Commentary - Real presence

Francis Gilbert on the return of the ghost story in contemporary fiction

Most literary fiction is, unconsciously or not, a bid to enter the world of the supernatural; an attempt to crystallise the author's spirit on the page so that it may live many years after he or she is dust. Unfortunately, the ghost story, for the most part, is out of fashion, its conventions viewed as being so tired and familiar that they are not worth resurrecting. Yet there are some brave souls who are fascinated by the metaphorical implications of the spirit world and have twisted the genre out of all recognition, producing in the process some startlingly original results.

Paul Auster most powerfully explored the ways in which both writer and reader resemble spirits in Ghosts, the second volume of his brilliant metaphysical mystery, The New York Trilogy (Faber & Faber, 1986). The barest bones of the detective story form the narrative. Blue is hired by White to spy on Black. (Auster does not demand that we should actually believe in what is going on - all the characters are ciphers named after colours - but he does ask that we think carefully about the central metaphor of the story.) Blue is nearly ruined by the mania induced by a case he has been working on for years - he spurns his fiancee, and seems only to live for a mystery he cannot solve. Like many engaged in the act of writing, he becomes detached from loved ones, wider society and even from his own body. In short, he becomes a kind of ghost - chasing after other ghosts, insubstantial wraiths that, if discovered, will never satiate his intellectual desire to know everything about the case in which he is embroiled. The mystery is never solved, but the reader does feel hexed when he realises that he, too, is a ghost living in a kind of machine of words, searching for an elusive meaning.

You can see the influence of Auster in more recent fiction. Marie Darrieussecq's novella My Phantom Husband (Faber & Faber, £6.99) explores the disturbed reaction of a wife to the sudden disappearance of her husband. Darrieussecq, unlike Auster, places the story in a realistic context: the wife lives in the suburbs of a French seaside town, and the search for her husband is very plausible. As the wife becomes increasingly traumatised by her loss, she begins to "see" her husband: "He was looking at me, a strange look, as in photos where he'd appeared to be staring at some point behind the lens." The husband seems to have become a mere phantom, a by-product of a world rendered uncertain by the new physics.

Darrieussecq's use of modern science to explain the spiritual is not as convincing as John Burnside's more psychological approach. Just about every story in Burnside's new collection, Burning Elvis (Cape, £10), contains a phantom, although none of them is a traditional spook. A former computer programmer, Burnside is fascinated by the way people create virtual realities, or imaginary presences, to compensate for feelings of absence. These are always manufactured in his work; it's rare to find a Burnside character actually mourning the dead. In "What I Know About Myself", an inadequate, alcoholic father denies his paternity to his son. He amuses himself by telling the boy about the ways in which the "real father" died; there's a different story every time the tale is recounted.

In "The Invisible Husband", an unfaithful husband watches his wife decline into madness, and is surprised as she invents an entirely new husband, a better one. Eventually, the husband concludes: "I could see that everything was just as illusory - the street outside, the parked cars, the shrubs in the garden . . . the idea of the world . . . existed because of some involuntary collaborative effort, a vague sense of shared reality . . ."

Unlike Darrieussecq, Burnside isn't saying that ghosts are figments of our individual imaginations. Rather, he wants us to believe that we collaborate to create illusory worlds, and that ghosts are collective creations, manifestations of a shared sense of guilt, of regret, of loss. Burnside's apparitions are haunting because he shows most vividly how easy it is for loneliness and melancholia to take on ghostly forms. His spectres - the true spirits of literature - walk among us every day. They are sometimes even our closest confidants.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness