Peter Ackroyd, The English Ghost

Posted by Daniel Bergen on March 29, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , ,

Peter Ackroyd, The English Ghost, Chatto and Windus, 2010. IBSN: 978-0-70116989-3

Reviewed by Daniel Bergen, Marquette University

Tales of hauntings occupy a unique space in the realm of storytelling. Whether they are being told by close friends around dying autumn campfires, whispered by children under blankets after the lights are extinguished, or shared by relatives at a traditional holiday gathering, accounts of ghosts almost always explicitly acknowledge a lack of belief on the part of the audience. Such acknowledgments are often revealed in the repetition of an assertion of truth, insistence of corroboration by others, or an invocation of historical occurrences. For this reason, they are imitable in their engagement of our minds: they ask of us a willing suspension of disbelief, while simultaneously acknowledging and responding to our repeated skepticism. The audience of a ghost story derives its sense of joy from this constant tension and at some level, if they are to enjoy the experience, must suspend disbelief. Peter Ackroyd’s most recent publication, a collection of eighty ghost stories, entitled The English Ghost, will challenge skeptics, but more importantly, it will satisfy believers. Its success as a compilation lies in its author’s journalistic distance from the stories, its brief history, the depth of primary sources, as well as its anticipation and acceptance of the audience’s skepticism.

Ackroyd introduces the collection with a historical overview of the English relationship with ghosts, briefly tracing it from the medieval period through the Reformation and into the twentieth century, which “marks the general popularity of the ghost story in English literature” (4). Following the establishment of a historical context, he regionally documents the etymology of several terms associated with ghosts, including “spook,” “wraith,” “dobby,” and “boggart.” Each regional manifestation of the ghost developed its own specific mythology: some spirits are benevolent, while others are more mischievous, and still others are simply horrifying. Ackroyd keenly notes that though regions have their varying mythologies, the initial experiences of the ghost are similar: “noises are often the first inklings of a haunting[;…] then there are voices” (9-10). Ackroyd’s overview is drawn significantly from his own interpretation of the primary material which, given his scholarly gravitas, is not necessarily negative; however, readers seeking a text that further engages academic conversations surrounding the contextual field of ghosts/hauntings will be disappointed, as the text provides very little secondary criticism. The introduction continues with a nod towards church relations and the idea of exorcism, before concluding with a direct acknowledgement of the audience’s tendency towards skepticism: “it is merely stating the obvious to observe that the witnesses here fully believed in the reality of what they had seen or experienced. Whether the reader chooses to believe in it is another matter” (13). Such a disinterested response in the reader’s willingness to believe serves as an effective invitation, like beckoning someone through a partially opened, dilapidated and abandoned, mansion door, on a dark and stormy night; a sort of, “come see for yourself.”

The stories, published between the early seventeenth and the late twentieth century, feature figures of ghastly pale children, headless bears, and murderous wandering spectres. They are well-organized, divided into seven, topically based subcategories: The Phantom in the House, The Wandering Ghost, Clerical Souls, Animal Spirits, Moving Things, Farewell, and The Living and the Dead. The tales are often presented in their original voice, preceded by a brief overview of the text’s origin and time period. The breadth of accounts and centuries diminishes the sense of myth generally associated with ghost stories, imbuing the collection with a historicity that is both captivating and enjoyable. Adding to this are many of the stories’ detailed descriptions of specific landmarks, street corners, and highways. For example, Doctor Clay’s experience in the winter of 1927 as he was “driving along the B3081 road from Cranborne to Sixpenny Handley, in Dorset, and had just passed Squirrel’s Corner,” or, the ghost that met a young boy in 1665 in the town of Launceston, “in the narrow lane between the Quarry Park and the Nursery” (113; 87). In any story, setting can be an important plot element; however, in ghost stories, a detailed recounting of the scene is crucial to the author’s credibility, as it reflects a heightened awareness of the moment and subsequently, greater lucidity.

As a collection, it invites readers to see themes, establish consistencies/inconsistencies, and generate their own perspectives regarding paranormal activity throughout four centuries of English history. While the original stories invoke authenticity and detail as their primary means of appeal, Ackroyd’s summaries and historical retellings provide the text with a strangely scientific feel in their almost clinical documentation. In one such recapitulation, he describes the hauntings at Borley Rectory: “there were frequent episodes of intense activity. There were footsteps, tappings and spectral appearances” (154). Such extensive primary research, including newspaper and magazine articles, ghost story collections, and letters, generates a journalistic impression that instantiates an appropriate amount of detachment, and subsequently, adheres to his original intention: to permit the reader to choose whether or not ghosts wander the landscape of the English countryside. Regardless of the reader’s decision, Ackroyd’s compilation will linger in its audience’s minds, like a brush with the past.

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