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Henry James' The Ghostly Rental: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Ghost Story

Henry James’ ghost stories are famously for their vague, psychological qualities, their unreliable (or reliable?) narrators, and their chilling mixture of realism and romantic suggestiveness. There is the sense that his ghosts are often not real – not genuine phantoms of dead people – but there is never a sense that they are false – even when they are proven false. Allow me to clarify by using a phrase that dramatically summarizes the chief themes of the following story: seeing is believing.

 

In James’ speculative fiction, critics can waste their lifetimes arguing over whether the specters are real, imagined, or the products of insanity, but our courtly author merely shakes his head and chuckles, because it doesn’t matter. If a spirit is a sham but the haunted party believes it to be authentic, its effect on that party is no less genuine. If a madman hallucinates a specter, he is no less haunted because the vision is a delusion. If a guilty conscience thinks it spies the object of its crimes glowering at them through their bedroom window, it doesn’t matter that it was merely a trick of moonlight – that person is haunted.

 

The following story is one of my absolute favorite ghost stories – certainly my favorite of James’, and this is partly due to its philosophical depth as it muscularly probes the question of what makes a ghost real. Fittingly, the protagonist of this deep-thinking story is a student of theology and metaphysics, a semi-autobiographical version of James himself during his fleeting days as a student at Harvard Law. The prose is lush and evocative, and the philosophy is powerful and haunting. The result is one of the best haunted house stories in American literature – a worthy descendent of Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe’s hand in terribly apparent in this story, though only in the best of ways. Other than “Usher” we can sense elements of “Ligeia,” “Morella,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” “The Man of the Crowd,” “The Assignation,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and others.

 

Also hovering in spirit over the text – and mentioned by name – are the ghosts of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the 1001 Arabian Nights. James employs all of this luscious romanticism to bolster a masterpiece of realism with a fragrant touch of the grotesque – a word he will drop with telling frequency – and to drive home his thesis: a ghost need not come from the grave to be real; a man need not be the victim of goblins to be genuinely visited; a house need not be the home to phantoms to be truly haunted. What we perceive and believe is reality – what we sense and recognize is truth. Seeing, after all is believing.

 

It tells the tale of a grad student who becomes fascinated with an old soldier who goes to his abandoned mansion four times a year to collect rent from its tenant – the ghost of his daughter, whom he drove to her death when she tried to elope with a cad. Having fallen into poverty, he is visited by the specter of his wronged offspring, who gives him the opportunity to make penance: by humbling himself into accepting her charity. Once a quarter the flinty Captain Diamond makes the trek to his old house where he meets the pale, veiled spirit of his dead daughter and accepts her money with a pathetic bow.Tremendously atmospheric, with just enough of a touch of adventure and mystery to keep us steaming through James' courtly prose, the story ends with a shocking revelation: the ghost is no ghost at all, but the living daughter exacting her moral revenge by masquerading as a specter. The narrator discovers this when the aging Captain Diamond begs him to take his place at the quarterly assignation due to his failing health. Confronted by a woman who is clearly daubed in make-up, the two acknowledge the hoax and are in the middle of a heated discussion when James gives another turn of the screw: the daughter recoils in terror when she sees Captain Diamond enter the house -- invisible to his young friend. Horrified, she flees in terror, knocking over a lamp which leads to the destruction of the mansion in a blaze of fire. Indeed, the Captain had died just moments earlier, but James causes us to wonder: was it his ghost, or the manifestation of a guilty conscience?

 

As I mentioned earlier, “The Ghostly Rental” is one of my very favorite ghost stories. It deliciously merges romanticism and realism – being faithful to the former while paying (in Captain Diamond style) deep homage to the latter. Poe, Hawthorne, and Hoffmann are given tribute here without corrupting the purity of James’ realism. Indeed, there is something tremendously relatable about the story: one can vividly picture the commonplace little colonial silhouetted against a winter sunset, smell the wet earth of the wheel-rutted road, and feel the roughness of the clapboard siding as the protagonist rubs his hand across it.

 

Even at its most fantastical – as we watch the hobgoblin figure of Captain Diamond hobble down the road, bow to the house, pay his courtship, and curtly abandon it to collect dust, there is a deep sense of realism and truth. This sensation carries over to the supernatural mystery of the tale: to the Captain’s curse, to Miss Deborah’s chilling superstition, to the ghost’s silent gathering from the shadows, and finally to Captain Diamond’s yet unverified postmortem appearance. None of it – Gothic as it all seems – smacks of pretense or fantasy. And this is precisely what James intends – that we drink in the reality of it all. Even if Diamond was never plagued by a genuine spirit, he was no less the haunted.

 

Even if the neighborhood was never blighted by a truly demonic house, it was no less the haunted. Even if the house was never inhabited by the specter of a dead woman, it was no less the haunted. Even if Miss Diamond imagined the sight of her father in his nightshirt, she was no less the haunted. Even if the protagonist feels confident in debunking every supernatural matter in his adventure – the shame-inducing fear that the house causes in the local woman, the otherworldliness of Diamond, Miss Deborah’s dread of a curse, the appearance of the sable phantom, the reported appearance of Captain Diamond’s spirit – even still, he too is no less the haunted.

 

This is a story absolutely plagued by haunting – thick with it – and it haunts us even after we read it. We are still disturbed by mysteries: what really did become of Miss Diamond’s romance? How did she finance her rent? How did she obtain the twenty-year-old coins? What has she been doing for twenty years? Where has she been living? What ethical questions does her “haunting” raise? Would Diamond really have rejected her all over? What did she think when she learned of the destruction of the house? What became of her afterwards? What became of Miss Deborah? What did she think of the whole affair? How did this change the protagonist? What were his opinions on the supernatural afterwards (his initial terror that Captain Diamond may have returned from the dead to punish his violence seems genuine)? Did he ever again meet Miss Diamond?

 

We are haunted by the disciplined lack of clarity, and we are haunted by the strangeness of the story – how a man could be strung along for so many years, how his daughter could do this, and what shades of deep emotion – of fear, guilt, resentment, hate, sorrow, and regret – lay between the written words. Ultimately, James’ efforts prove successful: we walk away haunted by a cast which is haunted by a fake haunting. But I must correct myself: it is hardly fake. Chicanery or not, Captain Diamond was a haunted man, his house a haunted house, and his life a haunted life. As for the protagonist, he may be the most haunted of all before everything is said and done.

 

His memory seems to be plagued with all manner of ghosts: the ghosts of deforested Cambridge, of urbanized Mount Auburn Cemetery, of the incinerated Diamond homestead, and of the beautiful woman he saw gather from the shadows like a spirit in the gloom – a woman whose veil he tore asunder, whose face beamed with ghostly majesty from the gloom, and whose stubborn dignity glowed in the starlight before he saw her vanish in the twilight not unlike a ghost into its grave.

 

And after all, seeing is believing...

 

You can read the full story HERE

 

And you can find our collection of James' best ghost stories -- annotated and illustrated -- HERE

 

 

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