by Pip Williams
“My God, it is everything, he thinks. It is Hamlin in reverse; all the abused ones, the gentle ones, are leaving the world. He risks another glance back and thinks he can see a human child too and maybe an old person among the throng… And he is feeling their emanation, the gentleness of it, the unspeaking warmth. He is happier than he has been ever in his life.”-James Tiptree Jr., The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things To Rats
It’s past midnight, way past, but I go downstairs in the dark to get another drink from the fridge. It feels at the moment a bit like it passes through me, alcohol. Drinking alone does that, you’ve got nothing or no-one to measure yourself against.
Until you fall down the stairs in your parents’ house.
I don’t do that.
I get a beer from the fridge.
I start going back upstairs to my room.
Coming out of the kitchen in my parents’ home, you can see into the sitting room, which has a glass door that looks out onto the garden.
There’s a light in the garden, a security light that comes on at a certain time when it gets dark. It shines in a stark, lonely way in the darkness, and when the lights are off in the sitting room, the harsh white light bleeds in and casts shadows onto the furniture and into the hallway.
Whenever I come out of the kitchen at night, and it’s late and dark and maybe I’ve had a bit to drink or I’m very tired, I always expect to see something through that window, illuminated by that unforgiving light, framed in the darkness of the sitting room, staring through into the sitting room. Casting a shadow into the house, looking straight at me as I carry another beer up to bed.
I never have. Seen anything.
Tonight I look through the window as ever and I catch a glimpse of something as it moves out of light and into the garden.
And then it’s dark outside again. The security light a floating orb in a still Cambridge night in spring.
Warm and blank.
A fox, probably. Or a bird. I’ve seen pheasants in the garden before, actually. Woodpeckers this week, too.
I go up to my room with my beer.
I’m sitting at a desk in my parents’ house (which is where I’m currently locked down- I’m very lucky, it’s a nice house with a nice garden, and my parents are very sweet about the fact that I stay up past midnight drinking beer most nights), and I’m thinking about ghosts.
I’m finding it tricky to find stuff to have opinions on currently, and therefore hard to write these articles. I’m not in London, I’m not watching plays, so what the hell am I for?
I’ve just read that in bits of Indonesia the authorities are locking people who break social distancing rules in houses considered to be haunted.
Aside from the obvious macabre thrill this gives me, I sort of wonder what the actual thinking behind this is. Much as I like the idea of daft people being chased around an abandoned primary school by ghosts, it’s quite hard to connect with it as a punishment, on anything other than the novelty level.
Or maybe the point isn’t that they actually think there are ghosts in those buildings- maybe it’s the enforced loneliness, the crushing emptiness of the buildings. The unsettling possibility that you might not in fact be alone. The punishment is that you get made into a ghost, for a night.
Then I think a bit about eeriness. I’ve been reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird And The Eerie, which puts forth the basic idea that eeriness is defined by absence- “Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here when there should be something?”
It is, I suppose, a deeply eerie time. There is a lot of nothing, after all, currently knocking about. And a painful dearth of something. The streets are quiet and deserted, shops boarded up, signs everywhere saying “See You Soon”. In the mornings I run in the fields near my house, that lead towards Fen Ditton, and you can’t see a human being for literally miles over the flat countryside. Every town is a ghost town. Every house is haunted, by the people absent from it.
We convince ourselves we’re having conversations with friends and family, only for their faces to glitch online or their voices to get scrambled. And after we hang up, there’s the deafening silence of true absence. Our loved ones becoming apparitions in the Cloud.
I think about writing an article looking at Coronavirus through the prism of Mark Fisher’s book- “Eerie Lockdown”? Could talk about 28 Days Later? Could talk about Dungeness and Derek Jarman?-, but that seems like a thesis so pathetically, glibly obvious that it hardly seems worth writing down.
I go downstairs, make a cup of tea, and, leaving it to brew on the kitchen counter, go and stand in the garden for a few minutes, framed now by a beautiful blue sky, brilliant sunshine on every blade of grass. I can hear birds. Squirrels jive around the bird feeder. The bushes rustle.
I keep thinking about the haunted houses in Indonesia. Maybe the point isn’t to scare them, the people being punished. Maybe the point is to warn them. Maybe it’s less of a Scooby-Doo thrill-ride, more of a reminder. That you’re dead a long time. That your continued living is nothing short of a cosmic miracle.
I go back inside. My cup’s smashed on the floor. Funny. Didn’t leave it anywhere near the edge.
I’ve now ditched a few ideas for articles that no one would want to read, and I’ve kept thinking about ghosts.
I’m interested in what we think they’re for, as a culture. What do we understand to be the purpose of a ghost?
