Why should we read ghost stories? George Marsden argues it's because they can teach us more about human nature and reality than you might suspect
Russell Kirk did not like science fiction. Or, at least, he seems to have thought that everything done in the genre after H.G Wells was superfluous and derivative: artificers following artists. Although he might acknowledge the speculative intelligence that shines through Wells’ adventure stories (which all good science fiction has), he found this kind of writing inherently limited. For Kirk, modern science fiction was hampered by its materialism and mechanistic view of nature; its curiosity about the far-flung rocks in the inhuman wastes of the solar system and its ignorance of the soul. Literary interest (let alone real belief) in “martians and jovians” is what modern man resorted to after Heaven and Hell slipped from his imagination and he began looking for something, anything, to colour the wan universe now it had been drained of the lamb’s blood. To save his heart from the desiccation that follows from the knowledge that reality is mere atom and space—endless granularity and emptiness —he imagines that there is life clinging to those rocks, peeping at us through nebulas with technology that ignites the same wonder that his ancestors once derived from the transformation at Cana.
Which is why his preferred genre was the ghost story. Often relegated with science-fiction to the dusty shelf of unserious literature by the kind of reader who reads James Joyce and nothing else (and then misunderstands him), Kirk preferred the elder of these poor brothers because, while the two are usually (and nobly) intended to delight and entertain, the ghost story feeds, rather than destroys, man’s spiritual nature. Consonant with a Christian view of reality, the ghost story derives its power to move and chill from the idea (as comforting as it is disturbing) that there is life after the body’s death. But it isn’t simply this metaphysical difference between science fiction and the ghost story (or gothic writing as a whole) that made the Catholic Kirk prefer the latter, but rather the moral ramification of this metaphysic. Involve as they do hauntings that follow on from catastrophes and great sins, and evil represented as a powerful supernatural force, gothic tales are the supreme literary expression of the Christian sensibility. The world of gothic fiction is not only fallen but haunted with the idea of inevitable retribution; they present evil as the supreme fact of worldly existence and the necessity of great strength to resist it.
And it is a Scot who stands among the first rate in the genre. Although he was probably an atheist, Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories are a compelling bit of evidence for the claim that he never really escaped from the pessimism and obsession with man’s bestial side that marked the Calvinism of his Edinburgh upbringing. While this might be commonplace in Stevenson's criticism, it’s an indispensable fact for anyone trying to grasp the nature of his particular style of horror. The moral climate of his early years was the perfect condition for a sort of second sight to germinate inside him, which at the time of full maturity had grown strong enough to allow him to see the darker reaches of human nature that mellower souls must strain to glimpse. The material for gothic fiction is mined from seams in that zone, and Kirk would likely agree that it was Stevenson’s Christ-haunted outlook that let him get at it.
Let’s take his most famous short tale, Jekyll and Hyde. A wayward scientist harbours a lifelong irritation on the subject of man’s duality (part good, part evil: partly divine and partly animal). He invents a drug that will unchain the two sides so the desires and ambitions of each can achieve their goals without frustration. Dr Jekyll’s transformation into Mr Hyde (who “alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil”) becomes irreversible at the end, as the force of all that is base and cruel within his soul inexorably achieves supremacy; once tasted, sin will not be left unindulged, and the sinner slides further down into damnation. The narrative itself follows the growing knowledge of Dr Jekyll’s friend John Utterson, who slowly comes to know the truth about Mr Hyde and his precise relationship to Jekyll—a bloody catastrophe that thrusts onto the living a horrible revelation.
A sober and reasonable lawyer, Utterson is the personification of Victorian rationality; of the Enlightenment at its zenith, in a smoky imperial capital, among bureaucrats confident of their ability to rule the world. We aren’t given many details about his life before the events of the story, but (given the fact that he conforms so nicely to a type) it’s tempting to fill in the gaps. You can easily imagine the Unitarian upbringing with a father who knew James Mill, the adulthood Deism that shocks none of his peers. On the bookshelf above his bed there is a copy of On the Origin of Species, and he dines at the same club as Herbert Spencer. But the sort of knowledge that the events of the tale reveal to him must be devastating for the views of such a man; no one who witnessed the horrors of the last years of Dr Jekyll’s life could confidently continue in the belief that science and human rationality are the only necessary tools for understanding reality.
