February 28, 2017

Ordinary ghosts

Begin part 3 (of 4)


Occasionally while waiting for a train underground, standing in the waiting area between the two tracks which stop at a given platform — one heading east and the other west — a third possibility will present itself. Suddenly the digital voice and red LED signs make know: this approaching train, whose roar you hear growing louder, will not stop. Perhaps it will or won’t decelerate a tiny bit as it flies by; perhaps one can just make out the pilot as the lead car swifts past. But it doesn’t stop, carries almost no one from a somewhere unknown to a second equally unknown somewhere. They produce a distinct kind of cold wind, pressing a column of air piston-like down the tunnel and out into the station. Not in the limited way a train intent on stopping does, coming closest to full force only at the very point it exits the tube into the grander volume of the platform but easing as the mass comes to a rest, opens doors… Rather, these phantom trains drag with them a fierce wave of an alien atmosphere, wildly swirling like pilot fish struggling to keep up with their shark companion. It is here, on a bench, running late, coat zipped a little higher, where we rejoin the proceedings.

15. Ordinary ghosts 1

If the dead are stirred from their slumber by an excess (of innocence, pain, guilt, love, etc.) into arising as ghosts, is mediocrity the path to the beyond? Not the barely-beyond of those that haunt, but the beyond-beyond, the never to be heard from again?

The voices of the ghosts of the mundane dead are as barely audible as their stories are legible in the annals of history. We walk on the sand together looking for shells — each of the grains itself a shell or part of some creature’s remains. But they are not what we mean by ‘shells’, we mean significant ones, bold shapes, bright colors, complete or if not so at least in very large pieces. 1

While the truly tragic seem to have a stranglehold on the spectral, there are examples in fiction of ordinary ghosts — individuals whose minor tragedies (as all, or at least most deaths can be considered as such) and general dead-ness are enough to place them in some spiritual realm alongside Hamlet’s father et al.

In The Undertaker, a short story by Pushkin, the titular character, an Adrian Prokhorov, feels slighted while attending a party. New to town, he was invited to a neighboring shoemaker’s silver wedding anniversary. Those in other professionals seem to hold him and his at a remove — during a toast a police guard turned to Prokhorov, exclaiming (to the laughter of the crowd), “And how about you? Drink, brother, to the health of your corpses.” That labor involving the handling and interment of the dead would be felt apart from that which encompasses plumbing or law or brewing etc. should come as no surprise — it feels quite natural to think of that profession as grim. But to the undertaker, his is a task necessary to be performed for each and every person (in their due time) and thus is no less honorable. Having considered, prior to feeling looked down upon, inviting his neighbors and acquaintances over for a meal, he vows to instead give the same invitation to his customers — the dead.

He goes to sleep angry and a bit drunk, but is awakened with the news of a death, an old widow named Triukhina has died and dealing with this body is part and parcel of his catching up financially. He spends the day dealing with all the arrangements. Upon arriving home they have come… walking into his home the individuals he has buried in various states of decay have responded to his summons and confront him.

“As you see, Prokhorov,” said the brigadier in the name of the whole honorable company, “we have all risen in response to your invitation; only those stayed at home who are by now really incapacitated, who have entirely gone to pieces or have only their bones left without skin […]”

The Sergeant to which Prokhorov sold his very first coffin, at this point not much more than a skeleton, tries to embrace him, is pushed away, crumbles. The crowd is angered and rises against the undertaker when, in a flash, he awakens in bed; not only had his gathering of the dead not happened, so had not the funeral he thought he had prepared the day before.

The dead had not visited, but also he had not been rescued via profit on death. Prokhorov is left in the place his community wished him and his occupation — necessarily apart, neither dispensable nor ordinary, refused the right to certain ambitions by the nature of his profession. We are not given any indication he has learned a lesson — there is no day after scene like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge, having seen the error in his ways via a ghostly visitation does his best to make things right immediately, transforming from miser to philanthropist. 2 Prokhorov’s revelation offers no clear transformation. Assuming he takes his vision to heart, he is simply granted a renewed appreciation for the gravity of his vocation.

More often these bit player ghosts are on their way to some uncertain elsewhere, distinct from the subjects of most literature, trapped in the semi-here-and-now.

