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Some words about The Ghost Grew Legs, leaving ranks behind, and invention

Wednesday 3/8/23

As I move forward in my work on The Ghost Grew Legs: Stories of the Dead for the More or Less Living, I thought I'd give a stand-alone account of it. Obviously ghost stories are something I write and talk about a lot. I wouldn't say that anyone has ever known more about ghost story literature. I also read a lot of comments from people into ghost stories. They usually have such limited expectations. They're not meaning to be this way, but it's as if they have little regard for what a ghost story can do. They want to be scared. That's it. It's as though the ghost story couldn't do more as a form.

There's nothing that says a ghost story scary. That's just this one prescriptive expectation that people have. A ghost story can be scary or not. It can be scary and many more things than just scary. The way ghost stories usually work is they give some atmosphere and make an attempt at frightening someone. They're very limited in their utility. They don't offer insight into human nature, or provide a mirror, or help in the living of a life.

Why can't a ghost story do more? One of the best ghost stories I've ever read is "The Ghost Ship," by Richard Middleton. I return to it often. It's one of the best short stories I've ever read, too. Pure ghost story. Nothing remotely frightening about it. It's funny. And wise. And sobering. Touching. It's more effective than 100 scary ghost stories written by capable handlers of the idiom.

The ghost story medium has always been like this, and it's always been limited. When I read ghost stories, or look forward to reading them, I often think of a future when I'm back in my house in Rockport, and it's nearing midnight. I turned the lights down low, put on some Bach, also down low, and I partake of that ghost story atmosphere. M.R. James would work well. But it's really that atmosphere that I'm getting. It's having that moment in that moment in a story. The story itself is essentially a moment. There are no legs. I'm not going to take that with me out into the world, into my life, into my personage.

I believe that's what the best literature does. Has to do. It needs legs like that. Or else it's but a diversion, at best. A diversion is fine. But a diversion isn't art. A diversion can't inform and help shape who you are. Show you who you are to you. Show you how the world is. Relationships.

I don't just mean ghost stories. That's kind of my loose catch-all. I mean stories of the fantastic, the supernatural. Sometimes one need not even know if the ghost is a ghost or not. There are all of these variations that are themselves new forms of stories, and no one has ever written them. New forms that amplify the utility of the ghost story. That completely reinvent what a ghost story is. That change the game.

That's what my book is. A full-on reinvention of what a ghost story can be. I think it's radical. I don't think there's anything like it. I've been working on this--and towards this--for some time now. Years.

Also, in ghost stories, as they've been written, we rarely care about the characters. They're almost incidental. There are exceptions: A Christmas Carol, of course, and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Those are longer works. One reason why we don't have that many successful long-form ghost stories is because the ghost story does tend to make characters incidental. The emphasis is the mood, the frisson of fright. But let's examine fright. There are many things that can be frightening beyond what the ghost story usually holds as exclusively frightening. We can be a ghost whilst alive. We can be dead in all but name only.

In my Scrooge book, I examined those "living" terrors of Scrooge the man. He haunts himself. What is most frightening in that ghost story isn't the outrightly ghostly quality; it's not the ghosts themselves, nor the returned Marley--though in the film that is a terrifying scene--or even the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and the trip he--or it--takes with Scrooge to the graveyard. The human scene when the servants and undertaker pick over Scrooge's belongings is more frightening than the ghosts.

There can be much love in a ghost story. Understanding. Sacrifice. Certainly fear. Anxiety. A supernatural form of stressor. Humor. Relief. Opportunity. A chance to see what otherwise might not have been seen.

Ghost stories also tend to be telegraphed. We have expectations of what sort of thing will come at a certain point of time. There's a regular structure and time signature to ghost stories, let us say. I didn't want to hue to those strictures. Verse-verse-chorus. That kind of thing.

Then there is the question of what it means to be alive. I don't think that drawing breath really qualifies in the manner which is most significant. There is a certain light flippancy to the subtitle, but it also need not be taken or register as flippant; witty, perhaps, and a qualifier that opens up debate and possibility via a remark that clearly has more to it. If we stare at our phones, are scared of risk, vulnerability, and connection, and live a performative life, which is a series of poses, often executed on social media, how alive are we? I'd say not very. A ghost may be more alive. In their myriad forms. I want to help people to live. To live better. And sometimes to start living. Either again, as they used to, before they shut down and stopped, or for the first time, truly. Ghost stories are usually centered on the dead. The dead are the main attraction. But I'd suggest that the best ghost stories--the ghost stories that are more than ghost stories--would have the living as the main attraction. But these are terms with a lot of flexibility. In "The Ghost and the Flame"--which I'm working on--the ghost and the human are one, after a fashion. They're pooled. There are multiple worlds. There's both a moving backwards and a moving forwards, in more than one world, each of which are equally important to the human and to the ghost.

Almost all books are another book in a long line of books. They don't step clear of any and all lines, and start something on their own. That's what I try and do with my books. Whatever they may be. This is the ghost story/supernatural/speculative fiction one.


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