dennis mcfarland   Some Thoughts on Ghosts and Death  
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  Because I've written a ghost story, a lot of people have asked me whether or not I believe in ghosts. It's a more interesting and perhaps more difficult question than it first appears, since the very word ghost enjoys in our everyday usage such a variety of applications. But most people simply want to know whether or not I believe that the spirits of the deceased linger in the material world and engage with those of us still inhabiting our temples of flesh and blood. For me, the answer is a case of wanting to have my cake and eat it too. I don't especially believe in ghosts--I have no experience with having seen one; certainly I haven't conversed with any as my character,

Cookson Selway, does with such regular eagerness--but apparently I do have some beliefs about ghosts. In A Face at the Window, I was writing out of the literary tradition of ghost tales, not out of any tradition of paranormal discourse, so my beliefs are actually more like intuitions; they're based on the idea of ghosts that has provided the motif for so much fictional elaboration from the past.

If the spirits of the dead do linger, it seems to me that they require the attention and support of someone "living" in the conventional sense. This living person may not even see himself as a willing collaborator, but either through reckless curiosity or unchecked fear he provides the energy necessary for the spirit to have whatever sway it means to have. In A Face at the Window, I take this premise to an extreme by making Cookson Selway the ghosts' source of power; when they're around, he quickly becomes exhausted. It's soon clear that in his readiness to be intrigued he functions as a willing host to their basically parasitic natures. The implication here is that his willingness to play host reveals a spiritual weakness in himself, a gross immaturity, an emptiness-one he'd better see about getting fixed if he wants to avoid harming himself and others. In the past, because of these flaws, he used drugs and alcohol; now, for the exact same reasons, he's "using" the ghosts (even as they're using him).

The most commonplace notion about ghosts is that they are spirits who can't move on to their proper destination because of unresolved issues here on earth. If you want to "de-ghost" a house, you bring in a ghost shrink to hold a few therapy sessions. Cookson Selway, in his folly, thinks he's just the man for this job and even imagines that Fate has put him at the haunted Hotel Willerton for this purpose. But when he proposes this idea to one of the ghosts, she laughs at him. The very idea of "moving on" is comical to her. It turns out that the manifestations Cookson is so intrigued by aren't stranded spirits needing to move on, but the useless residue of spirits who have already moved on--in short, garbage. If ghosts are indeed garbage, all the more reason not to pay any attention to them. Partly, this is my way of making Cookson's enterprise misguided, and partly it's my way of taking a commonplace idea--that seems a little unconvincing and trying to debunk it. (It's one of several devices I use to trick myself into writing something as long as a novel. In my first book, The Music Room, I considered the commonly held notion that when people commit suicide, you can trace the secret misery that drove them to it; the man in that story, who embarks on a journey to find the single key that will unlock the mystery of his younger brother's suicide, finds that there is no such key--that the "reason" for the suicide is nothing shorter than the complicated narrative of their family. In School for the Blind, I show characters in their seventies going through some of the most enormous changes of their lives--my way of trying to debunk the large misconception that very old people are beyond serious personal evolutions.)

People have pointed out to me that death figures significantly in the three books I've written so far. The reason for this has almost nothing to do with death itself, but everything to do with the enormous confusion and loss that death poses for characters left behind. When I was first learning to write, I learned from Flannery O'Connor that most people are good at heart, but need to get hit on the head, hard, on a regular basis, in order to keep them good. A confrontation with death, in some form, often provides such a blow. No doubt the blow is as severe as it is because there's nothing the character can do--with any amount of power, wherewithal, ingenuity, or atonement--to undo death. He can't change it, though, maybe, if he's lucky, he can be changed by it.

Finally, let me make an observation about popular culture. I've seen, especially in films and television, that death is used again and again as the solution to--and not the cause of--the problem the narrative explores. Since these narratives usually involve clear-cut good guys and bad guys, it means the bad guys die in the end. (That they often die at the hands of the good guys, and what this may imply about the good guys is a complication beyond the scope of most movies.) The demise of the bad guys means to answer the well-developed need on the part of the audience to see the bad guys pay for their crimes. But am I the only one who feels, when this happens, that the bad guys got off easy? I wonder if the overuse of death as the price for evildoing is a decidedly nineties thing (which happens to coincide with a reemergence of enthusiasm for the death penalty): the writers seem to think that not being here anymore, deprived of all the fun stuff you're used to doing--shopping, dating, kicking butt--is the worst thing that can happen to you. But for those of us who've noticed that having to face the consequences of our actions can be one of the most painful experiences life has to offer--having to live with those consequences--the bad guys, getting killed, appear to have been saved. Just when your hunger for justice grows sharp, just when you're starting to imagine their imminent humiliation, the hand of death swoops down and spares them. It looks like a reprieve .

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Copyright © 1997 Dennis McFarland.