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The Un-Heimlich Maneuver

Women and Ghosts

by Alison Lurie
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 179 pp., $21.00

The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.

—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Why do we find ghost stories more pleasurable than frightening? Perhaps because they lull us into a state of coziness by turning our worst fears into the stuff of entertainment. In the ghost story the terrors of childhood and of mankind’s primitive past are transformed into a kind of joke—a jest, or gest. As in all jokes, however, there is in this process an element of the scandalous. In his essay “The ‘Uncanny,”’* Freud cites Schelling’s definition of the word: “’Unheimlich‘ is the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden but has come to light,” and goes on to say, revealing as he so often does his debt to Nietzsche:

All supposedly educated people have ceased to believe officially that the dead can become visible as spirits, and have made any such appearances dependent on improbable and remote conditions; their emotional attitude towards their dead, moreover, once a highly ambiguous and ambivalent one, has been toned down in the higher strata of the mind into an unambiguous feeling of piety.

Freud adduces this operation as an example of psychological “surmounting,” as distinct from repression, of primitive belief. The distinction, however, does not imply a greater degree of success.

Let us take the uncanny associated with the omnipotence of thoughts, with the prompt fulfilment of wishes, with secret injurious powers and with the return of the dead. The condition under which the uncanniness arises here is unmistakable. We, or our primitive forefathers, once believed that these possibilities were realities, and were convinced that they actually happened. Nowadays we no longer believe in them, we have surmounted these modes of thought: but we do not feel quite sure of our new beliefs, and the old ones still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation.

Is it true, then, that everybody believes in ghosts, as Brad Leithauser insists in his introduction to The Norton Book of Ghost Stories? “I can’t believe,” he writes, “any of us, if we dig deep enough in our psyches, is utterly free of a suspicion that the dead continually attend the living.” It depends, of course, on what is meant by “the dead”; that is, do we believe that life does not end, and that death is merely another stage of our existence, and that therefore those who have “gone before” are all about us invisibly, or do we believe that the living disappear at death and only continue to enjoy a flickering existence in the work of their hands and minds and genes that they leave behind them, as well as in the memories, steadily fading, retained of them by their families, friends, and enemies? If the former is our belief, then we will think it perfectly possible for ghosts to exist, independent of us, out there; if the latter, we will know that the spirit world is in us. As Brad Leithauser puts it, “At this level of the psyche—where dreams are bred and cultivated—there are no dead.”

Freud in his essay dwells at some length on that aspect of the uncanny inherent in the life-in-death, death-in-life notions of the double and the automaton, and quotes, in connection with the grotesque tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a commentator who speaks of our uneasy “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.” Leithauser at the close of his introduction provides a striking example of the unsettling potential of this kind of ambiguity:

Who among us hasn’t on some occasion recoiled at one of those tricks of the light by which an inanimate object suddenly is informed with movement and volition? I remember once walking a country road on a viciously cold winter night. There was a car parked some ways ahead, and, my eyes teary with the cold, I didn’t immediately notice the human shape behind the steering wheel.

When I did, my step faltered. It spooked me, having thought myself alone, to have to accommodate myself so unexpectedly to a night in which I had company. But moments later, my vision clearing, I had a second surprise. The human shape was merely the driver’s-side headrest.

The second jolt was stronger than the first, for this time around, a sort of death had unfolded: Where there had been life, there now was none. In a few seconds I’d been twice uncentered. It was an experience familiar to devotees of the ghost story. In their bones they know that the universe is unsettling whether it is inhabited by spirits or whether we—lone walkers on a bitter night—are alone in the windy darkness.

Although he declares that in assembling this anthology his “allegiance [lay] with the psychological tale,” Leithauser is keenly aware that

what individuates the genre is precisely the fear that our nervous forebodings are not all reducible to inner trauma and turmoil. To conceive of the ghost story purely as a battle with inner demons, however terrifying such may be, is to denature it…. Ghostly horror hinges upon this issue of externality—the fear of something out there that is not oneself, something wholly independent of one’s wishes and feelings.

If these apparently contradictory editorial positions smack of an anthologist trying to have his cake and eat it, Leithauser does effect a reconciliation of sorts in a fine passage on the “axiomatic…notion that the capital strength of the ghost story over the last century has lain in its diversified renderings of our ambivalence about our mortality.”

