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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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7 Things to Do When Reading a Ghost or Horror Story

Ambrose Bierce’s “The Suitable Surroundings” explored the idea that there are good ways to consume speculative fiction and there are poor ways of doing it. A less than ideal scenario – says Bierce – would involve reading it on a bus jostling with passengers, under a bright afternoon sun, tired after a busy day of work. One “suitable” way is to break into an abandoned farmhouse with a sour reputation amongst the locals, and to read it at midnight by the light of a single candle (and if the “story” you were given turns out to be a suicide note from your archrival along with his promise to appear to you as you are reading it – well, let’s hope that no curious passersby happen to peer in the window at you while the real horror is washing over your brain). Of course, as M. R. James well knew, horror can be effective in some of the brightest, sunniest places, and fear can steal over you when you are riding the bus home from work (E. F. Benson also knew this), or when you’re sailing on a lively, crowded ship that always seems to have one or two extra passengers (and F. Marion Crawford knew this as well). But there are a few things that genuinely aid the experience and enhance its effect on the mind and the mood.

7. Engage the story emotionally


Ghost stories are tremendously emotional. They typically follow a victim’s gradual descent from comfort and stability into anxious vulnerability: a world once predictable and concrete has now become unreliable and predatory. This is true of Parkins in James’ “Oh, Whistle,” of Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and of Victor Frankenstein in his quest to destroy or deny his Creation. All three of these characters have become figures of occasional ridicule, but an empathic approach to reading their testimonies would truly leave a reader filled with pity and awe. The Greeks called it pathos – the “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling of humility and gratitude – and it is a powerful companion when reading a ghost story or tale of horror; it prevents us from being sadists (most modern horror movies suffer a slew of negative reviews because of this very issue: they promote voyeuristic sadism rather than pathos. This was not the case, for instance, in Deborah Kerr’s The Innocents), and makes our reading experience emotionally rich.

6. Remove distractions and feel the intimacy of the writer’s words


Not a good idea to read or listen to these stories while you’re doing taxes, watching TV out of the corner of your eye, mowing the grass, or listening to NPR in a different room. Remove yourself into the world of the story, and the terror is less like a tangent, becoming the focus of your emotions, intellect, and feelings. Seeing Goya’s 'Saturn Devouring His Children' displayed in a long line of paintings in a well-lit room bustling with art-consumers, echoing with their voices, and clattering with their footfalls is far less unsettling than seeing it lit by two candles at the end of an empty, unmarked hall as you turn the corner. Put away the iPhone, turn off the TV, and invite the author to your living room. Remember the Ancient Mariner who denied the wedding guest the opportunity to join his friends? That old salt knew that his tale would be diluted or misunderstood if he didn’t have the guest’s full attention. We fill our lives with options, but those options cross-contaminate each other if they are stowed away after the final decision. Be intimate with your author, give him or her your full attention, and they will reward you.

5. Don’t be too analytical

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It can happen, especially if you are an English major. Unless you’re writing an anthology on these things or writing a paper/dissertation/presentation on them, let your intellectual engine cool – at least for the first read. Let intellect sit behind emotion – these tales are instinctual, primal, and animalistic in their effect, so maybe put the pencil and the highlighter down and feel the story – don’t think it.

4. Don’t be too intellectually detached


But as I said: let your intellectual engine cool … for the first read. Speculative fiction has been poorly treated by scholars. It is rich and fertile with nuance, subtext, psychological heft, and spiritual angst. From gender/queer theory analysis of Frankenstein, to the biblical parallels in Dracula, from Marxist criticisms of wealth and class in Fitz-James O’Brien, to historical contexts and analogues in M. R. James, horror fiction is bristling with intellectual discoveries. Even the dullest, most unassuming story flares up with hidden meaning on the second reading. There are stories which I have been loath to include in anthologies until I read them a second time, only to be shocked by their meaning. Many, many times have I read Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lot No. 249” – my favorite mummy story, and the model for all “evil mummy” narratives – but it wasn’t until I edited his anthology and look beyond the entertainment that I discovered an unmistakable commentary on Victorian masculinity that had been staring me in the face for fifteen years. Read with emotions first, but don’t forget to return with your brain sharp and ready to dissect: these stories have so much to offer an astute reader with a scholarly mind.

3. Be relaxed physically, but alert mentally


As I mentioned before, don’t clutter yourself with tasks and distractions. I listened to 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' – which I have read many times – while I mowed the yard in order to skim it for intellectual content, but I would never do that for pleasure. Hauling the spinning blade over lumps and roots, wiping sweet off my lips and brows, squinting the sun out of my eyes – no, no; it simply will not do for a good reading. Be comfortable in body, however that works for you. Porch swings, hammocks, recliners, beds, wingback chairs with footstools – however you like it. But be comfortable. This is tied into the chief premise of a ghost story: (I quote from M. R. James) “Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.” If you feel cozy and stowed away, your mind will become more alert to the sensations of threat and predation that drum loudly in the animal part of your brain. That’s why it’s unsettling to take a cozy shower once you’ve seen Psycho – you realize that material comfort lead to material vulnerability, and physical peace (when stimulated by a good horror story) leads to mental distress. Not ideal for falling asleep, but wonderful for experiencing the highly desired “pleasing terror.”

2. Open the dyke of your imagination


This goes along with the bit about being too analytical: picture what you are reading – especially if you are a visual learner. Hear the voices, see the faces, form a mental image of the action in your mind. I naturally tend to set the scene in places I have been or lived: A Turn of the Screw always takes place in my grandparent’s lonely country home; “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with its breakneck climax occurs without exception under a canopy of dark trees that I grew up fearing; Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” is always set in a manor house that is an amalgam of places I have seen in movies and visited in real life. I pour out of my present setting and into my imagination, letting the text fade from the pages and reformulate in my mind in the shapes that my unconscious dictates. Don’t stay on the page: absorb it and take control of it. This is the creative act of reading, something which isn’t as easy with film. You become a collaborator with your author, casting the roles, finding the setting, and framing the shots. Enjoy and relish it: for the time being, you are working with one of literature’s masters, and they are happy to have your help.

1. Yes, have the suitable surroundings


Finally, it really can help to set the mood. I have read many a story on a bright summer day with the scent of flowers drifting across the porch swing I was laying on while chickadees and wrens flitted happily overhead. Those stories were not wasted on a cheery setting; they were enjoyed and appreciated. But there is something to be said for reading a horror story alone in a room with one light on. Sometimes music is nice (I find the soundtrack to the oft-hated movie The Village particularly good for this effect) as long as it is not too invasive. Lighting is an art: one is usually ideal, and it may be a yellow-hued reading lamp, perhaps with an Edison bulb, though the daring and romantic will possibly try a cluster of taper candles, or the lambent flame of an old oil lamp. Open windows are fine touches (what might crawl in!), and a variety of beverages are suitable (port for James, sherry for Dickens, Scotch for Stevenson, Claret for Stoker, coffee for Bierce, Earl Grey for Lovecraft, and green tea for Le Fanu – but not too much). Go to a place in your house with the best shadows, with the most vulnerability, the highest rated hiding spots, and the most unsettling pictures (sometimes they’re cheery during the day, but eerie in low light). Keep your back to doors, your ears sensitive to all sounds, and your imagination galloping madly enough that its feverish interpretation of the story will naturally continue once you have closed the tome and snuffed the candle. And then pleasant dreams.

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