Ghosts, Dreams, Nothingness

(GOH talk, Beneluxcon March 2012)




Dear Beneluxcon, welcome, and I hope you're sitting comfortably.

For a long time, I used to enjoy frightening children...

Maybe I should take a little step away from that opening... I was asked for a short piece of writing, to feature in your first Progress Report. By chance, the short pieces that came to hand seemed to define an area of interest, a misty place where dreams, science fiction and classic horror meet. Since nobody threw them back, I decided to make that shadowy place my theme for this talk. So, this item has been governed by chance: but that's okay. Some people complain about the huge role random coincidence plays in weird tales, as if the writers were just lazy, but to the initiated, the fact that there's no reason on earth why fearful uncanny events should happen to the characters in the story is part of their awful charm... Anyway, I'm going to talk about ghosts, how I first met them, where they led me; and what I think about all that spooky stuff.

I'd better start on that shocking confession.

For a long time, I used to enjoy frightening children...

The first child I enjoyed frightening was of course myself. Now this may surprise you, but as a small child I was known for reckless bravery. When the Clover Club gang -a clandestine association in the local hood, to which I belonged from when I was about five years old- believed they had spotted a dead horse, in the dirty, swampy valley behind the houses across the street, which was our playground (much to our parents' dismay) I was the one who took up the dare, and approached the awful, tumbled thing. It was a rotting horsehair sofa that somebody had thrown out. There were other occasions. When there was a ball to be rescued, a challenge to be delivered to the bullies, I could usually be fooled into volunteering.

Brave, oblivious, or pitifully gullible, I would cheerfully wade into any trouble that offered. Yet often I was very scared, when there was no good reason. The green rushes by the stream in our damp valley could seem inimical; silent watchers. A covered alleyway (we called them "ginnels"), near my house, frightened me terribly. Something my mother had said had made me believe it led directly to my great-aunts' house in the country town of Lancaster, hundreds of miles away. I was convinced that if I took one step into the gloomy passage, all time and space would be snatched away. And weird things did happen. I knew they did. Once, when I was walking my little sister home from school through the alleyways, on a very foggy winter's afternoon, a strange dog appeared. It had such an air of purpose, such an uncanny grin: I was terrified. "What do you want?" I quavered. The dog said "Bones", and went on its way. This really happened. It really did.

The second child I frightened was my little brother. He was four, I was twelve. I would be ordered to take him with me, on errands; maybe to the Co-op store in Blackley village (a "village" that has long been devoured by the drab streets of Manchester). It was a dull walk, usually silent in my memory. There were few cars in those days; the endless houses seemed to hold their breath. I enlivened it by tormenting the little boy. I would deliberately change our route. Turning a corner or so was enough to confuse him. Then I'd suddenly say, Oh, no! We've slipped out of time. We're in the Land of Ghosts and Witches! In proof, I'd point out to him that nothing looked quite right. I'd tell him that I was trying to get us out, but then my escape would fail. We'd find ourselves in an even worse weird-dimension, called The Forty Years. We could go home now, but other people would be living in our house. Our Mama and Papa were dead. Our cat was dead. Our sisters had grown old, gone away and wouldn't recognise us!

It never failed. Of course it didn't, firstly since I'd also managed to terrify myself, by imagining all our loss, our limitless disaster, and also because my brother and I, though we didn't know it at the time, both suffer from a problem called . . . well, I forget what's called, but it means you can become disoriented, randomly, even in familiar places, and find it difficult to distinguish left from right. (Once, in Thailand, when he was driving, we happened to discuss our tactics for dealing with sudden loss of orientation, say, on a roundabout at speed: I shut my eyes for a second, said David. Oh, yeah. I do that too. Usually works . . . A deathly silence, we noticed, had fallen in the back seat, where his spouse and mine were controlling a toddler.)

My behaviour was inexcusable. But I told very good stories, at this time, having taken over the mantle of family storyteller from my father; fantasy epics free from scary head-messing, So it wasn't all bad. I think he recovered, and forgave me in the end. He even seemed flattered, when I later dedicated a novel called Kairos to him, because it was distantly based on our inter-dimensional tours.

