Posted on November 4, 2010 by Matt Staggs
Special guest post by The Dead Path author Stephen M. Irwin
When I began writing The Dead Path – in fact, sometime before I began the penning process – I grappled for a long while with the concept of ghosts. I had decided to write a novel, and knew I wanted it to be a ghost story and that it would be set it in my hometown of Brisbane. But writing a ghost story is a bit like putting on wings and a beak on the first day of duck season – unless you look different to the rest of the flock, you run the risk of being shot down quite quickly (I imagine it is at present a risk even more onerous for authors considering writing tales concerning vampires). Ghost stories are as old as human storytelling; they exist in every culture and predate our major religions. And ghosts rank among the most famous of literary characters and religious figures – Hamlet’s ghost, Jacob Marley’s ghost, the Holy Ghost …
So, how does one portray ghosts in a reasonably fresh and interesting way that still encapsulates the fearsome qualities to which our nervous systems respond almost instinctively?
A good story is the seemingly random revelation of the unknown. The pleasing edge of a rolled carpet is presented to the reader, and he or she steps on and is hopefully intrigued by the pattern as it unrolls before them, hunting in the warp and weft that the author has created for surprises, truths, revelations, and terrors. Ghosts are among the most terrifying creations; they are more unsettling than zombies and werewolves and vampires because (I believe) considerably more people believe in ghosts that those other traditional bogeymen. Wikipedia says that a 2005 poll revealed one in three Americans believes in ghosts, but I believe those percentages increase when individuals find themselves alone in an old building late at night. If you poll your circle of family and friends, you will hear of at least one hard-to-explain event that suggests spirits of the dead manifest in our living world.
The ghost is a wonderful storytelling device – and, indeed, an ideal foil for religious instruction – because it is the perfect distillation of the unknown. We are afraid of the unknown. A ghost is a walking (or drifting, or invisible but chain-rattling) mystery. Ghosts are entrancing and terrible at once not just because their existence is both believable and unbelievable, but because we do not know their motivations. Are they agents of free will? Or slaves to the designs of a higher force – benevolent or evil? Are they good, seeking to guide as in A Christmas Carol in Prose, or relatively harmless beacons to warn or inform, like King Hamlet’s; or malevolent and potent like Irving’s Galloping Hessian? Are they doomed by ill deeds in life like Peter Quint in Turn of the Screw, or summoned by the grief of living loved ones like the dead lover in the Unquiet Grave? In many cultures, the dead have powers to either harm or assuage, depending on how they are treated – offerings of food and respect can placate the spirits. They can be released once an unfinished task is complete or revenge is extracted. Or they can be damned to haunt a certain place for time immemorial if they died under tragic circumstances, like the Gjenganger. They can possess the full memory and acumen of the living they once were, like the ghosts of ancient Babylon, or they can be mere shades – what many like to describe as an ‘imprint’ from the past projected on the present, no more substantial than a mirage. And of course, they can feed on the living: I particularly like the Philippine Tiyanak, supposedly the spirit of a dead child who mimics a crying infant and then reveals its claws and fangs and attack any victims it attracts.
What is most terrifying is not what I can see plainly, but what lurks unseen around the next corner – the unknown is much scarier than the apparent, and the invisible much scarier than the obvious. In The Sixth Sense, the sight of a plunging thermometer was much scarier than seeing Mischa Barton under the bed (although, in real life, the opposite may be true). In my own life, events that felt supernatural occurred in lonely places that I didn’t know were supposedly haunted until after I shared my ghostly experiences with others. Those times I was exposed to the phantasmal left me none the wiser about the entity that may or may not have been with me – was it the disembodied soul of a dead person, or an energised echo, or a writer’s imagination run wild? If they were spirits, did they have choice to appear (the response to my questions of one entity suggested to me that he had at least enough choice to answer questions) or were they preordained to re-enact moments from their departed lives (the persistent cold and stink at the site of another haunting suggested that she was locked to the spot of her purported death)? I am at once attracted to and repulsed by the idea that the spirits are not wise and informed and peaceful, but are lost and confused and angry. I am dissatisfied by the idea that a gentle word and a heart-of-gold can lead them toward the light; I am more intrigued by the idea that evil is not always punished and good is not always rewarded, that dark souls can be fed by dark deeds, and a misstep can lead into irrevocable darkness.
So, for The Dead Path, I chose to respect the axiom: write what you know. I portrayed ghosts in a way that disturbed me: the restless dead in the story are caught in endlessly repeating loops of the moments before their deaths – often horrifying ones. The reader doesn’t know if the spirits are cogent and functioning, or merely flickering continually re-running movies of final, awful ends of life, but the possibility remains that real souls are trapped in endless anguish. That scares me. And if you read it, I hope it scares you, too – let me know.
Stephen M. Irwin – 2010