Ghost Stories Part IV (a): Muriel Spark’s ‘The Portobello Road’

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I posted previously about a ghostly I-narrator in Spark’s The Girl I Left Behind Me, and in The Portobello Road we have another I-narrator ghost, but in this story the murder victim haunts her murderer. This was one of Muriel Spark’s favourite short stories, along with The Executor.

The Portobello Road tells the story of four friends: Kathleen, Skinny, George and Needle. In her youth, Needle found a needle in a haystack, which is why she came to be known as Needle. From that day forward, Needle is considered ‘lucky’ by the other characters, although in fact haystacks are associated with injury and death for her: the needle she chances upon in the story’s first haystack drives deep into the cushion of her thumb creating a wound which bleeds copiously; Needle is suffocated with hay and her body buried in the second haystack. When her corpse is recovered, the headlines in the evening papers run ‘ “Needle” is found: in haystack!’

Needle’s haphazard, itinerant existence induces the other characters to remark that she is lucky. Needle makes her living by writing and in profiting from the occasional stroke of fortune, such as a fortuitous legacy, and the discovery of a diamond bracelet for which she is given a reward. Needle is a character we find often in Spark: an independent woman writer who is assured of her ‘difference from the rest’. Spark is writing from her own experience, obviously, but she doesn’t trouble to make this character likable. In fact, Needle treats George – her murderer – with malice and contempt, both before her death and after. But we are not led to have any sympathy for George, either. He is a ridiculous figure, marked from the outset as a threat by the narrator’s repeated insistence on how large a man he is, and we are told often about George’s full, sensuous red lips and white teeth. One can’t help but think of vampires, and George does indeed drain Needle’s life-force when he stuffs her mouth with hay and kills her. George’s ‘wide slit of red lips’ reveals a sensuousness in his nature which marks him out as a man ruled by his passions. He takes up with Matilda and marries her because he ‘needed the woman’ and he murders Needle in a fit of anger when she refuses to keep quiet about George’s projected bigamy. The murder itself is reported in the typically understated Sparkian fashion which is so devastatingly effective: ‘He looked as if he would murder me and he did.’

So Needle exists as a ghost in order to haunt and punish George. She explains away the fact that she ‘did not altogether depart this world’ because there are ‘odd things still to be done which one’s executors can never do properly’. (This includes looking over papers which the executors have already torn up, so the papers are themselves ghostly.) Tormenting George is clearly one of the other ‘odd things’ to be accomplished, because Needle cannot be seen or heard by anyone other than George – she tells us that she ‘wasn’t in a position to speak to Kathleen’, but that she ‘had a sudden inspiration’ to talk to George. We are given no more explanation than this. We do not know why Needle can only address George, nor do we know who or what inspired her to do so. Needle does not speak very much to George beyond saying hello and telling him that he doesn’t look very well, but her narratorial reporting of these encounters is gleefully disingenuous: ‘I suppose from poor George’s point of view it was like seeing a ghost when he saw me’, and ‘I suppose that was why he looked so unwell when I stood, nearly five years later, by the barrow in the Portobello Road’. But Needle knows exactly what she is doing, even if she chooses to give us a skewed version of events: ‘The next Saturday I looked out for him, and at last there he was, without Kathleen, half-worried, half-hopeful. I dashed his hopes.’

The narratorial voice is a strange one, here as in almost everything else Muriel Spark wrote. What we have in this story is a first-person narrator who shares much of the knowledge of an omniscient third-person narrator, presumably because of Needle’s status as a ghost. Needle reports the discovery of her own body and the results of the ensuing investigation, and she is also privy to the emotions and thoughts of other characters: Skinny feels sorry for the byre-hand who was one of the chief suspects; Kathleen doesn’t like the snapshot George took of his friends on the day Needle discovered the needle; the police ‘could tell from the way [George] was talking that there was something wrong with the man’. In the latter example, the narratorial voice slips easily into the perspective of the police following a straightforward description of action (‘he went to the police and gave himself up’), which is the sort of thing you would expect from an omniscient third-person narrator, but not from an I-narrator. In fact, George is telling the police the truth at this point, but they don’t believe him because he tells them that he has just escaped from a nursing home, and, as the narrator tells us, ‘Dozens of poor mad fellows confess to every murder.’ Needle’s emotional detachment from even her own untimely demise is what gives the story its arch narratorial tone and its black humour. The malice which Needle directs at George, the most powerful emotion we sense from her, is engendered not as a result of his being her murderer, but is felt even when Needle was living, and throughout their friendship, because George so desperately needs the approval and company of others, whereas Needle considers herself ‘set apart from the common run’.

Coming soon: The Executor!

