Friday, October 31, 2008

Ghost Stories for Ghosts

As you probably guessed from the teaser cunningly slipped into my last post (I'm sure only the most observant of you noticed), my NaNoWriMo novel is likely to be a ghost story, a spectral Tam Lin. Instead of the Queen of the Fey, we have the Queen of the Dead and instead of making Tam Lin mortal again, our Janet will... make Tam Lin mortal again.

Of course, the names and places have been changed to protect the highly derivative. Tam Lin's name is Erik. In 1976 he was a (insert instrument here)ist with (insert band name here), a punk band in San Francisco. Then, he died defending one friend and band mate from the another friend and band mate's drunken rage. His good looks, musical talent, and rage-spawned capacity for violence quickly attracted the attention of Los Angeles's young queen of the dead, a femme fatale who died in the 1950s. She made him her chief knight. After annoying herin some way, Erik found himself back in San Francisco, a backwater of L.A.'s empire because the city's large population of AIDS Epidemic dead are difficult to govern. He's assigned to guard some ghostly peril... and then he meets Janet (or whatever I decide to call her). They fall in love, produce a creepy half ghost baby, and then she somehow brings Erik back to life.

You can see I've got the entire plot down cold. This is going to be an exciting month.

The question of the day is, what is it about ghosts that fascinate us (and by us, I mean me - if you aren't fascinated by ghosts come back on Monday)?

For me, a great deal of my fascination comes with the fact that I actually find ghosts quite comforting. As someone who has had a lot of anxiety about the inevitability of death, the idea of being able to linger on a little longer is quite compelling. I want to live in a world that has ghosts, because I like the idea of dying on my terms, not on the cruel and arbitrary terms of the world we live on. Similarly, there's also something nice about a fantasy element that manages to conclusively support the existence of a soul without rendering moral and spiritual questions moot. Again: comforting and compelling.

However, ghost stories are not without a cost. Comforting as weirdos like me find them, ghost stories take place firmly within the world of transaction. Ghost stories grant us a dear wish... but they make it expensive. A great example of this is White Wolf's Wraith: the Oblivion (a game line I whole-heartedly recommend that is, sadly, a bit of a cult favorite that never caught on and was swiftly canceled). Wraith was the first roleplaying game where you get to be the ghost. This post's title, "ghost stories for ghosts" comes from one of that game's design goals.

Ok, so, ghosts need to live in a transactional world. How can I boil all this down into a form that will benefit me this November?

The deceased (speaking of ghostly) Gamer: the Podcasting identifies the three necessary elements of a ghost story as Loss, Hunger, and Malice. First someone looses something. Usually this includes life, but in many ghost stories it's something else first. Next comes hunger, hunger for what the ghost had and lost. And last - and most importantly - comes malice. Malice towards the living. Malice towards those that disturb the ghost's illusion of life.

You can live beyond the end of your life, but at the cost of giving in to Loss, Hunger, and Malice. Wraith: the Oblivion works the same way, with each character having a shadow, a self-aware dark side living in the back of her head and occasionally taking over. I could (and probably will) write an entire post about why transaction is essential to literature - especially fantasy literature - but I don't think anyone can argue that this isn't cool. Loss, Hunger, and Malice go into Ghostly Tam Lin. Check!

Gamer: the Podcasting also referenced M.R. James's Some Remarks on Ghost Stories, which identifies five common points:

  1. The Pretense of Truth: the story must pretend to be true, even though it probably isn't.
  2. A Pleasing Terror: the goal of a ghost story is to scare its reader just enough that he enjoys it.
  3. No Gratuitous Bloodshed or Sex: cheap thrills are cheap. Good horror is expensive.
  4. No Explanation of the Machinery: explaining the supernatural robs it of the super, making it merely natural.
  5. Those of the Writer's Own Day: it's scarier if it happens now, rather than then.

Some of these premises are going to be difficult for me. The pretense of truth I can do - I'm planning on first-person narrative, switching back and forth between Erik and Janet. Perhaps there should be an introduction asserting that this story is true, told to me by Erik? Pleasing terror is likewise easy - or, rather, if I do my job right in every other way, there it will be. And of course, Janet is in the story to represent those of my day. Erik is a bit anachronistic, but Janet is a woman of our day and age.

Avoiding gratuitous bloodshed or sex and explaining the machinery will be harder. The first, well, everyone's definition of gratuitous is different. There will be blood and there will be sex. I'll try to keep them under control, but I'm not going to try to write this story without them. Similarly, this is a fantasy story. The ghosts aren't in the background, they are some of the main characters. Erik has learned something about the world of the dead in the thirty years since he entered it, and there's no getting away from it. There will still be some mystery, but some of the machinery is going to be explained.

The big three, however - Loss, Hunger, and Malice - are going to be easy.

Erik lost his life. He was young, pretty, and happy, living life on the edge of the continent, playing at rage with a band of young punks. More than that, Erik lost his future. Somewhere in his angry young heart, he knew he was going to grow up, get married, have kids, grow old... and part of him was ok with that. And then a drunken asshole with a lead pipe changed that with a swift blow to the back of Erik's head.

Erik still hungers for sensation: touch, taste, and smell, food, drink, drugs, and sex. Although I don't plan on writing smut, I want this story to be sexy. Erik is smoke, sure, but he's dark woodsmoke. He's a ghost who wants.

And malice... The malice is obvious. Erik became an adult in the days of punk rock 'n roll. He's very angry and prone to violence. He can be contemplative, but when he acts he explodes into action, and therein lies the malice. He's not forethoughtfully evil, but he has poor impulse control and an angry streak.

Loss, Hunger, and Malice. Truth, Terror, Subtelty, and Mystery. Seven watchwords for Ghostly Tam Lin and ghost stories in general.

Wish me luck.

* * *

  • What books do you recommend I read to feed my brain? I'm already planning on rereading War for the Oaks and House of Leaves, for the rock and roll and the creepy, but what else might be good? Not that I'll be doing much reading this month...
  • Anyone out there have a good grasp of the history of punk and the 1970s (I'm looking at you, older than I am folks) who would be willing to tell me a little about it? Similarly, anyone able to recommend a good playlist?
  • While I'm still starting here, any recommendations when it comes to my premise? Most importantly, I know lots about Erik, but who the hell is Janet?
  • What attraction (or antipathy) do you feel towards ghost stories?
  • What is a particularly interesting ghost story you once read or wrote?

1 comment:

Scattercat said...

I've always loved spooky stories. I've got several collections.

You may want to just pick up a few Ghost Story collections; that would give you plenty of fodder and ideas without overloading your ever-diminishing spare time. (I like the collected Weird Tales volumes, for instance.)

Where do the "protective" ghosts fit into the "Loss, Hunger, Malice" structure? I'd propose an alternate framework for more benign spirits a la Eastern ancestor worship traditions: "Loss, Regret, Departure." Ghosts still come from loss, after all, of some kind, but in these other stories, the ghost is motivated not by a desire for something but by a sadness and a need for completion. The results are often less about harming the living and more about finally reaching a place where the physical world stops mattering quite so much anymore. Try "A Fine and Private Place" by Peter S. Beagle (of "Last Unicorn" fame) for more of what I'm talking about here.