16. Ordinary ghosts 2: Violet Hunt

“I do believe,” said the baby farmer, nudging the smart woman, “that we shall find he’s the man who killed his sweetheart and then carefully tied her poor insides all into true lover’s knots with sky-blue ribbon. Artist, indeed! They’re quite common colours — blue and red———”
Violet Hunt, “The Coach”

I’m unsure why I decided on ghosts as a subject, but soon into my poking around the subject I stumbled onto the writing of Violet Hunt, specifically the collection Tales of the Uneasy. Tales of the Uneasy’s nine stories are not all ghost stories though some most certainly are. The supernatural is not a consistent, dependable character whose effects can be depended on from tale to tale. Yet each story shares a concern about the border between life and death, with characters trapped on one side or the other of this wall, and a few times astride it with a foot in each state.

A prolific writer (seventeen novels, memoirs, a biography, extensive diaries), Hunt “liked to think of herself as a ‘’female rake’ who ‘snubbed eligibles on principle’ and preferred married men because ‘no one could imagine that I wanted to catch them.’” 3 An active feminist, each story in Tales of the Uneasy gives its female characters prominence. However (seemingly) in control of their destinies each of these women is Hunt places them at the whims of outside forces both cultural and supernatural, subject to various systems they’ve no suffrage under (the right to vote in the US still a decade away when Tales of the Uneasy was published). At one point in this project I planned on focusing on each of these stories one by one as the basis for the whole text instead of the jumble I’ve decided on. Eventually that structure may return should I compile these already too-long bits into an even longer whole; for now I’ll barrel forward. 4

In Hunt’s “The Coach” we have another example of the ordinary dead. After a painfully well-drawn picture of a scene and a road cutting through it (“… viscous with clay here, shining with quartz there, uncompromising, exact, like the lists of old, dressed for a tourney”), we greet a well-dressed man standing, waiting. 5 Eventually his transport arrives, a spectral carriage containing a group of individuals we are then introduced to. They are all ghosts, the man included, being ferried from one place to another.

“I must say I consider this particular system of soul transference that we have to submit to, very unsettling and productive of restlessness amongst us — a mere survival and tiresome superstition, to my mind. It has one merit; one sees something of the under world, traveling about as we do.” 6

But the underworld here is mapped on the land of the living. The group discuss their vices, how they met their individual demises. These are ordinary people in a sense, but, whether or not it is a coincidence or specific to this particular coach, each met a very violent end — a few at the hands of the state. Someone murdered and by happenstance his murderer, a woman who is a ‘baby farmer’ — a killer of unwanted newborns (darkly, via pure neglect) – they all have generally come to terms with their station in (after)life. 7

On the road they see in the distance a coach of the living. Their path is unwavering; thought at least mostly invisible to the individuals traveling towards them, the spectral travelers threaten to frighten the approaching coach’s horses:

“’Orses can’t abide the sight of us, mostly, no more than they could those nasty motors when they first came in. And we’re worst than motors — they seem to smell us out at once for what we are!” 8

There is nothing to be done — the horses are startled to calamitous effect:

“I shouldn’t be surprised if those two nice girls didn’t join us at the next stage. If they do, we’ll make them tell us how they felt, when they first saw the coachful of ghosts coming down on them. They’re certainly dead, for they were both pitched into the ditch with the cart and horse on top of them.” 9

Fated due this unknown interaction between the under- and over-worlds, these two unknown women meet their fate. These two victims die seemingly randomly, lacking the narrative of the ghost coach’s passengers; this is important as we aren’t to take the cast of characters as indicative of some special set. These are simply some people experiencing a peculiar purgatory, a liminal passage to which all are subject.

There is a strange comfort to the resignation of all in this story, no grudges, no expressed desire to return haunt them. Of the passengers, the two (relatively) innocents highlight this. One, an older lady whose extravagant gambling lifestyle led a pair of individuals to murder and rob her is terribly understanding, knows she took her liberty too far. The other, the murdered gentleman, despite being of some wealth, was growing weary of life — his only regret that his executioner made out with so little money as he carried little cash on his person. He describes his murder as “[…] a murder most apropos.10

Though their destination is unknown, no one is fretting their fate. The ghosts in the dream of Prokhorov might take slight issue with the individual who interred them, but they’ve only been stirred by his request, otherwise remaining beneath the soil gently rotting away.

