Ghost Stories Part III: The Reader’s Imagination

I wrote in Ghost Stories Part II: The Horror Story in Miniature about the reader using his or her imagination to fill in the gaps, and I’m going to continue with this theme here in Part III.

Everyone knows that a story or a film is far more frightening if you leave the nasty bits to the reader/viewer’s imagination. It’s far less scary if we actually see the monster. This is the essential difference between horror and splatterfest: horror is scary, splatterfest is just yuck, featuring gore for gore’s sake. So the lesson is, don’t show us the monster, let us imagine it – and I’m going to use three ghost stories to illustrate the effect of letting the reader’s imagination do the work.

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My starting point is H G Wells’ The Red Room, and I found this beautiful image on Google to go with it. (I think Kathleen Manderfield might be the artist. I haven’t sought permission to use the image and will happily take it down if requested to do so. It’s fantastic, though, isn’t it?) I particularly like that the shadow of the grate falls across the extinguished candles and is reminiscent of a skeleton’s ribcage. I’ll come back to the candles, though, because there is a ready-made interpretation of the story hidden there and I’ve already posted about that sort of thing.

In Wells’ story, a foolhardy protagonist of the kind you always get in ghost stories has volunteered to spend the night in the Red Room, which is rumoured to be haunted. We meet him in media res, in conversation with the three old retainers who wind him up good and proper with their portentous pronouncements of ‘It’s your own choosing’ and ‘This night of all nights!’ Our hero makes his way to the Red Room along a thoroughly spooky corridor and is duly shut in for the night. Left alone, he conducts the obligatory ‘systematic examination of the place’, and lights as many candles as he can. He is by now ‘in a state of considerable nervous tension’ and, just after midnight, the candles begin to go out. The light diminishes as each little flame disappears, and our hero dashes around the room desperately trying to relight the candles. Eventually, every single candle has gone out and the only light in the room comes from the fire in the grate, but as the man moves towards it, the flames dwindle and vanish, leaving our hero in darkness. Terrified, he makes a rush for the door, but he misjudges its location and knocks himself out cold when he bashes into ‘some other bulky furniture’. The three retainers find him at dawn and bandage him up. They ask him what he saw in the room and he tells them there is nothing in there, except the Fear (with a capital letter) that he took in there with him: ‘Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms. It followed me through the corridor, it fought against me in the room –’ One of the retainers, whose words provide the story with its close, insists on believing that the ‘Fear’ is due to a curse placed upon the ‘poor young countess’, but my general feeling about this story is that we are being pointed in another direction: we are being shown how powerful the human imagination can be when it is sufficiently worked upon.

In spite of the stories that surround the room concerning a ‘timid wife and the tragic end that came to her husband’s jest of frightening her’, I still believe we should take the young man at his word when he says there is nothing in the room. Remember, he is badly frightened before he has even reached the Red Room. First, he is spooked by the retainers, whose ‘very existence was spectral; the cut of their clothing, fashions born in dead brains’. He is further frightened on his journey to the Red Room, startled by the shadow of a ‘bronze group’, and ‘a porcelain Chinaman on a buhl table, whose head rocked silently’. And this is where I come back to the candles: yes, it seems odd that the candles all go out, but we need to bear in mind here that candles will, of course, go out at some stage. They don’t last forever. The fact that they apparently go out simultaneously is potentially a mark of supernatural intervention, but this too can be explained by the state the young man is in. He is a first-person narrator and our instinct is to trust that which first-person narrators tell us, but it is arguable that by this stage in the story he has become an unreliable narrator: because he is so frightened, he is no longer an impartial judge of events. The candles may perhaps be going out simply because they have burned down naturally, and there is no question of their being deliberately extinguished by ‘an invisible hand’ as the narrator imagines. This is why I mentioned the candles in the image above: those candles depicted still have plenty of burning time left in them, so the image would seem to support the supernatural interpretation of events over the more humdrum reading I have given here.

What I’d like to do now is to take a look at two more stories, one of which is more successful than the other. Not surprisingly, both stories involve empty houses. Let’s begin with the not-so-successful story, The Empty House by Algernon Blackwood. The premise is very simple: a chap called (unpromisingly) Shorthouse agrees to spend the night in a haunted house with his Aunt Julia, who is extremely curious about the house, but too afraid to spend the night there alone: ‘Three tenants have come and gone in the last few months, and the house is said to be empty for good now.’ Of course, the house was previously the scene of an ‘orrible murder: ‘a jealous stableman…had some affair with a servant in the house. One night he managed to secrete himself in the cellar, and when everyone was asleep, he crept upstairs to the servants’ quarters, chased the girl down to the next landing, and before anyone could come to the rescue threw her bodily over the banisters into the hall below.’ The stableman, we are told, was caught and hanged. Shorthouse and Aunt Julia make their way to the house and, once inside – guess what? – yes, that’s right, they decide to search the place. At this point, the story is still genuinely scary, and there is one terrifying moment when, having opened some folding doors, Shorthouse and Aunt Julia are making their way upstairs: ‘From the room they had left hardly ten seconds before came the sound of doors quietly closing.’ This sentence made my blood run cold. Not only is there definitely something in the house with them, but also, whatever it is resents their intrusion. And another thing…it is tangible enough to be able to close a pair of heavy folding doors. This threat is very real.

