Self Help with Hera Lindsay Bird

The Burning of the Cliff House, San Francisco, California 1907

Q: How do ghosts keep fit?

A: Regular exorcise

 

Q: Why are ghosts bad at telling lies?

A: Because you can see right through them

 

Q: What kind of roads do ghosts haunt?

A: Dead ends

 

*

 

In my first year of university, I studied ‘Turn of the Screw.’ The story was known as a ghost story until at least a decade had past, and popular critics at the time began to question the veracity of the governess’s narrative. The book was popularly reinterpreted to allow for the Freudian possibility that the governess was driven mad by a nebulous and unspecific ‘sexual hysteria’ that made her hallucinate two phantom groundskeepers, causing her to, for undisclosed female reasons, strangle a child to death.

It was the beginning of spring, and each day I sat in a lecture hall, listening to a group of bright young men in vintage trenchcoats, debate the ins and outs of female hysteria in the late Victorian novel. Every day I walked out of the dark lecture theatre, last century’s ghosts burning off and dissolving in sunlight. Eventually I stopped going to tutorials, then I stopped going to lectures, then I dropped out of school to spend more quality time at the lakeside, drowning my children in peace.

 

*

 

Sometimes I don’t know what my problem is. Banal literary sexism aside, I like a good mad-woman as much as the next person. Like Bertha Mason, I too live in an attic.

I know everyone loves death of the author, but sometimes it makes me tired. Writing these days is too much like a murder on a train where everyone did it.

Critics of James have argued that it doesn’t matter which version of the story you choose – perhaps neither are right. It’s the conspicuous ambiguity that gives the story its depth of horror. But I’ve had just about enough of ambiguity. I want my ghosts back

 

*

 

For the longest time, I was convinced I was in a ghost story, but I didn’t think I was the ghost. I thought I was the one being haunted. But the end of every ghost story is exactly the same. You always get to the last scene, and realise you were Bruce Willis all along.

 

*

 

‘Unreliable female narrator’ is such a gentle term for what essentially now means ‘definite child murderer.’ Unreliable, as a descriptor, sounds more like Julian’s mother forgetting to pick him up from clarinet practice rather than Julian’s mother taking his clarinet and savagely beating him to death with it, but that’s popular narrative convention for you.

Shirley Jackson was very influenced by Henry James, and her heroines always appear on literary countdowns of unreliable narrators in literature, but they never sit well alongside the rest. I don’t mind my female characters to be slowly poisoning the village well, but I like them at least to have the personal integrity and strength of character to be doing it on purpose. I have been thinking for a long time about Shirley Jackson, and the difference between her work and other instances of unreliable female narrators, and there is a lot I could say, but it always boils down to this: Shirley Jackson is always on the side of ghosts, and her ghosts always win.

To say Jackson’s characters win, may sound incongruous when coupled with their respective fates. But anyone who has read her novels knows what I mean. Whether her heroines are imprisoned in the shell of a burned-down mansion, or moments away from a suicidal car crash, they still appear to me victorious, even in defeat. They pay a terrible price for their freedom, but freedom is always the golden chalice at the end of Jackson’s novels.

Biographies of Jackson often centre on her paralysing agoraphobia, and the details of her personal life are often read in tandem with her last book ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle.’ But Shirley Jackson’s last book wasn’t really her last book, and her agoraphobia wasn’t so straight-forward either. Jackson’s daughter said her mother was totally incapable of walking to the village shops for a litre of milk, but was able to drive miles out of town and be at complete ease around strangers. Her agoraphobia was more than fear of the outside world, it was personal. Her agoraphobia had a pharmacy and a post office. Her agoraphobia had a zip code.

 

*

 

To be a ghost is to think you are alive, and being haunted by the living

To be a ghost is to move cups around the house all day, and punish small objects

To be a ghost is to hang on to a past you think is still present

 

I recently found an old note saved on my phone that I can’t remember writing. The note just says ‘the only way to survive a ghost story is to become the ghost yourself.’ It was probably around this time, I decided I needed to give the whole Henry James thing a rest.

 

*

 

I am finding it harder and harder to write this column.

I used to think I was a person who liked to think about the past, but I’m getting tired of the past. I’m getting tired of ghosts, too.

Someone once said that the definition of a ghost is unfinished business, which should make Warren Buffett the biggest Scooby Doo villain of all time, but capitalism aside; I don’t feel like I have anything left to say about the past. I should hang up my ball and chain and get a better job.

 

I’m finding it difficult to remember why ghost stories mattered to me. I think that most ghost stories are, on some level, about loneliness. But let me scrape aside the cobwebs for a moment to say: describing the past as a ghost story is narrative laziness.

Every story has an invisible story running beneath it, and the central story, no matter how opaque, is always in service to the second. Jealousy is a premonition of loss, a second-hand nostalgia projected large onto the living surface of love. Love, which falling back, casts its shadow forward.

David Foster Wallace popularized (* or invented, the jury is still out) the phrase ‘every love story is a ghost story, but every ghost story is a love story too. One in which the daily alchemy of the past appears muted – but is always looming, in all it’s complexity, and video games, and hot-dog stalls. All our ghosts, filtered back each day into sunlight. Love, in the wake of love, growing back again, even as our roofs burn away.

 

Hera Lindsay Bird is a writer from Wellington,New Zealand. Her debut book of poetry is coming out with Victoria University Press in 2016. You can follow her here: https://twitter.com/HeraLindsayBird

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