Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Imperishable Ghost

The Imperishable Ghost


Ghosts are the true immortals, and the dead grow more alive all the
time. Wraiths have a greater vitality to-day than ever before. They are
far more numerous than at any time in the past, and people are more
interested in them. There are persons that claim to be acquainted with
specific spirits, to speak with them, to carry on correspondence with
them, and even some who insist that they are private secretaries to the
dead. Others of us mortals, more reserved, are content to keep such
distance as we may from even the shadow of a shade. But there's no
getting away from ghosts nowadays, for even if you shut your eyes to
them in actual life, you stumble over them in the books you read, you
see them on the stage and on the screen, and you hear them on the
lecture platform. Even a Lodge in any vast wilderness would have the
company of spirits. Man's love for the supernatural, which is one of the
most natural things about him, was never more marked than at present.
You may go a-ghosting in any company to-day, and all aspects of
literature, novels, short stories, poetry, and drama alike, reflect the
shadeless spirit. The latest census of the haunting world shows a vast
increase in population, which might be explained on various grounds.

Life is so inconveniently complex nowadays, what with income taxes and
other visitations of government, that it is hard for us to have the
added risk of wraiths, but there's no escaping. Many persons of to-day
are in the same mental state as one Mr. Boggs, told of in a magazine
story, a rural gentleman who was agitated over spectral visitants. He
had once talked at a séance with a speaker who claimed to be the spirit
of his brother, Wesley Boggs, but who conversed only on blue suspenders,
a subject not of vital interest to Wesley in the flesh. "Still," Mr.
Boggs reflected, "I'm not so darn sure!" In answer to a suggestion
regarding subliminal consciousness and dual personality as explanation
of the strange things that come bolting into life, he said, "It's crawly
any way you look at it. Ghosts inside you are as bad as ghosts outside
you." There are others to-day who are "not so darn sure!"

One may conjecture divers reasons for this multitude of ghosts in late
literature. Perhaps spooks are like small boys that rush to fires,
unwilling to miss anything, and craving new sensations. And we mortals
read about them to get vicarious thrills through the safe _medium_ of
fiction. The war made sensationalists of us all, and the drab
everydayness of mortal life bores us. Man's imagination, always bigger
than his environment, overleaps the barriers of time and space and
claims all worlds as eminent domain, so that literature, which he has
the power to create, as he cannot create his material surroundings,
possesses a dramatic intensity, an epic sweep, unknown in actuality. In
the last analysis, man is as great as his daydreams--or his nightmares!

Ghosts have always haunted literature, and doubtless always will.
Specters seem never to wear out or to die, but renew their tissue both
of person and of raiment, in marvelous fashion, so that their number
increases with a Malthusian relentlessness. We of to-day have the ghosts
that haunted our ancestors, as well as our own modern revenants, and
there's no earthly use trying to banish or exorcise them by such a
simple thing as disbelief in them. Schopenhauer asserts that a belief in
ghosts is born with man, that it is found in all ages and in all lands,
and that no one is free from it. Since accounts vary, and our earliest
antecedents were poor diarists, it is difficult to establish the
apostolic succession of spooks in actual life, but in literature, the
line reaches back as far as the primeval picture writing. A study of
animism in primitive culture shows many interesting links between the
past and the present in this matter. And anyhow, since man knows that
whether or not he has seen a ghost, presently he'll be one, he's
fascinated with the subject. And he creates ghosts, not merely in his
own image, but according to his dreams of power.

The more man knows of natural laws, the keener he is about the
supernatural. He may claim to have laid aside superstition, but he isn't
to be believed in that. Though he has discarded witchcraft and alchemy,
it is only that he may have more time for psychical research; true, he
no longer dabbles with ancient magic, but that is because the modern
types, as the ouija board, entertain him more. He dearly loves to
traffic with that other world of which he knows so little and concerning
which he is so curious.

