Now Audrey Niffenegger clearly knows a thing or two about the dark, macabre and the gothic. Hanging out in Highgate Cemetary can only result in a more fervent eye toward such matters- something that any reader of ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ or ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ would eagerly concur with. If you want a brooding story with an unsettling tone and haunting sense of yearning then she is your author! Imagine my delight, then, last Halloween when it became abundantly apparent that she had curated and illustrated an anthology of haunting stories. If you are beginning to know anything about me, then it will come as no surprise that I was straight into my nearest bookshop to snatch up a copy of ‘Ghostly’ as fast as my greedy and expectant mitts could cooperate (basically immediately)!
It will also come as no surprise to you that this rapid determination, could not follow through when it came to said reading. Not because this collection somehow diminished in appeal (as if) but purely because I always have an astronomical to be read pile, that just keeps increasing like some sick, but albeit pleasurable joke. While I did tuck in with gusto, somehow I got waylaid- something it took several months to rekindle. This is not because the selection was somehow lacking. Indeed, Niffenegger has weaved together the selected stories with real sensitivity. They ebb and flow with a respectful reverence toward their accordant subject matter, in a way that both heightens and draws contrasts in meaning as one story ends and the next begins. It really must be noted that this is a mark of her skill. Great ghostly stories are often placed in such anthologies: rarely do they weave together in such a manner. Rarely do we then consider them as a whole- for ghost stories, in their usual short- form are written to be enjoyed alone in more ways than one. No, instead my pause was garnered by the particular effect the centrepiece of this collection rendered on my poor senses: Oliver Onions’ ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ rendered me mute and unable to continue.
As anyone who has encountered a particularly powerful story will testify, sometimes you must cease and allow your subconscious the space to process and recover from such an unexpected effect. While I am not entirely sure why it held such magnetic sway, well apart from the psychological malaise it infused via its central protagonist and the brooding, oppressive atmosphere that seeped through its pages and into my psyche as it’s dank, maudlin environs overpowered those that resided in its pages, what I do know is that it felt better to wrap myself in less affecting prose and allow myself to detangle from its grasp. Yet, like all compulsions it was only a matter of time before I once more immersed myself in this tome and surrendered myself to whatever awful fate may befall me.
Perhaps such an extended pause was really about allowing myself time to process the explicit mastery encountered in this particular tale. The best of any ghostly fiction must surely recognise that success comes from creating the requisite atmosphere to compound our uncertainties and fears- which it must do in such a way that does not reveal to us how it drawn us in or suspended our disbelief. Confusion and uncertainty are then key ingredients. That Niffenegger would include this story in exactly the position that she has in this collections’ chronology only further highlights the mastery and knowledge of this genre AND of how fear works. This reveals her skill in all its glory. Such confidence then also allows the full range of writing that this genre can muster to sing together and educate us- showing us all the directions that great ghost stories can take. Who could not enjoy the humorous departure of a bachelor haunted by the fear of marriage in ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’ (light relief at just the right moment). Or the art of the twist in the masterfully short ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’. Kelly Link’s ‘Tiny Ghosts’ just makes me want to read her work voraciously (especially after scoring a promotional copy of ‘The Summer People’ from Canongate- which was bloody excellent): who says ghosts are in charge of the scares! Enough said.
While I could explore EVERY included story in miniatuae, it has to be A S Byatts’ haunting ‘The July Ghosts’ that had the most emotional impact. The beautiful prose adeptly explains the yearning that loss brings with it, so lightly that you cannot help by be moved. It truly is haunting. In many way, Niffeneggers’ own work draws much from this approach- it makes you wonder how influential she has been in informing her particular style of writing. In any case, it has certainly made me want to read more of Byatts’ work. In much the same way that Niffeneggers’ particular proclivity for weaving has made me eager to see how she will continue to weave her own writing. Let us not forget the beautiful artwork that also compliments and provokes us as readers: from the smoke -like wisps of the cover to the deceptive sway of the feline fatale.
Just be careful if you read by torchlight. Your eyes may deceive you if you turn the pages too quickly: behold any book ghosts that may reveal themselves…