Postmodernist Ghosts

Katherine Ramsland. Ghost: Investigating the Other Side. Thomas Dunne Books / St Martins Press, 2001.

John Rackham. Brighton Ghosts: Hove Hauntings: True Ghost Stories from Brighton, Hove and Neighbouring Villages. Latimer Publications, 2001.
Most ghost story books published these days are the productions of the heritage history and tend to recount the folklore of past generations. These books, though that is perhaps not the authors actual intentions, recount modern folklore.

We can see ghost stories as means of dealing with personal and collective history. The essence of ghost narratives is the encounter with a history which has escaped from the pages of the texts and has impinged into direct experience. This off-campus history mediated through folklore is the history which is felt in the bones, and which continues to haunt and oppress the living. We might call this history 'the narratives of the dead'.

From these books we can sense that postmodern ghost stories reflect the end of the history, and the failure of grand narratives. Even compared with a generation or two ago, the ghost stories related by John Rackham have largely lost narrative coherence; the dead are seen simply as an inchoate force for chaos. In these stories the constant theme of interference with electrical equipment mirrors this sense of history being an irrelevant nuisance whose sole activity is to interfere with our rational modern lives. The great rages of English history have perhaps now been laid to rest, the long memory of such ancient traumas as the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Civil War have faded away. It is perhaps significant that the last coherent narrative of the dead to survive is one of class and sexual oppression, the repeated legends of maids committing suicide after having been impregnated by wicked employers.

In the modern ghostlore of America, as narrated by Kathleen Ramsland, the dead are reduced to blotches of light on digital cameras and incoherent growls of rage and pain on cassette recorders. The dead are faceless, voiceless and nameless. History there is angrier and closer to the surface; there are after all still people alive whose grandparents fought in the American Civil War, or who were slaves. Ramsland tells us with no hint of irony that the South loves its ghosts, still haunted by the past that will not die.

Ramsland's quest for the ghost of an alleged serial killer whose ring she was given seems to be part of her larger quest for the 'heart of darkness' which has seen her write biographies of horror story authors, investigate America's vampire subculture, and write a tourist guide to cemeteries, as well as having a one time career as a forensic psychologist. If Ramsland is to be believed, her childhood home town had its own serial killer, whose victims included her acquaintances. Coming into possession of a dangerous and demonic ring which threatens to corrupt all who come into contact with it, and in the end must be thrown away sounds a bit familiar, and parts of her book read like a cross between the X files and Buffy. How very different from our own dear Mrs Sidgwick. All I can say is if Kathleen Ramsland ever writes the biography of Whitley Streiber the result should be very interesting. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

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