Ghost Stories Part IV (b): Muriel Spark’s ‘The Executor’


We meet another punitive ghost in Spark’s The Executor, in the form of written messages from Susan’s deceased uncle, a famous author. Susan is appointed as executor to her uncle’s literary estate, and following his death Susan sells almost his entire archive to ‘the Foundation’ – but she keeps back her uncle’s final unfinished novel with the intention of completing and publishing it herself. Susan is punished for her greed when she finds messages addressed to her written in her dead uncle’s handwriting, messages which clearly indicate that he knows exactly what she is doing and thinking at every moment. This persecution continues until the Foundation, having found evidence of the existence of this novel amongst the papers Susan sold to them, eventually contact her to enquire after the missing work. Susan hands it over, and her uncle leaves her a final message: ‘Goodbye Susan. It’s lovely being a speck in the distance.’ This message refers to a passage at the beginning of the story in which we are told that Susan’s uncle once said to her that ‘if you could imagine modern literature as a painting, perhaps by Brueghel the Elder, the people and the action were in the foreground…[but] in the distance…there he would be…a speck in the distance, which if you were to blow up the detail would simply be a vague figure, plodding on the other way.’

(By the way, if you’d like to put this to the test, have a look at any one of Breughel’s paintings via the Google Art Project. This site is fantastic: you can zoom in on any detail and see paintings as you’ve never seen them before, and it’s definitely well worth a look! The site is not that intuitive, however, and it can be fiddly, but I got it to work by clicking on the ‘+’ sign in the box on the right-hand side and then using the scroll button to zoom in and out. Give it a go – it’s great fun!)

In Susan’s uncle, we have another omniscient ghost: ‘He even knew if I took a dose of salts and how long I had sat in the bathroom’, but unlike The Portobello Road, this time we have a haunted I-narrator. Once again, though, it is the narrator who is the focal point of interest in the story, and what makes Susan so intriguing is the gap between her perception of herself and the way in which other characters perceive her, something that is made very clear to the reader. The different levels of awareness between reader and narrator generate humour and irony, and this is very much the case in another of Spark’s tales, You Should Have Seen the Mess, in which the I-narrator Lorna cannot see beyond her upbringing and values only clean surfaces and good carpets. Susan is an older version of Lorna. They speak with the same voice. Both characters have limited, provincial minds: Lorna dates a wealthy painter, but ditches him when she realises that she just cannot cope with ‘the paint oozing out of the tubes’; Susan appreciates letters written by ‘Angus Wilson or Saul Bellow’ only for their financial potential. As far as literature is concerned, she understands only that it can make money.

Susan’s uncle, on the other hand, is well aware of the limitations of his niece. As the narrator of the story, Susan reports his barbed comments faithfully, without being conscious of their real meaning: ‘I could see he was forced to admire my good sense. He said, “You remind me of my mother, who prepared her shroud all ready for her funeral.” ’ The reader understands that when Susan’s uncle refers to her as a ‘Scottish puritan girl’, he does not mean it as a compliment, but Susan remarks that ‘at forty-one it was nice to be a girl and I wasn’t against the Scottish puritanical attribution either since I am proud to be a Scot’.  Irony is lost on Susan, but not on the reader, who joins the dead uncle in smirking at her.

The reader is prepared for the arrival of the ghostly messages in a narrative fashion that is very reminiscent of a conjuring trick: ‘I looked through the rest of the notebook…all blank, I am sure of it.’ So the audience has seen that the pages of the notebook are clean and empty, but – ta-dah! – when Susan next picks up the notebook, there is her uncle’s handwriting, calling her a ‘greedy little snoot’. Her reaction, oddly enough, is initially one of horror that her uncle seems to know about her affair with Jaimie, the hired help’s son. It is only after this first shock has worn off that it occurs to Susan to wonder how the words came to be there at all.

As is the case with a great deal of Spark’s fictional prose, we do not feel sympathy for the victim. Indeed, there is very little sympathy anywhere in Spark’s work. We don’t feel sorry for Needle, the ghostly narrator of The Portobello Road, because being murdered doesn’t really seem to have affected her very much, and she is having such tremendous fun tormenting her murderer; we don’t feel sorry for Lorna in You Should Have Seen the Mess because we are too busy laughing at her, and finally, we don’t feel sorry for Susan, because frankly, she’s mean-minded and greedy. Susan disapproves of her uncle’s relationship with Elaine, because they are living together as man and wife without being married, yet she happily takes her clothes off for Jaimie because it is ‘only Nature’. With a capital N. By the end of the story, the hired help has resigned after encouraging Susan to seek medical help, Jaimie is no longer welcome in the house, and Susan is drinking too much whisky to steady her shattered nerves. And after listening to Susan’s poisonous little narrative, the reader can’t help but think that it serves her right.

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


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!