Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Please, tell me a ghost story

Oh, I do love ghost stories. The staple of my late childhood reading, if you count out Narnia and Diana Wynne Jones, were stories of revenants and warnings from beyond the grave, beginning with my Dad's copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination (not the Edgar Allan Poe compilation of the same name, but a TV tie in to what I'm guessing is this series and a lifelong confusion regarding that particular title) and going from there.

But, you see, I wasn't just surrounded by adults willing to hand me totally inappropriate books, I grew up surrounded by a rich tradition of the oral ghost story. Family tales, polished by time and hyperbole; odd, unresolved fragments of 'something strange that happened to me'; weird co-incidences; Urban (or perhaps rural) legends; and of course the "I live in the middle of nowhere, and the best form of fun is to make up shit and terrify my friends."

I know hundreds, and most of them gained from that opening gambit, or a book passed to me in desperation upon hearing it. Just because I know them doesn't mean that I can tell them, but there are a few that I can. Many of them have never found their way into print, or if they have only as part of a compilation of real life ghost stories. Because that's the thing about ghost stories, once you encounter them. The best ones are true, or at the very least 'true'.

"My Grandmother, who was not a fanciful woman..."

Do you believe in ghosts?

We are always assured that the original teller does not. M.R James, master of the form, understood this. Ghost stories do not - or at least, should not - happen to believers. A credulous person cannot be trustedin these things. They will always jump to the most sensational conclusion. No. What you need is someone calmer, someone rational and a little sceptical. At the very furthest reach, we need an open mind, an 'I've not seen enough evidence to persuade me either way." In James' work, his narrator is usually taken in hand by a older acquaintance, wry or solemn, who is older, more experienced, and more comfortable with the truth in Hamlet's words, "There are more things..." Even the believers do so quietly, without fuss.

In our own tales, we are equally discriminating. Our source is always reliable. My Great-grandmother was not a fanciful woman, but... My friend, who doesn't believe any of this stuff... It's the classic urban legend source, two removes. It does not happen to you, the listener, or the one telling the story, but someone with whom they could have direct contact, their great aunt, their cousin's friend, their next-door-neighbour's mum. It is close enough that belief is conceivable but, ah, always just that little bit too far to check the facts.

First hand ghost stories, in my experience, are generally told ruthlessly, without embellishment. Unless there is a gap of many years, they are dropped in a way that makes telling them to someone else a bore, "Yes, but you did you notice that..." Perhaps it takes some distance to spin a proper tale around them.

So do you believe in ghosts? According to this article, which I read about two years ago (and got angry at), 38% of the population of Britain believe in ghosts. But of that 62% who ticked the 'no' box, how many of them love a good, scary tale? How many of them will, in he right conversation, divulge some curious little fragment of their own life, or a family recollection by which they will swear? How many of them are undecided? Asking someone if they believe is almost invariably a prelude to getting a tale, a much more effective way than my childhood efforts. "Well, no. I don't. But..."

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