I only remember one supposedly "real" ghost story we told each other. It was about a man who had hung himself from the gas bracket in one of the bedrooms at "15 Forge Lane", the house where my father was born. Sometimes at night you could see a shadow against the wall, swinging, swinging. I don't recall the source of this item, I can't believe it was my father, he never tried to frighten us; I know it didn't impress me much. To me, a ghost is a feeling, not an apparition. A strange or dreadful secret, hinted at in the sad light of afternoon on a grubby street corner. Nameless wrongness in an innocent-seeming illustration in a children's book... Never some boring dead person with emotional issues. Yet I recognised my favourite poison at once, when I discovered the ghost story in print for the first time: the ghost story as a work of art, enshrined in an antique collection called Great Tales Of Terror And The Supernatural, that I picked out of a heap of second-hand books at a Jumble Sale.

Perhaps it's true that great art always makes things worse, before making them better. Great drama usually seem to consist of people saying out loud, and bringing into the open, things that are kept hidden in real life, because in real life we are generally trying to keep the peace, and hide our wounds. We even have a tradition (in modern Europe, anyway, and I suspect it may be much older) that says the greatest artists are rejected, and die in poverty, because they've refused to bow to fashion, and shown us the real world, in ways we don't want to see it. Maybe even great ghost stories are utterly different from the spooky tales that people tell, huddled round the stove on a dark winter's night -or huddled over the keyboard, composing for an online paranormal forum -because they show us our experience of "the supernatural" as it really is. Maybe... When I imagine the masters, Arthur Machen, or M R James, reinventing the literary ghost story, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, I think of that scene in the comedy thriller, Crocodile Dundee. You remember? When an unsuspecting New York mugger tries to take down our leather-faced Aussie hero? Mugger says, this is a knife! Paul Hogan draws his big shiny, crocodile disembowelling blade from inside his jacket. Naw, mate. This is a knife...

M R James says: Oh, you people like to snuggle around the fire on Christmas Eve, telling scary stories, do you? Okay, don't blame me if you can't sleep for a week. THIS is "scary"-He holds out his closed hand, he opens it, and there's nothing there.
Nothing at all. And yet...

I was lucky to find the Great Tales collection, and at such a young age. I now rank some of the stories that thrilled and chilled me, when I first met them, as formative influences on all my writing. When my wicked taste for terrorising children surfaced again, after lying dormant for years, and I wrote ghost stories as Ann Halam, I would put an author's note in the back of the book, naming my sources, and encouraging young readers, kindred spirits, to seek out the greats. Of those sources three stories in particular stand out - "Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad", by M R James; "Green Tea", by Sheridan LeFanu, and "The Great God Pan", by Arthur Machen. I'm going to use those three as my scriptural texts, for the rest of this frightener's apology.

At some point in this session somebody is probably going to ask me, "But, do you believe in ghosts?" Actually the answer is no. If there really were ghosts around (I mean, those dead people with issues), we'd know. That's my attitude. And we don't... But I have to admit there are certain locations that seem unnaturally productive of these creatures that don't exist. In England there's the county of Suffolk, just across the North Sea from us here. Maybe it's something about the lonely history of the region. Maybe it's the silence, and the cool, colourless light. The land is very flat in Suffolk; the skies are very wide, and even today the long beaches can be very lonely, especially in winter, at twilight. M R James, Grand Master of the ghost story Renaissance, set many of his tales in Suffolk. One of them, and to my mind one of the most memorable and successful of all ghost stories, has the odd title "Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You My Lad".