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…

Ghost Stories Part II: The Horror Story in Miniature

Spooky graveyard

In Ghost Stories Part I, I wrote about how the structure of a ghost story can mimic that of a joke, with the final awful dénouement as the punchline. In Part II, I’m going to look at something similar: horror stories in miniature, which work in very much the same way as a joke in that they require the reader to fill in the gaps. And if you have a fevered imagination and you’ve read a lot of ghost stories, you’ll have plenty with which to fill those gaps. When I was an undergraduate in London, many years ago, I spent an evening in the kitchen with a housemate and a bottle of wine, and we told each other every ghost story we knew. After a couple of hours of this, we were feeling jumpy to say the least…so when another housemate returned from the pub and banged loudly on the back door, the two of us in the kitchen screamed uncontrollably. I had to sleep with the light on for a week.

Let’s begin with an old chestnut, a very short tale described as the Shortest Horror Story in the World. I’ve lifted the story and the information which follows from here:

“ ‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…’ This two-sentence horror tale is presented as a story within a story, right at the start of Fredric Brown’s ‘Knock‘, published in the December 1948 edition of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Brown describes how the horror in this story is all implied…what could be at the door? ‘But,’ he says, ‘it wasn’t horrible, really.’ He then tells the story of Walter Phelan, the last man on Earth after an alien race called the Zan invade and kill everyone apart from Walter Phelan and the last woman alive, Grace Evans.”

Now, any alert reader can work out that if the last ‘man’ on Earth hears a knock at the door, chances are that it’s a woman knocking. But if you change ‘man’ for ‘human being’ and remove the melodramatic ellipsis, it all becomes much scarier:

‘The last human being on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.’

Okay, now this really is scary because you know that whatever it is that’s knocking is not a human being. You also know that it’s intelligent enough, and knows enough about the customs of human beings, to understand the function of knocking at a door. And finally, whatever it is on the other side of the door wants to come in. Who would have the courage to open the door? And yet, what else could you do? A similar predicament faces the person who knows they are alone in the house, and who, groping in the dark for a match, feels the matchbox being placed into their outstretched hand. Who would have the courage to strike a match in this situation? But the alternative is sitting in the dark, wondering what else is in the room with you. The terror would send you mad.

I found the story which follows on the same website, and you can find other short science fiction stories here:

‘Mike ran in, shouting, “Wait!” but once again, Mike had already pushed the button.’

Whoever Mike is, he’s trapped in a time-loop from which he can never escape.

Of the Six Word Stories, still on the same site, I quite enjoyed ‘Rock, paper, scissors. One life jacket’. This next one, however, gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies: ‘Too young to hitchhike. Darkened roadway.’

I like these little tiny horror stories precisely because you can create the rest of the narrative yourself. The same thing is possible with fragments of other stories taken out of context and subsequently reworked. For example, take the following three frames from Robin Barnard’s Whatmen:

WhatMen 3 frames

Whatmen is a rich, multi-layered text, and it opens itself to many readings, but I like these three frames in particular: together, they could either form a complete narrative on their own, or they could provide the reader with the opening for a whole set of other narratives. There are many questions one could ask, the answers to which would generate a new story; the same is true of the narratives in miniature discussed above. Here, we see an armed man, wearing a garment that could be a dressing-gown, opening his fridge to find nothing but what looks like a jacket of some sort and a note. The man gingerly takes the note and in the final frame he reads the words ‘Behind you’. Fantastic! The narrative potential here is immense. Who or what is behind the man? What happens next? Why is there a jacket in the fridge? Why isn’t there any food in the fridge? Why does the man look so haggard? What has happened to him before now? And what does the strange symmetrical symbol mean at the bottom of the note? So many questions, so many narrative possibilities…

So, the reader has an active part to play in these little stories. There are questions to be asked and gaps to be filled. And the more readers read, the more competent they become: the horror/ghost story genre is extremely well-developed because it has always enjoyed a tremendous popularity, and as a result, regular readers bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to each narrative. In Part III, I’m going to take a closer look at what part the reader plays in a good ghost story.

My thanks to Robin Barnard, who very kindly gave me permission to use his beautifully crafted images here. If you’d like to see more of Robin’s work, you can view his blog at Images Degrading Forever.

The photograph at the top of this post was taken at Portland Bill by my husband Roy, who always has to take a million billion photographs wherever we go. I like this one though. The menacing sky, the mutilated angel, the gravestone tilting to one side as if the occupant of the grave below had been trying to push its way out…oooOOOOOoooo! …I might have to sleep with the light on tonight.

PS. If you like these very short short stories, Rick Mallery’s Power Shorts Daily are also well worth a look!

