Scanning my Ghostology 101: Recommended Reading list, I’m especially intrigued by the entries written by Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Unfortunately, in her article titled “On Ghosts” (1824), the author of Frankenstein says: “For my own part, I never saw a ghost except once in a dream.” Shelley then goes on to recount ghostly encounters experienced by two people she knew. Perhaps more interesting is her introduction, which discusses of how believing in ghosts felt like a thing of the past in the early 1800s. That’s a point I’ve seen expressed frequently in writing from those decades following the Enlightenment swing toward rational, scientific thinking. Of course, Shelley shows that this feeling might be misleading once she gets to her two ghost stories.
The author of another spooky novel, The House of the Seven Gables, claims to have seen a ghost firsthand. Hawthorne’s “The Ghost of Dr. Harris” was written in 1856, but not published until 1900. (He died in 1864.) It’s kind of a lackluster ghost story, but I think that’s the point. Hawthorne says he witnessed the title specter in a library over a span of weeks, possibly months — a sighting that “grew to be so common that at length I regarded the venerable defunct no more than the other old fogies who basked before the fire and dozed over the newspapers.” This calls to mind his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, where Hawthorne writes: “Ghosts might enter here without affrightening us.” I liked that line enough to make it the epigraph of “The Minister’s Unveiling,” the first chronicle in Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries. The ghost in that mystery isn’t especially scary — perhaps unnervingly so!
I was curious what other famous authors from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had to say about ghosts. My research was hardly painstaking, but I wasn’t able to find anything from Mark Twain on the subject. He did seem to be convinced of the validity of clairvoyance, though, a phenomenon he called “mental telegraphy.” In an article titled with that term, he relates his personal experiences that seem far too coincidental to be mere coincidence.
Apparently, Stephen Crane wanted to believe. He’s probably best known for his novels Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage or for his short stories “The Open Boat” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” When he died in 1900, he became the subject of an article titled “Stephen Crane’s Last Story.” There, Robert Barr reveals that he and Crane attempted to “lure back the ghost” of their mutual friend, Harold Frederic (who had died in 1898). They never succeeded, and one is left wondering how seriously they had taken the endeavor.
Hamlin Garland won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Main-Travelled Roads (1891) is probably best known today, but he penned several less-remembered books, including a few dealing with Spiritualism and similar subjects. In fact, Garland was among the most literary of his generation’s psychical researchers. He seems a likely suspect to have had something to say about ghosts.
He didn’t say much, though, despite his strong interest in such things. The title of a 1911 New York Times interview shows he approached the field with skepticism: “NO PROOFS OF EXISTENCE OF SPIRITS — HAMLIN GARLAND: Author of ‘The Shadow World,’ Regarded as a Spiritist, Says All Experiments He Has Seen Have Failed. Physical Force Can Explain Them.” Despite this, Garland was a proponent of a theory put forth earlier by Thomson Jay Hudson, who I discussed in a previous post. Hudson argued that what might seem to be a ghost is really a manifestation emanating from a psychic medium, often in clairvoyant accord with someone who knew “the ghost” in life. As such, when asked to comment on ghosts in his Times interview, Garland answers: “In a great many cases in which persons have claimed to see ghosts it has been learned that some one in their families is psychic.” Ghosts aren’t dead people, in other words. They’re a psychic’s perceivable projection of the deceased, a wonder in its own right.
The nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were vibrant with debate over whether ghosts really existed — and over what exactly accounted for why so many people claimed to witness them. The prominent authors of the period were certainly not immune from sharing and expressing the ghostly theories that surrounded them.