Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Should We Kick The Ghosts Out Of Crime Fiction?


Fat chance of that happening.  But there are many among us who want their cake without ice cream, their scotch without soda, and their mysteries without haints.

Many avid readers of Ed McBain expressed dismay whenever the author wandered into the twilight zone, as in his novel Ghosts--which was meant as a sort of a Christmas gift to his readers.  I recall one reader who swore off McBain after reading it, who demanded some kind of warning label on any novels touched by the ecoplastic fingers of the surreal, like a red S on the spine of the book.

Over at author Declan Burke's excellent blog the other day, he wrote upon this regarding the novels of John Connolly:

"...John Connolly has refined the supernatural aspect of his earlier Charlie Parker novels, so that he’s now using the gothic tropes to go after a far more profound effect. There’s a scene in THE BURNING SOUL in which Charlie Parker comes downstairs in the middle of the night to find his TV on, cartoons playing, this in the midst of pursuing a case in which a young girl has been abducted. It’s a chilling piece of writing, certainly, but what it suggested to me was that Connolly wasn’t simply invoking ghosts and suchlike, but going after a far more subtle quality, attempting - successfully, in my opinion - to verbalise a sense of otherworldliness that is neither supernatural nor religious, although you could argue that it has a spiritual dimension."

"Maybe that’s just me, and maybe I should lay off the Kool-Aid while reading John Connolly, but I honestly think that viewing such aspects of his work, particularly over the last three or four novels, simply as ‘supernatural’ is to miss out on a far more delicate process of investigation that lies somewhere between a rationalising philosophy and an instinctive grasping after the ineffable."

No apology is necessary for Dr. Connolly's series protagonist, haunted by the past and especially by the deaths of his wife and daughter.  Our best fiction has always gone after the transcendent.  If the author doesn't overtly supply the transcendent, the reader has to read between the lines and supply it himself through a personal interpretation.  Otherwise, at least to this reader, the book seems flat, just ink upon paper, a broken mirror with no reflection.

Charlie Parker ruminates; he has a gift for soliloquy.  Readers with a similar experience or an evolved empathy will always understand.  This isn't real; it is fiction, a cerebral performance; the lessons taught here are always in metaphor.  Actors upon the stage.  Three witches enter, stage left.

A bit earlier this month, I blogged about Stephen King's Danse Macabre, quoting him on the Halloween "Tarot cards," the archetypes of the vampire, the wolf man, and others.  He says he excluded the Ghost, the most powerful Halloween Tarot card, from his discussion because the archetype of the ghost trumps everything and "spreads across too broad of an area."

King says, "The archetype of the Ghost is, after all, the Mississippi of all supernatural fiction," and it must be discussed at length because no particular novel can carry all of its varied implications.  Ghosts are a part of us, often natural things upon which we project supernatural roles.

Indeed, we can be haunted by the past, which no longer exists; we can also be haunted by our suppressed guilt, for our acts or failures to act; we can be haunted by our suppressed animal nature, haunted by suppressed desire, haunted by missing loved ones, and haunted by the denied certainty of our pending deaths.  In our literature, all of these things can easily manifest themselves as ghosts.

Ghosts are a part of us, even if we're staunch materialists who deny any spiritual attribute.  As Stephen King points out, we may not consciously believe in ghosts but they are a central part of the myth pool, that body of fictive literature in which all of us, even the nonreaders and people who do not go to films, have communally bathed."

We're ghosts ourselves.  We appear and vanish.  Take a look at your own self.  Who are you?  Let's peel the onion.  Let's take away those things which were temporarily given to you by happenstance and will, sooner or later, be taken away forever.  Beneath every layer, there's another layer, until we get down to the flesh and bones, our rags of light.

That's still you in there.  But now let's disconnect that part of the brain which holds the memories of the past.  You recover to walk and talk, as many stroke victims do, but you can't recognize anyone or remember the past.  You don't know your spouse, nor can you remember that you have children.  Is your self still yourself?  Does the you that's you still exist?

And should you have another stroke and become functionally brain dead, where have you gone?  Is that still you in the body you have lived in for so many years?  Then the material body perishes completely, and what is left?

As Stephen Dobyns' had it in The Wrestler's Cruel Study, we may peel the last layer of the onion back and find "only wind and a dark place."  Ghosts ourselves.  No real thing.  Spiritual entities, alien to this material vale, having a temporary illusionary physical experience. 

Perhaps.  I believe it myself.  But to materialists in this vale, ghosts we are, no matter how you slice it, and the mystery remains.

Ghosts stand for the mystery.  Ghosts are what's left when everything's gone, without observers to calculate the zero representing nothing.  Ghosts are the beginning before the beginning, the unknown something from out of the void.  The question is:  Why does existence bother to exist?  Or if you prefer, why would a Holy Ghost bother with the animation of clay?  Perhaps ghosts are lonely like God--or like Walt Disney's lonesome ghosts. 

Ghosts can be even more than that, of course.  The ghost is the joker in the deck, a wild card in the life of the imagination that can shapeshift to play a role in any hand, regardless of the other cards dealt.  Angels, devils, messengers, guardians, doppelgangers, revenants, lost wanderers, benign observers, comic relief, lovers, crazies, harbingers, etc.

Ghosts multitask; they are the uninvited voices of our subconscious, the dim articulations of our dreams, the black magic at the end of realism, the hound of heaven we think we hear up ahead howling in the future--lost in the cloud of unknowing.  Perhaps a ghost takes a hand in quantum theory, or perhaps as an accomplice in Godel's system without the system that can logically explain the system.

Ghosts can even appear in mystery novels.

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