Monday, October 22, 2012

I could have made anything out of it - Kipling's ghost stories

Two more ghost stories, both by Rudyard Kipling:  “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw” and “My Own True Ghost Story.”  Both stories are circa 1888.  This is my elegant transition to a week of Kipling in 1888.

Also, neither of these ghost stories are actual ghost stories, at least according to the editors (Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert) of The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1986):

The ghostly protagonists must act with a deliberate intent; their actions – or the consequences of their actions – rather than those of the living must be the central theme; and most important of all, each ghost, whether human or animal phantom or reanimated corpse, must unquestionably be dead.  From this it follows that there can be no rationalization of the ghost, no explanation of events by natural causes.  (ix)

By this standard, The Turn of the Screw is not a ghost story nor are any of those I read last week.  Are editors of Oxford anthologies really this unsophisticated about fiction?  No need to answer that.

In “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw” an Englishman in India is haunted by the ghost of a married woman he loved then spurned for the insipid but single Kitty, and not just be her but by her rickshaw (I will abandon Kipling’s extra apostrophe) and the four native men who pull and push it.  Obviously the ghost is just a projection of the narrator’s guilt, and everyone treats it as such, including, up to a point, the man who sees it:

I had originally some wild notion of confiding it all to Kitty; of begging her to marry me at once; and in her arms defying the ghostly occupant of the 'rickshaw.  "After all," I argued, "the presence of the 'rickshaw is in itself enough to prove the existence of a spectral illusion.  One may see ghosts of men and women, but surely never of coolies and carriages. The whole thing is absurd."

This I enjoy a lot.  The ghost of a lover – plausible; the ghost of a cart – preposterous.  But then it turns out that the rickshaw died I mean was destroyed under mysterious circumstances.  So this is among the least frightening ghost stories ever written, but is instead an almost moving story about a man punishing himself for a crime only he knows about.

Kipling is the “me” in “My Own True Ghost Story,” or anyway the supple version of himself he had developed in his early career as a writer in India.  After a prelude defending the seriousness of Indian ghosts (“The older Provinces simply bristle with haunted houses, and march phantom armies along their main thoroughfares”), he tells of the time he came across a ghost or two in an isolated government way-station.  As is typical in ghost stories, the narrator tells me how scared he was:

Do you know what fear is?  Not ordinary fear of insult, injury or death, but abject, quivering dread of something that you cannot see – fear that dries the inside of the mouth and half of the throat – fear that makes you sweat on the palms of the hands, and gulp in order to keep the uvula at work?  This is a fine Fear – a great cowardice, and must be felt to be appreciated.  The very improbability of billiards in a dâk-bungalow proved the reality of the thing.  No man – drunk or sober – could imagine a game at billiards, or invent the spitting crack of a "screw-cannon."

Yes, Kipling’s ghosts are playing billiards in the next room, a room with no billiards table.  Ghost billiards.  Perhaps he is not taking ghosts as seriously as he claims.  Perhaps he is the first great writer to be strongly influenced by Mark Twain.  Perhaps.

The story ends in tragedy:

Then the wind ran out and the billiards stopped, and I felt that I had ruined my one genuine, hall-marked ghost story.

Had I only stopped at the proper time, I could have made anything out of it.

That was the bitterest thought of all!

A tragedy for a world-class storyteller, at least.

The rest of the week, more of Kipling’s stories of India, all published, strangely, in 1888.


  1. I'm sure I read a Kipling story in which a famous and brave regiment of the British Army is routed by ghosts. It sounds like some Kipling might have written at least.

  2. Are you thinking of the Angels of Mons? In that case, phantom archers helped the Brits defeat the Germans. It started out as a story by Arthur Machen, then grew to legend as he kept insisting that it was fiction. The perils of writing ghost stories!

  3. So do you have any plans to investigate Kipling's later ghost stories too...They, Mrs Bathhurst, actually the supernatural plays a role in quite a few. Susan E

  4. Plans, sure, I've always got a million plans. One of them is more Kipling. Later today I'll borrow a description of reading Kipling obooki wrote. To paraphrase: he goes down smooth. I will look for the stories you suggest.

    But for this week 1888 is enough. Kipling published 6 books in 1888!

    obooki is likely thinking of Kipling's "The Rout of the White Hussars" from Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), where the ghost is that of a horse. The horse is being ridden by a skeleton, which makes it scarier. "The skeleton did not look pretty in the twilight." That story has a killer Kiplingish punchline.

  5. No, I'd forgotten "The Rout of the White Hussars", which I actually only read a few weeks ago. I'm not good at identifying ghost stories, clearly.

    Research reveals I was thinking of "The Lost Legion", from Many Inventions (1893, so a bit outside your era). Random quote:

    "The valley is full of the dead," said the Afghan. "It is better to fall into the hands of the English than the hands of the dead".

  6. What a hack! He just repeats himself!

    I made an error in my last comment - Kipling published 7 books in 1888, not 6. A hack and a showoff.