One of the greats: Charles Dickens’s The Signalman

The spectre of the past

The “Great English Ghost Story” offers a form of comfort and is rooted in the ache of nostalgia for a more elegant era


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In his study, The English Ghost, Peter Ackroyd informs his readers, with characteristic sonorous certainty, that “the English see more ghosts than anyone else”. He lays this phenomenon at the door of a “peculiar mingling of Germanic, Nordic and British superstitions’, allied to our islanders’ sense of isolation. Although the origin of his data is not immediately clear, the statement feels potent nonetheless — true, perhaps, on some deep, instinctive level.

For the last two hundred years, England has processed through cycles of seeing and experiencing the persistent dead: from the early nineteenth-century craze for spiritualism, to the rise in posthumous communication in the wake of the First World War, on to that uniquely haunted decade, the 1970s, with its Enfield Poltergeist and surge of domestic hauntings, right up until the present day.

The Covid years saw a measurable rise in the seeing of ghosts. Playwright, ghost hunter and host of the BBC podcast Uncanny, Danny Robins, believes that the pandemic, wars in Europe and (inevitably) “climate change” have all “forced us to confront our mortality in a way we haven’t had to since the Second World War”.

Whatever the explanation, it is not surprising that we should see ghosts in such number. We are an ancient kingdom and the pressing down of the past upon the present is palpable in almost any city, town or village.

Walking through the streets not far from where I live, past a cathedral that has stood for a thousand years and beside land which has been worked for far longer, I am often reminded of that terrific Victorian euphemism for death — “to join the majority”, the sense that some vast, ever-growing legion remains just out of sight, invisible but somehow also close at hand.

A sense of simmering ominousness, a quality of dense shadow, a shudder rather than a scream

Many cultures see ghosts but it may be that our greatest achievement in this regard is not merely the observation of them but the transmutation of that experience into art. What we may as well call the Great English Ghost Story is a very particular form, circumscribed but immediately recognisable. Its exemplars include Charles Dickens’s “The Signalman”, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Arthur Machen’s “N”, W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw”, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. You will have your own additions.

The constraints of the form are clear but not devoid of all elasticity: they deal not in gore or what Hollywood calls “jump scares” (for many years, we could safely leave that to the Americans, Edgar Allan Poe and H P Lovecraft chief amongst them) but rather a sense of simmering ominousness, a quality of dense shadow, a shudder rather than a scream. There is often to be found a strong vein of ambiguity; it remains quite unclear in The Turn of the Screw (and in its peerless cinematic adaptation The Innocents) whether or not the ghosts that seem to be haunting the troubled governess have any objective reality at all.

The English ghost story is good at glimpses, at giving us moments of the inexplicable which fail to satisfyingly cohere — a key way in which the form reflects back our lives. The best have, in spite of their subject matter, none of the tidiness of fiction and all of the messiness of real life. Dickens’s “The Signalman” contains what appears to be a convoluted loop in time. It delivers a tragic warning fated to go forever unheard, but the precise details remain elusive, no matter how often the tale is read.

“The Signalman” remains Dickens’s most well-known ghost story (with the obvious exception of A Christmas Carol, which is surely more of a moral fable) but I have always been much taken with his contribution to the rambling serial novel, The Haunted House, which also features writing by Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. In the first chapter, the narrator (distinctly Dickens-shaped) relates how he enjoys roving about his home not long after dawn and watching his family sleep.

It reminds him of their mortality as well as his own: “there is something awful in the being surrounded by familiar faces asleep — in the knowledge that those who are dearest to us, and to whom we are dearest, are profoundly unconscious of us, in an impassive state anticipative of that mysterious condition to which we are all tending”.

Later, he spies a vision of his father — not yet dead but still living and elsewhere — a figure in the thin glow of the dawn: “I saw him in the daylight, sitting with his back towards me, on a seat that stood beside my bed.” The narrator moves towards him. “Amazed to see him there, I sat up, moved my position, leant out of bed and watched him. As he did not move, I spoke to him more than once. As he did not move then, I became alarmed and laid my hand upon his shoulder, as I thought — and there was no such thing.” The old man melts away, something like a ghost of a ghost, a future phantom.

The grand master of the form is M. R. James, whose stories seem to grow in power year on year. To James himself — provost first of King’s College, Cambridge, and then of Eton College — the stories were mere bagatelles, entertainments to be performed at Christmas to friends and undergraduates. Yet they have endured far beyond those gatherings. A brilliant man amusing himself with tales of the supernatural has something about of it of Stanley Kubrick directing The Shining — the work, as one of his critics has put it, “of a bored genius’.

Robert Lloyd Parry as M. R. James

The best of James’s stories — “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”; “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”; “Lost Hearts”; “Number 13” — represent the very acme of the form, what James himself called “a pleasing terror”, stories told with great patience, stories nested within stories, through layers of academic observers and donnish witnesses. Their milieu — a universe of clever scholars and curious researchers, of trips to old churches and overnight stays in rickety foreign hotels — are at least as memorable and alluring as the narrative incidents themselves.

At least once or twice a year I make a pilgrimage to Cambridge or London to see a production by the remarkable actor and storyteller Robert Lloyd Parry, whose one-man theatre company Nunkie arranges performances of the best of James’s work. Delivered from memory and often by candlelight in strange locations (half-abandoned chapels; quietly mouldering stately homes; unfashionable museums in need of public funding), I highly recommend the experience.

Audiences are devoted and come for the power of James’s stories which weaves an erudite, distinctive spell. For some, it has, I suspect, become a kind of ritual — the closest one can get to hearing the tales as they were originally performed. There is to it all an odd, English kind of comfort.

This reflects, perhaps, some “supernatural” experiences in real life. The seeing, or sensing, of ghosts seems to go some way to proving the existence of consciousness after the death of the body. Even the most hardened amongst us seize at this possibility. My wife, a hyper-numerate tax advisor and the very definition of a level-headed sceptic, believes absolutely that when her mother died three years ago she visited our twin baby boys before leaving the earthly realm.

Certainly, in what subsequently turned out to be the very hour of her death, we lay in bed, with a cot on either side of us, and listened as the infants laughed and giggled as if in response to some invisible interlocutor at three o’clock in the morning, an event unprecedented before or since.

As England sinks further and further into a state of decline, we will need all of our ghosts more than ever

Much literary analysis of the expensive kind has been devoted to Freudian readings of the English Ghost Story, seeing, for example, in the famous moving bedsheets of James’s “A Warning to the Curious” (in which an academic named Parkins is confronted by “a face of crumpled linen”) an unconscious signal of unacknowledged homosexuality. Yet there is something else happening in the enduring popularity of these stories. Beneath the layers of them can be spied the familiar ache of nostalgia.

One often feels nostalgic for times which one cannot consciously remember — the celebrated BBC 1970s adaptations of M. R. James and Dickens made by the director Lawrence Gordon Clark serve to remind me of a time (though produced in the decade of my birth) which will be forever just out of reach.

There is comfort in their stark landscapes and detailed character performances from such actors as Denholm Elliott and Robert Hardy, hailing from a time just before the country was about to experience irreversible change.

Ghosts of all sorts can do this. Whether fictional or real, they serve to remind us of a better — or at least a more elegant and poetic — era. One can pine for the drawing room conversation of the age of Dickens or the tale-telling societies of Cambridge or Eton in spite of them long since having passed out of living memory. As England seems to be sinking further and further into a state of decline, it seems probable that we will need all of our ghosts more than ever, our last, enduring connections to histories which refuse to be entirely subsumed. ●

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