Saturday, July 10, 2010

What Are Ghosts Anyway?

Yesterday in the staff room Chris and I were talking about supernatural fiction.  He was saying that ghost stories were, in a sense, out of date, since people don't believe in ghosts anymore. How could a modern person get scared?  Only movies could do the job with their appalling special effects.

I was struggling to explain my own love of some supernatural fiction; fiction in which the ghosts are taken seriously as characters and there is real character development.  I kept getting stuck in my explanations.  I think the ghost has to have a psychological connection with a living character, but I don't want to say that the ghost symbolizes somebody's repressed something-or-other.  Then people are bound to think I mean it is just in the character's mind. "Just in somebody's mind" usually means, "It's not real."  It means one is taking a pitying or smug attitude towards that character:  "Poor thing!  She's obviously nuts." (I hate studies of The Turn of the Screw that take that attitude.)  I'm a Jungian; I believe in the reality of the psyche.  I think the mind is more than an epiphenomenon of the brain.  I believe in Rupert Sheldrake's "extended mind."  As far as ghosts go, I neither believe nor disbelieve that ghostly phenomenon are spirits of the dead.  So if a ghost in a story is acting out some unconscious complex of a living character, that doesn't diminish the reality of the ghost character at all.

And, speaking of supernatural fiction, I had been eagerly awaiting the Library of America edition of Shirley Jackson's work.  In particular, I was looking forward to owning her novel The Bird's Nest, which is not available new at a reasonable price.  (I read the Widener copy.)  I could have bought a grimey old paperback, but I would so much prefer to reread it printed on crackling fresh new pages.  But what a disappointment!  The editor of that edition, Joyce Carol Oates, didn't think The Bird's Nest was good enough to include.  In fact, in the interview of the LOA site, Oates admiration of Jackson sounded rather restrained. She also makes that distinction (which I disdain) between ghosts that are "psychological" and ones that are "real" I am pissed, and I hope Oates gets thouroughly haunted by Jackson's ghost.
UPDATE:  The LOA is planning another volume that will include The Bird's Nest.  So I guess I will have to retract my haunting-curse on J.C. Oates.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Chris is totally wrong about that! There are still ghost stories being written and there obviously people reading them. --J