Bring out your dead

All right: ghosts. The last blog post was all about where to find them. This week cuts to the chase: why are they to be found at all? What, if you’ll forgive the question, does it all mean?

Very old house

Image: Philip Halling

This, for me, connects to the place where I grew up. It was an old farmhouse. Properly old. It had a moat, absurdly. It had a long corridor and up in the wall at one end was a hole, which led through to uninhabited rooms. It had mice, bats, and no heating. My room had a spiral staircase set into the wall. Every night the steps creaked one-by-one, and it seemed like the tread continued in the empty room above.

The farm buildings were old, too. One had a white monk painted on it. Benedictine? Augustinian? No idea. I heard it was a symbol of protection against evil, and could easily believe it.

This was as numinous and haunted a place as I have ever been in my life, and for me it had two effects. One was that it encouraged fantastical reverie: a kind of escapist absence of thought, and presence of half-imagined sensation. If you wanted to be grand, this links to what Keats called negative capability. If you wanted to be accurate, you’d say this led to hours of utterly unprofitable gazing through windows, and is probably why I spend a lot of my time now writing books.

Then there was something else. You can’t be in an old place in which dozens of people have lived as you do, hoping and arguing and wasting time more often than not, without thinking of their souls. And wondering whether some spectral remnant is still there with you. Often, in that house, I felt that sense of wonder, that tingle of half-pleasurable terror that the dead might be walking around me, and I came to realise that it might have had two sources.

Option one: it was true. The stairs creaked because a ghost was climbing them, a ghost that walked all night long in the room above my own.

Or option two: it was actually the lack of ghosts that created the sense of wonder and fear. Maybe, after people go, they leave no trace behind. Not a flicker. Not a sausage. And then we walk into their rooms: the rooms in which they lived and died. Their absence is hard for us to deal with, because it reminds us that we will one day be as utterly obliterated as they were. And rebelling against this brutal truth, this evidence of the transience of our own existence, we summon ghosts out of the walls. Our ears hear a house settling, and our minds seize on the noise as footsteps. Our eyes see only stillness, but our brains sketch movement in their corners. The dead are here, our minds whisper. Don’t worry. You are not alone.

Essentially: old houses at night don’t scare us because they might be haunted. They scare us because we know they aren’t.

Me, I incline to the former of these two options. I think the dead have left us something. Maybe there aren’t ghosts as in thinking conscious entities, but echoes, resonances, flickers: yes, maybe.

Sometimes, though, I find more substance, more charm even, in the second idea. If empty old houses are just that until we walk in; if it is ourselves who populate them, time and time again, with the gods and ghosts we expect and somehow need; if our lives leave no trace and the only sense of us is invented by our successors; that seems to me to have an austere kind of beauty. It somehow trumps the dusty romance of real ghosts with the clear humane thrill of living invention.

The trouble is, though, this stark elegance is pretty unforgiving: it is an uncomfortable light to live by. Maybe one day my eyes will be able to bear the clean coruscating sparkle of it, maybe not. Meanwhile I think I’ll stick to the foolish fond romantic murk. Come dark corners; chill breezes, surround me; half-heard whispers, echo in my ears. Let the leaves of trees rustle with ominous possibility. The sense of the dead may be an illusion, but at least its shadow makes the candle of life burn brighter. I can live with that.

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

On a grey Thursday morning Holly lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished her sister would die. Five hours later her wish came true. Read more...

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The first post explains all - find it here.