So the other night I watched The Woman in Black and that started me thinking about ghost stories in general. For instance, I cannot figure out why people in ghost stories always run behind doors and lock them, they aren’t keeping out zombies. Ghosts can obviously appear behind you anywhere, they are haunting a location, that location is their playground, so beating a traditional ghost is simple… LEAVE! However, I am not actually hear to snark on the genre, it is too convention filled to mock. I like conventions in stories, like the grand sagas and ballads all had plot conventions. No, I found some parts of the film interesting from an altogether different viewpoint.
The Woman in Black is set in the late 1800’s and it set me thinking about this era, the Lunatic laws, the loss of faith in Europe, Matthew Arnold, and then back to the ghost story. The ghost in question was the mother of a little boy who was proclaimed a lunatic and had her son taken away. (See G. K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils)The film makes fairly clear that before her son was taken she was mostly normal, if a little obsessive. But as she is further and further removed from their son, she goes crazier and crazier until her son is lost in the marsh and his adoptive parents (her sister and brother-in-law) escape the car but desert the boy to the quicksand. So she hangs herself and becomes the ghost of the story, who is a ghost of horrible vengeance, who drives the children of the neighboring town to kill themselves.
Enter the hero, with his Victorian sentimentality. Once convinced his own son is in danger, he dredges up the body of the boy, and lays it in the tomb with his mothers body… which has no effect on the ghost at all. And thus we see the people of an industrial age, having lost their faith, and willing to believe in anything. The hero talks in vague terms about his dead wife waiting for him, and others toss about half-believed platitudes about souls going up to heaven, but no body believes anything, and everybody is grasping for something to believe.
Enter Matthew Arnold and Dover Beach.
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
So what interested me most about The Woman in Black was the final score. Ghost: at least 12, Sentimentality: 0. So I thought of another, this time American ghost story rather than a Victorian one. Bag Of Bones by Stephen King. (If you read it, it is pretty good just be ready to skip some pages when King gets horrible describing in minute detail the origin of the ghost.) In this case, the ghost takes a few children from each generation, all with names starting with ‘K’ as revenge for her child. However our hero is an impractical enough person to realize that a ghost seeking more and more vengeance cannot be satisfied. (A sentimental mistake of the Victorian lawyer who was the hero of The Woman in Black.) Our hero in this case, once he realizes that there is indeed a ghost, and a particular, very sweet little girl is the target (name starts with ‘K’ and descended from original villain from a century ago.) he comes up with a practical American plan, find the body of the ghost woman and pour lye on the bones… which works for the story. Ghost: Several every generation, Practical hero: 1. A much better score, for a different culture.
However, I leave you with a great very short ghost story. This one is quite good. (The ghost doesn’t do any killing… so there isn’t much scoring I can do…)
Andrew Klavan’s The Advent Reunion. Here is video one of about 6. Do listen, it is well done.