The English Ghost
By Peter Ackroyd
My Italian publishers once tried to explain to me why translating the title of my novel Ghostwalk - a ghost story about Isaac Newton, quantum physics and alchemy - would make it sound like a children's story. There was no established tradition of ghost stories in Italy as there was in England, they told me apologetically. Italians did tales of revenge, yes, and love stories, definitely, but ghosts? No, not really. Ghosts slipped through their language. The Chinese publishers, on the other hand, had no trouble at all. The Chinese have had ghost stories and festivals
for centuries; ghosts take easy shapes in the lexicons of both Mandarin and Cantonese.
The English, however, have more ghost stories than any other nation. We have scores of words to describe supernatural apparitions, all nuanced by place and region, most of them derived from Old English, Celtic or Anglo-Saxon words, such as "boggart", "dobbie", "ghoul", "hob", "swath" and "wraith". We are obsessed with the past, with ruins and with history; we live on a densely populated island, pressed up against the dead, close everywhere to a tombstone or a plague pit or a war memorial. Perhaps that is why - at least in the stories we have told ourselves around open fires at Christmas and Hallowe'en - they seem to be with us always, lurking on the edges of things.
Peter Ackroyd's new collection, The English Ghost, is not an anthology of familiar literary ghost stories by M R James, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens or Henry James. Instead, the author has done something more interesting: he has gathered fragments, sometimes only a couple of pages long, of ghost tales or accounts plucked from old newspapers and forgotten books with strange titles such as Satan's Invisible World Discovered (1685) or The Night Side of Nature (1848) or - my favourite - The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers (1984). Some of the stories are recounted by Ackroyd; others are reproduced in the original prose.
There is something artless, uncontrived and unliterary about the tales that Ackroyd has collected. Most of them are oral narratives, often told at second hand by reportage, but some of them at first hand by letter. One begins: "There were two of us saw it . . ." Another starts: "About the month of November in the year 1682, in the parish of Spraiton, in the county of Devon . . ." The teller is almost always concerned to record the exact time and place of the sighting, as if, to be believed, all apparitions must be located exactly in time and space: "On Sunday night, while walking home down London Wall . . ." The secret of a good ghost story sits somewhere in that tension between precision and unfathomability, between the over-described and the impossible to describe.
Most ghosts in this collection appear where you would expect them to appear - on walls, bridges and castellations and in churchyards. However, there are motorway ghosts here, too - the grey-haired pedestrian dressed in a grey coat and carrying a torch who appeared repeatedly to lorry drivers on the A38, for instance, the one who would sometimes accept the offer of a ride, was anxious about picking up some suitcases and would disappear between or under lorries. Or the girl who was run over one night by a motorist on the road between Rochester and Maidstone. The driver carried her bleeding body to the side of the road, but when he returned with the police and ambulance men, both the corpse and the blood marks had disappeared.
Ackroyd's fascinating collection beautifully demonstrates the banality of ghosts - the way in which, as Henry James once observed, the greatest mysteries are those encountered not in some castle in the Apennines, but at our own front door, "the terrors of the cheerful country house and busy London lodgings". And because this collection, subtitled Spectres Through Times, is arranged chronologically, we can trace the unfamiliar banality of ghosts from the past through to the present.
These tales are freighted with images of everyday things or ordinary people acting oddly. The ghost of a 17th-century mole catcher carries
his pole for catching moles, a pipe flies across a room, a ghost that hates wigs tears them from heads, flitches of bacon fall inexplicably from
a chimney where they have been hung, the ghost of a baker makes holes in bread. All of these mundane objects - bread, wigs, mole-catching poles - seem to carry the weight of the inexplicable presence that is being described; the ghost is made all the more intangible by the materiality and ordinariness of the objects around it.
The novelist Toni Morrison once described a ghost as "a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own." Our ancestors appeased their ghosts. They sought to lay them or to "read them down", not to exorcise or banish them. Ackroyd's tales of ghosts are all the more touching for the common humanity of the awestricken witnesses - labourers and vicars, nurses and seamstresses - striving to describe the indescribable. Funny, bizarre and frightening by turns, this is a rich and compelling assembly of stories for winter nights.
The English Ghost
Chatto & Windus, 288pp, £12.99
Rebecca Stott's novel "Ghostwalk" is published by Phoenix (£7.99)