that grave yards are where ghosts dwell. As Leslie Fiedler explained in Love and Death in the American Novel, the nation itself is a “gothic fiction, nonrealistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic—a literature of darkness and the grotesque.” America is haunted by the weight of its injustice; on this continent are the traces of the Pequod and Abenaki, Mohawk and Mohegan, Apache and Navajo whom the settlers murdered; in this country are the filaments of women and men held in bondage for three centuries, and from every tree hangs those murdered by our American monstrosity. That so many Americans willfully turn away from this—the Faustian bargain that demands acquiescence—speaks not to the absence of haunting; to the contrary, it speaks of how we live among the possessed still, a nation of demoniacs. William Faulkner’s observation in Requiem for a Nun that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” isn’t any less accurate for being so omnipresent. No author conveyed the sheer depth and extent of American haunting quit like Toni Morrison, who for all that she accomplished must also be categorized among the greatest authors of ghost stories. To ascribe such a genre as that to a novel like Morrison’s Beloved is to acknowledge that the most accurate depictions of our national trauma have to be horror stories if they’re to tell the truth. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts”—there’s both wisdom and warning in Morrison’s adage.

covercoverBeloved’s plot is as chilling as an autumnal wind off of the Ohio River, the story of the former enslaved woman Sethe whose Cincinnati home is haunted by the ghost of her murdered child, sacrificed in the years before the Civil War to prevent her being returned to bondage in Kentucky. Canonical literature and mythology have explored the cruel incomprehension of infanticide—think of Euripides’s Medea—but Sethe’s not irrational desire to send her “babies where they would be safe” is why Beloved’s tragedy is so difficult to contemplate. When a mysterious young woman named Beloved arrives, Sethe becomes convinced that the girl is the spirit of her murdered child. Ann Hostetler, in her essay from the collection Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, writes that Beloved’s ghost “was disconcerting to many readers who expected some form of social or historical realism as they encountered the book for the first time.” She argues, however, that the “representation of history as the return of the repressed…is also a modernist strategy,” whereby “loss, betrayal, and trauma is something that must be exorcized from the psyche before healing can take place.” Just because we might believe ourselves to be done with ghosts doesn’t mean that ghosts are done with us. Phantoms so often function as the allegorical because whether or not specters are real, haunting very much is. We’re haunted by the past, we’re haunted by trauma, we’re haunted by history. “This is not a story to pass on,” Morrison writes, but she understands better than anyone that we can’t help but pass it on.

covercovercoverHistorical trauma is more occluded in Stephen King’s The Shining, though that hasn’t stopped exegetes from interpreting the novel about homicide in an off-season Colorado resort as being concerned with the dispossession of Native American, particularly in the version of the story as rendered by director Stanley Kubrick. The Overlook Hotel is built upon a Native American burial ground, Navajo and Apache wall hangings are scattered throughout the resort. Such conjectures about The Shining are explored with delighted aplomb in director Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 (named after the most haunted place in the Overlook), but as a literary critical question, there’s much that’s problematic in asking what any given novel, or poem, or movie is actually about; an analysis is on much firmer ground when we’re concerned with how a text works (a notably different issue).  So, without discounting the hypothesis that The Shining is concerned with the genocide of indigenous Americans, the narrative itself tells a more straightforward story of haunting, as a bevy of spirits drive blocked, recovering alcoholic writer and aspiring family destroyer Jack Torrance insane. Kubrick’s adaptation is iconic—Jack Nicholson as Torrance (with whom he shares a first name) breaking through a door with an axe; his son, young Danny Torrance, escaping through a nightmarish, frozen hedge-maze of topiary animals; the crone in room 237 coming out of the bathtub; the blood pouring from the elevators; the ghostly roaring ’20s speakeasy with its chilling bartender, and whatever the man in the boar costume was. Also, the twins.

Still, it could be observed that the only substantiated supernatural phenomenon is the titular “Shining” that afflicts both Danny and the Overlook’s gentle caretaker, Dick Halloran. “A lot of folks, they got a little bit of shine to them,” Dick explains. “They don’t even know it. But they always seem to show up with flowers when their wives are feelin blue with the monthlies, they do good on school tests they don’t even study for, they got a good idea how people are feelin as soon as they walk into a room.” As hyper-empathy, the shining makes it possible that Danny is merely privy to a variety of psychotic breaks his father is having rather than those visions being actually real. While Jack descends further and further into madness, the status of the spectral beings’ existence is ambiguous (a point not everyone agrees on, however). It’s been noted that in the film, the appearance of a ghost is always accompanied by that of a mirror, so that The Shinings hauntings are really manifestations of Jack’s fractured psyche. Narrowly violating my own warning concerning the question of “about,” I’ll note how much of The Shining is concerned with Jack’s alcoholism, the ghostly bartender a psychic avatar of all that the writer has refused to face. Not just one of the greatest ghost stories of the 20th century, The Shining is also one of the great novels of addiction, an exploration of how we can be possessed by own deficiencies. Mirrors can be just as haunted as houses. Notably, when King wrote The Shining, he was in the midst of his own full-blown alcoholism, so strung out he barely remembers writing doorstopper novels (he’s now been sober for more than 30 years). As he notes in The Shining, “We sometimes need to create unreal monsters and bogies to stand in for all the things we fear in our real lives.”   

