Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Ghost Story

I am reading THE MASTER, a fictionalization of the life of Henry James by Colm Toibin and in it he has a debate between James and a friend about whether a story has to offer a rational explanation for  ghostly occurrences.. In other words, be frightening but within the bounds of possibility.

James thought no. He believed a ghost story should be able to suggest anything at all.

Any examples for either approach? 

What do you think?

21 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Interesting question, Patti. I think that depends on the reader's perspective really. For better or worse, I like plausibility in novels. So I have to respectfully disagree with James. But that's just me.

Todd Mason said...

Whereas I am of the camp that finds "Scoooby-Doo" stories ("If only those meddlesome kids hadn't unmasked my imposture as the Vengeful Spirit of Expository Lodge...!") usually annoying, when not either intentionally or unintentionally hilarious--or at least very clever (and it usually hasn't been, though the likes of Harry Stephen Keeler and the more playful shudder pulp folks tried). If the writer hasn't done the groundwork to make the supernatural plausible enough in the story, that's the writer's fault. The reader who's patiently waiting for the rationalized expectation seems like someone who is making a point of not enjoying the work in question.

Todd Mason said...

Or, They haven't been. (Scooby, too, for those who Doo counts.)

wv: exposure ighdit

Todd Mason said...

And, rationalized explanation. I'm still asleep, clearly.

George said...

Henry James loved ambiguity in his stories. Are there real ghosts in TURN OF THE SCREW or not? Maybe.

Graham Powell said...

I like some irrationality in my horror stories. Horror doesn't have to make sense. Stephen King is really good at that. He has one story (not a ghost story) where a man brushing his teeth sees a finger reaching up out of the drain in his sink. Why? How? Never fully explained.

Anonymous said...

What George said. James practiced what he preached, obviously. Not that there's anything wrong with that if done well.

King has definitely done it. Did any of the rats in "1922" (in FULL DARK, NO STARS) exist or are they all (or mostly) a figment of the narrator's guilt? You make the call.

Jeff M.

Loren Eaton said...

M.R. James does a good job of straddling the divide. Sometimes his stories offer an explanation (e.g. "You ended up with your throat slit by a vengeful spirit because you pushed your neighbor to suicide, don't you know?"). Other times, characters just bump into spooks because there are strange things passing through the waste places of the world. James was a scholar of the Apocrypha, and a lot of its imagery works its way into his stories.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Has anyone read THE LITTLE STRANGER? Implausible in many ways but it worked for me. An ongoing (maybe still) chat about it divides the readers.

Naomi Johnson said...

Too often the author's efforts to create plausibility for the supernatural or fantastic just bore me. Or irritate me. The author creates a world that might be interesting if he'd shut up and let me explore it on my own, instead of showing me the clockwork on which it runs. In other words, I prefer not to peek behind the Wizard's curtain lest the suspension of my disbelief should collapse.

Deb said...

I think I've mentioned before that I felt let down by The Little Stranger. It was a fantastic book for about three-quarters of the way and then petered out at the end. I don't mind an ambiguous ending, but I need to feel the author is committed to that ending--and I didn't get that with The Little Stranger.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It took me several readings of the ending to get what I think she was saying. Then I liked it but I know many readers had your opinion.

Todd Mason said...

Loren, I think you're describing something other than the argument Patti's asking about...James still has supernatural events occurring in your examples, rather than having them explained away as someone dressing up as a ghost and taking vengeance.

And James wrote some no-holds-barred (quite literally) horror, such as "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes"...

Does the Sarah Waters novel "explain" away its supernaturalism, or as Deb seems to suggest half-arsedly not bother to, or how does it fit in?

pattinase (abbott) said...

There was not a lot of explanation but hints were dropped along the way. It has been some time now since I read it. Need to revisit it to make any argument.

Todd Mason said...

(In my last comment, the first James is Montague R., the second Henry, of course!)

Todd Mason said...

Stephen King's random kitchen-sinking of effects is one of the smaller problems I have with some of his fiction.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I would have to say my favorite ghost stories-and I have no read many-are set in the past. In the present, they always seem more like horror stories to me.

Todd Mason said...

I tend to think of ghost stories as a subset of horror fiction...when they are meant to be suspenseful.

One can insist that THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is ambiguous. (Though I think it's horror, pure quill.)

Todd Mason said...

Something like THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, and TOPPER for the most part, are more like other sorts of fantasy.

John said...

A ghost story with a rational explanation is no longer a ghost story. Period.

I'm with Henry James all the way. I'm sure you know that I prefer my ghosts as real and frightening as possible.

Rationally explained ghostly phenomenon is found often in the early occult detective novels where the detective is a ghostbuster or debunker. Carolyn Wells rationalized all the "supernatural" events in her mystery novels. But she often did so for comic effect.

Most of the time I hate it when the supernatural is explained away. I feel cheated and I think it's a cop out on the author's part for not allowing for the reader's imagination to take flight. Ghost stories usually don't appeal to people who are logical and demand realism in their fiction.

A lot of people absolutely hate the ending in THE BURNING COURT by John Dickson Carr because he broke the rules by introducing genuine supernatural causes. I, on the other hand, absolutely loved it.

Richard said...

If it's a "ghost story" it's already out of the realm of provable possibility, so sure, anything is game. If it's a fantasy ghost story, them the stage is much wider, as then the other creatures (dwarves, fairies, elves, dragons, etc.) can be added. And too, what about stories that include gods, goddesses, and the like? They can act like ghosts in their influences, movements, and all.