By darksouls1 - https://pixabay.com/en/house-cemetery-haunted-house-2187170/ archive copy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57689729

What happens when the wallpaper seems carnivorous, the furniture instills a sense of dread, and home–the one place we count upon to protect and nourish us–turns sinister? In ghost stories, rooms are hostile and houses are taken over by spirits with the power to destroy our  souls. When did these bone-chilling stories first become popular and why do they continue to captivate?  In short, what hold does horror have on us?

In his new book, The Wrong Turning: Encounters with Ghosts, a new selection from Notting Hill Editions, BBC critic Stephen Johnson suggests that these tales are a nod to the dark part of the human psyche we’ve tucked away, preferring to believe in a tidy, ordered universe.  They reflect our distrust of modern life with its seductive promise of greater ease and comfort and its blinkered assurance that “the world is getting better every day.” Not so fast, these stories say.  There are things we should be afraid of—things that go bump in the night, tease our senses, and hyper-activate the nervous system, engaging the older part of the brain that’s known as “fight or flight.”   According to Johnson, ghost stories may be a counterbalance to the age of scientific progress and our daily denial of pain and death.

This return of the repressed has fueled a literature of  the macabre—from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Stephen King’s triple crown of chillers, The Shining, Carrie, and Salem’s Lot.  Fans of horror,  Johnson says, experience feelings of dread familiar to those who suffer from  bipolar illness, depression and anxiety.  So why seek them out? There’s an energetic release that comes with the full-tilt boogie of our “fight or flight” response.  At the end of a good  fright, we are aware that we have survived some traumatic event and are now wonderfully, blissfully safe.  That sense of homecoming, of coming back to solid ground, is the emotional payoff. And that’s what makes horror such a lucrative genre for publishers and film directors, and why, on some level, we like to be “scared out of our wits.”      

Below, you’ll find an excerpt from Johnson’s superb and self-revealing introduction, along with four palate teasers from some of the classic ghost stories he presents.  This intriguing volume reminds us that the world is not as it appears to be. It gives us full permission to indulge our dark forbodings, with the assurance that afterward, life will return to normal—along with our breathing and our pulse.   

My first memory of being gripped, scared, but also enthralled, by a ghost story goes back to when I was about five. I was with my mother in the kitchen, and David Davis, Head of BBC’s Children’s Hour, was beginning a  story on the radio. I’d heard that beautifully modulated, deliciously reassuring voice before, reading Winnie the Pooh, and The Wind in the Willows, and I made myself comfortable in preparation for a similar ‘Listen with Mother’ session.

What I got, however, was M.R. James’s terrifying The Haunted Doll’s House, in which two children are somehow made away with by the hideous, frog-faced apparition of the rich grandfather their coldly avaricious parents have obviously murdered. I remember spending a fearful, truly haunted night—and yet I was also hooked.  Was this pure emotional masochism on my part, or was there a sense that I needed to face something down? To peer into the darkness that so frightened me? Could it even be that I had begun to realize what Thomas Hardy had grasped: that, ‘If a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst?’

After decades of grappling with the dread and weird acceleration that goes with the bipolar condition I have suffered with since my teens, I’d like to think that I was close to the right track. Human beings have always loved frightening and being frightened by each other—within reason, of course, and as long as one retains that sense of being in a fundamentally ‘safe space.’ An adrenaline rush, followed by a pleasurable dopamine release when one draws oneself up, looks around, and remembers that it’s all make-believe—maybe, for many, that’s all it ever needs to be. But for others, and especially for some of the troubled men and women who wove these stories together in the first place, I suspect that it was more than that. Looking back on the ghost stories that riveted me as a teenager and as a young adult, I’m struck by how many of them contained descriptions of states of mind strongly reminiscent of my own more unpleasant episodes. Picture M. R. James’s unfortunate scholar Dunning, in Casting the Runes, on his way back from the solidly rational British Museum to his reassuringly dull suburban dwelling place, unaware the curse that’s been placed upon him:

More than once on his way home that day Mr. Dunning confessed to himself that he did not look forward with his usual cheerfulness to a solitary evening. It seemed to him that something ill-defined and impalpable had stepped between him and his fellow men—had taken him in charge, as it were.

