Guest writer DUNCAN WOOD explains that ghosts are more interested in the living than the other side
Ghost stories must be about life not death. That’s my view.
Okay, I guess most people who enjoy spooky tales are fascinated by how people deal with death, and that’s hardly surprising. The generations rise and fall, voices sound and then pass into the great silence; and while we breathe, we live for a future that soon will not include us. This makes a puzzle of love.
By the way, if you’re interested in funerary pomp, I’d urge you to read Julian Litten’s fascinating book, The English Way of Death: the Common Funeral since 1450.
As any sensible adult knows, love is hard work. So is art. So is science and engineering. Why bother if all comes to nought ultimately? Of course, we live by pretending that we are eternal. Rich and eccentric humans try to freeze themselves for posterity, but most of us put our faith in progeny or community. Or perhaps in God.
In one of my stories in ‘More Ghostly Tales’, I try to imagine the fate of a couple when all information about the man’s two maiden aunts is totally destroyed. The aunts had returned from the dead to chastise their nephew for wasting his inheritance. The story’s a comedy to begin with, but turns to horror; not because of shrouds or skulls, but because the universe is made of information; and as the fabric of fact unravels … well, I find the triumph of the Void a scary thought.
Sure, a good ghost story should be entertaining. The characters should be lively and the plot engaging – preferably with a tight twist at the end. My tribute to the dead of the Great War, ‘The Known Soldier’ (incidentally, the only one of my stories to have been performed in the theatre) ends with a corkscrew which, I’m told, is astonishing. But really, I’m more interested in what a journalist friend has called my ‘subversion of the senses’. That’s what a ghost story should be about: subversive hints from life that human beings are not just wet computers or immortal souls or happy shoppers, all of which are dubious dogmas, but creative agents in a bigger drama that plays itself out through us. We love to obsess about the props, but it’s the action that counts. To be crude: mind shapes matter, deeply.
In my tales, ghosts love life. They can’t wait to get back into the sunshine and sort things out. Or, if they’re summoned back through someone’s misery or desire, they confront the living one with moral choices. I find it hard to imagine what an after-life might be like. Those maiden aunts whom I mentioned earlier complain about having to learn mathematics in heaven, which wasn’t what they thought it’d be like at all. I’ve paid too much attention to the work of that fiery literary critic, F R Leavis, not to want to focus my stories on serious choices facing the living. But isn’t it often the case that when we have to make a choice that will mean delight to some and dismay to others, the silent spectres in the shady recesses of our minds step forward and begin to speak?
DUNCAN WOOD is a a psychologist and researcher who was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and the Open University. His books, Four Ghostly Tales, More Ghostly Tales and Five Ghostly Tales are from Amazon. You can follow him on twitter @ghostlybooks and on Facebook. Read his website is here.