Five best books on hauntings

17/06/16, Wall Street Journal


1. Beyond Black (2005) by Hilary Mantel. Alison Hart is a medium, travelling the dormitory towns of southeast England, offering platitudes and support to the bereaved in the psychic sessions she conducts. This, however, is not the only spirit world she communicates with – Alison knows that this is all fraudulent – but just a kind of debased veneer, or a distorted refraction, if you will, hiding the real haunting. A ghost called Morris inhabits Alison. What emerges slowly is a childhood, Alison’s own, of horrifying violence and abuse. It’s a pitiless and electrifying book on a very English kind of the blackness inside humans. Mantel herself saw the devil, ‘as high as a child of two’, standing beyond the fence of the back garden, when she was seven years old. In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), she writes, ‘I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there. Or—to put it in a way more acceptable to me—I am used to seeing things that ‘aren’t there.’ ’

2. Visitation (2010) by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky. The haunting here is of a different kind altogether – that by history. Erpenbeck was born in erstwhile East Germany and this, her extraordinary first full-length novel, titled Heimsuchung (‘Homeseeking’) in the German original, looks at the troubled history of twentieth-century Germany through the fortunes of a house which stands on a piece of land by a lake in Brandenburg. The setting remains constant and unchanging; it is this place that is the central character of the novel. The Jewish family who own the house are forced to sell it in the 1930s. It is then remodelled by an architect and requisitioned by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. Under the GDR regime, the architect is hounded out of the house, which then becomes home to returning exiles from Siberia. Individuals are puppets in the mighty hands of history as displacement makes the different residents of the house ghosts in their own lives, haunting the place that they have lost.

3. The Lost Dog (2008) by Michelle de Kretser. Tom Loxley, an academic writing a book on Henry James and the uncanny in the holiday home of his friend, Nelly Zhang, has lost his dog in the Australian bush. Tom and Nelly, an artist whose husband, Felix, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, look for the dog over the course of eight days in the outback. This is a book full of hauntings, of spectres, ghosts, doubles, reflections, revenants. They stalk the two types of art or mimetic representation that the book brings into contact with each other: Tom’s, in language; Nelly’s, in images. They also mark the lives and memories of the characters and, crucially, the narrator’s own discourse, for one of the things that de Kretser, an Australian novelist of Sri Lankan heritage, has undertaken is a kind of psychogeography of contemporary Australia and that, after all, is the study of strata of memory and ghostly presences, of the accreted traces the past leaves behind on landscapes, places, objects, individual and collective lives. She listens ‘to the patient rage of history’, keenly observing the ways in which ‘tiny punctures in the now-scape of the present allowed the past entry’.

4. The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance, all 2014) by Jeff VanderMeer. The haunting here is of a corner – dubbed Area X – of an unnamed country by what turns out to be an alien/extraterrestrial intelligence. It is impossible to summarize the nature, causes and effects of Area X in a few sentences, so complex and beautifully rendered is VanderMeer’s imagining, and execution, of it, but suffice it to say that human efforts to understand it falls cataclysmically short. The intelligence infecting Area X – and it is rather like an infection, changing the entire topography, environment, the biosphere, including humans who go there to investigate – is so advanced that it ‘can manipulate the genome, work miracles of mimicry and biology … knows what to do with molecules and membranes, can peer through things, can surveil, and then withdraw. That, to it, a smartphone, say, is as basic as a flint arrowhead, that it’s operating off of such refined and intricate senses that the tools we’ve bound ourselves with, the ways we record the universe, are probably evidence of our own primitive nature.’

5. The Gate of Angels (1990) by Penelope Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s penultimate novel and, in my opinion, her finest, contains an inset ghost story in its entirety. Located in a slightly fictionalized Cambridge University in the early 1910s, the novel is a subtle, intricate, yet seemingly effortless meditation on the seen and the unseen, the rational and the spiritual/inexplicable. The ghost story in question, set in early fifteenth-century Cambridgeshire, is written by Dr Matthews, Provost of St. James’s College, a medievalist and palaeographer and ‘a man of unclouded faith’, in an attempt to think about the unanswered aspects of the accident that opens the novel – a collision between the protagonist, Fred Fairly, a young physicist, on his bicycle, and a cart. Seemingly unrelated to the main narrative, the ghost story has made some readers think that Fitzgerald threw it in because she loved the form so much. But read carefully and you will see that it is actually a load-bearing strut, one of the chief metaphorical underpinnings that brings together all the intellectual strands in the book. As Dr Matthews says, ‘I believe … the best way to the truth may be to tell you a story. We shall have to proceed … by analogy … I am going to compare the present moment with a past one, in the hope that it may throw a little light on our difficulties.’