August 17, 2014

Ghost Stories

The literary ghost story is, alas, a nearly dead (if I may be excused the pun) form in the US. Ghost stories are short things to tell around campfires to scare kids, and, as often as not, don’t involve ghosts at all, but serial killers or zombies or werewolves. Americans write horror stories, not ghost stories, and they’re relegated to genre fiction rather than being considered as having much literary merit.

I love a good ghost story, though.

The other day I noticed in a new-and-used bookstore a book called The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill. I was intrigued by the title and blurb, but didn’t pick it up, having no money to spare. I did make a note of it for later, though, as I often do.

Saturday, the slip of paper that fell out of my jar said “read something creepy”. When we went out, I opened up a bunch of tabs from the Creepypasta Wiki and The Ghost in My Machine, one or the other of which will usually provide me with something to raise goosebumps. I also dug up an ebook of The Mist in the Mirror.

Both Creepypasta and Ghost in My Machine failed me, the “random” button on the former providing really rather dully written and juvenile pieces, and the latter having several interesting entries I had not yet read, but nothing spine-tingling, no delicious frisson to remind me of the other side of fear, opposite the dull and mundane fears I gave up to Hekate. So I temporarily left behind the collection of urban fantasy short stories I’d been reading and immersed myself in the Victorian setting of the ghost story instead.

I couldn’t put it down. Kept reading while my head ached and my eyes blurred. An excellent story, very much in the Victorian style, though published in 1992. (Ms. Hill is a much better-known author in the UK than the US, by the way. She’s written over 40 books, including The Woman in Black, basis for a long-running play, and has a number of awards and her own small press.)

It was, naturally, the title which first attracted me, as drawn as I am to mirrors, but there were so many other delightfully and quietly creepy things: the ragged young boy following the protagonist, the weeping in the night, the malevolent presence that watches him, the appearing and vanishing doors and rooms, the parrot, the old woman in the scarf, the old woman in the Hall for whom he has searched so long, and, of course, the sinister mystery of the protagonist’s once-hero. The misted mirror shows up only a few times, but is used to good effect.

This has turned into a book report, hasn’t it? That wasn’t the idea at all.

Ghosts, the unquiet shades who walk the earth, are part of Hekate’s retinue. She finds them and takes them in, leading them on her own paths, eventually to rest, but first on many journeys. They run in her midnight hunts (and what does she hunt?), dance their half-forgotten steps in her processions.

So inevitably, I love a good ghost story. It really is such a shame that we’ve abandoned them in this country. Oh, well. Now I have a trove of Susan Hill’s to read. Perhaps I ought to save a couple for December — Christmas is the traditional time for ghost stories in England — but I doubt I will.