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Unfortunately, the story goes downhill from here. It becomes clear that what Shorthouse and Aunt Julia are going to see is a re-enactment of the murder scene. They have already heard a man cough, and seen a spectral woman, and now they hear ‘a sound of rushing feet’ before their candle is extinguished – but not before Shorthouse has seen ‘a face working with passion; a man’s face, dark, with thick features, and angry, savage eyes’. But…well, a man’s face isn’t scary, is it? And it doesn’t really matter how evil-looking the narrator tells me this man’s face is, I still think the doors closing on their own is scarier. Shorthouse and Aunt Julia stay in the house long enough to witness the ghostly protagonists act out the murder before rushing back out into the street in terror, but my heart rate had long since returned to normal before this point. I just knew too much to be frightened any longer. Right, so the ghosts of the hanged man and the murder victim act out the murder every night. Ho hum. Got that. But if you know who the ghosts are – or were – and you know what they’re going to do, where’s the suspense? It’s far more frightening if you have lots and lots of questions and absolutely no answers. That’s why W. F. Harvey’s The Clock is more successful.

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The I-narrator of this story is genderless, but for the sake of convenience, I’m going to assume that she’s female. So, the narrator is staying with her aunt, and has planned a trip to Lewes. Her aunt has another house-guest, a Mrs Caleb, ‘recuperating after a series of domestic upheavals, which had culminated in her two servants leaving her at an hour’s notice, without any reason’. The narrator takes a dislike to Mrs Caleb, but agrees to carry out a small errand for her in Lewes: to fetch from Mrs Caleb’s house a travelling clock inadvertently overlooked and left behind. Once the narrator has gained access to Mrs Caleb’s house, she takes a dislike to that too: it is stuffy and oppressive from having been shut up for twelve days and a monkey puzzle tree obscures a great deal of light, making the rooms gloomier than they might otherwise have been. The clock is eventually located in an older part of the house, ‘ticking away merrily’. And this is where it starts to go wrong. Why is the clock still ticking? Why hasn’t it wound down? The house has been unoccupied since Mrs Caleb left. The narrator speculates that perhaps it’s a fourteen-day clock, but when she tries the winder, she ‘had scarcely turned the winding-screw twice when it stopped…the hands had been set in motion probably only an hour or two before’. The narrator is badly frightened – she knows the house to be empty, and yet the clock has undoubtedly been recently wound – and she is just wondering what to do next when she hears a noise. ‘It was very faint at first, and seemed to be coming from the stairs. It was a curious noise – not the noise of anyone climbing up the stairs, but…of something hopping up the stairs, like a very big bird would hop.’ It gets worse. The noise stops once it reaches the landing, then ‘there was a curious scratching noise against one of the bedroom doors, the sort of noise you can make with the nail of your little finger scratching polished wood. Whatever it was, was coming slowly down the corridor, scratching at the doors as it went.’

I actually let out a little bit of wee when I read this bit. The narrator too, has had enough by this stage: she throws open the window and jumps out, taking the clock with her. She decides to go to the police-station to tell them about the open window, but when she looks back, the window has been closed. And we know that she locked the door behind her when she first entered the room containing the clock.

There are no answers. We don’t know what it was that was coming up the stairs, or why it had to hop rather than walk. We don’t know why it was scratching at the doors – or what it was scratching with. We don’t know why it made sure the clock was fully wound. We don’t know whether Mrs Caleb knew about this thing, whether that was why the servants left, or whether Mrs Caleb deliberately set a trap for the narrator. We don’t know how whatever it was got through a locked door…or why it closed the window.

Again, there is that sense of an intruder in an empty house and the house itself resenting the intrusion, so that everything disturbed is put back where it was by unseen hands. And curiously, the details the narrator gives us in describing the mysterious sounds she can hear ought to disperse the tension, because the images used are almost homely – the big bird, the little fingernail against the wood – but this isn’t the case. It makes it worse. The big bird hopping becomes in our mind’s ear a misshapen monster that drags itself painfully from place to place; the fingernail scratching becomes a talon, or what’s left of a finger. Once you start speculating, there’s no limit to the number of images and alternative narratives your mind can conjure up. This is why I almost widdled myself reading this story, but felt pretty ‘meh’ about Blackwood’s tale. Leave it to the reader’s imagination, and something as simple as a clock that is fully wound when it really shouldn’t be can be absolutely terrifying.

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In Part IV, I’m going to be looking at Muriel Spark’s ghost stories. I shall leave you now to speculate on the picture of the window above. Was the window closed the first time you looked at it? It’s open now…

  2 comments for “Ghost Stories Part III: The Reader’s Imagination

  1. April 27, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    It was definitely a talon in my minds eye before I had finished the blog! A recurring dream I had as I child was of an eagle type bird thing that wouldn’t let me leave whichever room I was in…. Thanks Gaenor, that will no doubt be revisited tonight!

    Like

  2. April 27, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Mwahahahahaaaa! My work here is done. Ooo, and ask Tif about my story of the monk who was bricked up alive behind the fireplace in her bedroom and how, when all is still and silent in the middle of the night, if you listen really carefully, you can hear him trying to scratch his way out with what’s left of his fingers. Poor old Tiffy didn’t sleep for a fortnight.

    Like

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