“’It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide,’” claims the ghost of Jacob Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. “and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death…and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
It’s a punishment then, right? Being a ghost is a chance to see all the things you did wrong while you were alive, to witness for all eternity the benefits of human love and generosity that you missed out on in life. It’s the fate the greedy, the callous and the heartless are doomed to- “I wear the chain I forged in life,” Marley’s ghost continues, “I made it link by link , and yard by yard…”. The decisions we make in life will determine the afterlife we are given, and if we make choices that do not benefit our fellow humans, that do not benefit the earth we live on, then we must stay on that earth until our service to humanity is done. Ghosts are souls in hell, “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,/And for the day confined to fast in fires,/Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature/Are burnt and purged away” as the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells his son in (you guessed it) Hamlet. The dead have an ongoing responsibility to the living, to the planet- we do not get to simply check out of a life or a world we have not adequately cared for, we have to come back and tend it, tend the people we’ve left behind, until we are ready for heaven.
But there’s something about that which seems not quite right, that seems a little unfair, perhaps. There’s something lonely and misanthropic about the idea of toiling miserably on earth, terrifying the living until your individual debt is paid and your personal wrongs are righted. By that logic we all have misdemeanours we could be rendered ghostly for. How are we to know?
There’s a point I’m struggling to make here and I’m not sure what it is.
I sigh and look back over my copy of A Christmas Carol.
“Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life’s opportunities misused!”
This pulls me up short a bit. I have to say it aloud a few times before I feel remotely close to what Dickens is getting at here.
Can we ever do enough? Can we ever say sorry enough?
Perhaps, I hear a voice at my ear say.
I wheel round, heart racing.
High cold winds blow in the trees outside my window. The leaves whisper.
The room’s empty.
I Zoom some friends, and we pretend to be in a bar together, even though we’re in four separate rooms across the country.
I forget about the voice. It’s an old house, and the wind’s blowing hard in the trees outside.
Mum calls me down for dinner, and I close up Dickens.
“’Or would you know,’ pursued the Ghost, ‘the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?”
Maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way, I think. Or maybe Shakespeare and Dickens are framing it wrong. There’s still a point here I’m struggling to define or articulate properly, and it’s bothering me.
I’m walking through Cambridge in the early evening. It’s actually quite nice seeing Jesus Green a bit emptier, and the river a bit clearer. Cows are unabashedly taking over the footpaths; ducklings waddle on the banks by the university boathouses; I even see a heron taking flight. But there’s still the sense of fresh absence, of arriving in a room just as someone else is leaving it. I walk past an outdoor bar I used to quite like, now deserted and boarded up, and there’s a faded chalk sign on the pavement outside that still, eerily, says “OPEN FOR BUSINESS”.
Maybe it’s not right to view ghostliness as some kind of moralistic punishment, where you trudge the earth until your soul is clean enough to rest.
More often than not, I realise, ghosts are sent as warnings, as omens to help the living. That there are psychic disturbances in our timeline so great that their after-effects return to haunt us, echo back or forward through time and send us messages, as in Dickens’ No. 1 Branch Line- The Signalman, in which a lonely railway signalman sees figures wildly waving their arms and covering their faces, a silent portent of his own grisly demise under the wheels of a runaway train.
Or in Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, in which a couple grieving for their dead child are warned of terrible danger by two mysterious psychic sisters while they holiday in Venice. Through a complex series of events, the couple get separated, and the husband then sees his wife and the sisters sailing past him on a vaporetto (even though he has just seen his wife onto a plane to England). One thing leads to another and the husband gets stabbed by a murderous dwarf (just read the story). As he dies, he realises that he was in fact seeing a vision of his wife and the sisters from two days in the future, presumably as they come to collect his body. “’Oh God,’ he thought, “what a bloody silly way to die…’”
Mark Fisher writes interestingly about the role of fate and foresight, portents and warnings in Du Maurier’s story, and “the way in which misrecognition and disavowal of the power of foresight ends up contributing to the very event that was foreseen happening.” The ripples from a traumatic and preventable event echo back psychically and are ignored by the cynical husband- and by ignoring it, he allows the prediction to come true and the portents to be fulfilled.
This is not haunting as spiritual drudgery or some form of purgatorial penance; in these two instances, the ghosts (or omens, or visions) are sent by the aftershocks of a trauma to try to prevent it; the bitter irony being that the horrific nature of their manifestation renders them repulsive, and the witnesses for whom these visitations are intended instead turn from them, hide from them. In the scramble to erase the horrific from our minds and contain it, we fail to heed the message it might bring us.
This seems to me to point not to punishment, but rather to some kind of chain of being, some unbreakable continuum between the living and the dead; instead of waiting for our souls to depart from a planet we have not cared for (in one way or another), we have a responsibility to those still living to protect them and direct them in the right way.
Perhaps by locking people in a haunted house, people showing disregard for this chain of being, we hope to bring them face to face with the embodiment of trauma. We hope to show them the ripples from events so disruptive that they cannot stay locked in the past, or indeed the future, that they have to burst into our timeline and live with us too. We have to be with our actions. We have to be with their consequences.