It goes like this. A fussy, self-righteously rational scholar takes a cold, seaside holiday in winter, by the North Sea. Poking around in some mediaeval ruins he finds an ancient metal whistle, with a Latin inscription that reads, in English, who is this who is coming? He takes it back to his hotel, cleans out the caked sand and tries blowing. To his surprise it makes a sound. He tries again, and out comes a thrilling, penetrating musical note, that paints pictures in his head. The hotel room is spacious, it holds two beds. That night, as he lies unable to sleep, Perkins can hear someone else tossing and turning, very close to him. He doesn't pay much attention, he's too busy watching, in a kind of waking nightmare, a traveller fleeing along the shore, pursued by a sinister, formless thing. The next morning the other bed in his room, which he knows he's never touched, is all tossed about.
Something has answered the summons, and come looking for him. It haunts his nights, it grows strong enough to attack in daylight. But he never sees it, it never touches him. It just almost frightens him to death, by taking shape from a bundle of bedclothes, with an intensely horrible face made of crumpled linen-

What makes this wisp of a story so compelling? There are sane, sensible adults (I will put my hand up) who have found themselves unable to sleep in a room with a second, empty bed in it, after reading Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You. M R James believed his secret was that he used contemporary settings and ordinary people, so that an unseen, unknowable world suddenly intrudes into the safety of daily life, rather than clanking its chains in a gothic crypt. But his stories were picturesque historical pieces when I met them, and still effective. He said the trick was never to explain your ghost... (Why does the whistle summon a malign wraith? We have no idea). But grisly serial killers also strike at random: there must be something else going on. Maybe it's the humour. Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You My Lad is the title of a slightly naughty popular song of the time, with a lyric by the Scottish poet Robbie Burns. The lyric invites us to see young Mr Perkins as an unwise virgin, terrified by his unwelcome suitor -and sympathise, and share his terror, and laugh at him, all at the same time. The "ghost in the sheet costume" is absurd in itself, and was already an old joke in M R James's day. Yet what people remember, what makes us shiver, is that empty face of crumpled linen.

We have been tricked into being afraid of nothing, and yet it isn't funny at all. This nothing destroys Perkins's rational worldview; he won't recover. He can never un-know that the material world is a veil, and things from beyond this veil can invade his reality, take over his mind, in ways he cannot possibly understand. This is the essence of classic supernatural terror, the genius of the golden age of the ghost story. It's not the storyteller's skill at clothing in spine-tingling fiction one or two ghastly unexplained incidents. It's the casual, offhand destruction of all rational explanations.


It doesn't have to be like this. It wasn't always so! Before the Christian Era (and Mediaeval Christians seems to be the bad guys, in Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, but Perkins, with his rational, modern views, is clearly heir to the certainties of Christianity), there was no such dreadful rift between the Visible and the Unseen Worlds. Christianity severed our connection with the Land of Ghosts and Witches, when it took the sting out of our relations with the dead. At last, dead people had somewhere definite to go, and things to do. They were no longer assumed to be hanging around, paying off old scores; in need of food and nicely decorated houses; or, depending on their rank, more dreadful forms of appeasement. They had a life, so to speak... The change didn't happen all at once, obviously. A less optimistic view of the unquiet dead survived for a long time. I remember being utterly terrified by an English retelling of the story of Grettir the Strong, (a hero of the mediaeval Icelandic sagas), and Glam, the solid, corporeal ghost who curses him. But gradually, inexorably, as Christianity became more formal and abstract, and science and technology gained power, all the unseen beings and influences previously found in nature were banished. So we were protected, but protection came at a price. Arguably, when we broke off diplomatic relations with the ghosts and demons, we were forced to lose touch with the natural wildlife life of our own minds (which can be dangerous . . .), and maybe even to lose touch with the true nature of the universe itself.

In the Pre-Christian era in Europe, as far as we can tell from the civilisations that left their written records, common or fireside ghost stories were as popular as they are today. There were urban myths about haunted houses and spooky graveyards; there were were feasts of the dead, and other rituals of ancestor worship. But the ghosts made immortal by great Classical writers, shadows of their former selves indeed, had no power to terrify. You could hire a medium to call up the spirits of the recently deceased, the way Saul got the Witch of Endor to summon the prophet Samuel, but the shade would tell you nothing you didn't know, and the whole experience would just be very depressing. That terrifying invasion of ordinary life, central to the ghost story in modern Europe, had no parallel. Literary heroes invaded the sad world of the dead, and fed them on blood, to see what the poor shades had to say. In Homer, when Odysseus meet Agamemnon's ghost, and the murdered king recounts his humiliating fate, it's just embarrassing: a vision to arouse pity, not horror.

