Be My Victim: Author, editor, and blogosphere personality Nick Mamatas, and I have a civil chat about ghosts, spirits, and dudes that go “Did you hear that?” in the night.
Though stories about ghosts and spirits have existed since earliest man – (That is a supposition, of course. I wasn’t there, and earliest man wasn’t big on backing up his files) – we’re going to focus the conversation on contemporary treatments of hauntings – mostly. Recently, my guest, Nick Mamatas, teamed up with Ellen Datlow to edit the anthology, Haunted Legends, for Tor Books, so he’s been exposed to some traditional and some not-so-traditional tales of spectral disturbance.
Set to commence in 3… 2…
Lee Thomas: Nick, let’s start on the ground floor with the most basic and tired question imaginable: Why are ghost stories so popular?
Nick Mamatas: Are they all that popular? Surely not as popular as zombies rampaging aboard an airship and upon crashing releasing a manmade military virus that turns all women’s boyfriends into either werewolves or vampires? And certainly not as popular as stories about how awful carbohydrates are.
Ghost stories are perennial, however. After all, many people think that at least some of them are true, or find some solace in the idea that they might be true. Even for skeptics, and I am one, the ghost story is very likely the first sort of fantastical story we might read as children. If it’s A Christmas Carol or “The Monkey’s Paw”, we’re imprinted early on. The ghost story is also very flexible–it can be comical or scary, exotic or commonplace, offer some moral instruction or just be a bizarre and arbitrary bit of scary art. So they’re socially handy. Hell, one doesn’t even need a ghost!
LT: I’d say all of the horror mainstays have proven themselves flexible. You mentioned zombies, and they’re used in everything from comedy to drama to porn to car commercials. But they don’t have their own reality shows yet! I think this is one of the key factors to the effectiveness of the ghost story: many people find them plausible. They want to believe they are real. Can you give us some examples of cultures where ghosts and spirits are woven into the fabric of everyday life? Where their existence is not questioned at all?
NM: It’s hard to say that ghosts aren’t questioned at all, even in societies where a belief in ghosts and spirits are utterly common. I mean, we live in a society where nobody disbelieves in, for example, muggers, but if I explained to you that I really was coming over to give you the five hundred bucks I owed you, but a mugger attacked me and took the money, it wouldn’t necessarily be so, would it?
Even in the US, the plurality of people believe in ghosts–about 48% by a CBS poll done in 2005–even though 77% have had no ghostly experiences. And it’s the younger people more likely to claim an encounter.
So it’s very strange; almost all societies believe in ghosts and spirits, but even the most credulous individual isn’t going to be universally credulous. The other day I was chatting with a few writers who had gone to a retreat in a haunted mansion, and most of them came back claiming to have had some experience or other: a shake in the night, a snatch of a voice, that sort of thing. One said that she didn’t necessarily believe in ghosts–the sensations people were experiencing could have simply been psychic phenomena instead!
LT: Ha! Okay, actually I was trying to lead you into a plug, so I’ll give up the subtle. You recently edited Haunted Legends with Ellen Datlow. Give us an insight into a few of the more interesting stories and how they reflect the cultures in which they’re set.
NM: Oh, all the stories are incredibly interesting, and they all manage to reflect character understandings of culture, rather than culture proper. So Kit Reed’s “Akbar” is about tourists–they don’t know about the culture they’re visiting or the specifics of the location, except for the usual sort of historical thumbnail one gets from a Lonely Planet guide. “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai” by Catherynne Valente is about an American in Japan and cultural dislocation. Lily K. Hoang’s “The Foxes” is about Vietnamese fox spirits, but it is also about the stories one gets from one’s own immigrant parents after relocation to the United States, and how the stories change to suit a new culture. Ramsey Campbell’s “Chucky Comes to Liverpool”, about the panic surrounding a real-life murder and that infamous movie doll, is about popular culture, and the secret culture of children.
Ghosts show up between the cracks of cultures. I punted a bit on the last question you asked because ghosts and hauntings and supernatural occurrences are always a question. Even in a culture limned with beliefs in the supernatural, where references to ghosts and spirits are commonplace, some supernatural or numinous event is a wake-up call about something–danger, regret, the passing of something and its replacement by something new, transcultural conflict, etc. That is often the difference between a ghost and an ancestor whose memory and deceased spirit is worthy of worship in societies were spiritual beings are omnipresent. What are vampires but the incorruptible bodies of Eastern Orthodox saints declared Satanic by opposing Roman Catholics? So the stories in the book aren’t just recitations of some bit of folklore old or new, but explorations of those cultural fissures.