19. Random dying patterns

In the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 send up of the 1957 Roger Corman western Gunslinger, (anti)hero Cain repeats the well worn dictum “Only the good die young,” to which co-host Tom Servo adds: “…most of us are morally ambiguous — which explains our random dying patterns.”

22. No gravity; then gravity twice


As a child I would be left for a time at the entrance of the grocery store (at my request). I liked the toy section of certain stores, and I’ve always been into the large magazine sections which used to be commonplace, but these were outweighed by the draw of the one or two video games near the door and the candy machines. And the strange joy of stepping on the rubber mat actuator of the automatic doors, an invention made common long before my time yet somehow still impressive to the young me. 11 But quite often, sneakers pressed against mat, the door would refuse to slide open. I could imagine scenarios in dreams where this would occur and I’d be unable to exit whatever grave danger stalked me through the aisles. Surely it failed to open because I was tall but frail and some minimum threshold whereby the door sensed the need to move was close enough to my weight as to ignore it, but I couldn’t escape the impression I maybe didn’t exist, I maybe was a ghost. 12


On the walk to work, on a roughly manicured berm between community college and street, there are some trees pruned all the way back to the start in some sense from whose calloused and swollen post-main-trunk-split grow its branches (all winter-bare) interspersed with low bushes whose foliage is gone leaving a fruitless bramble. In the latter are worn the fallen, well-browned leaves of the former. They’ve fallen and been either pressed into the void left by lost leaves in between twigs or have been speared improbably by the branch ends. A creature, (playing) dead, wearing the shed skin of another.


A strange hobby: a friend and I would look for hard to reach outdoorsy places in San Francisco. He’d bring an old top-loading tape deck and some reggae mixes, I’d bring a vague plan. One especially nice day we clamored around the hills and cliffs between China Beach and the Sutro Baths. There are several not-too-hard to climb down to beaches and small caves to explore, along with strange graffiti spots, wonderful small trees, relative seclusion. The coast is steep and juts out here and there; at low tide you can more or less scramble over rocks or wade around them to access another stretch of sand, another cavelet. But from above, on the path atop the cliff face, one can see even more of these beautiful alcoves far below, seemingly a quick (if sketchy) jaunt down. But scale and distance can be deceiving.

I thought I spotted a way down to a particularly idyllic spot. As the hill decended there were intermittent pine trees of various sizes and gnarled roots kicking up here and there through a bed of dried needles; I imagined that with some ease I could, on my back, scuttle down, sliding almost, from point-to-point most of the way down. My friend was unimpressed with my plan but willing to follow. The first little bit went smooth, but it got steeper and steeper and my grip upon the earth less certain. Slip — then catch my footing on a small outcropping. Slip — ever less certain but again my foot digs in, this time on the root of a cyprus tree. The foliage is thinning now; I’ve not traveled more than a dozen yards but it already feels perilously far to climb back up and a way down has not made itself apparent. And what’s more, how far exactly we are from the beach below is in question. From the path I could see the waves crashing but from where I am now all I see is the ocean. Another few feet crawled and then — slip — the big slip, I’ve no control now and am accelerating fast, sliding on my back, falling, my glasses tumble off, I’m falling, falling, what was only a ridge before now appears as a cliff.

Sliding, falling fast, now certain I’ll die should I go over the edge (I would have). At the last possible moment I reach out and grab the frail trunk of a few-feet-high tree which at this point is hardly three inches round and over —

I can remember clear as day what was going on in my mind as I fell. Not memories, regrets, gods, loved ones, family. Simply this phrase, in my voice, deeper and more certain than it was at that age, saying ‘DON’T DIE.

I’m over the edge, hanging on by only the tree, very much like in a movie. I look down — it is twenty or thirty feet straight down to some large boulders. I quickly, somehow, charged by adrenaline to overcome my intense weakness and lack of upper body strength, pull myself up and back onto the ledge. My friend is halfway down yelling for me; I yell back that I’m okay. On my belly I start to crawl back up, slowly, loosing my grip a bit now and then on the slippery pine needle slope. On the way up I find my glasses, just laying there as if on a bedside table. Eventually I get far enough my friend can help me the rest of the way; we clamber up; we’re back on the path. My clothes are filthy, torn all over. I’m hurt and bleeding, but we’re kinda laughing?

