Monday, April 30, 2012

Malevolent and Odious Ghosts

"... the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story."

Amen to that! Guess, everyone. Who said it? Here's a HUGE hint: whenever I speak of ghost story writers, I mention him. He's my favorite. He was The Master. Nothing I write could ever compare to what he wrote, but he is always on my mind when I'm writing ghost stories.

At least, I hope he said it. It certainly sounds like something he'd say (who else would use the words "malevolent" and "odious" and "amiable" and "apparitions" all in the same sentence?), but, sad to say, I have no proof of it and am left trusting Zachary Graves, author of Ghosts: the Complete Guide to the Supernatural (Chartwell Books, 2011). I read books like this (which are never "complete" no matter what their titles would like you to believe) for inspiration for my own ghost story writing, and I've come to realize that their authors often do what Graves did here. He informed us that Montague Rhodes James ("M.R." to us friends) wrote that, but (shame on him) he doesn't tell us when nor where.  One has to suspect books that don't source their quotes and question why so many books about demons, ghosts, vampires, etc. seem to be in the habit of ignoring copyright laws, as well as studies that back up claims, but that's a subject for another blog post.

The subject of this post is what M.R. James seems to have said, and I so hope he really said it, because, well, he's my hero, and we hero-worshippers need very little encouragement when it comes to finding evidence that "He's so much like me!" But, really, someone please tell me: what is the point of a friendly ghost? Okay, I will admit I was once touched by some ghost story about a kind ghost who cared for some woman's young son who babbled from his crib about the man who visited him. The ghost ended up saving the son in some way, but I don't remember how, which shows, that (quite obviously) I wasn't touched enough to remember the key elements of the story.

I also have to admit that, yes, when I was a child, I got up at some ungodly hour to watch Casper every Saturday morning. Casper the Friendly Ghost, if I remember correctly, was the first in my siblings' and my Saturday morning cartoon line up. Again, if I remember correctly, I have a sneaky suspicion that one of the reasons I was so attracted to it had nothing to do with its content and more to do with the fact that we were (for some inexplicable reason. Maybe because my father loved to watch Bugs Bunny? Maybe because my parents wanted to lie in bed and read on Saturday mornings and not be bothered by us?) allowed to watch cartoons all morning on Saturdays. You have to understand that this was in a household in which we were barely allowed to watch television. The rest of the week, we were allowed 1/2 hour of television-viewing a day, with the exception of things we watched with my parents -- such exciting fare as the nightly news and "What's My Line?" But on Saturdays, glorious Saturdays, we were allowed to get up, fix ourselves big bowls of cereal, and plop down in front of the TV until late morning. Is it any wonder I was up by 6:00, just waiting for Casper? I think I tolerated this friendly ghost because of the other ghosts -- the scary ones -- who sometimes appeared (and one could always hope they would this time) and Wendy. I was never all that into witches, so a good little witch was no problem (besides, I'd seen The Wizard of Oz), and Wendy was a girl, all reasons to like her. Casper himself, though? Meh! What a little goody-goody, huh?

I was much happier with any ghost who appeared on the scene in my favorite Saturday morning cartoon Scooby Doo. Nothing held a candle to that show, not only because Scooby was cute and funny, but also because he and his pals had the sorts of adventures I longed to have. They just happened upon mysteriously haunted places every time they piled into the Mystery Machine and headed down the road. You could always count on that road to become an unpaved one, surrounded by dark trees sporting oddly-bent branches and rickety wooden road signs that read "Beware" and "Turn Back Now."Malevolent, odious ghosts, indeed, would occupy such terrain. Too bad the ghosts always turned out to be some greedy human who would've raked in a fortune had it not been for those "snoopy kids and their dog."

When I reached the age at which I started attending and hosting slumber parties, forget all that stupid talk of boys and prank phone calls, my #1 goal was to spend as much time telling ghost stories and scaring ourselves out of our wits. It helped that I lived in a house that had a mysterious tombstone (you can read my brother's take on that here and my take here) hidden in the crawl space off the basement. I could give "tours" of the "grave under our house," which guaranteed a wonderful atmosphere of horror that sequed into terrifying story telling that kept everyone up until dawn.

These days I like to think I don't scare so easily. Nonetheless, in my masochistic desire to be scared out of my wits, I want the ghosts in any story I read to be the sort of ghost James wanted in his stories.  An evil ghost, one that's come to drag me into the pits of hell with it, not one that's come to sing, "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" with me. I want to walk down my basement stairs at night, push open the old wooden door that scrapes noisely along the floor of that part of the basement (the little room that should feature it's own "Beware!" and "Turn Back Now!" signs) and to be confronted with a floating skull, clacking it's teeth or a see-through child wielding an ax above her head. I do not want a chatty little golden-haired apparition here to bear witness to all the happiness and love that abounds in my life if only I'll acknowledge it (shouldn't that entity really be tagged an angel and not a ghost?).

Ghosts, from what I understand, should be creatures who died before their time -- violently. I will admit that they don't, necessarily. have to have it in for me. A sad woman carrying the arm her abusive husband severed with a saw, causing her to bleed to death, is fine. She can show up in my house, seeking revenge on her husband, and I'll probably help her. As a matter of fact, because I'm a chicken at heart, I'd much prefer any ghost I encounter to have it in for someone else and not me. I'm perfectly willing, goose-bumped, white-haired and all, to help some poor malevolent and odious apparition (in fact, let's make sure it's particularly odious, because I so love that word) do what it needs to do in order to "cross over." But a friendly ghost? He's on his own if he shows up in my house. Just like my good friend M.R. I have no use for helpful apparitions, most especially in any fictitious ghost story I might read or write.


litlove said...

Bless you, Emily. Only you could write about malevolent ghosts with such tenderness and gusto that they sound really quite appealling!

Susan said...

I'm debating about whether I should own up to this, though I'm going to just for the joy of a debate: I'm in the middle of writing a story that features a ghost that isn't malevolent - not to the heroine, anyway. In fact she's just agreed to help the ghost find some heirs.

However, the ghost does scare everyone else and caused the death of some thieves - apparently in my world, you can either get along with ghosts, or they scare you to death. So am I forgiven that it's not odious? Normally my ghosts are more frightening, but this one is sad.

I do LOVE scary ghost stories, and intend on writing some too! :-D

Stefanie said...

OMG, you had a tombstone in your basement growing up? I would have loved going to slumber parties at your house!

GeraniumCat said...

I think I like wistful ghosts, as opposed to friendly ones - I agree that friendly in a perky way would just be too boring for words, but I don't think I need ghosts to be actively malevolent. Certainly, in the days when I wrote ghost stories, they were pretty odious. The tombstone must have been great, though - I had a friend I used to stay with when I was 13 who lived in a big house without electricity, and a ruined church and graveyard were the only things close by. That was scary!