Perhaps the war, or possibly an increase in class consciousness, or
unionization of spirits, or whatever, has greatly energized the ghost in
our day and given him both ambition and strength to do more things than
ever. Maybe "pep tablets" have been discovered on the other side as
well! No longer is the ghost content to be seen and not heard, to slink
around in shadowy corners as apologetically as poor relations. Wraiths
now have a rambunctious vitality and self-assurance that are
astonishing. Even the ghosts of folks dead so long they have forgotten
about themselves are yawning, stretching their skeletons, and starting
out to do a little haunting. Spooky creatures in such a wide diversity
are abroad to-day that one is sometimes at a loss to know what to do
"gin a body meet a body." Ghosts are entering all sorts of activities
now, so that mortals had better look alive, else they'll be crowded out
of their place in the shade. The dead are too much with us!

Modern ghosts are less simple and primitive than their ancestors, and
are developing complexes of various kinds. They are more democratic than
of old, and have more of a diversity of interests, so that mortals have
scarcely the ghost of a chance with them. They employ all the agencies
and mechanisms known to mortals, and have in addition their own methods
of transit and communication. Whereas in the past a ghost had to stalk
or glide to his haunts, now he limousines or airplanes, so that
naturally he can get in more work than before. He uses the wireless to
send his messages, and is expert in all manner of scientific lines.

In fact, his infernal efficiency and knowledge of science constitute the
worst terror of the current specter. Who can combat a ghost that knows
all about a chemical laboratory, that can add electricity to his other
shocks, and can employ all mortal and immortal agencies as his own?
Science itself is supernatural, as we see when we look at it properly.

Modern literature, especially the most recent, shows a revival of old
types of ghosts, together with the innovations of the new. There are
specters that take a real part in the plot complication, and those that
merely cast threatening looks at the living, or at least, are content to
speak a piece and depart. Some spirits are dumb, while others are highly

Ghosts vary in many respects. Some are like the pallid shades of the
past, altogether unlike the living and with an unmistakable spectral
form--or lack of it. They sweep like mist through the air, or flutter
like dead leaves in the gale--a gale always accompanying them as part of
the stock furnishings. On the other hand, some revenants are so
successfully made up that one doesn't believe them when they pridefully
announce that they are wraiths. Some of them are, in fact, so alive that
they don't themselves know they're dead. It's going to be a great shock
to some of them one of these days to wake up and find out they're

Ghosts are more gregarious than in the past. Formerly a shade slunk off
by himself, as if ashamed of his profession, as if aware of the lack of
cordiality with which he would be received, knowing that mortals shunned
and feared him, and chary even of associating with his fellow-shades. He
wraithed all by himself. The specters of the past--save in scenes of the
lower world,--were usually solitary creatures, driven to haunt mortals
from very lonesomeness. Now we have a chance to study the mob psychology
of ghosts, for they come in madding crowds whenever they like.

Ghosts at present are showing an active interest not only in public
affairs, but in the arts as well. At least, we now have pictures and
writing attributed to them. Perhaps annoyed by some of the inaccuracies
published concerning them--for authors have in the past taken advantage
of the belief that ghosts couldn't write back--they have recently
developed itching pens. They use all manner of utensils for expression
now. There's the magic typewriter that spooks for John Kendrick Bangs,
the boardwalk that Patience Worth executes for Mrs. Curran, and
innumerable other specters that commandeer fountain pens and pencils and
brushes to give their versions of infinity. There's a passion on the
part of ghosts for being interviewed just now. At present
book-reviewers, for instance, had better be careful, lest the wraiths
take their own method of answering criticism. It isn't safe to speak or
write with anything but respect of ghosts now. _De mortuis nil nisi
bonum_, indeed! One should never make light of a shade.

