Serendipity: The Existence of Ghosts

My Belief Is: They Exist

The Original Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax is like a sort of souk for tourists and those L.A. natives who like to sit and reflect while drinking a cup of tea or eating a good lunch. I sat there this morning reading Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames, when I ran across this passage:

“Well, yes. Everyone is attended by ghosts,” Iggy said. What matters is whether we begin to attend to them.”

“How do you mean?”

“With some people, the ghosts are transparencies, barely visible as they hover around, sit at the table next to them and so on. They are particularly hard to see in bright sunlight. Sometimes, when memories are revisited, there is a flickering of light and shadow, image and text across them, and for a moment they flare up and then vanish.”

“So are you saying that ghosts are our memories?”

“Ghosts are the things, the shapes we make with our memories,” she said.

“Ah. So if some are light like…”

“Like well-worn lace drapes blowing in the wind.”

Black smiled.

“Yeah, like that. Then what are the other ghosts like? The ones we attend?”

“Like thick black lines drawn in a notebook. They are visible, brooding dark clouds that we drag around with us like reluctant sulky children. We feed them and they grow big and their haunting dominates our lives. We love them and we hate them and we are always measuring them for a coffin, yet we cannot let them die.”

“Why?”

”Madness, my friend. Madness.”

 

 

Koizumi Yakumo

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904)

Martine is gone, and the terrible heat of the last ten days is slowly beginning to abate. I find that I am reading more than ever. (How much more can I read than I’m reading now, I do not know. So far eighteen books this month.) The most recent is by an American who became a Japanese. I refer to Lafcadio Hearn, who went under the Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo. He married a Japanese wife, raised four children with her. It appears that I have many of Hearn’s books about Japan, which were published by Charles E. Tuttle & Company of Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan in paperback editions during the 1970s.

When I was traveling to and from Dartmouth College, I took a White River Coach from Hanover to White River Junction, and from hence another White River Coach to Rutland. At Rutland, I would wait for the Vermont Transit bus that would take me to Albany, New York, where I would board the New York Central night train to Chicago, which let me off in Cleveland. There, my parents waited for me.

Because of Tuttle’s proximity, while at Dartmouth I grew interested in Japanese culture. I attended an exhibit of Sesshu Toyo’s “Long Scroll” at Hopkins Center, and saw all the Japanese films that came my way. One of the best of them is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965), made the year before I graduated.

Scene from Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965)

It is only now, more than fifty years after I graduated, that I picked up my copy of Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) and began reading it with increasing enjoyment. The Kobayashi film took four stories from Hearn’s works, two of them from the book entitled Kwaidan. I was enthralled by Hearn’s stories, such that I can see myself picking the other Hearns off the shelf (I have almost ten of them) and reading them with intense pleasure. The book is not all ghost stories: At the end are three delightful essays about butterflies, mosquitoes, and ants as seen in Chinese and Japanese cultures.  Here is a brief excerpt from his essay on ants:

The work daily performed by these female [ant] laborers comprises road-making, bridge-building, timber-cutting, architectural construction of numberless kinds, horticulture and agriculture, the feeding and sheltering of a hundred varieties of domestic animals, the manufacture of sundry chemical products, the storage and conservation of countless food-stuffs, and the care of the children of the race. All this labor is done for the commonwealth—no citizen of which is capable even of thinking about “property,” except as a res publica;—and the sole object of the commonwealth is the nurture and training of its young,—nearly all of whom are girls. The period of infancy is long: the children remain for a great while, not only helpless, but shapeless, and withal so delicate that they must be very carefully guarded against the least change of temperature. Fortunately their nurses understand the laws of health: each thoroughly knows all that she ought to know in regard to ventilation, disinfection, drainage, moisture, and the danger of germs,—germs being as visible, perhaps, to her myopic sight as they become to our own eyes under the microscope. Indeed, all matters of hygiene are so well comprehended that no nurse ever makes a mistake about the sanitary conditions of her neighborhood.

In spite of this perpetual labor no worker remains unkempt: each is scrupulously neat, making her toilet many times a day. But as every worker is born with the most beautiful of combs and brushes attached to her wrists, no time is wasted in the toilet-room. Besides keeping themselves strictly clean, the workers must also keep their houses and gardens in faultless order, for the sake of the children. Nothing less than an earthquake, an eruption, an inundation, or a desperate war, is allowed to interrupt the daily routine of dusting, sweeping, scrubbing, and disinfecting.

For many years, much of what the West knew about Japan came from Hearn’s pen. I cannot imagine a more delightful introduction to any culture.

