These shortened days and long, shadowed nights are a perfect backdrop for Halloween— which hides around the corner. It is also the optimum time of year for tales of ghosts and goblins and things ‘that go bump in the night.’
Ghost stories! Who hasn’t heard at least one that sent a delicious sliver of ice up the spine? There is something about the unknown that both beckons and frightens. Reading (or writing) such a story sends us out to walk down a long dark road and makes us turn a corner to find… what? Ah, what indeed.
You have a favorite ghost story, don’t you? Growing up in Japan, I heard more than my share. Usually these were told in August rather than in October, the rationale being that in this Obon season spirits of the dead returned for a visit. Also, the terrifying stories were supposed to work better than air conditioners to make listeners shiver.
And shiver I did. The Japanese ghosts meant business. Instead of gore and outright violence, the specters that I most feared preyed on the subconscious, defying the listener to guess whether what was happening was reality or hallucination. Instead of leaping up and yelling ‘Boo,” like any self-respecting apparition, they would slither up behind and gently lay a cold hand on the shoulder.
That tale, long ago
Waits until the lonely dark…
Then sighs in my ear.
One tale in particular—something called Yotsuya Kwaidan (or ‘Ghost Story Of Yotsuya’) involved a man who murdered his gentle and loving wife in order to marry a rich man’s daughter. The dead lady’s ghost was anything but gentle or kind, and she exacted terrible vengeance in a sequence which kept me from turning off any of my bedroom lights for a week… never mind that I was 16 and all grown up!
I have never actually seen a ghost, but while we lived in Thailand many years ago it wasn’t difficult to imagine disembodied beings lurking about. Back then one had only to travel outside the city to enter a world where there were no lights anywhere. Here great palm trees threw sinister shadows along the ground and the imagination ran riot. And though I never met a ghost personally, the house in which we lived was said to have a visiting Presence in the wraith of our landlord’s late first wife. We never did encounter her, but one evening our Thai cook came racing down the stairs shouting, “Pii ma leo!” thus announcing the arrival of the Ghost.Mike remarked that as long as the lady was around, she might as well pay some of the rent.
I don’t think we ever really outgrow our campfire fascination for the dark unknown. Young (and older) readers regularly delve into stories about vampires and werewolves, and writers enjoy such tales (I know that I had fun writing my one ghostly novel, The Promise). So, as the shadows lengthen and a cold breeze wraps itself around our ankles, we shiver deliciously… and imagine, or read, or write, or tell yet another story that will send icy fingers dancing across the spine.
In the moonless night
What is that thin, dark shadow
That glides before us?