Modern ghosts have a more pronounced personality than the specters of
the past. They have more strength, of mind as well as of body, than the
colorless revenants of earlier literature, and they produce a more vivid
effect on the beholder and the reader. They know more surely what they
wish to do, and they advance relentlessly and with economy of effort to
the effecting of their purpose, whether it be of pure horror, of beauty,
or pathos of humor. We have now many spirits in fiction that are
pathetic without frightfulness, many that move us with a sense of poetic
beauty rather than of curdling horror, who touch the heart as well as
the spine of the reader. And the humorous ghost is a distinctive shade
of to-day, with his quips and pranks and haunting grin. Whatever a
modern ghost wishes to do or to be, he is or does, with confidence and

The spirit of to-day is terrifyingly visible or invisible at will. The
dreadful presence of a ghost that one cannot see is more unbearable than
the specter that one can locate and attempt to escape from. The
invisible haunting is represented in this volume by Fitz-James O'Brien's
_What Was It?_ one of the very best of the type, and one that has
strongly influenced others. O'Brien's story preceded Guy de Maupassant's
_Le Horla_ by several years, and must surely have suggested to
Maupassant as to Bierce, in his _The Damned Thing_, the power of evil
that can be felt but not seen.

The wraith of the present carries with him more vital energy than his
predecessors, is more athletic in his struggles with the unlucky wights
he visits, and can coerce mortals to do his will by the laying on of
hands as well as by the look or word. He speaks with more emphasis and
authority, as well as with more human naturalness, than the earlier
ghosts. He has not only all the force he possessed in life, but in many
instances has an access of power, which makes man a poor protagonist for
him. Algernon Blackwood's spirits of evil, for example, have a more
awful potentiality than any living person could have, and their will to
harm has been increased immeasurably by the accident of death. If the
facts bear out the fear that such is the case in life as in fiction,
some of our social customs will be reversed. A man will strive by all
means to keep his deadly enemy alive, lest death may endow him with
tenfold power to hurt. Dark discarnate passions, disembodied hates, work
evil where a simple ghost might be helpless and abashed. Algernon
Blackwood has command over the spirits of air and fire and wave, so that
his pages thrill with beauty and terror. He has handled almost all known
aspects of the supernatural, and from his many stories he has selected
for this volume _The Willows_ as the best example of his ghostly art.

Apparitions are more readily recognizable at present than in the past,
for they carry into eternity all the disfigurements or physical
peculiarities that the living bodies possessed--a fact discouraging to
all persons not conspicuous for good looks. Freckles and warts, long
noses and missing limbs distinguish the ghosts and aid in crucial
identification. The thrill of horror in Ambrose Bierce's story, _The
Middle Toe of the Right Foot_, is intensified by the fact that the dead
woman who comes back in revenge to haunt her murderer, has one toe
lacking as in life. And in a recent story a surgeon whose desire to
experiment has caused him needlessly to sacrifice a man's life on the
operating table, is haunted to death by the dismembered arm. Fiction
shows us various ghosts with half faces, and at least one notable spook
that comes in half. Such ability, it will be granted, must necessarily
increase the haunting power, for if a ghost may send a foot or an arm or
a leg to harry one person, he can dispatch his back-bone or his liver or
his heart to upset other human beings simultaneously in a sectional
haunting at once economically efficient and terrifying.

_The Beast with Five Fingers_, for instance, has a loathsome horror that
a complete skeleton or conventionally equipped wraith could not achieve.
Who can doubt that a bodiless hand leaping around on its errands of evil
has a menace that a complete six-foot frame could not duplicate? Yet, in
Quiller-Couch's _A Pair of Hands_, what pathos and beauty in the thought
of the child hands coming back to serve others in homely tasks! Surely
no housewife in these helpless days would object to being haunted in
such delicate fashion.

Ghosts of to-day have an originality that antique specters lacked. For
instance, what story of the past has the awful thrill in Andreyev's
_Lazarus_, that story of the man who came back from the grave, living,
yet dead, with the horror of the unknown so manifest in his face that
those who looked into his deep eyes met their doom? Present-day writers
skillfully combine various elements of awe with the supernatural, as
madness with the ghostly, adding to the chill of fear which each concept
gives. Wilbur Daniel Steele's _The Woman at Seven Brothers_ is an
instance of that method.