Ghost Stories Part I: The Punchline

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I’ve always loved ghost stories, but have never had nerves of steel – which is putting it mildly – and I’ve passed many a long night too scared to go back to sleep after a ghost-story-induced nightmare. Being so easily frightened makes me an ideal reader of spooky stories and I’ve decided to devote a bit of blog space into examining what it is that makes a story scary. This post is going to be a four-parter, put together over the next few weeks, and I’ll conclude in Part IV by looking at some of Muriel Spark’s short stories with a supernatural theme.

Part I is about the structure of ghost stories.

The Punchline

The Scooby Doo stories that I watched on the telly when I was little are an excellent example of how a ghost story can be structured. The stories always follow the same basic pattern with the four narrative phases shown on the graph below. The vertical axis shows the reader/viewer’s level of excitement, which you could think of perhaps in terms of your heart rate; thus your heart rate is highest at the climactic moment of the story. The horizontal axis shows narrative time. (Story time and narrative time are not the same thing, but in the Scooby Doo stories time is mostly linear and we move from the beginning to the end with very little deviation.)

The All New Scooby Doo Graph

This is how the four narrative phases manifest themselves in a Scooby Doo mystery…

  • The attention-grabbing opening: we are thrown right into the heart of things with little or no explanation. We see the ghost/monster/vampire etc. in action and lots of terrified people.
  • Following a period of development there comes a complication: the Scooby Gang arrive in the Mystery Machine (pictured above) and are filled in on what’s been going on. They split up and there’s a lot of running around before Thelma finds a clue. This is the complication, because it suggests there is an alternative explanation and that the monster may not be what it seems.
  • The climax: following a lot more running around and an elaborate plan which goes a bit wrong, the character we saw very briefly at the beginning of the story – usually the janitor/caretaker – is unmasked and revealed as the villain.
  • The resolution: this is where we get the details, all the Why and the How. Very often we’ll see a clip of an earlier event (a flashback within an otherwise linear timeframe), but this time we witness events from a different perspective, which enables us to see what really happened. And then the janitor/caretaker says ‘I would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.’ The End.

Not all ghost stories follow this pattern, of course. Many stories containing an element of horror or the supernatural finish at the climax, the high point of the story, and when the reader’s level of excitement is at its peak. The stories of Edgar Allan Poe, for example, rarely have a resolution, and end just when the horror is at its most intense. When a short story is structured in this way, the climax is similar to the punchline of a joke: the punchline is delivered at the end of a narrative and the reader is left to fill in the rest of the details in order to arrive at a full understanding of the text.

I mentioned in a previous post (People are very funny about books) that I frequently cover up the last page of a ghost story with my hand in order to avoid glimpsing the ending before I’ve got there. This is because very often the last sentence or two of a good ghost story is equivalent to the punchline in a joke, and obviously the effect will be maximised if you’ve read the narrative in its entirety first: you don’t want to hear the punchline of a joke too soon. By way of illustration, the following story was presented to me as a joke, but it’s really a horror story in miniature:

A man was dragging a small boy through the dark wood in a bitter storm. ‘I’m frightened!’ wailed the boy. ‘You’re frightened?’ said the man, ‘I’ve got to come back on my own!’

Once the reader has realised the full implication of the man’s words, the response can only be one of horror.

I’ll follow up horror stories in miniature in Part II and the reader’s role in Part III, but I’ll finish now with a quick look at how one of Muriel Spark’s stories follows the punchline structure. The story is, of course, The Girl I Left Behind Me. [Warning – spoilers ahead!] The story opens with the I-narrator leaving the office with the tune her boss has been whistling still going round in her head. She catches the bus, all the while feeling invisible amongst the crowd of other tired people returning home for the evening and experiencing a nagging sensation that she has left something behind at the office. When she gets back to her digs, she realises that she cannot bear the thought of the unsavoury repast awaiting her, and the nagging sensation has become so strong now – this is the complication – that she feels she must go back to the office and find out what it is she has left there. She travels on another bus and when she arrives, she finds her own strangled body. The story ends at the climax, with the narrator embracing her body ‘like a lover’. At this point, the reader re-evaluates the narrative in what those who study cognitive poetics term a ‘frame refresh’: now that we know the I-narrator has been a ghost right from the very beginning, we understand how she travelled twice on a bus without paying a fare, why the man whose foot she stood on didn’t react, and why she felt invisible in the presence of other people. We can see that the odd behaviour and dream-like state of Mr Letter, her boss, was in fact symptomatic of his murderous instinct rising, and that he was so fascinated by his tie because it is the murder weapon: the narrator last sees Mr Letter ‘swinging his tie in his hand, beside [her] desk’. The tune she can hear in her head – the tune her boss was singing – is the last thing she hears before she is murdered. The tunes featured in the story have sinister titles themselves: Softly, Softly, Turn the Key, which is what the narrator does first when she enters her digs and again as she re-enters her office, and, of course, The Girl I Left Behind Me, which we now understand in its double sense. Outside the story this is probably the title of a romantic ditty, but as part of the text, Mr Letter has left a murdered girl behind him, and the narrator has left a girl behind her in the form of her murdered body.

