“Often have I been asked to formulate my views about ghost stories and tales of the marvellous, the mysterious, the supernatural. Never have I been able to find out whether I had any views that could be formulated.”
— M.R. James
As I edited my great-grandaunt Lida’s chronicles of Vera Van Slyke’s supernatural investigations, I was faced with an obvious question: Are they fact, or are they fiction?
I know that Lida at least tweaked the truth somewhat. For instance, “The Minister Unveiled,” the first of the thirteen stories in Help for the Haunted, features a haunted church that Lida’s manuscript locates in Tadcaster, Massachusetts. But there is no Tadcaster, Massachusetts. I assume she made up the name of the town.
Now, one might argue that the pretend town of Tadcaster signals that the entire story is pretend.
Still, one might counter-argue that Lida invented the town of Tadcaster in order to protect the reputation of the church. That’s entirely likely. In “Monstrimony,” the second-to-last story, she says outright that she’s withholding the name of a different church for that very reason.
Many other stories are set in towns whose names can be found on a map. Philadelphia, Milwaukee, or San Francisco are fairly common settings for fiction, but what about Nunda Township, Illinois, or Paragould, Arkansas? All of them are real places that appear in the chronicles.
And what do we do with the people named in some of the stories who are easily identifiable as real? “Houdini Slept Here” features the title magician and escape artist — and I’ve confirmed many of the facts about his life mentioned in that tale. Still, that’s the legendary Houdini! He’s appeared in works of fiction by other authors.
What about Peter M. Hoffman, a far less famous but just as authentic figure highlighted in “Vampire Particles”? He served as Cook County Coroner, and I suppose my Chicagoan ancestor could have read about him in the newspaper.
Henry Thorn Lord is a trickier matter. He’s the retired sea captain in “An Unanchored Man.” There, Lord reveals that, as a young officer, he had been maltreated during a mutiny onboard The Junior while sailing near Australia. An 1858 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald covers the trial following that very mutiny and confirms the second mate, Henry Thorn Lord, had been placed in leg irons. I discovered this thanks to the Internet, but how could Lida have known this bit of history in the early 1900s unless she had met the man himself?
To try to get a better of sense of how much of these stories are fiction and how much are fact, I decided to find out what writers were saying about writing fictional ghost stories in the era when Lida wrote her chronicles. I figured that, if she had followed some set formula or guidelines, I’d have evidence that she was fabricating those chronicles.
Of the writers I found, Blanche Colton Williams is probably the most formulaic in her chapter on ghost stories in A Handbook on Story Writing (1919). She opens with an introduction that lists types of ghost stories (e.g., humorous ghosts or hoax ghosts) and then lists motives for ghosts (e.g., punishment or warning). Regarding the actual writing of a ghost story, Williams gives four pieces of advice: provide an “accurate setting” in which the ghost appears; give the ghost “a definite outline and position”; have the ghost appear repeatedly; and, failing the repeated appearances, “let the visitation be attended by results which compel belief.” I’m not entirely sure what that final bit of advice really means, but Williams attempts to provide good models for writers by reviewing highly praised ghost stories, such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The Phantom Rickshaw” and Edith Wharton’s “The Triumph of Night.”
None of Williams’ recommendations called to my mind any of the Van Slyke chronicles.
Carolyn Wells, who wrote several mysteries, also addresses ghost stories in The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913). Clearly dividing ghost stories from riddle stories and detective stories, Wells first spends quite a bit of time discussing the appeal of ghost stories and how readers — regardless of their belief in real ghosts — must assume “an attitude of belief in the supernatural for the time being.” Like Williams, she then reviews what she considers the best ghost stories. Readers hoping to pick up a technique or two in writing a ghost story are likely to be disappointed. About the closest Wells comes to advice for writers is to make the ghost a real one. “A rational and material explanation, such as a human being impersonating a ghost, takes the story out of this class at once,” she explains.
The manifestations Van Slyke confronted were typically confirmed as supernatural, though she did find the occasional hoax. Not much to go on with Wells.
Lafcadio Hearn gave a lecture titled “The Value of the Supernatural in Fiction” (1915), where he boldly states: “No good writer — no great writer — ever makes a study of the supernatural according to anything which has been done before by other writers.” While he recommends reading the kinds of great stories that Williams and Wells suggest, he says that one will only learn “about the curious value of words, about compactness and power of sentences, about peculiarities of belief and of terrors related to those beliefs.” To create a truly thrilling “supernatural effect,” one must look — not to earlier writers — but to one’s own dreams. “Whether you believe in ghosts or not,” Hearn contends, “all the artistic elements of ghostly literature exist in your dreams, and form a veritable treasury of literary material. . . .”
No help from Hearn.
M.R. James certainly knew how to write spooky stories. In prefaces to collections of his own and in introductions to those of other authors, he touches on how to construct a ghost story. “To be sure,” he says, “I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day.” He feels “the ghost should be malevolent or odious. . . .” Even with these guidelines, James says writers should look to good short story writing overall: “The ghost story is, at its best, only a particular sort of short story, and is subject to the same broad rules as the whole mass of them. Those rules, I imagine, no writer ever consciously follows.” Like Hearn, James seems to feel that no cut-and-dry formula can ensure a good ghost story.
James has a few more preferences, though. He avoids the use of quasi-scientific “occultism,” and he likes to start calm and build to a crescendo. While detective stories should be set in very contemporary times, ghost stories are better when given “a slight haze of distance,” set in a time of firsthand memories. Had James lived in the twenty-first century, he might not have cared for the Vera Van Slyke chronicles. He explains, “Very nearly all the ghost stories of old times claim to be true narratives of remarkable occurrences. At the outset I must make it clear that with these — be they ancient, medieval or post medieval — I have nothing to do, any more than I have with those chronicled in our own days.” He says he prefers to let the ghost story stand on its own with no claim of authenticity.
In a sense, that’s how Lida wrote about the supernatural encounters she shared with Van Slyke. The events she describes occurred within her remembered past and are recounted without much reference to the stories’ status as authentic chronicles or historical documents. Perhaps this is the best evidence I have that the manuscripts I inherited were indeed written as tales of the imagination, something at least a bit like the stories James was writing at about the same period.
On the other hand, given the elements of verifiable history I mention above, this evidence is not very convincing to me. I continue to wonder how much fact and how much fiction resides in my ancestor’s manuscripts. It’s a ghostly mystery I might never solve.