Every literary genre, obviously, negotiates with death but the ghost story elevates precisely those moments in which, distorted by yearnings or misgivings so potent as to be well nigh uncontainable, our reason attenuates: We enter a realm in which no insurmountable [touché, Dr. Freud] barrier obtains between the living and the deceased. Death traumatizes us all, and wherever in the psyche trauma resides there also will be located projections of alternate or modified realities. The wounded soul is forever saying Suppose…and in this case it says, Suppose the dead are not dead….

Ghost stories, then, in “their restless unease, their dissatisfaction with the provable…constantly hunger for the infinite. They extend towards a vastness that…we lose sight of in daily life…” and the ghost-story writer “is, just like the lyric poet, forever urging us to commune with the immeasurable.”

As the above quotations from his introduction amply attest, Leithauser is a subtle critic and a very fine stylist. In fact—and this, I know, is a double-edged compliment—his introduction is one of the best pieces of writing in the book. He declares at the outset, “I felt entitled to uphold merit as my single criterion of selection”; this being so one can only conclude that the canon is a far thinner thing than one would have imagined. Rhetorically he asks, “Is there any other genre whose failures are quite so impossibly godawful?” but if the twenty-eight tales gathered here are the best Leithauser could find, I believe the question would be equally valid if the word “failures” were replaced with the word “successes.” If, to take a few examples, Edith Wharton’s “Miss Mary Pask,” V.S. Pritchett’s “A Story of Don Juan,” or Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Axe” are not god-awful, they are certainly instances of bad work by good writers. And there are much too many creaky theatrics, as in this unintentionally comic passage from “The Beckoning Fair One,” Oliver Onions’s overly generous slice of Grand Guignol in which a novelist’s muse turns monster:

God in Heaven!” The ejaculation broke from Oleron’s lips. The sound had ceased.

The next moment he had given a high cry.

What is it? What’s there? Who’s there?”

A sound of scuttling caused his knees to bend under him for a moment; but that, he knew, was a mouse.

In this anthology there are, I fear, a great many mice behind the wainscoting and too few monsters on the stair.

Leithauser declares that he “felt no need to ‘legitimate’ the genre by accepting second-rate tales by first-rate figures.” Why, then, does he run four stories by Henry James that vary from poor to middling, when in the same space he could have fitted the greatest ghost story ever written, James’s The Turn of the Screw? True, it is a novella, but Leithauser has “felt entitled” to set his own standards, and nowhere among them can I find strictures about length.

I have no intention of entering on the kind of competitive parlor game reviewers too often consider it their duty to play with anthologists. I do not have an alternative list to offer (though I am baffled by the exclusion of Poe, whose name is not even mentioned, for good or ill). Nevertheless I must say that Leithauser’s choice strikes me as quixotic. “If the tales in this anthology enclose a number of strange ‘animals,”’ he writes,

my hope is that the book will feel less like a museum than a zoo: I’ve tried to avoid the once splendid but now dusty stuffed beast in its glass case, in favor of the restive creature that even yet breathes and eats and watches.

This is a splendid aim, splendidly expressed; however, the howls from most of these cages neither curdle the blood nor dazzle the intellect.

In the matter of his tastes Leithauser is frank. Had the title not lacked a certain ring, he confesses, the anthology might well have been called “The Norton Book of Modern Supernatural Fiction in English, with an Emphasis on the Two Main Branches of the Ghost Story, as Epitomized by M.R. James and Henry James.” Certainly the collection is dominated by these two Jameses. The four tales by Henry James do not, as I have remarked, represent him at anything near his best; there is in all the stories a tinge of that blushingly apologetic archness that tainted James’s work when his aim was primarily to earn money. He had, of course, his own ghosts: Minny Temple, his cousin, probably the only heterosexual love of his life, who died young, and who was in part the model for many of his heroines, from the self-willed Isabel Archer to poor lost Milly Teale, who even shares her initials; and Constance Fenimore Woolson, who committed suicide partly, it seems, because of unrequited love for James. Two of the tales included here, “Maud-Evelyn” and “The Friends of the Friends,” deal with the theme of phantom lovers. But Henry James had his living phantoms, too. “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” one of his earliest pieces, written when he was twenty-four, concerns the fatal rivalry over love and fine clothes between two sisters: as James’s biographer Leon Edel points out, with his accustomed suave suggestiveness, the tale was completed just after Henry had ordered from his tailor a suit made from the same cloth as had already been made into a suit for his much-loved and much-resented brother William.

