I don’t know if A. S. Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories is truly eccentric or if I am imposing a pattern suggested by her clever misdirection. But she says she developed a “dislike for the ‘well-made tale’” (xvi), and I see the evidence of it. She likes stories that go screwy, that take a big swerve. Hey, me too. And she likes fantasy stories of many types. I’ll glance at three of those, three ghost stories.
The M. R. James selection, “Two Doctors” (1919, maybe), is the most traditional ghost story, or else has no ghost at all but rather perhaps some other kind of hobgoblin. Some readers might remember that two years ago I spent a week reading ghost stories, which was instructive even if I was “shaken a bit by the fact that 75% of the ghost stories I read this week were about haunted bedrooms and the mysterious movements of bedclothes.” Hey, guess what’s in “Two Doctors”? I can’t even. This time it’s a pillow.
“Under the Knife” (1896) by H. G. Wells is a science fantasy on the theme of anesthesia. The ghost is the narrator, who, certain that he will die during surgery, has what we now call a near-death experience, first watching his own surgery before dying – this is where the story swerves – and being flung into the cosmos:
At last a quarter of the heavens was black and blank, and the whole headlong rush of stellar universe closed in behind me like a veil of light that is gathered together. It drove away from me like a monstrous jack-o'-lantern driven by the wind. I had come out into the wilderness of space. Ever the vacant blackness grew broader, until the hosts of the stars seemed only like a swarm of fiery specks hurrying away from me, inconceivably remote, and the darkness, the nothingness and emptiness, was about me on every side. (136-7)
I have doubts about that jack-o’-lantern. Maybe I should have saved this story for Halloween. The cosmic journey climaxes with a vision of God, or perhaps Steve Ditko’s Eternity (see left). Alan Moore pilfers the scene for Swamp Thing #50. This is why people come to Wuthering Expectations.
In Rudyard Kipling’s “’Wireless’” (1902), the ghost is John Keats, or the electromagnetic spirit of radio, or some mix of both. Whatever the source, which is never resolved, much of the latter half of the story is a description of a fellow in a trance composing Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes,” as uncanny a performance as I have ever seen a fictional ghost pull off.
He repeated it once more, using ‘blander’ for ‘smoother’ in the second line; then wrote it down without erasure, but this time (my set eyes missed no stroke of any word) he submitted ‘soother’ for his atrocious second thought, so that it came away under his hand as it is written in the book – as it is written in the book. (123)
This ought to be the dullest story ever written. We watch one fellow write a poem while another tinkers with a radio. But that was not my experience. The story is of course a parable about creativity as Kipling saw it – magic and science, good luck and hard thinking, what is right in front of me plus what no one has ever seen.