Making Friends With Ghosts

I seem to spend a lot of time in the company of ghosts.

I thought when I finished writing Ghost Story, in about 2003, that I wouldn’t write any more ghost stories. It was my best, most complex go at the genre – and, I believed, I had nothing else to say.

There had been a long lead-in:

A lot of writing is about trying to make up for previous failures – failures to tell a similar story.

My first ghost story – the first I remember writing – was a terrible embarrassing failure. I wrote it as homework, aged about eleven or twelve. It was about a séance that went wrong; I remember no characters (tellingly) from it; only that, at the climax, the glass being slid around the encircling alphabet-cards accelerated off the table, possessed by evil, and hit one of the misguided spirit-seekers between the eyes, killing them… And that was the end of the story.

I also wrote a long poem, ghost-related, in an attempt to win the Newdigate Prize at Oxford. It didn’t win, which – at the time – made me think I wasn’t going to make it as a writer. The prize was traditionally won by the best writer at the university: John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde… My name was not to join the list. But I think, if I were to reread that poem, I would find a lot of material in it that I have since tried to do better.

In both of my pre-Ghost Story short story books, there had been a couple of ghost stories. In Adventures in Capitalism ‘Launderama’ and ‘Untitled’; in Exhibitionism ‘Unhaunted’ and (perhaps) ‘Dreamgirls’. I had written more, but left them out.

Ghosts had been strongly hinted at in Corpsing – Conrad is haunted by Lily. There is a ghost plot in deadkidsongs. The house in Finding Myself is haunted by a girl dressed up as a ghost, who does down the landing saying ‘Woo-hoo!’ And next came Ghost Story – and the House of Fiction was supposedly dispossessed.

But then the ghosts kept manifesting themselves. HOSPITAL is, in a way, a very big ghost story – a story about self-haunting. I play the drums in a band called okay contains an interview between Self and Soul. A few years ago, I wrote a pseudonymous haunted house novel, Lilian’s Spell Book, that I hope will be published one day. And this year, I have been writing Dead Boy Detectives, a comic based on two ghostly characters from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I have also been working on an existential thriller with an African anti-hero called My Mother’s Seven Spirits Demand Justice.

So, with the end of Ghost Story, the ghosts didn’t go away – if anything, they proliferated.

Part of the reason is simple enough: I enjoy writing ghost stories too much to stop. Another part of the reason is that ghosts unnerve me, and I think I write better when I’m unnerved. But I suppose the main part of the reason is that writing about ghosts is the best way I know of asking the small metaphysical questions. Not What does it all mean? and not What are we all here for? But What does it mean to exist, consciously? and What does it mean to exist, consciously, and then to die? and What does it mean to remember and be remembered? and Is there any meaning in the meaning we seem to find in our conscious existences? (That last question is, I hope, the most Cambridge sentence I am going to utter today.)

By taking subjects who exist slightly less than we do, I am able to write about how barely we exist – but about how we do, somehow, exist.

I find the fact of existence spooky – and the writing of fiction extremely so.

I can’t get ghosts right, and so they obsess me.

Ghosts obsess me because they seem a step towards a minimal metaphysics. I may not believe in God or may not have believed in the soul, but I do believe in something strong materialism does not yet comprehend – although the quantum universe is far more spectre-friendly than the Newtonian one. It even, as I understand it, accepts a phenomenon known as ‘spooky action at a distance’. It depends upon entanglement between objects in no way physically connected. The quantum universe is where my fiction feels most accommodated.

Ghosts obsess me because they exist in a different time to human time. I have been asked for my advice to beginning or developing writers so often that my answer has become fairly baroque. If you are looking for a way to improve your writing, to make it more original, then examine your relationship to time. How do you – and how do your sentences – exist within and in relation to time? For each person, this is unique. I would not argue that we are all wonderful individuals, but the way we each relate to time is inevitably idiosyncratic. None of us learned our time-experience from anyone else – time-experience can’t be taught. It can, though, be influenced or revealed.

If you were looking for a good definition of a writer, a real writer, it would be Someone who is not alone when they are alone – or, perhaps, Someone who is possessed by language.

And writers, conversely, haunt the dictionary (but don’t possess it). All our future works, apart – interestingly – from the radical neologisms – are in there in spectral form.

My most-loved writer of stories about ghosts, Henry James, was both possessed by language and not alone when he was alone. Because of the, for him, embarrassing existence and publication of his notebooks, we are even able to listen in to James as he – alone in his writing room at Rye – addresses the language-ghost that was always there, his good angel, ‘mon bon’. In this passage, he both caresses and becomes disembodied:

‘I come back, I come back yet again and again, to my only seeing it in the dramatic way – as I can only see everything and anything now; the way that filled my mind and floated and uplifted me when a fortnight ago I gave my few indications to Duneka. Momentary sidewinds – things of no real authority – break in every now and then to put their inferior little questions to me; but I come back, I come back, as I say, I all throbbingly and yearningly and passionately, oh, mon bon, come back to this way that is clearly the only one in which I can do anything now, and that will open out to me more and more and that has overwhelming reasons pleading all beautifully in its breast. What really happens is that the closer I get to the problem of the application of it in any particular case, the more I get into that application, so the more doubts and torments fall away from me, the more I know where I am, the more everything spreads and shines and draws me on and I’m justified of my logic and my passion.’

Perhaps, for you, angels are sufficiently different from ghosts for this not to count. But for me the mon bon he addresses is on ground-level, and post-human, rather than descended from above. When James speaks of recalling the past, in his autobiographies (A Small Boy and Others, Notes of a Son and Brother and The Middle Years), he always makes it sound as if the spirits of the past entered the room – at his bidding – and bespoke themselves.

The more writing you do, the more writing you will have done; and this is one of the ways in which writers are self-haunting. In the quiet room with them are the previous versions of themselves, proliferating. If you are to write on, you will have to accustom yourself to their voices – You’ll have to make friends with them.


This was written for the Cambridge Summer School in Creative Writing. (Thanks to Jem Poster for inviting me.) 

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