The Fascination Of The Ghost Story
What is the fascination we feel for the mystery of the ghost story?
Is it of the same nature as the fascination which we feel for the
mystery of the detective story?
Of the latter fascination, the late Paul Armstrong used to say that it
was because we are all as full of crime as Sing Sing--only we don't
Thus, may I ask, are we not fascinated by the ghost story because, no
matter what may be the scientific or skeptical bent of our minds, in our
inmost souls, secretly perhaps, we are as full of superstition as an
obeah man--only we don't let it loose?
Who shall say that he is able to fling off lightly the inheritance of
countless ages of superstition? Is there not a streak of superstition in
us all? We laugh at the voodoo worshiper--then create our own hoodooes,
our pet obsessions.
It has been said that man is incurably religious, that if all religions
were blotted out, man would create a new religion.
Man is incurably fascinated by the mysterious. If all the ghost stories
of the ages were blotted out, man would invent new ones.
For, do we not all stand in awe of that which we cannot explain, of that
which, if it be not in our own experience, is certainly recorded in the
experience of others, of that of which we know and can know nothing?
Skeptical though one may be of the occult, he must needs be interested
in things that others believe to be objective--that certainly are
subjectively very real to them.
The ghost story is not born of science, nor even of super-science,
whatever that may be. It is not of science at all. It is of another
sphere, despite all that the psychic researchers have tried to
There are in life two sorts of people who, for want of a better
classification, I may call the psychic and the non-psychic. If I ask the
psychic to close his eyes and I say to him, "Horse," he immediately
visualizes a horse. The other, non-psychic, does not. I rather incline
to believe that it is the former class who see ghosts, or rather some of
them. The latter do not--though they share interest in them.
The artists are of the visualizing class and, in our more modern times,
it is the psychic who think in motion pictures, or at least in a
succession of still pictures.
However we explain the ghostly and supernatural, whether we give it
objective or merely subjective reality, neither explanation prevents the
non-psychic from being intensely interested in the visions of the
Thus I am convinced that if we were all quite honest with ourselves,
whether we believe in or do not believe in ghosts, at least we are all
deeply interested in them. There is in this interest something that
makes all the world akin.
Who does not feel a suppressed start at the creaking of furniture in the
dark of night? Who has not felt a shiver of goose flesh, controlled only
by an effort of will? Who, in the dark, has not had the feeling of some
_thing_ behind him--and, in spite of his conscious reasoning, turned to
If there be any who has not, it may be that to him ghost stories have no
fascination. Let him at least, however, be honest.
To every human being mystery appeals, be it that of the crime cases on
which a large part of yellow journalism is founded, or be it in the
cases of Dupin, of Le Coq, of Sherlock Holmes, of Arsene Lupin, of Craig
Kennedy, or a host of others of our fiction mystery characters. The
appeal is in the mystery.
The detective's case is solved at the end, however. But even at the end
of a ghost story, the underlying mystery remains. In the ghost story, we
have the very quintessence of mystery.
tell us that never before has there been such an intense and wide
interest in mystery stories as there is to-day. That in itself explains
the interest in the super-mystery story of the ghost and ghostly doings.
Another element of mystery lies in such stories. Deeper and further
back, is the supreme mystery of life--after death--what?
"Impossible," scorns the non-psychic as he listens to some ghost story.
To which, doggedly replies the mind of the opposite type, "Not so.
I believe _because_ it is impossible."
The uncanny, the unhealthy--as in the master of such writing,
Poe--fascinates. Whether we will or no, the imp of the perverse lures us
That is why we read with enthralled interest these excursions into the
eerie unknown, perhaps reading on till the mystic hour of midnight
increases the creepy pleasure.
One might write a volume of analysis and appreciation of this aptly
balanced anthology of ghost stories assembled here after years of
reading and study by Mr. J.L. French.
Foremost among the impressions that a casual reader will derive is the
interesting fact, just as in detective mystery stories, so in ghost
stories, styles change. Each age, each period has the ghost story
peculiar to itself. To-day, there is a new style of ghost story
Once stories were of fairies, fays, trolls, the "little people," of
poltergiest and loup garou. Through various ages we have progressed to
the ghost story of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until to-day,
in the twentieth, we are seeing a modern style, which the new science is
High among the stories in this volume, one must recognize the masterful
art of Algernon Blackwood's "The Woman's Ghost Story."
