Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Penguin Book of Ghosts

I saw a ghost once, or at least what I thought was a ghost. I was six years old or so, and we lived in a big Edwardian semi in Surrey. It was a winter evening and I was on the landing. I was alone, and I'd turned the lights out to get a better look at the flashing red lasery things on the front of my battery operated robot. Out of the corner of my eye, in the very periphary of my vision, I saw a flicker of light that I interpreted then as a woman in a crinoline drifting up the stairs and out of my view.

The sighting must have lasted just a second or two. If I shut my eyes, I can still see it now, both the image of the old fashioned lady passing across the landing, and the striated lights of a car passing by refracted through the windows and curtains, which is what I now think I actually saw. 

More than the image, though, what lingers for me is the sensation – the liquid cold of apprehension, the prickle of hair raising on my arm and neck like the unexpected – uninvited, unwelcome - stroke of a cold hand. It was a moment of vertigo during which the material world seemed to shake and shudder away from me.

I think this sensation of transportation – as unpleasant as it can be – lies behind our obsession with ghosts and spirits. It's a somewhat mystical thing, and I have to say that I have found the experience of reading The Penguin Book of Ghosts a somewhat religious one.

This is a magical book. It looks and feels magical. As soon as I got it (another one from the excellent PostScript catalogue) I knew I was going to love it. It's a nifty non-standard size, and has a charming dust-jacket design of the kind of old images I love. Inside, it's nicely laid out on creamy paper in an atmospheric if small typeface (Monotype Apollo, according to the copyright page). I particularly like the ghostly design on the end papers.
I really like this endpaper design!

The main text (which follows an interesting introduction from the authors) is a catalogue of ghostly folklore arranged according to counties with individual entries for various towns or districts, outlining a story or two from each. There's not a lot of commentary, and what there is focuses on context or various themes that run through folklore and tradition – screaming skulls, white ladies, spectral hunts, funeral carriages with headless drivers and the like. 

The compilers have traced stories back to their earliest appearances in local or family histories, collected letters from the gentry and seventeenth and eighteenth century pamphlets. I guess it's in the nature of the development of writing and literature – and perhaps the nature of this particular book – that there's not much from before the sixteenth century here.

Each entry runs to a couple of pages at most, and it's not the sort of book you're going to read cover to cover. I read it over a period of months at bed time, a few entries every evening and it felt like a kind of prayer or communion before sleep. The stories themselves are sometimes parables with a moral purpose, but more often they are like communal waking dreams. They speak to the fears and hope born of social tensions – the Civil War, the depredations and responsibilities of the ruling class, the importance or otherwise of sanguinary continuity - or universal human concerns of hate, betrayal and resentment.

I think that the appearance of a ghost is a signifier of broken taboos, either literal crimes (murder, usually) or the break down of orderly societies. In particular, a theme I kept picking up from this books was the consequences of the landed gentry failing to t keep up their pastoral responsibilities. It would appear that the only recourse the peasantry has is the threat of eternal damnation in the next life, what with the mundane world being a far less morally exact place than what comes after.

As some of these issues have (thankfully!) lost their importance, I think ghosts have retreated somewhat from popular consciousness. They've been replaced by other imagery, reflecting other concerns – UFOs, serial murderers, the elusive right or left wing conspiracies that grow up like sugar crystals around world events. 

These provide a similar mystical thrill, and in their own ways satisfy our need for a kind of cosmic justice, but for me they lack the particular super-natural chill that comes with ghosts, or in fact demons and witches, of the kind I wrote about in regard to the Encyclopedia of Witch Craft and Demonology. This book doesn't work in the same way as a good ghost story – it probably won't send a chill up your spine, although there are some terrific stories here. But it does show how ghosts exist – to the extent that they do, metaphorically – in the outside world. If you are interested in that, I really can't recommend this wonderful book highly enough!

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