In conclusion, then, the way in which a ghost story is structured can add to its inherent ‘scariness’. The lack of resolution can leave the reader at the most intense part of the narrative. The structure can mimic that of a joke and guide the reader towards a punchline which comes as a chilly shock and necessitates a re-working in the reader’s mind of earlier events: Oh! – she was dead all along! (As a final note, Spark re-works this idea on a larger scale in her 1973 novel The Hothouse by the East River, in which it is revealed towards the end of the story that all the characters are dead, having been killed by a V2 bomb in WWII.)

In Part II, coming soon! – The Horror Story in Miniature.

People are very funny about books

 

Me reading a book in sepia

Me reading a book while on holiday in the Norfolk Broads a couple of years ago

People are very funny about books – funny peculiar, that is, rather than funny ha-ha.

For example, the last time I bought a bookcase, the retail assistant informed me that the smaller compartments in the particular case I was looking at were handy for storing DVDs or displaying ornaments and other such fripperies. ‘No, I need all the space for books,’ I replied, and even as I said it, I knew what her response would be – and yes, it duly came – ‘Oh, yes, well, I’ve got far too many books myself. I never have enough space for them.’ Right, fair enough, but then why try to encourage me to use up valuable book-storing-space by plonking a vase where the books should be? The thing is, the assistant felt that I’d made some kind of imputation about her intelligence because I’d implied that I owned more books than she did, and she felt the need to correct me on this.

But – the number of books you own is not an indication of how clever you are. What sort of books do you have? Do you have a houseful of Barbara Cartlands and Jilly Coopers? All very well if you like that sort of thing, but I doubt it’ll do much for your IQ. And if you own books of a more intellectual nature, have you actually read them? Again, it’s all very well to own expensive hardback copies of the major works by influential western philosophers, but if you haven’t read them, then you may as well clutter up your bookshelves with china dogs and tea-light holders.

People say they don’t like giving books away: ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly part with my books. It would be like giving away a little bit of myself.’ Would it? Of course it wouldn’t. There isn’t any part of my physical being that I would give away – at least not while I’m alive and still using it – but I donate books to Oxfam all the time, because I’ve read them. I give books away partly because I know I only have a finite number of years on this planet and it’s very unlikely that I’ll have time to read them again, but mostly because I only have a finite amount of storage space and I part with the books I’ve read in order to make room for the books that I haven’t read. (Of course, this doesn’t always work. I keep the books I know I will need again – textbooks – plus the books I know I will read again – mostly comic books – and just occasionally, I’ll give a book away and then decide that I wished I hadn’t: I did this recently with du Maurier’s Rebecca. Three weeks after having parted with it, I ended up trotting round the charity shops looking for a replacement copy.)

People like books as a physical object. Kindles and similar products have not really taken off as they might have done, despite some clear advantages over bulky hardbacks: Kindles take up less storage space (again!), and are not so heavy to hold. This latter point may seem frivolous, but I struggle to read Simon Schama’s A History of Britain mostly because it’s so bloody heavy and my hands start to ache after twenty minutes or so. The advantages to Kindles are obvious if you are travelling – no excess baggage payments and more room for insect repellent and stomach tablets. But I must confess here that I prefer a good solid paperback myself, although my own reservations about Kindles have more to do with the comparatively small amount of text shown on the screen and the continuous interruption to the reading experience that ensues as a result. We can’t use our peripheral vision when reading from a Kindle in the same way that we do when reading a book, and as far as I know, there hasn’t been any research into this area yet, so it’s possible that when using a Kindle, we might be missing out on a vital part of the reading experience. I do know that I always cover up the last page of ghost stories with my hand because I don’t want to glimpse the ending by accident before I get there.

People won’t write in books or deface them in any way. Why not? It’s your book. You can do what you like with it. I scribble all over mine. I like my books to contain my experience of reading them. For example, there are crinkly pages in my copy of The Three Musketeers because I blubbed all over the chapter in which Constance is murdered, and as for my copy of Watership Down – well, some pages have been welded together forever with snotty salt water. I like it when I buy a second-hand book and someone has drawn little pictures in the margin, or written a mysterious note to the previous recipient of the book. It’s nice if a book retains that small fragment of human experience.

What I’m getting round to, I suppose, is that a book should be a dynamic, not a static, object. It shouldn’t sit on a shelf gathering dust. It shouldn’t be used as a status symbol. It should be read and wept over and annotated, and then it should be passed on for someone else to read and perhaps spill coffee on, and then passed on again and again, until eventually all the pages fall out when the glue in the binding perishes and then it can be recycled and made into another book. Hurrah!