The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ghost Stories

I have a confession to make -- a minor confession, but a confession nonetheless. I like ghost stories. When I mentioned this to an acquaintance the other day, he winced and said, "You're kidding! You're a Christian. You're a deacon. You can't possibly believe in ghosts."

His reaction and his failure to understand what I had just told him are symptomatic of the difficulties associated with communication these days. This failure -- on his part, not mine -- forced me to clarify what should have required no clarification:
"I never said I believed in ghosts. I said only that I like ghost stories."
One can like science fiction stories about alien beings from another galaxy and still believe, as I believe, that no such creatures exist. As a child I often read stories about animals that possessed some very human qualities. I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Rabbit and Charlotte's Web and The Jungle Book and yet, even as a child, I knew that rabbits and spiders and jungle creatures were all incapable of conversing with other animals in English or behaving rationally. But these stories were wonderful tales that taught lessons about how to live life well.

I won't bore you with the rest of our conversation which became increasingly tedious as we sparred over the meanings of words and he struggled to accept that I could suspend my disbelief and enjoy something he considered unbelievable. But then he was educated as a mechanical engineer, so perhaps this explains his attitude.

Actually, I probably shouldn't have used the words, "ghost stories," since the stories I most enjoy aren't always about encounters with the more traditional ghosts. "Supernatural stories" might be a better term. Such stories sometimes include ghostly manifestations, but not always. Their real attraction? They force the reader to consider the possibility of realities beyond the material (natural) world. Indeed, such realities are actually at the very heart of our Christian faith which demands our acceptance of the existence of the supernatural.

I suppose my first exposure to the genre was Henry James' The Turn of the Screw which I read in high school. I found it a less than satisfying read because it left me questioning either the reality of the ghosts or the sanity of the main character or both. I still haven't made up my mind. In any event, the novel failed to whet my appetite for more of the same.

About ten years later a friend, who was emptying his shelves of unwanted books, gave me a cardboard box filled with early 20th-century novels. Among them was All Hallows' Eve, a novel by Charles Williams (1886-1945). The gift of this book began my enchantment with the genre and effected a major change in my reading habits.

Charles Williams
I knew of Charles Williams because of his relationship with both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. All three were longtime members of the Inklings, that literary club of friends who met in Oxford pubs to discuss their works and common interests. Although I had read much of both Tolkien and Lewis and owned a book of Williams' poetry, I had read none of Williams' novels. I soon discovered he had written seven, and like All Hallows' Eve, all are supernatural thrillers. 

Williams, an Anglican, wrote his novels during the 1930s. He died in 1945 at the age of 59. I believe the novels were out of print for some years, but then, starting in the 1970s, Eerdmans, the Christian publishing house, reprinted all seven. Once I had read that first book, I was hooked and had to read the rest. All seven novels are still available. Here's a list, with Amazon links:
Shadows of Ecstacy

War in Heaven

Many Dimensions

The Place of the Lion

The Greater Trumps

All Hallows' Eve

Descent into Hell
Although the novels include occasional encounters with the dead, the books are really concerned with salvation and the battle waged between the forces of good and evil. Williams' Christianity comes through loud and strong. If you're interested in digging more deeply into these seven novels I suggest reading Thomas Howard's wonderful little book, published in 1983, The Novels of Charles Williams.

To learn more about the author himself, visit the website of The Charles Williams Society, an organization devoted to promoting "the study and appreciation of the life and writings" of this author and theologian.

Another author who dabbled in supernatural thrillers is Russell Kirk (1918-1994), a convert to Catholicism in his middle age. Known mostly for his scholarly works on political philosophy, especially his classics, The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order,  Kirk also enjoyed writing spooky tales.

Russell Kirk
Although Kirk wrote several novels in the genre, I especially enjoy his short stories. In 2004 Eerdmanns came through once again and published a wonderful collection of Kirk's stories under the title, Ancestral Shadows. Its subtitle is "An Anthology of Ghostly Tales" and so it is.

Of Kirk's novels, my favorite is Lord of the Hollow Dark, a captivating tale set in an evil-infested mansion in Scotland and populated with a remarkable cast of characters. It's a difficult book to find at a reasonable price, so if you want a copy, I recommend doing what I did and search the used book stores and websites. Kirk's first novel, Old House of Fear, is another exciting gothic tale, also set in Scotland, and the novel that received the greatest critical acclaim.

Like that of Williams, Kirk's fiction clearly reveals his Christian beliefs and focuses on salvation and the presence of evil in the world. I only wish he had written more.

If you're interested in learning more about this remarkable man, visit the website devoted to his life and work: The Russell Kirk Center.

Gene Wolfe
And then there's Gene Wolfe (b. 1931), a prolific writer of science fiction and supernatural tales whose Catholic faith has certainly influenced his work. Wolfe is also among the best writers of fiction alive today. Best known for his science fiction, he has also written a number of wonderful novels that I'll carelessly lump under the heading of supernatural thrillers. I've listed a few of my favorites:

Peace (1975). Perhaps my favorite of Wolfe's novels, Peace is a powerful story of a not very pleasant old man who possesses a miraculous imagination that can alter reality.
Pandora by Holly Hollander (1990).  Murder, mystery, and infidelity in a Chicago suburb with a modern-day Pandora's Box thrown in to spice up the plot. It is a story narrated by a clever teenage girl whose wealthy family is at the center of the novel's strange events. It also includes a detective who seems to know more about the small town than than any stranger should.
Pirate Freedom (2007). A remarkable, thoughtful and beautifully written tale of a contemporary priest who finds himself transported back to the distant past and into the life of a pirate captain on the Spanish Main. Sounds weird, and it is, but it works.
An Evil Guest (2008). A strangely wonderful story set in the distant future but with an atmosphere reminiscent of the not so distant past. Like all of Wolfe's stories, it's full of surprises that both delight and horrify.
I've read a lot of Wolfe over the years and I suppose the best way to describe his work is to say that I have never been disappointed. Here's a link to an interesting article about Wolfe published in April 2015 in the New Yorker: "Sci-Fi's Difficult Genius."

There are others, but Williams, Kirk and Wolfe are my favorites. And as I said to my friend, "I like ghost stories," even the ones that aren't about ghosts.

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