In this field, we often have to address dark topics, from the indigenous experience of colonialism in the Americas, to the threat of emerging infectious diseases. But in my class and in my writing I always try also to touch on art, culture, music and literature. After some of my more recent posts (such as the recent ones on highly pathogenic avian influenza and the Mexican drug war) I wanted to touch on something less serious. So, in honor of Halloween’s approach, I’ll discuss international ghost stories.
My favorite short story writer is M.R. James. Although not prolific, he wrote a rich collection of late Victorian and Edwardian English ghost stories. As a successful academic, who wrote extensively on medieval and biblical history, his stories have an antiquarian touch. They are often set in libraries, or deal with archaeology, so that the past defines the story in a deep way. For any Anglophiles out there, they capture the social reality of Britain before World War Two, and an academic culture now long gone. I thought of him while at Oxford a few weeks ago (although he taught at Cambridge), and thought that physically there are still many places that don’t look very different from the England he knew. A gay man in an oppressive culture, he was Victorian in his character, but there are hints of his struggles in his stories. Perhaps his most famous story is “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” but my favorite is “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook.”
Lafcadio Hearn was born a Greek but raised in Ireland, before he moved to the U.S. as a young man, where he found work as a reporter. He married an African-American women, but faced intense discrimination (he lost his job for this reason) and he ultimately divorced her. He then drifted to New Orleans and the Caribbean before moving to Japan in the 1890s, where worked as a teacher, and became fascinated by Japanese legends and ghost stories. He is perhaps most famous for his work, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, although In Ghostly Japan also has a couple atmospheric tales. His stories range from the encounters of a wandering monk -and former Samurai- with goblins who detach their heads, to a man who has a very unpleasant encounter with his dead ex-wife, who took her bitterness past the grave.
Canadian author Dick Hammond wrote of the B.C. coast in three volumes, in which he explored the the remote communities that dotted Canada’s Pacific edge. His stories often described the lives of the working class, and the strength and craftsmanship that they displayed. But they also evoked a coast haunted by its past, from the recent settlers to the deep history of B.C.’s indigenous peoples. In “the Monster” a First Nations friend took Dick Hammond’s dad fishing, but happened to misread the pictographs on the cliff over the shore, and therefore had a terrifying experience. Other stories are less about a supernatural being than about the menace of a place, such as the strange house that his father found decaying on a remote island in “The Serpent’s Lair.” I am not the first to note that in some of these stories there is the clear influence of M.R. James, in that the past overwhelms the present. But because this is British Columbia many of these tales are influenced by First Nations’ myth. My personal favorite is “The Deer,” about two hunters who track a deer into the woods, but soon begin to wonder what it is they are hunting. The indigenous background (whether real or invented) is perhaps strongest in “The House by the Talking Falls,” which may be Hammond’s most famous tale. Much as in “the Serpent’s Lair” the story centers upon a house that should not exist. The tale is also influenced by M. Wylie Blanchet’s classic book, The Curve of Time, in which she briefly described the voices that emerge from coastal waterfalls. In this case, the house represents the emergence of a mythical indigenous world into the present, before the story comes to its shattering conclusion. For those of you wishing to read Hammond’s work, the collection with the most ghost stories is Haunted Waters, although even in this work many of the stories focus on working class life, rather than the supernatural.
In a future post I may talk of ghosts and colonialism, as reflected in the ghost stories of the British Raj. Enjoy the Halloween season, and I’d love to hear about any other authors that you might suggest.
Update: If you enjoyed reading about these works, you might be interested in my own book, Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History, which examines narratives told about an evil spirit in Algonquian tradition. This spirit has become a theme in modern popular culture, including novels, films and boardgames. The book is available in Canada in print here. The book is also available in Kindle in the United States and Canada. The print version will come out in the United States and Europe in April 2015.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University