Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Some Ghost Stories

"... we do not know who or what is in the room with us..." Robert Aickman, on How Love Came To Professor Guildea by Robert Hichens

I was talking about ghost stories, last weekend. I was at the first (hopefully of many) UK Ghost Story Festival, a great three day event in Derby. I featured on two panels, one on why ghost stories and short stories are a perfect match, and one on the best ghost story writers of all time.

One of my fellow panelists, Mark Latham, has published a comprehensive blog post on the first of these; sadly you'll get nothing as detailed about the second from me (yes I'm crap). But I did want to mention a couple of ghostly tales - one short story, one novel - that I spoke about in reply to a question about 'lost classics'. Neither of these seem to be that well known, but both are well worth seeking out...

How Love Came To Professor Guildea by Robert Hichens is a piece I originally came across in the anthology Black Water (ed. Alberto Manguel); I believe the easiest place to read it now is another wonderful anthology, The Dark Descent (ed. David G. Hartwell). It's the story of the titular professor, a reserved, emotionally withdrawn bachelor who is haunted by an invisible entity that only wants to love him. There's no malice, no harm intended; but the ghost's love is an invasive, needy, clingy kind of love, sickly and intolerable to Guildea. It's an alluring combination of old-style ghost story and a more modern attitude to psychology, suppressed desire, and 'ghosts' as manifestations of what we seek to most repress. 

Strangers by Taichi Yamada is a novel written nearly a century after the Hichens story; but it is also a ghost story about emotional withdrawal, emotional blankness. The protagonist is not a bachelor like Guildra; Hideo Harada is divorced and living alone in a flat in urban Tokyo. Into his blank, placid life the ghostly element only gradually intrudes... and when it does the 'ghosts' here are earthy, fleshy, physical beings from Harada's past (saying more would be giving too much away), more real to him than the real people around him. If a good ghost story is about the past reaching for and influencing the present, Strangers gives us a story where the past is physically there alongside the present, just an underground train ride away. A wonderful, unnerving, novel of the uncanny.

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