He knew me at once
When he'd drunk some blood, he wept aloud,
shedding many tears, stretching out his hands,
keen to reach me. But he no longer had
any inner power or strength, not like
the force his supple limbs possessed before.
I looked at him and wept.*

Murasaki Shikibu's mediaeval Japanese novel, The Tale Of Genji, -product of another technology-poor, non-Christian and highly developed culture, like Ancient Greece- gives a harrowing account of a living ghost. The Rokujo lady, a sensitive, highly sophisticated older woman, is terribly jealous when her younger lover, the glorious Genji, marries. Without her knowledge, and against her conscious will, part of her soul goes wandering, possesses and eventually kills Genji's wife, when she's weakened by childbirth. All the Rokujo lady knows is that she's been having horrible nightmares, and wakening to find that her beautiful hair smells of the incense used in exorcism. She has no idea of the terrible truth, until Genji, present at his wife's deathbed, recognises the evil spirit. It's through his reaction of shame and horror that the Rokujo lady finds out what's been going on... There's a name for these living ghosts, they're called ikiryo, they're spawned by intense emotions, like guilt or jealousy; you can even haunt yourself.

Did people "really believe" in ikiryo, at the Imperial Court in Heian Japan? Yes and no, I suppose. I'll at least bet there were some uneasy jealous ladies, having very creepy dreams, when that episode of Genji started going the rounds. No, I'm a Uniformitarian: I'm sure our experience of the Immaterial World -in a state of nature, without "progressive" theories getting in the way- is the same now and in every culture as it has always been, for the last forty or a hundred thousand years . . . But there may have been a loss of intensity; a degree of fade-out. Tell me, dear Beneluxcon people, when did you last see the Milky Way? If you've ever seen it in anything like its ancient glory, anywhere in crowded modern Europe, you've been lucky. Years ago I travelled to West Africa, to climb Mount Cameroon, in the footsteps of Mary Kingsley. We slept high up on the mountain, in a corrugated iron hut. I got up and went outdoors, looking for the little toilet shack. I saw, I swear, Van Gogh's starry, starry night, whirling above me, and I understood the power and intensity of the night sky, in ancient human culture, as I'd never understood it before. We've created so many artificial forms of dreams and visions, down the centuries: maybe our internal worlds have suffered a form of light-pollution. Maybe our meetings with the wildlife of our minds -including meetings with our dead- really did seem like actual experience once, and this archaic state is faintly remembered in our "supernatural" stories.

History is a spiral (a helix of semi-precious stones, as Delany said of Time). We return to the same state, but in different material conditions; technology converts feats of the imagination into feats of the possible. Have we returned, as those who run in terror from the Great God Pan are held to return, to the very source of our fears? Are we about to re-enter a seamless world where immaterial "visions" and material "realities" are equally valid? Some of you or all of you will have seen the movie "Inception", the blockbuster thriller about lucid dreaming. I'm sure most of you have read, or otherwise consumed, fiction about exciting adventures in wrap-around cyberspace. But these are fictions. Quite possibly we need no fantasy science, but only the real life technology of the 21st century: the human mind is so malleable, so quick at making new connections. We already talk (some of us, anyway) as if we recognise our actual selves, in the mirror of a video-game avatar, or a social-networking "timeline". How long will it be before the clever jelly in our heads bridges the gap, and we feel ourselves to be those potent other selves, adventuring in fantastic otherworlds. Or feel ourselves to be those living ghosts, escaped from our control, burrowing viciously into our friends' online lives?

But even in Victorian days, the phenomena of dreams and visions could be recognised as perfectly natural: and still seen as something wicked. Something invincibly evil, might creep through that opened door between the Seen and the Unseen-

Sheridan Lefanu's "Green Tea", an account of such a visitation, struck me as being a very long story, when I was a child. It is rather long, around twelve thousand words or so, and seems interminable; except not in a bad way. The form is a kind of Sherlock Holmes story, the Watson role taken by an un-named narrator; presumably Le Fanu himself, whose friend Dr Hesselius -of Leiden, by the way-is a "metaphysical doctor" with amazing powers of deduction, and encyclopaedic knowledge of the diseases of the soul. This particular case is told through a series of letters, from Hesselius himself to a colleague called Van Loo; in which Hesselius describes his meeting with an interesting patient, the development of the curious disease, and the unhappy outcome.