Poe's _Ligeia_, one of the best stories in any language, reveals the
unrelenting will of the dead to effect its desire,--the dead wife
triumphantly coming back to life through the second wife's body. Olivia
Howard Dunbar's _The Shell of Sense_ is another instance of jealousy
reaching beyond the grave. _The Messenger_, one of Robert W. Chambers's
early stories and an admirable example of the supernatural, has various
thrills, with its river of blood, its death's head moth, and the ancient
but very active skull of the Black Priest who was shot as a traitor to
his country, but lived on as an energetic and curseful ghost.

_The Shadows on the Wall_, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman,--which one
prominent librarian considers the best ghost story ever written,--is
original in the method of its horrific manifestation. Isn't it more
devastating to one's sanity to see the shadow of a revenge ghost cast on
the wall,--to know that a vindictive spirit is beside one but
invisible--than to see the specter himself? Under such circumstances,
the sight of a skeleton or a sheeted phantom would be downright

_The Mass of Shadows_, by Anatole France, is an example of the modern
tendency to show phantoms in groups, as contrasted with the solitary
habits of ancient specters. Here the spirits of those who had sinned for
love could meet and celebrate mass together in one evening of the year.

The delicate beauty of many of the modern ghostly stories is apparent in
_The Haunted Orchard_, by Richard Le Gallienne, for this prose poem has
an appeal of tenderness rather than of terror. And everybody who has
had affection for a dog will appreciate the pathos of the little sketch,
by Myla J. Closser, _At the Gate_. The dog appears more frequently as a
ghost than does any other animal, perhaps because man feels that he is
nearer the human,--though the horse is as intelligent and as much
beloved. There is an innate pathos about a dog somehow, that makes his
appearance in ghostly form more credible and sympathetic, while the
ghost of any other animal would tend to have a comic connotation. Other
animals in fiction have power of magic--notably the cat--but they don't
appear as spirits. But the dog is seen as a pathetic symbol of
faithfulness, as a tragic sufferer, or as a terrible revenge ghost. Dogs
may come singly or in groups--Edith Wharton has five of different sorts
in _Kerfol_--or in packs, as in Eden Phillpotts's _Another Little Heath

An illuminating instance of the power of fiction over human faith is
furnished by the case of Arthur Machen's _The Bowmen_, included here.
This story it is which started the whole tissue of legendry concerning
supernatural aid given the allied armies during the war. This purely
fictitious account of an angel army that saved the day at Mons was so
vivid that its readers accepted it as truth and obstinately clung to
that idea in the face of Mr. Machen's persistent and bewildered
explanations that he had invented the whole thing. Editors wrote leading
articles about it, ministers preached sermons on it, and the general
public preferred to believe in the Mons angels rather than in Arthur
Machen. Mr. Machen has shown himself an artist in the supernatural, one
whom his generation has not been discerning enough to appreciate. Some
of his material is painfully morbid, but his pen is magic and his
inkwell holds many dark secrets.

In this collection I have attempted to include specimens of a few of the
distinctive types of modern ghosts, as well as to show the art of
individual stories. Examples of the humorous ghosts are omitted here, as
a number of them will be brought together in _Humorous Ghost Stories_,
the companion volume to this. The ghost lover who reads these pages will
think of others that he would like to see included--for I believe that
readers are more passionately attached to their own favorite ghost tales
than to any other form of literature. But critics will admit the
manifest impossibility of bringing together in one volume all the famous
examples of the art. Some of the well-known tales, particularly the
older ones on which copyright has expired, have been reprinted so often
as to be almost hackneyed, while others have been of necessity omitted
because of the limitations of space.


March, 1921.

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