Sunday, May 30, 2010

First Officer's Log - No 3: For Love of the Ghost Story

After reading Nialle's post about what to recommend to young readers, I got to thinking about my fictional genres of interest, and how older readers might enjoy diving into such things. My primary fictional interests are mysteries, science fiction / fantasy, and horror. After perusing my own personal collection, I discovered that the latter is the current genre that seems to occupy the most shelf space. The trend over the past few years in young adult fiction has certainly been on the horror- and fantasy-oriented slant, but there are books in those particular genres that can be appreciated by the young adult and adult alike. For this outing, I'll focus on those novels that will probably appeal most to an audience of 17 and up.

With the interest in the horror genre, I love the fact that there are dozens of writers who have had a lasting impact on the genre and on the popular imagination in such a way that their novels are still relevant today. Nialle mentioned Bram Stoker's Dracula and Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire; both are fantastic, atmospheric novels. Stoker captured the 'dread of the other' in his novel, while Rice emphasized the sensuality and the appeal of the darkness (both literal night and the metaphorical darkness of the human soul). We wouldn't have either of these stories without J.S. LeFanu's Carmilla, originally published in 1872, 25 years before Dracula captured imaginations.

While vampires and werewolves are fun to read about, and certainly plentiful in the literary spectrum, there is one genre that has always drawn me in, because it's a type of story that transcends its simple origins in horror and expands into mystery, literature and fantasy alike. The ghost story, as the Haunted Bookshop can tell you, never goes out of style. As long as there have been families and camp fires and people looking for a good scare, there have been ghost stories. So long as there are writers and those who love to read, there will be ghost stories that tease and tempt the imagination with

Henry James wrote one of my personal favorites with The Turn of the Screw (1898), the famous story of a young governess at an English estate who must cope with two disturbed children and the ghosts that seem to stalk their every move. Without James' influence and his masterful story, Anne Rice's own son, Christopher, would not have written his brilliant A Density of Souls, as much a coming of age story as a ghost story. For teenage readers looking for a grown up step up and over Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike's creepy thrillers, Density is a creepy, moody piece of storytelling, with compelling leads, a heartbreaking tragedy that sends the characters on their paths, a ghostly presence lurking throughout, and the ultimate transition from teenage child to young adult. It remains a favorite of mine to recommend, and a personal favorite in my own collection.

The idea of a ghost who haunts a person's every waking moment finds its place in plenty of classic tales, but in contemporary mystery fiction, I think it finds its biggest proponent in John Connolly, an Irish writers, whose Charlie Parker mysteries focus on a truly tragic main character who taps into the darkness of the soul better than any other character I've encountered in the past ten years. Parker's ghosts are seen by him and him alone, and they are of his late wife and daughter; shifting between malevolence and comfort, these two lonely spirits plague our, hero, even at the times when his life should be lifted up and out of the darkness.

Instead, Connolly writes Parker as a character who seems to seek out the darkness, the unknown, the ghosts of the literal and psychological worlds, because those spirits might be more dangerous than any living thing he might encounter. Fittingly, Connolly titled his first novel Every Dead Thing, and it is guaranteed to terrify you, break your heart and give you an understanding of a character whom you come to care for. Using the ghost story as a springboard for teaching a character how to grow and change, despite the horror of his life, is the beauty of Connolly's still-running series. Charlie grows as a character, and his heartbreaks and ghosts, of which there are many, make him stronger.

Embracing the ghost story is a fantastic way to get to know the horror genre itself. Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is a masterful haunted house story, while Richard Matheson's excursions into the horror genre rely on suspense as much as terror. A Stir of Echoes looks at the horror of mediumship, channeling ghosts, and the equal terror of discovering that life is never as it seems to the outside world. Both of these novels, written in the 1950s, still reverberate with audiences today. Jackson and Matheson are both masters of the horror genre, their books made into films (at last two version of Jackson's novel as film exist), and still scaring audiences today.

To embrace the ghost story is to embrace horror novels themselves. Knowing that ghosts never go out of style is half the fun of this profession. Ghosts haunt books, and sometimes books are ghosts, drifting from place to place, having new and interesting impacts upon people and places. Next time you need a good story, check out a scary one. Who says it has to be Halloween to enjoy a little ghost?

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

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