We cackled hard about it. Painful, deep, unstoppable laughter, as hard as I’ve ever laughed in my life. All the while I was bleeding through my shredded t-shirt; no deep wounds but enough to discourage such a fall again; in the back of my mind I tried to plot my explanation to my girlfriend of my sorry state. Dirty, bloody, laughing.


(End part 3 of 4)

  1. Sometimes the opposite is true. We love our cat, but at night on the same beach feral cats are seen trundling about on their own adventures and should one deign to respond to our ‘Here Kitty-Kitty!’s and various snaps and non-verbal cajolings we will realize we love cats nearly as much as we love our own.
  2. From The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson, 1992): Narrator: But the thing that made Scrooge happiest of all... was that his life lay before him and it could be changed. Scrooge: Oh. Heaven and the Christmas time be praised for this day. I say it on my knees. Jacob Marley. On my knees. Oh. They're not torn down. They're here. And I'm here. More is the miracle. I don't know what to do. I-I'm as light as a feather. I'm as happy as an angel. I'm... I'm as merry as a schoolboy. You there. Boy. Boy: What. Me? Uh. That is. What. Me. Sir? Scrooge: What's today? Boy: Pardon? Scrooge: What's today. My fine fellow? Boy: Today? Well. Today is Christmas Day. Scrooge: It's Christmas Day? I haven't missed it. The spirits did it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can.
  3. Cribbed from a review of a book about Hunt’s diaries: Hodgson, Moira. "A Female Rake." The New York Times, October 21, 1990. Hunt’s biography is terribly interesting; for instance she held literary salons at her home with guests such as (from her Wiki) Rebecca West, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry James.
  4. Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’s plot hinges more on a Hitchcockian double, the female protagonist is stand-in for Violet Hunt, a ‘Violet Hunter’. It is a tale boiling over with gothic horror staples — a child that is cruel to animals, a frightening demon dog (reminiscent of Doyle’s own beasts in The Hound of the Baskervilles), a mysterious secret wing of an old mansion. Doyle and Hunt ran in similar circles and were no doubt aware of each other’s practices. Bart Sells His Soul In a further connection, the character Violet Hunter recurs in Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds, an unofficial sequel to The War of the Worlds , a strange pastiche/crossover tale by Manly Wade Wellman. In it, Hunter is said to be the wife of the first mate on ‘Thunder Child,’ a ship that appears in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Wells is one of many authors to whom Hunt’s was intimately connected. This is all anecdote — the connection I’ve made is as much an accident as anything else — a search for ‘Violet Hunt’ dragging up the character ‘Violet Hunter’, opening up a worm hole that thankfully I reached the other side of relatively unscathed. Maybe the point I’m trying to make is — please name a character Aaron Harboursen or something similar in your next book; spend a few lines describing his remarkable poise.
  5. Hunt, Violet. "The Carriage." In Tales of the Uneasy. Ashcroft, B.C.: Ash-Tree, 2004.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The baby farmer is maligned by her fellow travelers: “Funny, though, how seriously you all take it, even here! The feeling against my profession seems absurdly strong below as above. [...] But those shivering, shrinking women that came to me, some of them hardly out of their teens, some of them so delicate they had no right to have a baby at all! […] But Lord! – Society, to cry shame on me for it! They might as well hang any other useful public servant, like dustmen, rat-catchers, and such-like ridders of pests.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid. “I’ve often longed to get the ear of the jury who tried a man for relieving me of my light purse and intolerably heavy life, and tell them my own proper feelings. […] I got my desire – kind, speedy, merciful, violent death.”
  11. Googling "what year did automatic doors" (not the best phrasing but I’m looking at it, and it is what I used…) returns a pre-response answer of “'From When the Sleeper Wakes', by H.G. Wells. The first automatic sliding doors for use by people were invented in 1954 by Lew Hewitt and Dee Horton; the first one was installed in 1960. It made use of a mat actuator.”
  12. I think I saw this after this sensation making it that much more eerie, but in an episode of The Simpsons, "Bart Sells His Soul", (which he doesn’t believe exists) to a more than happy to deal Milhouse. The family pets respond coldly to him, an automatic door fails to open for him; Bart becomes increasingly frightened and tries to get back his ‘soul’, now owned by Comic Store Guy. It is a weird premise — the writers of the episode clearly are advocating for the real existence of a soul.
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