Bowen’s thoughts on the ghost story

Posted by Matt Foley on January 05, 2011 in Blog tagged with , , ,

by Matt Foley, University of Stirling

I am already a fan of Elizabeth Bowen’s inter-War novels The Last September (1929) and The Death of the Heart (1938) but, while her novels at times appropriate Gothic motifs and tropes, it is really her short stories that will be more familiar to readers of the Gothic. Bowen was one of the foremost ghost story writers of her generation (for example, see The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945)). However, extended studies of her work, in particular Nicholas Royle and Andrew Bennett’s Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel (1994) and Maud Ellmann’s The Shadow Across The Page (2003) focus more on her work as a novelist. This is in spite of Ellmann’s title alluding to Bowen’s storyThe Shadowy Third’ (1923) (a piece that David Punter also deals with in the opening essay of Gothic Modernisms (2001)).

Eventually I will post a close reading of one of Bowen’s short stories on here but at the moment I would like to concentrate on a couple of pieces in which Bowen suggests that the short story is the most appropriate medium for any story of haunting. Allan Hepburn, in his introduction to her uncollected short stories The Bazaar and Other Stories (2008), has already noted that Bowen believed the short story to be the preferable medium for figurings of the supernatural. As quoted in Hepburn, Bowen states in her Vasaar notebooks that the “’atmosphere’ necessary for MAGIC would be difficult to sustain throughout a novel[.] Hence, [the] sustainability – for Magic – of the S.S. [short story]” (quoted in Hepburn 2008, p.15, my square brackets). A longer note goes on to deal specifically with the uncanny and the ghost story:

The UNCANNY means – I think? – the unknowable – something

beyond the bounds of rational knowledge –

In this, I include the GHOST STORY – with its content of fear

With Fear we return to Primitive Feeling

The S.S. can depict or evoke fear

The extent to which it involves us in the primitive sense of fear is

the measure of the “Success” of the Ghost STORY. (ibid, pp.15-16)

Bowen here is testing out ideas about the ghost story in a cursory and shortened form and her syntax obviously suggests some sort of hierarchical theory of writing. Specifically, though, her version of the uncanny only partly recalls Freud’s in the sense that it is “beyond the bounds of rational knowledge” and with the sense of fear being linked to the primitive, albeit that the term primitive here suggests an anthropological sense rather than a return to some pre-Oedipal state. The uncanny for Bowen seems primarily an experience of moving beyond symbolic knowledge and into a space not governed by symbolic laws, rationality or language. Perhaps we are gesturing here towards Kristeva’s ‘semiotic’, as does D.H. Lawrence in one of his ghost stories, but at the moment this is not absolutely clear to me. More time with the texts themselves will help clarify this.

Staying with ideas, however, a more measured theory of the ghost story can be found in Bowen’s introduction to the Cynthia Asquith edited collection The Second Ghost Book (1952). Here there is the suggestion of a recent evolution in both the aesthetics and tropes of the ghost story. In part, this echoes Virginia Woolf’s belief, put forward a few decades before, that it was necessary to find a new point in the armour with which to terrify a contemporary audience. Bowen writes:

Ghosts have grown up. Far behind lie their clanking and moaning days; they have laid aside their original bag of tricks – bleeding hands, luminous skulls and so on. Their manifestations are, like their personalities oblique and subtle, perfectly calculated to get the modern person under their skin. They abjure the over-fantastic and grotesque, operating, instead, through series of happenings whose horror lies in their being just, just out of the true. (ibid, pp. vii-viii)

Here, Bowen begins clearly enough, suggesting that ghosts have adapted in the modern environment and are not vehicles for the grotesque. However, what does the closing, liminal phrase “out of the true” point towards? It is hard to fathom initially but Bowen qualifies the phrase by suggesting that ghosts “exploit the horror latent behind reality” (ibid, p.viii). There remains though an excess of significations at work in this phrase that is not experienced in the rest of introduction and hence there is further interpretation to be done.

Bowen also intriguingly indicates that the enjoying of ghost stories is a kind of shared transgression, however mild, that bonds subjects who are under a “confused oppression”, suggestive of restrictions of desire by the symbolic order through a pressure to adhere to societal, cultural and familial norms:

Ghosts draw us together: one might leave it at that. Can there be something tonic about pure, active fear in these times of passive, confused oppression? It is nice to choose to be frightened, when one need not be. Or it may be that, deadened by information, we are glad of these awful, intent and nameless beings as to whom no information is to be had. (ibid, p. viii)

There is suggested here an ability to chose when to be haunted through reading and escaping into the ghost story. This is perhaps a victory for the control of the ego over an experience which, in the everyday, is out with it and usurps its desired totalitarian control. To be haunted in the everyday is to experience a return of what has tried to be repressed and represents a systemic failure in the ego’s repressive mechanisms. However, in choosing to read the short story we initiate, through a moment of volition in John Locke’s sense, a safety mechanism for the ego: we can stop reading at any moment we chose and the terror can cease. This seems a fairly simple concept but there are perhaps wider questions about why, maybe in spite of or because of this moment of choice, our experience of haunting in reading is more intense than being haunted in the everyday. Perhaps, again at a basic level, this is due to the array of tropes, figures and literary techniques that the skilled writer can call upon to evoke fear and sustain this strange double movement of attraction and terror. From Bowen’s perspective the experience of reading the ghost story takes us into a space before and therefore beyond symbolic knowledge. In the above, she suggests ghosts are “nameless beings as to whom no information is to be had” and this recalls her note in the Vasaar books that the uncanny is something unknowable and beyond the bounds of rational knowledge. This temporary movement to regress to the primitive, for Bowen, can be a shared transgression and one that may liberate in times of symbolic oppression. This is somewhat at odds with Derridean notions of speaking to the ghost as an ethical harbinger.

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