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Tell Me a Ghost Story

Whatever we do with the dead, they will not go away. Whether we entomb them or isolate them or scatter their ashes, they remain as ghosts in our memories and faced with their continuing presence we have to no option but to learn to live with them.

óMichael Cox

It is bad to be between books. I sit in bed with dental floss and a glass of wine, fretting over the spines of novels I fear will disappoint.

Sometimes I get fooled. Midway through Bel Canto, I realized both the game and the snare: The reader cares, even while knowing that to read further wonít change the predictable outcome.

Sometimes I get cheated. If a good book fails to end properly, it means the time Iíve spent is wasted. But itís even worse with a less-than-good book. Tim OíBrienís July, July should have been better than it was and ended not with a bangódespite the characterís best efforts in that directionóbut with a whimper.

In graduate school I developed a shield against this disappointment: Iíd read a book with rapt attention, but only halfway through. So my half-read biographies of Edith Wharton and Colette keep them forever young. And since I never got past the Enlightenment in Paul Johnsonís History of Europe, Iím convinced weíre still living in the best of all possible worlds.

OK, I exaggerate.

But when I really like a book, I donít want it to end.

Anna Karenina was good for that for a while. But when the author kills off the character for whom the book is named, thatís pretty much the end of things.

Still, itís such a great scene where Anna throws herself beneath the trainís iron wheels. In bookstores I read that passage in every translation I can find. Itís a morbid habit, but of all morbid habits, a lesser one.

When Iím between books, the leaning tower of the unread bedside pile threatens to topple me. If the choice is between disappointment at a good book that ends too soon and disappointment at a mediocre book that takes too long to fail, whatís left to do?

Since itís not good for the complexion to go to bed frowning, I return to whatís reliable: ghosts.

Because weíre near to Halloween, you might think Iím turning this into a topical column. But Iím up for a good ghost story anytime. Even a bad one will do nicely.

Ghosts have the power not only to make you suspend disbelief, but to suspend critical judgment as well.

The first time I saw Robert Wiseís The Haunting, I tried to sit alone through a second showing after my friend had gone off to study. Couldnít do it. A few years later at a film seminar in Denver, I figured it would be a cakewalk to watch The Haunting, since Wise was in the room and was going to talk about it afterward. Didnít matter; the movie was still scary as hell. I loved it.

And maybe I loved it because ghostsóor even intimations of ghosts, which is all you really get in the original version of The Hauntingódonít have to behave in any of the ways fictional characters are supposed to. A fictional character is supposed to be believable.

The whole point of a ghost is that itís not. When ghosts scare you or misbehave or appear at unwanted hours and at their own will, theyíre only doing what ghosts are supposed to do. When characters in novels do that, we hold the creator responsible, as if the author should put the errant characters in the Time Out chair till they learn to follow the script.

On the other hand, ghosts, to the extent that they can, have minds of their own.

That means there is no threat in settling into bed with a glass of hot milk and a ghost. Theyíre allowed to break all the rules. And if they break them in all the right ways, youíll be doing a heebie-jeebies hurting dance.

Which is why I come back, like a loyal puppy, to M. R. James.

Youíve probably never heard of him. From everything I can tell, he was a stuffy Brit, as opposed to a jolly Brit. The book jacket bio says he was a linguist, medievalist, biblical scholar and paleographer. I donít even know what a paleographer does, though it sounds improbably related to cosmetology.

James might not flick most peopleís switches. All I know is he gets it right for me.

And itís a mystery why.

His main characters are invariably male, priggish and overeducated in some obscure field of study. They probably need to do a million stomach crunches to ward off the academicís predictable paunch. And the stories are long, the print is small, the writing as dense as fruitcake. James would certainly put a lot of readers to sleep. (Iíve been known to drift off, companionably, mid-sentence.)

But everything about Jamesí stories has nothing whatsoever to do with my life. So Iím freed to be at once both scared witless and utterly unconcerned that anything like that could happen to me.

Iíve never had to translate from Greek or Hebrew or Ugaritic some passage on a sundial in the middle of an overgrown topiary maze that would predict my forthcoming demise.

No part of my life involves scholars of arcana poking around in gloomy abbeys, tombs or crypts. And Iím not at risk for crossing the ocean in a haunted first-class berth.

Nor can I remember the last time I stayed in a hotel room that had a window that no one, not even the innkeeper, knew existedóa window that gave view to a murder on the heather-covered moors.

Of course, itís true that there is not enough Xanax in the world to make me stay a second night in a hotel with a preternatural view to a kill. And I would never hack my way into a haunted mazeómy mother raised me to believe a good girl didnít do such things.

But it sure provides a sheet-clutching counterpoint to the nasty threats of normal life.

And you donít need me to say a thing about normal life. Letís face itówe might not do what Anna Karenina did, but her angst, whatever its cause, is something we can recognize.

There will always be the well or poorly written fictions of common human sorrows. But who can resist the transparently thrilling presence of the ghost we never have to fear weíll meet?

óJo Page

 You can contact Jo Page at

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