Since most modern men have ceased to recognize their own
souls, the spectral tale has been out of fashion, especially
in America. As Cardinal Manning said, all differences of
opinion are theological at bottom; and this fact has its
bearing upon literary tastes. Because—even though they
may be churchgoers—the majority of Americans do not
much hunger after personal immortality, they cannot shiver
at someone else’s fictitious spirit.

Perhaps the primary error of the Enlightenment was the notion
that dissolving old faiths, creeds, and loyalties would lead
to a universal sweet rationalism. But deprive man of St.
Salvator, and he will seek, at best, St. Science—even
though he understands Darwin, say, no better than he understood
Augustine. Similarly, our longing for the invisible springs
eternal, merely changing its direction from age to age. So
if one takes away from man a belief in spirits, it does not
follow that thereafter he will concern himself wholly with
Bright Reality; more probably, his fancy will seek some new
realm—and perhaps a worse credulity.

Thus stories of the supernatural have been supplanted by “science
fiction.” Though the talent of H. G. Wells did in that genre nearly
everything worth undertaking, a flood of “scientific” and “futuristic” fantasies
continues to deluge America. With few exceptions, these writings
are banal and meaningless. My present point, however, is
simply that many people today have a faith in “life
on other planets” as burning and genuine as belief
in a literal Heaven and a literal Hell was among twelfth-century
folk, say—but upon authority far inferior. . . . Having
demolished, to their own satisfaction, the whole edifice
of religious learning, abruptly and unconsciously they experience
the need for belief in something not mundane; and
so, defying their own inductive and mechanistic premises,
they take up the cause of Martians and Jovians. As for angels
and devils, let alone bogies—why, Hell, such notions
are superstitious!

But if the stubborn fact remains that, although not one
well-reputed person claims to have seen the men in the flying
saucers, a great many well-reputed persons, over centuries,
have claimed to have seen ghosts; or, more strictly speaking,
to have perceived certain “psychic phenomena.” From
Pliny onward, the literature of our civilization is full
of such narrations. Scholars have analyzed soberly such appearances,
from Father Noel Taillepied’s Treatise on Ghosts (1588)
to Father Herbert Thurston’s Ghosts and Poltergeists (1955). The
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research
has examined
painstakingly, for decades, the data of psychic manifestations.
Eminent people so different in character as the Wesleys and
Lord Castlereagh have been confronted by terrifying apparitions.

And men of letters have encountered spectral visitants so
often as to become altogether casual about these mysteries.
Take, as a random example, an aside in Ford Madox Ford’s Portraits
from Life
. Ford’s London editorial office was
in an old house “reputed full of ghosts.” Thus—

My partner Marwood, while sitting one evening
near the front windows of the room whilst I was looking
for something in the drawer of a desk, said suddenly: “There’s
a woman in lavender-coloured eighteenth-century dress looking
over your shoulder into that drawer.” And Marwood
was the most matter-of-fact, as it were himself eighteenth-century,
Yorkshire Squire that England of those days could have
produced.

Ford touches upon this little episode merely to introduce
his first meeting with D. H. Lawrence, in that office. As
Ford Madox Ford implies, he then felt more embarrassed than
alarmed or even interested. For in such matters, we always
doubt the plain asseverations of our friends, and even the
testimony of our own senses. Some impression has been made
upon the imaginative brain, yes; something very extraordinary
seems to have happened. But what? Ordinarily the experience
is so evanescent and so meaningless, however alarming, that
speculation seems vain.

That “psychic phenomena” occur, even a philosophical
materialist like George Santayana took to be indubitable.
Santayana’s own explanation, or the gist of it, is
that in a medium-like state we make out shadows or reflections,
as it were, of past events.

This is only one analysis of the puzzle, with really no
more to substantiate the argument than there is to prove
Cicero’s suggestion that ghosts are the damned, condemned
to linger near the scenes of their crimes. Here I am but
suggesting, in fine, that no one ever has satisfactorily
tested or demonstrated a general theory of ghostly apparitions;
yet a mass of evidence, of all ages and countries—though
particularly abundant, for reasons no one ever has discussed
properly, in northern Europe and in Japan and China—informs
us that strange things beyond the ordinary operation of life
and matter have occurred at irregular intervals and in widely
varying circumstances. Two forms of psychic phenomena are
fairly frequent: the revenant, and the poltergeist or racketing
spirit; and these terrifying men. (Telepathy and the milder
forms of “second sight” are encountered even
more frequently, but they rarely bring with them the horror
and dread of the “ghost.”)

