Close en­coun­ters of the chill­ing kind

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - BOOKS - Re­view by Sin­claiR McKay The English Ghost: Spec­tres Through Time

Author: Peter Ack­royd Pub­lisher: Chatto & Win­dus, 273 pages

Dif­fer­ent types of spec­tre flit in and out of fashion. there was a time in the 1920s and 30s when one could barely visit a manor house with­out see­ing a woman in grey. One hardly hears of that these days. in the 90s, ghosts were out and spooky aliens were in, thanks no doubt to The X Files. And when is the last time any­one saw a head­less fig­ure?

Al­though lit­tle is of­fered by way of spec­u­la­tion or anal­y­sis, the over­all tone of this win­ning com­pen­dium of “true” ghost sto­ries seems to be one of parch­ment-dry amuse­ment. even Peter Ack­royd’s open­ing as­ser­tion that “the english see more ghosts than any­one else” con­jures that en­joy­able torch-un­der-chin com­plic­ity that all good ghost sto­ries have.

Ack­royd’s in­tro­duc­tion guides us swiftly through a his­tory of Bri­tish haunt­ings, from the An­glo-Sax­ons to to­day’s tele­vi­sion ghost hunters, and ex­plains why the english seem to have a spe­cial affin­ity for all things sepul­chral.

the ac­counts them­selves are shorn of any at­tempt to make the flesh creep. they stand alone, invit­ing the reader to frame his or her own re­sponses. for in­stance, the mat­ter-of-fact­ness in the short retelling of the tale of the en­field Poltergeist, a 70s cause cele­bre in­volv­ing knock­ings, mov­ing fur­ni­ture and fly­ing ob­jects, gives the spec­tre an un­nerv­ingly quo­tid­ian qual­ity. Haunt­ings in sub­ur­ban semis are more fright­en­ing than those in cas­tles.

And among the “true ghost” stand­bys that chil­dren used to read about in Puf­fin Books – the hov­er­ing spec­tral cylin­der at the tower of London, for in­stance – there are some odd­i­ties in­cluded here that ex­plain the chang­ing na­ture of su­per­sti­tion.

Some ghosts be­have as one would ex­pect, such as the 19th-cen­tury widow of Barby, near rugby, whose ghost venge­fully ter­rorised her next-door neigh­bours by stand­ing at the ends of their beds. then there are the mul­ti­ple haunt­ings of Bor­ley rec­tory in Suf­folk in the 30s: the su­per­nat­u­ral forces slammed doors, threw ob­jects, ma­te­ri­alised in the shape of horse-drawn car­riages and nuns, and, in gen­eral, laid it on too thick not to have been hoaxes.

there are re­cur­ring traits: an in­sis­tent pulling at bed­clothes is one, as is an at­tempt by some vis­i­ble spooks to speak. Other ac­counts, though, are dis­con­cert­ing pre­cisely be­cause of their sur­real qual­ity. there is the re­cent “phan­tom of the A38” who fright­ened mo­torists ter­ri­bly as they swerved to avoid him. this was, in fact, a mid­dle-aged man in a mac, stand­ing in the mid­dle of the road and shin­ing a torch onto the road sur­face.

equally bizarre is the 30s thames Dit­ton com­muter train ghost, as en­coun­tered by theodore Corey: an “or­di­nary look­ing man” who some­how none the less in­spired “the most dread­ful feel­ing”. the man got off the train at Sur­biton and the re­lieved wit­ness closed her eyes for a few min­utes; but when she opened them again at Vaux­hall, she was hor­ri­fied to see the man sit­ting di­rectly op­po­site her.

Also un­for­get­table is the fig­ure who ap­peared in tav­i­s­tock Square in 1884 wear­ing “a tall white hat cov­ered thickly with black crepe”.

it later tran­spired that this was a vi­sion of a man who had been buried with Greek church rites, in “evening clothes made by a for­eign tai­lor”.

What makes such ac­counts fas­ci­nat­ing is their ab­so­lute lack of mean­ing. edith Whar­ton once wrote that ghosts “re­quire two con­di­tions ab­hor­rent to the mod­ern mind: si­lence and continuity”. But ac­tu­ally, in the most strik­ing of these ac­counts, they seem to need nei­ther. – © the Daily tele­graph UK 2010

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