coverIf Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, Beloved, and The Shining report on apparitions, then there are novels, plays, and poems that are imagined by their creators as themselves being chambers haunted by something in between life and death. Such a conceit offers an even more clear-eyed assessment of what’s so unsettling about literature—this medium, this force, this power—capable of affecting what we think, and see, and say as if we ourselves were possessed. As a trope, haunted books literalize a profound truth about the written word, and uneasily push us towards acknowledging the innate spookiness of language, where the simplest of declarations is synonymous with incantation. Richard Chambers’s collection of short stories The King in Yellow conjures one of the most terrifying examples of a haunted text, wherein an imaginary play that shares the title of the book is capable of driving its audience to pure madness. “Strange is the night where the black stars rise, /And strange moons circle through the skies,” reads verse from the play; innocuous, if eerie, though it’s in the subtlety that the demons get you. Chambers would go on to influence H.P. Lovecraft, who conceived of his own haunted book in the form of the celebrated grimoire The Necronomicon, which he explains was “Composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanaa in Yemen, who was said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 A.D.,” and who rendered into his secret book the dark knowledge of the elder gods who were responsible for his being “seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses.” Despite the Necronomicons fictionality, there are a multitude of occultists who’ve claimed over the years that Lovecraft’s haunted volume is based in reality (you can buy said books online).

covercoverThen there are the works themselves which are haunted. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the most notorious example, its themes of witchcraft long lending it an infernal air, with superstitious directors and actors calling it the “Scottish play” in lieu of its actual title, lest some of the spells within bring ruin to a production. Similar rumors dog Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe and his play Doctor Faustus, with a tradition holding that the incantations offered upon the stage summoned actual demons. With less notoriety, the tradition of “book curses” was a full-proof way to guard against the theft of the written word—a practice that dates back as far as the Babylonians, but that reached its apogee during the Middle Ages, when scribes would affix to manuscript colophons warnings about what should befall an unscrupulous thief. “Whoever steals this Book of Prayer/May he be ripped apart by swine, /His heart splintered, this I swear, /And his body dragged along the Rhine,” writes Simon Vostre in his 1502 Book of Hours. To curse a book is perhaps different than a stereotypical haunting, yet both of these phenomenon, not-of-this-world as they are, assume disembodied consciousness as manifest among otherwise inert matter; the curse is a way of imbuing yourself and your influence beyond your demise. It’s to make yourself a ghost, and it worked in leaving those books complete. “If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance,” Marc Drogin dryly notes in Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses.

Not all writing is cursed, but surely all of it is haunted. Literature is a catacomb of past readers, past writers, past books. Traces of those who are responsible for creation linger among the words on a page; Shakespeare can’t hear us, but we can still hear him (and don’t ghosts wander through those estate houses upon the moors unaware that they’ve died?). Disenchantment has supposedly been our lot since Luther, or Newton, or Darwin chased the ghosts away, leaving behind this perfect mechanistic clockwork universe with no need for superfluous hauntings. Though like Hamlet’s father returned from a purgatory that we’re not supposed to believe in, we’re unwilling to acknowledge the specters right in front of us. Of all of the forms of expression that humanity has worked with—painting, music, sculpture—literature is the eeriest. Poetry and fiction are both incantation and conjuration, the spinning of specters and the invoking of ghosts; it is very literally listening to somebody who isn’t there, and might not have been for a long while. All writing is occult, because it’s the creation of something from ether, and magic is simply a way of acknowledging that—a linguistic practice, an attitude, a critical method more than a body of spells. We should be disquieted by literature; we should be unnerved. Most of all, we should be moved by the sheer incandescent amazement that such a thing as fiction, and poetry, and performance are real. Every single volume upon the shelves of Drown, every book in an office, every thumbed and underlined play sitting on a desk, is more haunted than that building. Reader, if you seek enchantments, turn to any printed page. If you look for a ghost, hear my voice in your own head.

Bonus Link:
Binding the Ghost: On the Physicality of Literature

Image Credit: Flickr/Kevin Dooley

is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, his website, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.

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