The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (2016)
SOME THINGS I BELIEVE
Ghosts in the Machines: Some Hallowe’en Thoughts
We are gathered here at the final end of what Bradbury called the October Country: a state of mind as much as it is a time. All the harvests are in, the frost is on the ground, there’s mist in the crisp night air and it’s time to tell ghost stories.
When I was growing up in England, Hallowe’en was no time for celebration. It was the night when, we were assured, the dead walked, when all the things of night were loosed, and, sensibly, believing this, we children stayed at home, closed our windows, barred our doors, listened to the twigs rake and patter at the window glass, shivered, and were content.
There were days that changed everything: birthdays and New Years and First Days of School, days that showed us that there was an order to all things, and the creatures of the night and the imagination understood this, just as we did. All Hallows’ Eve was their party, the night all their birthdays came at once. They had license—all the boundaries set between the living and the dead were breached—and there were witches, too, I decided, for I had never managed to be scared of ghosts, but witches, I knew, waited in the shadows, and they ate small boys.
I did not believe in witches, not in the daylight. Not really even at midnight. But on Hallowe’en I believed in everything. I even believed that there was a country across the ocean where, on that night, people my age went from door to door in costumes, begging for sweets, threatening tricks.
Hallowe’en was a secret, back then, something private, and I would hug myself inside on Hallowe’en, as a boy, most gloriously afraid.
NOW I WRITE fictions, and sometimes those stories stray into the shadows, and then I find I have to explain myself to my loved ones and my friends.
Why do you write ghost stories? Is there any place for ghost stories in the twenty-first century?
As Alice said, there’s plenty of room. Technology does nothing to dispel the shadows at the edge of things. The ghost-story world still hovers at the limits of vision, making things stranger, darker, more magical, just as it always has …
There’s a blog I don’t think anyone else reads. I ran across it searching for something else, and something about it, the tone of voice perhaps, so flat and bleak and hopeless, caught my attention. I bookmarked it.
If the girl who kept it knew that anyone was reading it, anybody cared, perhaps she would not have taken her own life. She even wrote about what she was going to do, the pills, the Nembutal and Seconal and the rest, that she had stolen a few at a time over the months from her stepfather’s bathroom, the plastic bag, the loneliness, and wrote about it in a flat, pragmatic way, explaining that while she knew that suicide attempts were cries for help, this really wasn’t, she just didn’t want to live any longer.
She counted down to the big day, and I kept reading, uncertain what to do, if anything. There was not enough identifying information on the Web page even to tell me which continent she lived on. No e-mail address. No way to leave comments. The last message said simply, “Tonight.”
I wondered whom I should tell, if anyone, and then I shrugged, and, best as I could, I swallowed the feeling that I had let the world down.
And then she started to post again. She says she’s cold and she’s lonely.
I think she knows I’m still reading …
I REMEMBER THE first time I found myself in New York for Hallowe’en. The parade went past, and went past and went past, all witches and ghouls and demons and wicked queens and glorious, and I was, for a moment, seven years old once more, and profoundly shocked. If you did this in England, I found myself thinking in the part of my head that makes stories, things would wake, all the things we burn our bonfires on Guy Fawkes to keep away. Perhaps they can do it here, because the things that watch are not English. Perhaps the dead do not walk here, on Hallowe’en.
Then, a few years later, I moved to America and bought a house that looked as if it had been drawn by Charles Addams on a day he was feeling particularly morbid. For Hallowe’en, I learned to carve pumpkins, then I stocked up on candies and waited for the first trick-or-treaters to arrive. Fourteen years later, I’m still waiting. Perhaps my house looks just a little too unsettling; perhaps it’s simply too far out of town.
AND THEN THERE was the one who said, in her cell phone’s voice mail message, sounding amused as she said it, that she was afraid she had been murdered, but to leave a message and she would get back to us.
It wasn’t until we read the news, several days later, that we learned that she had indeed been murdered, apparently randomly and quite horribly.
But then she did get back to each of the people who had left her a message. By phone, at first, leaving cell phone messages that sounded like someone whispering in a gale, muffled wet sounds that never quite resolved into words.
Eventually, of course, she will return our calls in person.
AND STILL THEY ask, why tell ghost stories? Why read them or listen to them? Why take such pleasure in tales that have no purpose but, comfortably, to scare?
I don’t know. Not really. It goes way back. We have ghost stories from ancient Egypt, after all, ghost stories in the Bible, classical ghost stories from Rome (along with werewolves, cases of demonic possession and, of course, over and over, witches). We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive.
Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear—not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.
And this time of year is best for a haunting, as even the most prosaic things cast the most disquieting shadows.
The things that haunt us can be tiny things: a Web page; a voice mail message; an article in a newspaper, perhaps, by an English writer, remembering Hallowe’ens long gone and skeletal trees and winding lanes and darkness. An article containing fragments of ghost stories, and which, nonsensical although the idea has to be, nobody ever remembers reading but you, and which simply isn’t there the next time you go and look for it.
This was written for, and published in, the October 31, 2006, issue of the New York Times.