Excursions into dangerous mental territory often start with something like that. As James says in one of the stories included here, ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’  experto crede  —‘believe one who has experience of this.’ That flash of personal detail, rare in James’s stories, has led some to infer that the author himself had encountered appalling supernatural events which he describes so vividly.  But James always denied it, and I believe him. The experience I think he alludes to is the mental state itself: terror, painfully heightened awareness (hypervigilance, as the specialists put it) and dreadful imaginings—half-waking nightmares beyond the conscious control of the sufferer. I have experienced the same kind of thing myself at times when I sensed, however falteringly, however unwillingly, that I too was contending with something that occupied the haunted corridors of my own brain: something too dreadful to be faced directly.  It’s striking how many of the finest, subtlest ghost stories leave open the question of whether the ‘ghost’ is best understood as an objective or subjective horror—Emily Dickinson’s ‘superior spectre.’ Henry James’s classic, The Turn of the Screw, springs to mind, followed speedily and stealthily by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s taut little masterpiece, The Yellow Wallpaper.  Penelope Lively’s Black Dog poses the same question, but the other way round: initially it seems likely that the disturbance is ‘all in the mind;’ but could it actually be objectively real—or is there another, still more challenging way of looking at it?    The best ghost stories often leave the reader with questions like that, questions which however plausibly they maybe answered only lead to more questions: in Dickinson’s words, ‘a superior spectre—Or More—?’

Therein lies the big difference between a ghost story and the other great English language mystery genre—the detective story. Many detective stories start by creating a sense of the uncanny, so much so that we may at first believe there really is an element of the supernatural—think of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse, or any number of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Then the detective gets to work; reason is applied and finally light is shone into those dark corners.  Bewildering, frightening events are explained and set in order—think how many of these expertly engineered tales end with the triumphant sleuth laying it all out in clear narrative form to an enthralled audience. The rational mind—what Poirot famously called his ‘little grey cells’—has triumphed

Great ghost stories rarely start by springing the traumatic event upon us; more usually they build up to it steadily, carefully, though we may sense early on that something is seriously amiss, even—perhaps especially—when the scene set before us at the outset appears comfortable, predictable, everyday. It can be solid, orderly, and well-lit as Mr. Dunning’s British Museum, or cosy as the family fireside setting where W.W. Jacobs’s ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ begins its steady crescendo of horror. We are lulled into a false sense of security and are so less able to dismiss or diminish the terrible thing when it finally reveals itself.

For Robert Aickman,  the still undervalued creator of what he preferred to call ‘strange stories,’ there was a lot more to all this than the enjoyment of a little adrenalin-boosting fun. Aickman set out his theory in a letter he wrote on his acceptance of the World Fantasy Award in 1976:

I believe that at the time of the industrial and French Revolutions… mankind took a wrong turning.  The beliefs that one day, by application of reason and the scientific method, everything will be known, and every problem and unhappiness solved, seems to me a situation where, first, we are in imminent danger of destroying the whole world.

Whatever one thinks of Aickman’s comments as a philosophical or historical summary—an explanation of where humankind as a whole went astray—the notion of some kind of ‘wrong turning’ does seem to live behind a lot of the most enduring literary ghost stories. No matter whether it involves a literal wrong turning or something more mysterious and elusive, in each case a character makes a mistake and places trust in the wrong kind of mental compass: nemesis is waiting in the wings to punish hubris.  Something within us,  ‘the superior spectre,’ needs to be encountered and reckoned with, and when we meet it, Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’ aren’t adequate to deal with it on their own. Whether what we confront in the haunted chamber is the Freudian ‘return of the repressed,’ the Jungian ‘shadow’ self,  the embodiment of some childhood trauma, or simply a personification of the terrible fact of death (for M. R.  James, ‘The King of Terrors’) to come to terms with what the ghost represents we must expand our mental horizons. If we are to achieve fully integrated minds, we can’t go on being left-brain supremacists, insisting on the primacy of analytic language, scientific logic and objective truth: we must accept that the right hemisphere of the brain, with its resources of fantasy, poetic symbolism and subjective insight, has something vitally important to tell us too. That has certainly been my experience.  