The patient, the Reverend Jennings is a quiet gentleman, very wealthy in a lonely, sombre way. Of course, Hesselius knows what's going on, and pretty much exactly how Jennings is afflicted; just by observing him. When the haunted clergyman finally makes his confession, it seems his downfall was a study of "the religious metaphysics of the ancients". Long hours of fascinating research needed some kind of stimulant. He became addicted to Green Tea, and then one night, on a lonely omnibus ride, he found he'd acquired an unwelcome companion, a nasty little spectral monkey with glowing eyes.

It follows him everywhere. It gets between him and his prayers; he can't give a church service. It creeps across the carpet, when he's having tea with society ladies... He has no idea why he's being persecuted like this, but he's driven to suspect that he has somehow raised a demon from hell. And nothing can save him, since it has been given licence to destroy him.

I still love the slow, stealthy pace of "Green Tea". It matches the silence of gloomy rooms where footsteps sink into three layers of turkey carpet. The darkness of Victorian evenings, before the candles were brought in; the emptiness of the Richmond omnibus at night, where poor Mr Jennings first meets his nemesis. I even like the old-fashioned, confusing layers of narrative, a distancing device also much employed by later classic ghost story writers.

There are two really wonderful things in this outstanding example of the spook story without a spook. The first is that spectral monkey -always described in visceral detail, although it doesn't even crumple a sheet, the torment is all in Mr Jennings's head. The second is Le Fanu's deft suspension of two opposing states of belief. This is a disease of the mind -obviously. There's nothing supernatural going on. Dr Hesselius's expert diagnosis is "hereditary suicidal mania" (or in our current jargon "paranoid schizophrenia"). But what if a genuine demon from the pit, and a "hallucination" can be one and the same thing? Each as real as the other? When the world visible and the world invisible are one continuous fabric; when ideas are as much things as things are ideas, is it any comfort to be told that the horrors pursuing you are "only in your mind"?

The Reverend Jennings didn't find it so.


The third story in my spooky (or should that be spookachtig?), roll of honour is "The Great God Pan", by Arthur Machen, the story I invoked as having such an enduring influence on my work, in your First Progress Report. This is a very well-known work (in supernatural horror circles). Part of its fame may be due to Machen's authentic Occult credentials, gratifying to those who take the Occult seriously. There's also the strong sexual content -outrageous when it was first published-; which even quite recently (before the female authored sexy-horror phenomenon took off) gave Machen a special frisson.

This is another many-layered narrative. The first passage is set in the Welsh Marches, a region of England almost as haunted as Suffolk, on the beautiful, remote estate of a latter-day evil magician, who has decided to open a young girl's mind to the Unseen, by cutting some vital cells out of her brain. Poor Mary wakes up a hopeless idiot. "But she has seen The Great God Pan" says the magician -the nature god Pan here standing for all the powers beyond the veil of matter. Nine months later she's delivered of a child* -a girl, named "Helen Vaughan" whose mysteriously horrible development we then follow. At first in fragmentary records kept by Mr Clarke, the magician's witness. Later, in London, through the accounts of a succession of men about town, friends who come to realise that a society "femme fatale" variously known as Mrs Beaumont, Mrs Herbert, Mrs Vaughan, is literally delivering her well-connected lovers alive into hell. Whereupon the lovers assist the process by committing suicide, which I'd call a really stupid move, in the circumstances...** The amateur occult detectives trap her, they prove they have enough evidence to ruin her reputation, and she obediently kills herself -in death revealing her true nature, as her outward bodily form dissolves, first becoming both male and female, then descending through bestial stages to a pool of primordial slime.

