A long time ago I used to hunt ghosts. Not like you see on cable T.V. today, I would be asked to checkout someone’s house and I would get the address, go there, and talk to the people. Then I would go to the library and search county records, and newspaper microfiche. I found more bad plumbing and CO2 contamination than anything weird, and I also found that, while some were relieved that Satan hadn’t moved into the attic of their Pacific Grove Victorian, more were bummed out they hadn’t been touched by the paranormal. People love this stuff and want it so bad to be real that every bump in the night is a ghost or demon who’s come to take their soul. My job as a writer is to make it real for reader for a few hours or days depending on the length of the story.
The other thing I learned when my friends asked me about my adventures is how disappointed they’d become when I gave an accurate account of the alleged haunting. The lesson there is this:
The worst thing you can do is tell a bad ghost story.
Ghost stories go all the way back to before words were written down. When humans began to paint stories on cave walls ghosts were depicted long with the animals and rival tribes. Shakespeare used the Ancient Greek ghost-model in his best plays as his characters were tormented or mocked by spirits of the dead. Ghosts were unassailable speakers of truth, and amplified version of the character’s conscience. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner’s curse kills all the men of his crew, and once the curse is broken they rise from the dead to sail him home to testify to anyone who will listen of all of his sins.
The Victorians changed the ghost-model and reframed it to be a spirit of a person who had been murdered, or died with unfinished business. Science had taken off in the Victorian era and merged with the rise in Spiritualism, a direct result of the end of the Napoleonic, and American Civil wars that had left millions dead and families with broken hearts. The Victorians had believed they had enough evidence pointing to the existence of ghosts, and were faced with the problem of rationalizing their existence. The real problem is that the science of the day was not advanced, and was often practiced by people with little or no education. The top medicines of the day had Mercury as their active ingredient, and most homes and apartments were heated by coal so it isn’t any wonder people were seeing things and hearing voices.
The modern era saw few ghost stories as society turned away for the fantastic in its fiction, and they wouldn’t return until the post-modern era when movies became the preferred source of entertainment. Most ghost stories written in the 1930s up to and including today still use variations of the Victorian model. Don’t get me wrong, the Victorian ghost-model survives in fiction because it is a cookie-cutter frame to build a dandy tale around, and I even use it myself sometimes. But I don’t always like it when I do use it. I like to challenge myself when I write a new story, and while the Victorian model has a lot of mileage left in it, I am driven by my real-world encounters with ghosts to tell a different kind of story.
The problem with real ghosts is that they are terrifying for about five to ten seconds at a time. The fear has to do more with what the person experiencing the phantom brings to the event than what the phantom does. Old-School ghost hunters used to say that places aren’t haunted – people are haunted. That’s the underlying truth, whatever the phantoms are and why we see them sometimes has nothing to do with how we react when we see or hear ghosts. The fear and dread a haunted person feels stems from the revelation that they are not in total control of their reality. If ghosts are real, if their house or workplace is haunted then they’ve been lied to by science and their church, and if ghosts are real then what else is real? What if I am going insane?
Against this backdrop I searched for authors who better expressed the real life ghost experience, and I settled upon two. Edith Wharton and Ambrose Bierce both engage the phenomenon effectively while spinning a good yarn. Wharton was a Victorian writer, and pretty much reinforced the Victorian ghost-model, but her ghosts are different. Their menace is subtle, and the key to her ghost stories are that the protagonist doesn’t figure out that they’ve been dealing with a spirit until after the initial event. The tension builds after this discovery as they wait for the ghost to return. As in real life, the character does all of the heavy lifting in the fear department while the ghost is usually secondary.
Ambrose Bierce had to have seen a ghost in his time; his stories are just that honest to the phenomenon. I found that the majority of the time ghosts just show up for no reason at all, at least not a reason known to the person who stumbled across them. Most of his ghosts stories are like that, a man is going about his business when he comes face to face with someone who shouldn’t be there. In “A Baffled Ambuscade” a Union Army officer comes across a lone picket standing guard in the woods, in “A Moonlit Road” someone is walking slowly on the road in front of a farm house, and in “The Thing at Nolan” a man walks through a general store, with a bad head wound, in view of three men without acknowledging them, and out the back door. At the time of this visit, the man has been considered missing and murdered by his son, and they dig up his well-preserved body three years later.
Bierce’s stories are short and to the point. They have the effect of having the rug pulled out from under the reader’s feet, just like the actual paranormal encounter does. Some agrue his stories were too short, but Bierce would tell ask you why you want your time wasted when he could deliver the jolt in under a few thousand words? As a writer I’ve learned that if Bierce can drive a scare home in a short narrative then I can drive home a bunch of scares into the reader in a longer one…or at least I should make this my goal.
Bierce and Wharton were both Victorian era authors who, while helping to build that ghost-story model, were drawing from sources unknown to make their stories come to life in a way that so many writers never seem to accomplish. I recommend their work to any horror writer, especially Bierce, who also wrote other short works of the fantastic including the first story of featuring a robot (hint: it doesn’t end well), and his stories of the Civil War remain the only first-person, fictional accounts of that war. Even if you don’t like ghost stories these depictions of war are stunning, sickening, frustrating, and heartbreaking.
My goal each time I set out to reveal a new story is push my boundary out further, to fill my bag of tricks so to speak. A good ghost story is hard to write. The mistake I most often make is to approach the ghost story from a horror writer’s perspective, and this is like fishing with dynamite. Sure you catch a lot of fish, but more people go fishing for the experience of choosing the right lure, and sitting by or wading into the creek or river, and engaging the elements to reel in their catch. Sport fishing is about subtlety by nature or you scare away the fish. The same is true for the ghost story, too much horror and you ruin the ultimate desired effect – the lingering discomfort of what has just been read. The best ghost stories are like a fine wine or good meal, they have an after-taste which stays with one for a while. A good after-taste makes you want more.