Looking back over nearly a quarter of a century of serious therapeutic work, I’m struck by how often, in trying to explain my own terrifying mental states to psychiatrists for psychotherapists, I resorted to images or turns of phrases from some of my own favorite ghost stories.

Stephen Johnson

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 1847

While leading the way upstairs, she recommended that I should hide the candle, and not make a noise; for her master had an odd notion about the chamber she would put me in, and never let anybody lodge their willingly….

The ledge, where I placed my candle, had a few mildewed books piled up in one corner; it was covered with writing scratched on the paint. This writing, however, was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small—Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton.

In vapid listlessness I lent my head against the window, and continued spelling over Catherine Earnshaw—Heathcliff—Linton, till my eyes closed; but they had not rested five minutes when a glare of white letters started from the dark, as vivid as specters—the air swarmed with Catherines; and rousing myself to dispel the obtrusive name, I discovered my candlewick reclining on one of the antique volumes and perfuming the place with an odor of roasted calfskin.  

I snuffed it off, and very ill at ease under the influence of cold and lingering nausea, sat up and spread open the injured tome upon my knee. It was a Testament, in lean type, and smelling dreadfully musty: a flyleaf bore the inscription—‘Catherine Earnshaw, her book.’ and a date some quarter of a century back.

The Brontë sisters, Emily second from left, by Branwell Brontë

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898

I can say neither what determined nor guided me, but I went straight along the lobby, holding my candle high, till I came within sight of the tall window that presided over the great turn of the staircase. At this point I precipitously found myself aware of three things. They were practically simultaneous, that they had flashes of succession. My candle, under a bold flourish, went out. And I perceived by the uncovered window that the yielding dusk of earliest morning rendered it unnecessary.   Without it, the next instant,  I saw there was someone on the stair.  I speak of sequences but I required no lapse of seconds to stiffen myself for a third encounter with Quint.  The apparition had reached a landing halfway up and was therefore on the spot nearest the window, where at the sight of me, it stopped short and fixed me exactly as it had fixed me from the tower and from  the garden. He knew me as well as I knew him;  and so, in the cold, faint twilight, with  the glimmer in the high glass and another on the polish of the Oak stair below, we faced each other in our common intensity. He was absolutely, on this occasion, a living, detestable, dangerous presence. But that was not the wonder of wonders; I reserve this distinction for quite another circumstance: the circumstance the dread had unmistakably quitted me and that there was nothing in me there that didn’t meet and measure him.

By H. Walter Barnett - The English Illustrated Magazine: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31210021152978;view=1up;seq=111, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61502552

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892

I suppose John was never nervous in his life. He laughs at me so about this wallpaper!  At first, he meant to repaper the room but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies.

He said that after the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then the gate the at the head of the stairs, and so on.

‘You know the place is doing you good,’ he said, ‘and really, dear. I don’t care to renovate the house just for a three-month rental.’

…I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.

But I find I get pretty tired when I try… I wish I could get well faster.

But I must not think about that…

This paper looks at me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had.

There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.

I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlasting mess. Up-and-down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere.  There is one place with two breadths that didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.

 I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!

Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her studio.

You may purchase The Wrong Turning through nyrb/New York Review Books  or order directly from Notting Hill Editions in London. 

We also encourage you to sign up for NHE’s monthly book selection and to explore the NHE Essay Library (from John Ruskin to Roland Barthes, Hannah Arendt to Rebecca West), an invaluable reference tool.  

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