As a child, I was entranced, titillated and mystified by "The Great God Pan". Just untangling the "sensationalist" documentary-style narrative was a puzzling feat. As an adult, need I say I have serious problems with the morality of this tale, even leaving aside the atrocious child abuse in the opening? Strip away the shuddering cloud of weird mystification around Helen Vaughan's career, and we see that at a time, and in a culture, when -man or woman- any sex life outside wedlock was fraught with risk and criminality, poor Helen joins a casualty list of female scapegoats.

Say instead that she gave the well-connected boyfriends syphilis, having been sexually abused since she was a very young child, and you get the picture.

(Me, I just wish she'd found the right person, in that "city of resurrections", London of the Naughty Nineties. Someone omnivorous and good-natured, who wouldn't judge her for being a hermaphrodite, and bit of a beast in bed. Maybe HRH Edward, Prince of Wales-)

But my deep-rooted admiration for "The Great God Pan" survives: because it wasn't a history of "monstrous evil" that attracted me. It was the feeling of immanent revelation in the first passage of the story, when the evil magician outlines his wicked plan. His means are atrocious, but his project is thrilling: to open up a conduit, a physical not a metaphysical connection, between the world of matter and the world of spirit. To span the abyss, and make the fertile nothingness of the cosmic aether interchangeable with the solid world of flesh... In the end, I would owe whole suite of fantasy technologies, in the Bold As Love sequence, to Machen (I call my version of the magician's project "breaking the mind/matter barrier"). I owe him, too, for a very sinister alien Weapon Of Mass Destruction; but that was from another story***

The nineteenth century in Europe, golden age of the ghost story, was a time of grim social divisions in England; great poverty, and enormous wealth. Intellectually, there was war in heaven, as Charles Darwin's "On The Origin Of Species" seemed to challenge all rational authorities, and throw us back into a state of bestial chaos. Semi-occult Germanic and Nordic metaphysics, developed in response to the Materialism of the Eighteenth Century, attracted daring Victorian gentlemen (Swedenborg is extensively quoted in "Green Tea"); while the even more daring turned to very dubious Magicks. And what is the lesson of all this? I don't know, but I know that Machen and his peers stood on the eve of a new century, and on the brink of a scientific revolution, led by a humble patent clerk, that would tear the veil between seen and unseen, between being and nothingness, asunder - opening the way to the creation of monstrous weapons beyond even their wild imagining.

We should be careful what we fear, because fear can be made flesh...

Or maybe the lesson is this (a genre lesson). Lucretius, the Roman poet, in his long poem De Rerum Natura (On The Nature Of Things), asked his readers to imagine -a very science fictional project, this- they could carry a spear to the very end of the universe. Stand there, and hurl the spear into the abyss. If you hear a clang (version #1), then you know that your spear struck something material, so there's more material out there. If you hear nothing (version #2), and the spear just vanishes, that means there's more space out there. Either way, you've performed a mental experiment to prove that the universe has no end, of course. Maybe we could characterise Science Fiction as the set of fictional worlds where we cast our imaginary probe into the unknowable, and "hear the spear strike something". Fantasy would cover the set of fictions where the abyss returns no material response to our challenge; nothing but the promise of its endless mystery.

Interestingly, you could argue that real, serious science currently seems to favour version #2

*Quotation from Book 11 of the Odyssey, trs Ian Johnston

**As a child, given a girl called Mary was giving birth to a supernatural child with no human father, I was sure "Helen Vaughan" represented some kind of Antichrist. On later reading I'd argue that Machen at least hints at a repellent, but less blasphemous alternative.

*** M. John Harrison's homage to this classic, a story also called "The Great God Pan" (Other Edens, ed. Christopher Evans & Robert Holdstock; Unwin, 1988), features some caustic, down to earth suggestions -sad, silly, but still very unpleasant- as to what Machen's "nameless horrors" might have looked like, and their likely effects.

**** It was The Novel Of The White Powder
"Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You My Lad", M R James, is readily available online, as text, podcast & Youtube video.

Here's an online version of Sheridan LeFanu's "Green Tea"

"The Great God Pan" is also widely available, this is the Gutenberg project version:
Online sources checked on 13th March 2012


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