"I was interested in psychic things," says the woman as she starts to
tell her story simply, with a sweep toward the climax that has the ring
of the truth of fiction. Here perhaps we have the modern style of ghost
story at its best.
Times change as well as styles. "The Man Who Went Too Far" is of intense
interest as an attempt to bring into our own times an interpretation of
the symbolism underlying Greek mythology, applied to England of some
To see Pan meant death. Hence in this story there is a philosophy of
Pan-theism--no "me," no "you," no "it." It is a mystical story, with a
storm scene in which is painted a picture that reminds one strongly of
"The Fall of the House of Ushur,"--with the frankly added words, "On him
were marks of hoofs of a monstrous goat that had leaped on
Happy is the Kipling selection, "The Phantom 'Rickshaw," if only for
that obiter dictum of ghost-presence as Kipling explains about the rift
in the brain: "--and a little bit of the Dark World came through and
pressed him to death!"
Then there are the racial styles in ghost stories. The volume takes us
from the "Banshees and Other Death Warnings" of Ireland to a strange
example of Jewish mysticism in "The Silent Woman." Mr. French has been
very wide in his choice, giving us these as well as many examples from
the literature of England and France. Finally, he has compiled from the
newspapers, as typically American, many ghost stories of New York and
other parts of the country.
Strange that one should find humor in a subject so weird. Yet we find
it. Take, for instance, De Foe's old narrative, "The Apparition of Mrs.
Veal." It is a hoax, nothing more. Of our own times is Ellis Parker
Butler's "Dey Ain't No Ghosts," showing an example of the modern Negro's
In our literature and on the stage, the very idea of a Darky and a
graveyard is mirth-provoking. Mr. Butler extracts some pithy philosophy
from his Darky boy: "I ain't skeered ob ghosts whut am, c'ase dey ain't
no ghosts, but I jes' feel kinder oneasy 'bout de ghosts whut ain't!"
Humor is succeeded by pathos. In "The Interval" we find a sympathetic
twist to the ghost story--an actual desire to meet the dead.
It is not, however, to be compared for interest to the story of sheer
terror, as in Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters," with the
flight of the servant in terror, the cowering of the dog against the
wall, the death of the dog, its neck actually broken by the terror, and
all that go to make an experience in a haunted house what it should be.
Thus, at last, we come to two of the stories that attempt to give a
scientific explanation, another phase of the modern style of ghost
One of these, perhaps hardly modern as far as mere years are concerned,
is this same story of Bulwer, "The Haunted and the Haunters." Besides
being a rattling good old-fashioned tale of horror, it attempts a
new-fashioned scientific explanation. It is enough to read and re-read
It is, however, the lamented Ambrose Bierce who has gone furthest in the
science and the philosophy of the matter, and in a very short story,
too, splendidly titled "The Damned Thing."
"Incredible!" exclaims the coroner at the inquest.
"That is nothing to you, sir," replies the
newspaper man who relates the experience, and in
these words expresses the true feeling about
ghostly fiction, "that is nothing to you, if I
also swear that it is true!"
But furthest of all in his scientific explanation--not scientifically
explaining away, but in explaining the way--goes Bierce as he outlines a
theory. From the diary of the murdered man he picks out the following
which we may treasure as a gem:
"I am not mad. There are colors that we cannot
see. And--God help me!--the Damned Thing is of
such a color!"
This fascination of the ghost story--have I made it clear?
As I write, nearing midnight, the bookcase behind me cracks. I start and
turn. Nothing. There is a creak of a board in the hallway.
I know it is the cool night wind--the uneven contraction of materials
expanded in the heat of the day.
Yet--do I go into the darkness outside otherwise than alert?
It is this evolution of our sense of ghost terror--ages of it--that
Can we, with a few generations of modernism behind us, throw it off with
all our science? And, if we did, should we not then succeed only in
abolishing the old-fashioned ghost story and creating a new, scientific
Scientific? Yes. But more,--something that has existed since the
beginnings of intelligence in the human race.
Perhaps, you critic, you say that the true ghost story originated in the
age of shadowy candle light and pine knot with their grotesqueries on
the walls and in the unpenetrated darkness, that the electric bulb and
the radiator have dispelled that very thing on which, for ages, the
ghost story has been built.
What? No ghost stories? Would you take away our supernatural fiction by
your paltry scientific explanation?
Still will we gather about the story teller--then lie awake o' nights,
seeing mocking figures, arms akimbo, defying all your science to crush
the ghost story.
Next: The Apparition Of Mrs Veal