Saturday, January 11, 2014

May I import something (it's a ghost story)?

It's winter. It's cold. It's dark. What better than to curl up on the couch with a cocktail, or better yet a nice glass of port or cream sherry, and read ghost stories? When I used to maintain a book review blog, I used to read more. Or was it the other way around? Allow me to import something

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What makes a ghost frightening? That it is more alive than we are. 

From The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Brad Leithauser (1994), come these two to start a collection. First is Ann Bridge's marvelous "The Buick Saloon," originally published in 1936. An exotic setting -- the foreign Legation in Peking in the 1930s -- a dumpy little diplomatic wife who hears a disembodied female voice speaking French in the back of her chauffeured car (that's the Saloon); there is little more to be said, because to say too much more would be to reveal too much and spoil it all. Suffice it that Ann Bridge (pen name of Lady Mary Dolling Sanders O'Malley, English diplomat's wife) is, if not the find of a lifetime, at least the find of a good long time, for any appreciative reader. Just listen:
Below her Peking lay spread out -- a city turned by the trees which grow in every courtyard into the semblance of a green wood, out of which rose the immense golden roofs of the Forbidden City; beyond it, far away, the faint mauve line of the Western Hills hung on the sky.
And then she turns to overlook the old garden in the house by the Tartar wall, where the French voice had once been happy.



In the same anthology we find "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes," by Henry James (1868). Certainly he is a grander writer, one of the evidences of which I think is that unobtrusive, but always present, arch-browed humor which seems the mark of a master. But as a ghost story this one is less effective than Ann Bridge's. If ghosts are frightening because they are more alive than we are, then the ghost of this Romance is neither terribly alive nor terribly frightening.

Here we follow two sisters in colonial Massachusetts as they fight, very quietly, over one well-to-do English suitor. When he picks one of them, the other must make the best of it. Rosalind and Perdita were neither very loving nor very hateful toward one another to begin with, so there is no question of a ruined sisterly love or a further embittered hate. When one of them becomes a ghost, it really is all about the clothes. The creepiest moment of the story occurs when they are both still living and polite. The betrothed sister plumbs the depths of the other's jealousy and quietly says, " 'At least grant me a year. In a year I can have a little boy, or even a little girl ....' "

The ghost story genre is a challenging one. A writer has to get the scope and the pace of the visitation(s) just right, or else the delicate souffle of fear, fantasy, and plausibility collapses. It collapses, I think, even for Ann Bridge in her "The Song in the House," contained in a different anthology -- The Fireside Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Edward Wagenknecht (1947). It's another beautiful story, but, a whole gardenful of bejeweled Elizabethan ghosts, and all in broad daylight? Alas, no.  

Curiously enough, Ann Bridge's papers, thirty boxes of them, are now at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Someone gave them as a gift in 1975, the year after her death. It seems rather an abrupt document dump. I hope she doesn't haunt the place.

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