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” the first piece collected here, introduces themes which by his choice of stories Brad Leithauser traces silently throughout the anthology: sibling rivalry, the seductive and destructive power of seemingly inanimate objects, the greed of the living and the vengefulness of the dead, and, most notably, the psychical manifestation of psychological torments. Indeed, taken as a whole the anthology deals less with ghosts per se than with ghostly emanations of the emotional life; the majority of the spirits that haunt these pages are no more, and no less, than the heart’s pain made visible. M.R. James’s “‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,”’ the story of a “hen-like” bachelor don conjuring up a demon which attacks him wrapped in the sheets from a bed that a vigorous younger man is destined to occupy, is given a brilliant and wholly persuasive reading by Leithauser, who sees it as an unwitting confession of the author’s muffled homosexual yearnings and fears. This is the anthologist at his provocative best; unfortunately, despite all that Leithauser can do for it, the story is still a dud.

Montague Rhodes James (to distinguish between the Jameses, Leithauser, with a familiarity that would have made both men stare, refers to them as “Henry” and “Montie”) was a Cambridge don—“linguist, paleographer, medievalist, biblical scholar”—who wrote ghost stories to amuse his bachelor colleagues over the port and plum pudding at high table at Christmas time in the early years of the century. “If Montie is an ancillary literary figure,” Leithauser writes, somewhat defensively, “he looks to be a durable one, and surely few writers have ever won a portion of immortality with such quick, light-handed ease.” Quick? Light-handed? M.R. James’s stories, with their roast-beef heartiness and chortling misanthropy, always make me think of those waistcoated, choleric bores one still encounters on wet days in slow trains in provincial England. No amount of uncovered sexual longings can make these yarns come alive for me.

Throughout these pages sex, of course, keeps rearing its ramifying head. Not that there is much overt sexuality; the only act of straightforward copulation in the anthology, in Philip Graham’s beautiful and moving story “Ancient Music,” about love and loss in old age, is a gentle valedictory embrace between the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Michaels on the eve of Mr. Michaels’s death. Everywhere in the anthology, however, dark passion abounds. “In archetype,” Leithauser writes, “the ghost story offers the opportunity to contemplate a forbidden embrace and to detach ourselves from it. The form is at once licentious, and chaste; it caters to both the libertine and the ascetic in all of us.”

One of the finest stories here, Elizabeth Taylor’s “Poor Girl,” perfectly fits the description of “licentious and chaste.” In it, an impressionable young governess (shades of The Turn of the Screw), called, with witty impudence, Miss Chasty, is haunted by a specter not from the past but from the future, in the form of the seductive potential of her young charge:

Miss Chasty’s first pupil was a flirtatious little boy. At seven years, he was alarmingly precocious and sometimes she thought that he despised his childhood, regarding it as a waiting time which he used only as a rehearsal for adult life. He was already more sophisticated than his young governess and disturbed her with his air of dalliance, the mockery with which he set about his lessons, the preposterous conversations he led her into, guiding her skillfully away from work, confusing her with bizarre conjectures and irreverent ideas, so that she would clasp her hands tightly under the plush table cloth….

This story, prim, sweaty, suggestive as ripped muslin, communicates a sense of unease and heart-sickness which is at once ghostly and, in its dainty way, ghastly. Elizabeth Bowen’s famous story “The Demon Lover,” on the other hand, does not wholly convince, despite the real shock of its violently abrupt ending, in which the complacently middle-aged Mrs. Drover is whisked away to an unspecified destination by the ghost of a soldier to whom in her girlhood she had pledged her heart. What is missing here, as in so many of the stories in this anthology, is that feeling of necessity which is the hallmark of true art. Too many of the stories have a contingent, hurried air; they seem to have been “worked up” rather than written. In “The Demon Lover,” for instance, Bowen is less interested in the action than in the description of it—but then, how well she writes:

Towards the end of her day in London Mrs Drover went round to her shut-up house to look for several things she wanted to take away. Some belonged to herself, some to her family, who were by now used to their country life. It was late August; it had been a steamy, showery day: at the moment the trees down the pavement glittered in an escape of humid yellow afternoon sun. Against the next batch of clouds, already piling up ink-dark, broken chimneys and parapets stood out. In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs Drover’s return.

The best pieces, of course, are those wherein we detect the movement of real fear, real pain, real loss. A.S. Byatt’s “The July Ghost,” in which a lodger is visited by the ghost of his landlady’s young son, who died in a traffic accident, coruscates with the anguish of the bereaved woman who herself is not allowed to see the elfin child. This is not a ghost story in the way that, for instance, M.R. James’s heartless anecdotes are. Byatt is writing not about death but life, its difficulty, its sorrows, its unfairness. John Cheever, also, in the marvelous “Torch Song,” fixes his narrative firmly in the land of the living, where Death comes in the form of “a big, handsome girl” from Ohio called Joan. The skill with which Cheever gradually darkens his at first brightly lit story with repeated morbid touches is remarkable. The horror is there from the start, though so breezily expressed that we do not notice it:

After Jack Lorey had known Joan Harris in New York for a few years, he began to think of her as the Widow. She always wore black, and he was always given the feeling, by a curious disorder in her apartment, that the undertakers had just left. This impression did not stem from malice on his part, for he was fond of Joan.

This story, Taylor’s “Poor Girl,” Graham’s “Ancient Music,” and Muriel Spark’s characteristically eccentric, sharp-edged story “The Portobello Road,” which is narrated by the ghost of a murder victim who comes back with jaunty malignancy to haunt her killer, are the best things in the anthology. Can a handful of short pieces justify such a hefty volume? Brad Leithauser acknowledges that the ghost story is “a comparatively minor literary form”; on the evidence he brings forward, “minor” is much too major a word.

All of the stories in Leithauser’s anthology testify to the fact that there is no such creature as a ghost story writer: there are only writers (or, as in the case of M. R. James, scholars) who now and then aspire, or stoop, depending on your opinion of the genre, to write tales of the supernatural. Alison Lurie is a respected novelist and critic, and an expert on children’s literature. She is also a professor at Cornell University. The stories in Women and Ghosts are well-crafted, artful, sly, often witty, and curiously insubstantial. They are not so much ghost stories as camouflaged observations on the position of women in this time of transvaluation of gender values. As the narrator of one of the stories has it, “I believe women have to take responsibility for other women, even ones they don’t much like.” So here is “Ilse’s House,” in which a young woman who is about to marry an older divorcé is haunted by the admonitory ghost of his former wife; “The Pool People,” in which a garrulous mother-in-law is dragged down to death in her own swimming pool by the ghosts of a pair of workmen she mistreated; “Fat People,” which is about, well, you can guess; “Waiting for Baby,” which tells of a hitherto barren woman who, in India with her husband to try to adopt a child, pays shamefaced obeisance to the goddess Lakshmi and thereafter conceives; and so on.

The best, and certainly the most interesting; story here is “The Double Poet,” in which a fey performance-poet (“I believe I’ll wear the midnight-blue cape again—it has such a fine sweep and flow—and alternate the white lace dress and the sea-green silk that the interviewer in Washington said made me look like a classical sibyl”) suffers the gradual usurpation of her gift and her career by a mysterious double, who goes from success to success while the poet herself declines into silence and becomes that most despised of creatures, an ordinary woman: “She wears reading glasses and has a partial plate.” It is a nice, subversive study of ambition and selfdelusion which, like life itself, ends badly.

Alison Lurie has always had a gift for combining genuine warmth with a certain biting sharpness, but too often here the warmth becomes woolly (literally so in one story, in which a young man studying Wordsworth at Grasmere turns into a sheep) and the asperity decays. Her prose, as we would expect, is always cool, deft, elegant, and sometimes smoothly ravishing, as in this description of the fatal pool in “The Pool People”:

Because it was so deep, and heavily shaded most of the day, it hadn’t become stale and warm at the end of the season. The water remained limpidly cool, with a shifting pattern in its depths, white reflections on aquamarine like delicate wire netting. Its constant flow was silky, sensual, caressing; and the hum of the filter peaceful, almost soporific.

  1. *

    Das ‘Unheimliche,’ ” Albert Dickson, editor, The Pelican Freud Library, Vol. 14, Art and Literature, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1985).

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