31 March 2010


Andrew Martin. Ghoul Britannia: Notes from a Haunted Isle. Short Books, 2009

The British love a good ghost story, and in this book journalist Andrew Martin looks at that obsession, concentrating on the golden age of the ghost story, before the First World War. He quotes historian of ghost stories Julia Briggs as arguing that the carnage of that war effectively killed off the traditional ghost story, as has the electric light.
The excepts here show how fictional and "true" ghost stories often have a symbiotic relationship, with shared literary styles and borrowings. They rely on narrative techniques and settings (old musty houses lit by flickering gas lamps for example). To be effective the spookiness must gradually build up, and should avoid anything of the blood and guts about it. They should involve a sense of growing estrangement from a house or dwelling which turns increasingly into an anti-home, and to which the narrator(s) is/are incomers.

Perhaps this is one reason why haunted council houses took over from the haunted middle-class leasehold property. Council house sales, have driven even these ghosts away, leaving the pubs as perhaps the only properties with a cycle of incomers and a lack of sense of belonging.

The age of the classic middle class ghost discussed in this book, and in fictional terms taken to an apotheosis by M. R. James, and in factual terms by some of the early cases from the SPR are now over. They are succeeded by the poltergeist, a much more working class, if not underclass, phenomenon. Here the fear instilled in the reader is not that of a troubling past which will not lie down, but a troubling future and the headlines it will bring. -- Peter Rogerson

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