Something like that. Getting there, getting there.
The wind kicks up and the undersides of the clouds start to go grey and bruised. The cows are lying down, which I’ve been taught means rain.
On the bank of the river, there’s a family with two small children, a boy and a girl. Their bikes rest on the grass. The mum, the dad, and the little girl are all courting the attention of a nearby swan. The boy, still wearing his bike helmet, is just lying on the ground, his eyes shut, a faint smile on his face. Perfectly self-contained. There’s something very peaceful and deeply weird about the image. He looks a bit dead. I doubt he is, but the thought sticks with me.
I walk home. As I approach my parents’ house, I look up at my bedroom window and see what looks like a face looking down at the drive- white-clad, pale and speckled with dark hair, and what looks like an expression of… I can’t tell what the expression is. I stare for a bit, fixed to the spot and the almost-face stares back, inscrutable and distant.
Then I blink and it vanishes. A trick of the light. Reflections in the glass.
I eat a biscuit and think about how receptive I’d be, mentally, if I was locked in a haunted house.
And then on a Sunday night in the 6th week, I see it.
The thing is with ghosts, crucially, that we share psychic space with them. They appear because there is something essential and fundamental that connects our minds with places and with people, with the living and the dead. There is something in our humanity that connects us through trauma, or rather that should connect us. We should be working towards a sort of societal telekinesis where we reach out to each other in the dark.
Ghosts are a powerfully literal representation of this.
“Haunting equals attachment equals an odd kind of love… a ghost story is often a story of grief gone awry,” writes Audrey Niffenegger in the forward to her wonderful collection of ghost stories, Ghostly. “We let our longing bring our beloved dead back to us, where they should not be.” Were it not for a profound emotional and mental connection that exists between humans, we would not have stories of ghosts.
In Rudyard Kipling’s beautiful They, a man’s car breaks down in the woods somewhere, and he comes across a house owned by a blind lady. He sees two children in the window, though they vanish before he can talk to them. He returns to the house a few weeks later, bringing his car back to show the children, but they refuse to speak to him, their fingers on their lips. The blind lady has never seen the children, only heard them- “They come and stay with me because I love them, you see.” The man is finally allowed into the house, and he hears the children playing in the upper room. As the man sits by the fire, he feels a little hand in his- “the all-faithful half-reproachful signal of a waiting child not used to neglect”. It is then that he realises he can only see the children because he too has lost a child, that only those who have “borne or lost” can see them. The blind woman can only hear them “because [she] loved them so…They came because [she] loved them.” Even though she has “neither borne nor lost”, she has a link to these children because of her love. Deep in “sorrow and…joy”, the man looks into the fire as the story ends. It is a short and heart-rendingly evocative story about the nature of grief, the pull of love and the utter privacy of the rituals surrounding grieving. Earlier in the story, when a local woman loses her own child, the man is told that she, the woman, has gone “walking in the woods”- clearly a euphemism for going to commune with her lost son. He is also told that he must return and “walk in the woods”. “I dunno but it opens de ‘eart like… Dat’s where losin’ and bearin’ comes so alike in de long run, we do say,” a local says afterwards (it’s set somewhere in East Anglia, hence the phonetic yokel-isms). That’s where losing and bearing come alike- we see the supernatural, indeed we often seek it, because of the love we bear for our fellow humans. Our hearts open through “losin’ and bearin’”- we let other souls depart from us, and we let them in.
It’s past midnight again, and I’m taking the small collection of mugs, glasses and beer bottles down to the kitchen. I may also get a last little drink while I’m down there, something to have in my hand while I catch up on Normal People.
Because it is an eerie time, a time of absence and a time of grief- each of us locked in our own personal haunted houses, each of us listening to the creaks and whispers of the stuff we’d gotten so used to, the stuff, the people, the places we’d started taking for granted.
I put the glasses and the bottles by the sink in the darkened kitchen. And I know even before I turn around.
And I think actually those haunted houses in Indonesia are to remind us of the duty we owe the dead. The duty we owe the future. The duty we owe the most vulnerable and endangered in our society.
I can sense it in some animal part of my brain.
The eerie landscapes that surround us, the empty streets and the boarded-up shops, the ghosts that haunt us, are a daily reminder that we are doing right by the chain of being. This is a true test of our empathetic network. We haunt each other because we care about each other. The ghosts are sent not to terrify us but to remind us that we are saving each other, saving those we don’t even know yet. We must be with the horror, not run from it. We must be with the ghosts, not explain them away.
But I do turn around.
When we are sent to haunt the living after we die, what warnings will we give them? What will we tell them to avoid? What will we tell them we did to save them and protect them? I hope that the empty streets and haunted hearts may serve as answer. I hope the rafters of every haunted house ring with ghostly thanks.
And the figure I see in the dark of the kitchen is pale and droopy-looking, with messy hair and uneven stubble. He looks quite a lot like me. And I still can’t read his expression.