Ghost stories have a rich literary tradition, but for most of my life, I dismissed them. I don’t believe in ghosts, and I’ve seen enough horror movies to know I’m not interested in seeing another. However, I just finished Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a finalist for the Pulitzer, and was surprised to see a very moving account of a ghost.
It made me realize how many ghost stories are in the literary canon. There’s Poe’s The Raven, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, basically all of Nicolai Gogol’s work, and more recently Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, among many others I’m forgetting. We love ghost stories!
So here are three reasons to write a ghost story:
1. Ghost stories are biblical.
While science is skeptical the Bible doesn’t seem to be afraid of ghosts. In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul consults a medium who brings the prophet Samuel back from the dead. As you can imagine, Samuel wasn’t too pleased about it, and he teaches Saul some healthy fear of the dead.
2. Ghost stories are spectacular.
I think of spectacle as the kind of thing you would talk about around the campfire back in Homer’s day. You would probably tell stories about things like war, adventure, the opposite sex, political intrigue, and, of course, ghosts. Of course, the campfire is where most of the best stories from history came from. If you want to tell the kind of story that could be told around a campfire, a story about spectacle, write about ghosts.
3. Ghost stories demystify death.
One of the most popular themes in literature is death. Each of the thirteen stories nominated for the Booker Prize in 2011 were about death. Death is the universal human condition, and the unfortunate truth is that if you’re alive, you’re going to die.
We all have our theories, but even our theories have holes and grey areas. (E.g. Will there really be pearly gates and streets of gold, or is that just a metaphor?)
Ghost stories are about what happens after you die. However, the interesting thing about ghost stories is that while they remove mystery, they also heap a lot more mystery on. How does one become a ghost? Do ghosts ever move on to the next life? What’s the next life they move on to? And then we’re back at the beginning.
Either way, they’re clearly an entertaining diversion.
Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever written about them? Why or why not?
Write about a ghost.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please comment on a few pieces by other writers.