Tuesday, August 16, 2011

the one between the mind and the exterior world

In this post I am going to give away the ending of a Henry James short story called The Ghostly Rental.

Once upon a time, I think, there was a character in a book who said, I don't believe in ghosts but I'm afraid of them, which is my position too, on the matter of ghosts, ghouls, spirits, monsters under the bed, and the bland nighttime door behind which hides the strange creature that waits, and never makes a noise, or else does, but it's a small noise -- just loud enough so that you don't know whether you heard it or not, and so you sharpen your hearing -- ssh. When I was six or seven I watched this same bland door for hours and it never gave me a sign to say that it was not dangerous, so I kept my eyes open and maintained an atmosphere of alert and suspicious intelligence, prepared for the moment when the signal would be given, and what form that signal would take I didn't know, but like the judge in the porn case I'd know it when I saw it, and this silent staring competition went on between myself and the door for hours, but only one of us was staring, and the other had no eyes.

And yet I've never believed in ghosts, I don't know why they would exist, and if a brutal murder sets up sympathetic vibrations then why don't abattoir workers spend most of their time dodging sheep ghosts and pig spirits, or is each abattoir closed inside a network of charms and anti-ghost spells that the rest of us don't hear about, and before each shift the workers undergo a careful cleansing, and hang the ritual pendent around their necks -- it contains garlic, thyme, one white hair, and a mysterious ingredient, and if they lose it then they are possessed, their eyes roll back in their heads, they let free a terrible scream, and the person next to them looks around at the noise and says, Not Again Charles, That's The Third Time This Month. They have training videos called, How to Care for your Amulet, and Pendent Health and Safety.

"The literary effect we call horror," wrote Laura Miller in her introduction to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, "turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside." Yes, I thought as I read: that is the horror I had, the feeling that something outside might come into the room; I was never afraid of anything already inside, or of anything outside that could be trusted to stay outside, but the sight of the pointed nose or hand around the edge of the doorway would have been the worst moment of them all. I don't know what they would have done once they had crossed through the doorway because my imagination never went that far. It was coming in that I could imagine them doing: they would terrifyingly come in.

"In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world," says Miller. "The psychological ghost story is as much about the puzzle of identity as it is about madness. " Then she brings in an example from Henry James: "The governess in the The Turn of the Screw yearns to be a heroine, to do something brave and noble, and to attract the attention of the dashing employer whose sole directive is that she never, ever bother him. She wants to be someone else. Without the mission of protecting her two young charges from mortal danger she's merely a young woman squandering her youth in the middle of nowhere." I've been reading Henry James' short stories in order, thanks to the local library, which owns the Complete Stories 1864 - 1874, Complete Stories 1874 - 1884, and Complete Stories 1884 - 1891, and his psychological mysteries were sharp from the start, but his early ghost stories, his horror stories -- a form he comes back to several times -- are not so sharp, and the horror story in which we discover at the end that a young woman has spent two decades or so dressing as a ghost and waiting in a lonely house to annoy her father, is not as strong as the realistic one in which a young man accidentally does something terrible to a woman, something life-shattering, appalling (but of the real world, not ghostly, not Horror) and he reacts, not by caring or even thinking about the thing itself, but by ardently and suddenly wishing that she would like him -- and this is a story with no otherworldly mysteries, unless the young man's heart is another world, which it virtually is -- and his friend, who is also our narrator, wonders at the signs he sees emitted from this strange other planet, he tries to work out what they mean, up to the point of the story's climax, when there is a sort of answer, but not really; it's only the another sign, the most extravagant one, and so we end with extravagance but no explanation.

The young man in this piece of psychological realism is impenetrable all the way to the conclusion but meanwhile the ghost in the other story is unveiled decisively, "I stretched out my hand and seized the long veil," says the narrator, "I gave it a violent jerk," revealing the woman underneath, "not a disembodied spirit, but a beautiful woman, an audacious actress," and like this we're presented by the author with a false spectre of simplicity and understanding, and this down-to-earth explanation seems less convincing than the ghost, which at least gave us the honest anticipation of oddness that we expect from things other than ourselves, unless they are present by habit and then we take them for granted, like the furniture in Proust's narrator's bedroom, with which he associates himself so absolutely that sleeping in an unfamiliar hotel bed sends him mad with anxious frenzy. (Over the length of his holiday a necessary animal complacency is able to reconstruct itself around the new set of furniture and his frenzy subsides, the furniture becomes friendly -- which is what my bedroom door was never able to become at night, no matter how long I looked at it, no matter how long I stayed in the room, it was never familiar in the way that Proust's narrator's hotel furniture becomes, it was always promising horror, it was always about to startle me, it never joined with me, in the way that the narrator's objects join with him and have meaning to him and send out complicated yet amiable signals; it was a predatory door and it lived in my bedroom like a tiger, or like the narrator's girlfriend who worries him constantly because he is paranoid and also because she keeps having lesbian sex.)

James brings in another ghost for a twist ending but by then I was already irritated and it didn't seem to excuse the truly loopy idea of this woman and her melancholy cosplay. Though I reflect that if she's willing to drift around in a gloomy house all by herself at night with the lights off then she's braver than I am. But the necessary animal complacency probably kicked in somewhere along the way, and after the first few years she must have been sighing with boredom, well, well, another night at the haunted house, and perhaps this is the defence of the abattoir workers too, rethink this: they are not wearing amulets, instead they have grown so accustomed to the vengeful squealing of the pig spirits that they yawn at it, hum hum hum, and the ghosts retreat, dispirited by the indifference of their custodians, sagging with neglect as Proust's narrator's furniture is never allowed to sag: the narrator holds the chairs and drawers in thrall, he imposes a personality on them, which they obtain at the price of their liberty, the liberty they might have had if they had been allowed to spend their time alone in the bedroom, unperceived, lazy, and characterless.

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