Getting Ready for Halloween

On Reading Ghost Stories

On Reading Ghost Stories

For several years now, I have been reading collections of horror stories published by Dover Publications. Apparently, there are so many of them, that I haven’t come anywhere near reading all of them. Here is a partial list of titles in this series:

  • Algernon Blackwood: Best Ghost Stories
  • J. Sheridan LeFanu: Best Ghost Stories
  • Bram Stoker: Best Ghost and Horror Stories
  • Arthur Conan Doyle: Best Supernatural Tales
  • Robert Louis Stevenson: The Body Snatcher and Other Tales
  • Hugh Lamb (ed.): A Bottomless Grave and Other Victorian Tales of Terror
  • Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto
  • Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol
  • John Grafton (ed.): Classic Ghost Stories (I just finished this one tonight)
  • Algernon Blackwood: The Complete John Silence Stories
  • Bram Stoker: Dracula
  • E. F. Bleiler (ed.): Five Victorian Ghost Novels
  • Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (In four editions!)
  • Hugh Lamb (ed.): Gaslit Horror and Gaslit Nightmares
  • J. Sheridan LeFanu: Ghost Stories and Mysteries
  • M. R. James: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
  • Ambrose Bierce: Ghost and Horror Stories
  • James Reynolds: Ghosts in Irish Houses

And this only takes us through the letter “G” in the alphabetical list of ghost titles. I have read almost all of these, and I have yet to find a bad collection (though some individual short stories may not be up to the general level).

I strongly recommend that you check out the excellent website of Dover Publications. The books are relatively inexpensive to begin with, but once they have our e-mail address, you will receive many attractive offers.

Then you, too, can shudder and shake your way through the dread month of October.

 

Ghost Duds

If They’re Spirits, Why Do Ghosts Wear Clothes?

If They’re Spirits, Why Do Ghosts Wear Clothes? (If Not Shoes)

I don’t often do this, but the subject whetted my appetite. The following comes verbatim from a November 24, 2013 posting on Futility Closet. Do visitors from the spirit realms have an innate sense of modesty? Do they not want to arouse our lubricity or disgust? Or do they not want to leave their clothing in—of all places—the Futility Closet? Come to think of it, the one ghost I saw—that of my Great Grandmother Lydia—was fully clothed in her normal everyday wear. Anyhow here goes:

Why do ghosts wear clothes? If a ghost is the spirit of a living creature, how can it carry its inanimate garments into the afterlife?

“How do you account for the ghosts’ clothes — are they ghosts, too?” asked the Saturday Review in 1856. “What an idea, indeed! All the socks that never came home from the wash, all the boots and shoes which we left behind us worn out at watering-places, all the old hats which we gave to crossing-sweepers … What a notion of heaven — an illimitable old clothes-shop, peopled by bores, and not a little infested with knaves!”

In 1906 psychic researcher Andrew Lang argued that, far from confusing the notion of an afterlife, ghosts’ clothing might even help to corroborate its existence. “A pretty instance occurs, I think, in a biography of Warren Hastings. The anecdote, as I remember it, avers that at a meeting of the Council of the East India Company in Calcutta one of the members (I think several shared the experience) saw his own father, wearing a hat of a peculiar shape, hitherto strange to the observers. In due time came a ship from London bearing news of the father’s death, and a large and well-selected assortment of the new hat fashionable in England. It was the hat worn by the paternal appearance! If the circumstances are recorded in the minutes of the proceedings of the Council, which I have not consulted, then the hat of that spook becomes important as evidence.”

Even if we grant that a dead person can convey his most personal belongings into the afterlife, how are we to account for phantom ships, coaches, and railway trains? In his 1879 book The Spirit World, American spiritualist Eugene Crowell decided that, rather than being the spirits of “dead” earthly conveyances, these are constructed in the afterlife by the ghosts of mariners and railwaymen who want to ply their trades again. Spectral ships “glide over the waves without sinking,” Crowell explained, “and earthly winds propel them at rates of speed which our ships cannot attain.” If that’s true, then perhaps some ghostly tailor is simply manufacturing clothes for the naked spirits of the newly dead. Decent of him.

The Guardian

A Job for All Time

A Job for All Time

On my first day in Reykjavik on June 20, I had a challenge: To stay awake until it was time to go to bed on Greenwich Mean Time.The problem is, I started the day on Pacific Daylight Time, which added seven hours to the usual twenty-four.

By the way, there is no Daylight Savings Time in Iceland because—duh!—it’s the Land of the Midnight Sun, and it remains light at all hours.

One way I managed this was to take GoEcco’s Haunted Walk of Reykjavik. From my readings in the Medieval Sagas, I was already interested in Icelandic ghosts, so it was a natural for me. I was fortunate that the walk was given by a historian familiar with the Sagas (shown below).

Say, Isn’t That a Ghost on the Left?

Say, Isn’t That a Ghost on the Left?

One of the places we visited was Fossvogur Cemetery near the University. Our guide told us an interesting story about an old Icelandic custom:

Icelandic folk beliefs hold that the first person to be buried in a cemetery will be its ’guardian’ and that the body will not rot but serve to watch over those arriving later.  In Fossvogur the ‘guardian’ is Gunnar Hinriksson, a weaver, buried there on 2nd September 1932.

The tombstone of the cemetery guardian contains the image of a lit oil lamp as shown in the top photograph. Now, not everyone wanted their loved ones to serve as the guardian of the cemetery for all time; and, in fact, a number of people who died prior to 1932 were buried there.

Fossvogur is one of two cemeteries I visited in Iceland. The other was on Heimaey in the Westman Islands. I remembered videos of the 1973 eruption of the volcano Eldfell that showed a fall of ash and lava that covered the cemetery to a depth of several feet. It was cleaned up and is now in immaculate condition.