In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes in a straightforward, reportorial style what happened when her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died at the end of December 2003. They had just come home from visiting their daughter, Quintana, who was extremely ill in the hospital. Dunne died of a sudden heart attack at the dinner table, and the book describes Didion trying to manage a life that has suddenly and utterly changed. She doesn't show extreme emotion; in fact, she overhears one of the nurses call her "a cool customer." Yet the flat depictions of her behavior and responses dramatize all the more powerfully her inner experience of loss. She cannot avoid ruminating about her failure to notice certain changes in her husband's manner or attend more thoughtfully to his condition. She fears giving away his shoes because he will surely need them upon his reappearance. And surely he will come back.
The belief in ghosts and unseen presences is not just a harmless entertainment for the campfire but a powerful fact of both human consciousness and human history. We believe in such phenomena because in a certain sense the ghosts of the past do exist. As Marlow says in Heart of Darkness, "And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future." Hamlet murders his uncle Claudius because he is told by the ghost of his father that Claudius poisoned him and should be killed for it. The best performances of Hamlet—for example, Laurence Olivier's 1948 movie [End Page 5] version—portray Hamlet's father as a simple fact, not a grief-induced illusion. The ghost is real. He demands revenge.
In literature, ghost stories make eminent the sometimes hard-to-explain hidden forces in history and fate. In his story "The Overcoat," Gogol depicts an impoverished clerk who works hard to buy a new coat that is soon stolen, ending his brief turn as a well-dressed man. He comes back as a ghost to haunt the streets of St. Petersburg and the official who scolded him and denied him help. The story evokes the oppression and inevitable doom of mid-nineteenth-century Russian society. Edith Wharton wrote ghost stories throughout her career, revealing her sense of foreboding about a society dominated by greed. Other ghost stories may depict more psychological but nevertheless real ghosts. In The Turn of the Screw, for example, Henry James shows the apparent haunting of two children by their old governess and her lover, as witnessed by their new governess. Whether the young governess is pursued by apparitions or suffers from hysteria, the story, like many of James's late novels, shows the power of sexual repression and the obsessions that may result from what is left unacknowledged.
Emanations from the past, answers to the unanswerable, the fate or doom resulting from unjust or unfair actions—ghosts play many roles. This issue has outright ghost stories as well as more subtle ones. Nathan Oates's "Mile Point Road" is an old-fashioned psychological horror story, in which Matt and his wholesome young family go on vacation. In their rented lakeside vacation house is a strange attic door with multiple locks, the handwritten names of long-gone children on the walls of a stairwell, a storm and power outage, a landlady who wants nothing to do with the house she's renting and a mentally stressed and unstable protagonist who may or may not be imagining the blood he finds on a sword in the children's room. Peter Levine's story "Last Flight" describes a middle-aged businessman who meets an attractive young woman, Alice, who is seated next to him on a plane flight. The woman gets a glimpse of a photo of the man's grown son, Tom, and is interested in him. Tom is in fact dead, but in their conversation his father creates a larger-than-life fictional Tom and even hints that he would be a good match for Alice. It turns out that the father is not the only one who is dissembling...