This week I have been wrestling with the role of the ghost in literature. My focus is on children’s literature, but I am beginning to think that the ideas I am playing with my well apply to all literature.
Ghosts of one sort or another have been used in storytelling ever since human beings began to communicate with words. The various spectres who appear in the writings of Shakespeare, Dickens and others played different roles and were used by their respective authors to solve a variety of problems they encountered when thinking about how best to deliver their stories to the intended audience. The ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth deliver information that only they possess. They do this in a quick and convenient way, essentially speaking to the other characters in the play but, at the same time, to the audience. Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol confronts Scrooge with his own mean-spiritedness and persuades the old miser to change his ways. In The Canterville Ghost Oscar Wilde bends the stereotype by presenting a humorous and slightly ridiculous ghost, rather than a frightening one.
However, I believe that the modern ghost can play a very different role from any of those mentioned above. In our current culture, when so much violence is presented through video games, reality TV, YouTube, even the nightly news bulletin, the ghost’s unique characteristics can be used to present a more positive view of the world. A ghost can not be killed with a gun, or a bomb, or even a laser beam. Weapons of mass destruction are nothing to a ghost because it is already dead. If a ghost has taken up residence in your life, the only way to get rid of it is to help it move on. In order to help the ghost, and yourself, you must confront it, speak to it, get to know why it has not passed over to the afterlife – or why it has returned from the grave to haunt you. There may be some people who believe that dealing with death is not a suitable topic for children’s fiction. And yet we deliberately introduce pets into children’s lives. We encourage the child to care for the pet, to feed it, talk to it and attend to its physical needs. Inevitably this is a bonding exercise. One which we approve of because we see it as teaching the child life skills – which must then include the ability to deal with death because, in normal circumstances, the child will outlive the pet and be faced, at some point, with the loss of a loved companion.
In The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s character, Dr Montague, says: ‘No ghost, in all the long history of ghosts has ever hurt anyone physically. The only damage done is by the victim to himself.’ Following this line of thought we can say that our modern ghost is a sort of super-hero. Indestructable, sometimes difficult, scary or inconvenient, but essentially a power for good. A catalyst for communication, growth and development – mysterious, intriguing, possibly even humorous. A perfect fit for historical fiction in particular, where an author wishes to bring stories from the past into the present and engage a twenty-first century audience.