At the end of his serious book Apparitions, Professor
G.N.M. Tyrell remarks, “Psychical research has certainly
not drawn a blank. It has, on the contrary, discovered something
so big that people sheer away from it in a reaction of fear.” This
is true; and possibly some day these mystifying events will
be properly examined in a scientific spirit, classified,
and somehow fitted into the natural sciences—though
I doubt it. At present, such phenomena submit neither to
rhyme nor to reason: the revenant seems unpredictable and
purposeless, and the poltergeist behaves like a feeble-minded
child. Thus it is that the True Narration of ghostly happenings
almost never attains to the condition of true literature.
To guess at any significance in these manifestations, we
still must resort to literary art—that is, to fiction.
And art, as Burke says, is man’s nature.

Because this limbo has no defined boundaries and interiorly
remains terra incognita, the imaginative writer’s
fancy can wander here unimpeded by the dreary baggage of
twentieth-century naturalism. For symbol and allegory, the
shadow-world is a far better realm than the hard, false “realism” of
science-fiction. . . . Unlike the True Narration, the fictional
ghostly tale can possess a plot, theme and purpose. It can
piece together in some pattern the hints which seem thrown
out by this vision or that haunting or some case of second
sight. It can touch keenly upon the old reality of evil—and
upon injustice and retribution. It can reveal aspects of
human conduct and longing to which the positivistic psychologist
has blinded himself. And it still can be a first-rate yarn.

 

What makes a ghostly tale worth reading? Or writing? Certainly
the supernatural has attracted writers of genius or high
talent: Defoe, Scott, Coleridge, Stevenson, Hoffmann, Maupassant,
Kipling, Hawthorne, Poe, Henry James, F. Marion Crawford,
Edith Wharton; and those whose achievement lies principally
in this dark field, among them M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood,
Meade Faulkner, Sheridan Le Fanu and Arthur Machen. Many
of the best are by such poets and critics as Walter de la
Mare, A. C. Benson and Quiller Couch. Theirs are no Grub
Street names. The genre has in it something worth
attempting.

Clearly a fearful joy is one attraction, from Horace Walpole
to L. P. Hartley. Most of us enjoy being scared, so long
as we are reasonably confident that nothing dreadful really
will overtake us. Thus the fun of the Gothic tale is the
fun of the roller-coaster or the crazy-house at the county
fair. It is worth noting that the great milieu of the ghost-story
was nineteenth-century Europe, and especially England, versatility
and technique improving as the century grew older. Despite
its revolutionary changes, to us today the last century seems
an age of security and normality; and Britain especially
was cozy and safe. The Christmas ghost-story, told by the
glowing hearth with all the strong defenses a triumphant
civilization to reassure the timorous, reached its apogee
in the delightful frights of Montague Rhodes James, provost
of Eton, shortly before the First WorldWar.

Yet, this is not the whole of the matter; if it were, supernatural
fictions would have short shrift in our age. The fountains
of the great deep being broken up in this time, we have supped
long on real horrors, and require no fanciful alarums to
titillate our palates. Gauleiter and commissar are worse
than spectral raw-head-and-bloody-bones. What is nearly as
bad, man in modern fiction—as Mr. Edmund Fuller has
pointed out—tends toward a depravity more shocking
than Monk Lewis’ grotesqueries. The august school of
Mr. Dashiell Hammett and Mr. James M. Cain provide for appetites
that find phantasms not sufficiently carnal. And for those
who are after pure, and relatively harmless, excitement,
the daily slaughter in the Wild West of television may suffice.
Without straining credulity, no ghost could do half so much
mischief as a Private Eye.

Notwithstanding these handicaps, I expect the tale of the
supernatural to endure as a minor form of genuine literary
art, and perhaps sometimes—as in The Turn of the
Screw
—to emerge as a major form. For at its best
the uncanny romance touches upon certain profound truths:
upon the dark powers that aspire always to possess us, and
upon intimations of immortality.

