Section 3

Edgar Allan Poe: The Imp of the Perverse (1845)
Adapted by Richard Margopoulos / Art by Luis Bermejo. Creepy 76 (January 1976)

Lecture 3:
The Fantastic (ii)

How Do You Write a Ghost Story?


M. R. James: 'Oh! Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'
Illustration by Ernest Wallcousins (1934)

Malevolent or Odious

"The horror freezes your soul but this doesn't mean that you want them to stop."
– Don DeLillo, "Videotape" (1994)

That is, how do you write an effective ghost story? It’s easy enough to write one: a few sets of clanking chains and a hand at the window, but is that at all likely to scare anyone nowadays?

The undisputed master of the form in English is the Cambridge antiquarian M. R. James, who published a series of collections of such tales in the early years of the twentieth century. ‘I never cared to try any other kind,’ he says of such stories in the preface to his Collected Ghost Stories, which probably tells us quite a lot about him psychologically, but which at least had the virtue of concentrating his mind on just what was the best way to cause ‘their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours.’

Interestingly enough, James had very little interest in Parapsychology and research into the Occult (of the kind undertaken by contemporaries such as William James and Edmund Gurney in the Society for Psychic Research). ‘I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me’, was his reply to those who asked him if he actually believed in ghosts.

Nevertheless, he did have strong views on ‘how a ghost story ought to be laid out if it is to be effective.’

M. R. James: 'Oh! Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'
Illustration by James McBryde (1904)

I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day. A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ Another requisite, in my opinion, is that 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. Again, I feel that the technical terms of ‘occultism’, if they are not very carefully handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative. (406-7)
These three rules, laid out by him in 1911, were later elaborated somewhat in the preface to the Oxford anthology Ghosts and Marvels (1924):

Jonathan Miller, dir.: Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)

  • Rule 1: “The setting should be fairly familiar,” became:
  • On the whole … I think that a setting so modern that the ordinary reader can judge of its naturalness for himself is preferable to anything antique. For some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories; not a very insistent actuality, but one strong enough to allow the reader to identify himself with the patient; while it is almost inevitable that the reader of an antique story should fall into the position of the mere spectator. (408)

    M. R. James: 'Oh! Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'
    Illustration by Rich Johnson (2016)

  • Rule 2: “The ghost should be malevolent or odious,” became:
  • Let us … be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. (407)

    M. R. James: 'Oh! Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'
    Illustration by Philip Harvey (2012)

  • Rule 3: Try to avoid ‘the technical terms of “occultism”,’ was supplemented as follows:
  • It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophoole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable. (407)

Whistle and I’ll Come to You, adapted by Neil Cross (2010)

Tzvetan Todorov: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970)

Exercise 2 – Ghost Story

"Must there be horror? you ask. I think so."
– M. R. James, "Ghosts — Treat Them Gently!" (1931)

I want you to recount (or invent) an uncanny or supernatural experience. This can be as simple as an outrageous coincidence: meeting your own double in the street, or parking next to a car with the exact same licence plate number: one digit up - or down. Alternatively, it can be a full-fledged ghostly encounter.

  • Your aim is to intrigue or even frighten your readers: humour is certainly allowable, but the whole thing should not dissolve into a gag.
  • It can be a true experience, but it's generally better to use those simply as a starting-point for what could have happened, what you feared would happen.
  • You can (if you like) include illustrations: a blurred face at the window, a flock of circling birds.
  • Come prepared to read it aloud to the group.

Length: no less than a page, no more than 500 words.

William Blake: Jacob's Ladder (1800)

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