His materialism and overconfidence in reason buckle under the burden of this newfound knowledge. I even think there are grounds to claim that Jekyll and Hyde is a satire on the scientific studies themselves. Dr Jekyll stumbles upon the invention of his shapeshifting drug and, too late, discovers that it owes its power to an unknown impurity present in one of the ingredients, making it impossible to reproduce with the cleaner supply he later acquires from his chemist. As a result, a whiff of black farce hangs over his fate.
But it’s in the depiction of evil as a positive fact of worldly existence that his pre-Enlightenment sensibility is at its strongest, the sensibility that Kirk knew was closer to true wisdom than what superseded it. Like all gothic writers, Stevenson is an artist of the fall, and his dark insight is that Jekyll’s Mr Hyde, his cruel alter-ego composed of the “lower elements of his soul”, is the archetype of that purely evil portion that makes up one half of person. In the pit of each self sits a sordid puddle, horrible to look at but nonetheless continuously tempting us to take a sip. Sin is the activity committed under the influence of these waters.
It’s truths like these that mark Stevenson as one of the best horror writers who ever lived and he wrote plenty of stories, exhibiting the same intelligence, set in his native country. Scottish gothic fiction is a pretty crowded field, and I think it must be a landscape of Scotland that has made this so; the Borders are picturesque but blood-logged and the Highlands dwarf you into a feeling of insignificance, while the Central Belt is a broad stretch of unfriendly austerity. Winter nights are crushingly long and there’s something uneasy about the lingering summer twilight. No wonder Stevenson found his home so agreeable a setting for the sort of truths he expounds in his most famous tale.
It takes an imagination of the first order to translate the intimations of a landscape into art, and Scottish readers are forever indebted to Stevenson for doing so. His is a Scotland of dark enchantment, one where spirits lurk beyond the sensory world and where the past, though dead, still manages to butt its way into the present. Stevenson’s The Merry Men is one of his longer attempts (along with his novel Kidnapped) at crafting this vision of a darkly enchanted Scotland.
As with Jekyll and Hyde, the narrative follows a process of revelation. Like Mr Utterson, the student Charles Darnaway gains a knowledge of evil far greater than anything he had previously imagined. He leaves Edinburgh for a summer holiday at his uncle Gordon Darnaway’s Hebridean farm, buoyed by a boyish delight at the prospect of a few easy months ahead. The “merry men” of the title is the name given to the rocks just off the coast of the island, so named because the breakers that form around them sinisterly generate a jovial, laughing noise; in a storm they are a great danger to any nearby ship. Arriving at the farm, both his uncle and his house have changed; he is sombre and given over to dark monologues on the sea’s godlessness. His home is full of booty recovered from a wreck that washed up months before. Charles is disgusted at this bloody acquisition, a feeling that only grows when he discovers a grave on the beach that he suspects is evidence of a murder committed by his uncle. Eventually, his uncle’s sins catch up to him. They spot a foreign vessel in danger, unable to prevent it from being destroyed in a storm that throws it onto the merry men. Gordon Darnaway is mad with avaricious delight at the spectacle of another wreck, and the story ends with him casting himself into the sea as a result of his madness.
Now, there’s nothing directly and unequivocally supernatural in the story; Gordon Darnaway’s descent into madness does work nicely as a bit of psychological realism. But ghosts, and the possibility of their presence, whisper through the realism; in the superstitions of several of the characters, the wreck of the Armada galleon in the bay, the black submarine being that follows Rory’s boat. Stevenson’s method is to ease the reader into this enchanted world, gesturing at the supernatural significance of natural horrors. Being pulled out to sea by a treacherous Hebridean current, the elder Darnaway lets out a shriek, and hearing it, his nephew remarks that “a great fear fell upon me of God’s judgments and the evil of the world”. Ghost stories are written to disturb us to the point of reckoning with these possibilities, and an enchanted Scotland provided Stevenson with abundant material with which to craft from. While the 20th and 21st centuries have done a lot of work towards scraping off what remained of that enchantment from Hawick to Shetland, it lives on in Stevenson’s Scottish stories. So read them, and learn to fear.