LT: The recent wave of ghost hunting programs seems to explore – or exploit – a few cultural fissures. Week after week, the hosts wander through dark halls only to whip around and ask, “What’s that? Did you hear that?” Yet with all of their cameras and sensors and doohickeys, they rarely come away with anything more than, “I don’t know. It’s weird.” (Unless they’ve discovered a leaky pipe or bad wiring). This level of failure/uncertainty would pretty much sink any other profession – outside of organized religion. But these shows are popular, and they are multiplying. And to some degree I get it. The shows are a goof. They’re fun, and a few of the back stories are pretty interesting. But is the audience actually expecting confirmation of ghostly presences? In fiction, hauntings can provide metaphor for any number of things – as you listed above – but these shows take ghosts out of the metaphoric, so week after week it’s like Geraldo opening Al Capone’s vault, with an audience expecting different results each time.
NM: Well, those ghost story shows are cheap to do–all the producers need are someone with an engaging personality and a low-light camera. When I was a kid, there were shows like That’s Incredible! which had the occasional ghost segment and the very idea would so terrify me I’d run out of the room. Pretty weak sauce, though I suppose in my defense I’d say that every week we drove from Brooklyn to Suffolk County and saw the highway signs for Amityville. So I’d never actually saw one of the shows until a few years ago. They’re much scarier when one isn’t actually watching them.
In the end, the ghost hunter shows are all about the back-story like every breathless documentary about the Templars or Bigfoot or Hitler, except that it’s cheaper to get a bunch of people standing around to wave stud finders and tape recorders in an attic somewhere than it is to work up all the stock footage and interviews with semi-disreputable academics needed for other sorts of back-story/historical shows on cable need.
LT: And then we have the John Edwards and the James Van Praaghs who go the extra mile to whore out the spirit world, but that’s a rant for another time. In recent years, I think the best uses of the ghost phenom were the Asian horror novels and films (now about a decade or more old) that used angry spirits to caution about technology. I’m thinking Ringu and One Missed Call, but there were many more. We seem to have come to terms with tech-dread – at least for now – so I’m wondering what will anger the spirits next?
NM: Those are technologies of disembodiment–so in a way they are like ghosts. And history, geography, they are also the everyday reminder of the now-disembodied. I think there’s a decent ghost story or two in abandoned Farmville farms and forsaken Pet Society pets who grow hungry and dirty when their “owners” move on to a new game. In a way, those technologies combine the disembodied aspect of telephony with the hauntology of the past–now that we’re in an information society, the first thing we do is…farm? And then we follow that up by building empires, joining organized crime syndicates and “hand-building” our own homes, just like people did in other eras (and like people still do now, of course, but not with the help of Facebook.) There will be ghosts in this new world, and they’ll look like updated and ironized versions of Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde.
I’d also like to apologize in advance to the short fiction editors who’ll now get several stories around these ideas every week.
LT: They can handle it. It might be a nice respite from zombies and horny backwoods serial killers. Now is the pimp portion of the article, where we drop some names. Who’s rockin the haunted story these days? Or ever, for that matter. M. R. James is a personal favorite, and Shirley Jackson, of course. More recently, King’s The Shining, Straub’s Julia and Tessier’s Fogheart. I seriously dug Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door last year, and Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box. Personally, the stories with antagonistic ghosts just work better for me. Ghosts as helpful entities seem to be more than a little incompetent. I’m thinking about the film, The Messengers, where the spirits can tear the house apart but they can’t write a note that says, The handyman did it. (Sorry for the spoilers.)
NM: I really enjoyed John Haywood’s The Seance a couple of years ago, and just before that, the film The Orphanage. Both really mined the territory between ghost story and psychological thriller in evocative ways. Speaking of James, James Hynes’s update of M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes” in Publish and Perish was also excellent.
Not a ghost story proper, but all about the impact of the numinous on history was Michael Cisco’s The Narrator. Caitlin Kiernan’s The Red Tree was also excellent–as is her story in, dare I say it, Haunted Legends!
LT: We could probably fill up a couple of these columns with great works of ghostly fiction, but we want to keep things tight and let folks chime in with their comments.
So bring it on SF Signal readers: What do you have to say about ghosts, spirits, and hauntings? Favorite novels, short stories, films? Are you a believer?
Did you hear that?!!!
(Next time: Laird Barron and I wonder why “literary” has gotten such a bad rap.)
Nick Mamatasis the author of the Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground, Under My Roof, You Might Sleep…, and over thirty short stories and hundreds of articles (some of which were collected in 3000 Miles Per Hour in Every Direction at Once).
Lee Thomas – is the award-winning author of Stained, The Dust of Wonderland, and In the Closet, Under the Bed. His next novel is The German, forthcoming from Lethe Press in March 2011.