George Macdonald, and his disciple C. S. Lewis, employ the
ghostly and the supernatural means in letters to a moral
and theological end; and from them the rising generation
of authors ought to learn that naturalism is not the only
road to higher reality. For the writer who struggles to express
moral truth, indeed, “realism” has become in
our time a dead-end street; it fully justifies now
the definition in Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s
Dictionary
: “The art of depicting nature as it
is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted
by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm.”

Emerson, amid nineteenth-century meliorism, never could
credit the reality of evil. But a good many twentieth-century
writers are unable to credit the reality of anything except
evil. Now it can be said of the better ghostly tale that
it is underlain by a sound concept of the character of evil.
The necromancer, defying nature, conjures up what ought not
to rise again this side of Judgment Day. But these dark powers
do not rule the universe: they are in rebellion against Providential
order; and by bell, book, and candle, literally or symbolically,
we can push them down under. This truth runs through the
priest’s ghost-stories in A. C. Benson’s The
Light Invisible
; also it is hinted at in some of the
eerie narrations of W. B. Yeats’ Mythologies.

I venture to suggest that the more orthodox is a writer’s
theology, the more convincing, as symbols and allegories,
his uncanny tales will be. One of the most unnerving of all
spooky stories is Algernon Blackwood’s “The Diamond,” which
concerns an ugly modern house where the cellars seem to be
full of souls in torment, doled out little drops of water
by a medium-housekeeper. But in its concluding pages—and
this is true of too many of Blackwood’s creations—the
power of the story is much diminished when the reader is
informed that, after all, the cellars aren’t really
Hell: it is merely that people who formerly lived in the
house believed in Hell, and so invested the place
with an unpleasant aura. Because the Christian tradition,
with its complex of symbol, allegory, and right reason, genuinely
penetrates to spiritual depths and spiritual heights, the
modern supernatural fiction which isolates itself from this
authority drifts aimlessly down Styx.

Though Freudianism retains great popular influence today,
as an intellectual force it has been compelled to retreat;
and Freud’s naïve understanding of human nature
must make way for older and greater insights. For Freudians
and positivists, only the “natural” exists. The
philosophical and ideological currents of a period necessarily
affecting its imaginative writing, the supernatural in fiction
has been somewhat ridiculous much of this century. But as
the rising generation regains the knowledge that “nature” is
something more than mere sensate existence, and that something
lies both above and below human nature—that reality,
after all, is hierarchical—then authors will venture
once more to employ myth and symbol, to resort to allegories
of the divine and the diabolical, as lawful instruments.
And in this revival the ghostly tale may have its part. Tenebrae ineluctably
form part of the nature of things; nor should we complain,
for without darkness there cannot be light.

But enough of this: I am turning into a ghostly comforter.
I do not ask the artist in the fantastic tale to turn didactic
moralizer; and I trust that he will not fall into the error
that shapes under the hill are merely symbols. For
the sake of his art, the teller of ghostly tales ought never
to enjoy freedom from fear. As that great moralist Samuel
Johnson lived in dread of real eternal torment—not
mere “mental anguish”—so that great “invisible
prince,” Sheridan Le Fanu, archetype of ghost-story
writers, is believed to have died literally of fright. He
knew that his creations were not his creations merely, but
glimpses of the abyss.

And I hope that in writing Gothic romances for moderns who
suffer from taedium vitae, the coming set of eerie
authors will not modernize their craft beyond recognition.
It has been a skill innately conservative. As M. R. James
wrote of Le Fanu, “The ghost story is in itself a slightly
old-fashioned form; it needs some deliberateness in the telling;
we listen to it the more readily if the narrator poses as
elderly, or throws back his experience to ‘some thirty
years ago.’” If faithless to this trust, the
ghost-story writer will deserve to be hounded to hisdoom
by the late James Thurber’s favorite monster, the Todal, “a
creature of the Devil, sent to punish evil-doers for having
done less evil than they should.”

This previously published essay recently appeared
in Ancestral
Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales
,
by Russell
Kirk, edited with an introduction by Vigen Guroian (Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 2004). Russell Kirk (1918–1994) is the
founding editor of The University Bookman.

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