- A History of the Modern British Ghost Story by Simon Hay, and: Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism: The Haunting Interval by Luke Thurston
These two books give welcome attention to the ghost story, a literary form abundantly represented in the long nineteenth century. The term “ghost story” is used here to refer to a discrete form whose crux is a ghost, but also, in some cases, to a trail or trace of haunting embedded in fictions we typically categorize otherwise. Interestingly, in both studies, ghostly haunting involves the workings of discourse, representation, and epistemology. For Simon Hay, ghost stories unearth the parameters of literary genres, while for Luke Thurston, they reveal the other side of narrative language.
One of Hay’s main arguments is that we need to understand the ghost story not in isolation, but as always complementary to or in conflict with other genres. The book’s chapters accordingly set the ghost story against specific literary forms—the historical novel, the realist novel, naturalism, modernism, and magical realism. Hay aspires to a dialectical model of literary history, in which “what matters about the structure of a given story is not necessarily something in and of that story’s structure itself, but rather its relation to the structure of other stories contemporaneous with” or chronologically proximate to it (21). His second principal claim, intertwined with the first, is that ghost stories are consistently concerned with trauma, in particular the trauma of history, or the troubled movement from social past to social present, to modernity. The movement is troubled because it is only ostensibly complete. In reality some remnant of the past remains to haunt the present and disturb modern self-satisfactions. Often the haunting concerns the transition from feudalism to capitalism; the ghost story regularly features subtle rivalries between aristocrats and bourgeoisie, along with legal conflicts, signified by the stock character of the lawyer, around the changing cultural meanings of inheritance and property. Another of the ghost story’s manifestations of the traumatic course of history involves the “shock of imperial modernity” (25). The residues of Britain’s impositions upon the colonies register through magical or barely glimpsed indigenous identities and communities, which return or endure as phantoms.
Hay’s notion of the ghost story as the “underside of or the alternative history of the novel” proves immensely thought-provoking (22). He outlines, for instance, the relationship between Walter Scott’s historical novel Waverley (1814) and his ghost stories: both represent feudalism’s transition to capitalism as traumatic. But whereas Waverley frames this development as a necessary teleology and offers the ultimate possibility of emotional closure, the ghost stories refuse this possibility, dwelling instead in a “melancholy” state that may repress but never fully “exorcise[s]” the pain occasioned by the violent processes of modernity (51, 52). Even more satisfying is Hay’s theory of the ghost story’s fraught interconnectedness with the realist novel. Here he draws on György Lukács’s assertion that through the life of the individual character, realism represents the system of social relations, together with Fredric Jameson’s understanding of the reader’s “cognitive mapping” of that system (60). Realism makes visible [End Page 325] a social entirety and causality beneath the nation-state or city that we overlook in daily life. To an extent, ghost stories are continuous with realism, insofar as ghosts potentially figure the transcendent literary project of making invisible social relations visible—as in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843)—but often the ghost story serves, rather, as “a meta-narrative to realism” that suggests its epistemological fallacy (59). Here the ghost becomes a fragment, a localized emblem of suffering that cannot be subsumed into the whole, marking the failure of the text’s claims to totalizing knowledge. The very appeal of this theoretical...