Book Review:

The Routledge Handbook to the Ghost Story, edited by Scott Brewster and Scott Thurston

Reviewed by Aran Ruth

Review of Scott Brewster and Luke Thurston's (eds.) The Routledge Handbook to the Ghost Story, Routledge, 2018.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,

That agony returns:

And till my ghastly tale is told,

This heart within me burns.

Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is compelled to tell and re-tell his story; the “ghastly tale” and its compulsive repetition become the sites of horror and supernatural dread. In Coleridge’s poem, the story—and the poem itself—is the haunting. Routledge’s Handbook to the Ghost Story, too, concerns itself with the integral link between ghost and story: the telling itself is what brings the dead “alive.” The telling has always been a crucial component of the supernatural tale, as have the myths of the genre’s origins, such as the rainy summer of 1816 and the now famous ghost story competition that gave rise to Frankenstein.

In 2019, when hauntings, horror, and the paranormal continue to dominate pop culture, The Handbook to the Ghost Story is a welcome collection of interpretive and theoretical explorations on the topic. The very popularity of the ghost story over the centuries is, rightly, a site of inquiry here: long-held criticisms of the ghost story as “light-reading” or “genre fiction”—as opposed to “serious literature”—are categorizations that have long undermined the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and “weird” fiction, the larger generic categories in which the ghost story resides. The ghost story, as with science fiction, is certainly not in need of legitimization in our current age, when so-called “genre” categories have become the mainstream, but its ubiquity deserves interrogation: why has the ghost story continued to resonate so strongly? The Handbook, of course, settles on no definitive answer but offers a range of approaches to a genre that, like ghosts themselves, remains utterly familiar and impossibly strange—in a word, uncanny.

Section I, “Ghostly Origins,” concentrates on the Gothic and Romantic origins of the supernatural tale and on the Victorian, Dickensian ghost tropes that remain hallmarks of the genre. The second section, “Vital Spirits,” continues in the Victorian era with Sheridan Le Fanu, Conan Doyle’s lesser-known ghost stories, and “weird” fiction author Algernon Blackwood. After many essays on British, nineteenth-century works, the Handbook’s third section, “Haunted Nations,” seems to promise a departure; however, the section presents chapters focused on English, Scottish, Welsh, American, and English-Canadian ghost stories before eventually, and refreshingly, moving on to such locations as the Caribbean, India, China, and South Africa. That said, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s essay offers an excellent critique of the American ghost story by way of the problematic “Indian Burial Ground” cliché. As Weinstock tells us, “[t]error inevitably reflects terroir.” Indeed.

The idea of haunting itself is inseparable from location, and the fourth section, “Haunting Sites,” takes us to the creepy moors of the English countryside and, of course, to the trope of the Haunted House. Ralph Harringon’s essay, “Transport and Trauma: Uncanny Modernities,” however, offers a counterpoint that examines the dislocation and mobility of ghosts and “spectral vehicles.” Scott Brewster’s “Ghost Walking” looks to ghostly tourism and recalls the Romantic-era notion of the walk or ramble as a literary mode, a peregrination during which the rambler’s thoughts link with the journey itself and during which one may encounter a stranger—in this case, it could be a supernatural fiend. We move on to media hauntings in section five, “Ghosts on Screen and Stage,” and this unwieldy topic gets a succinct overview. Of particular note here is Richard J. Hand’s “Spirits on the Air: Ghosts, Sound, and the Radio,” an approach to the sounds of haunting—or rather, the way listeners are haunted by sound—via the invisibility of music, early sound technologies such as phonography and the radio, and the ways these technologies disembody the voice—keeping “alive” the voices and sounds of the past.

The final section, “Ghosts in Theory,” is also brief and at first feels a bit tacked-on. While entries on affect, animal-human relations, feminism, queer theory, the postmodern, and the post-colonial form a somewhat predictable ticking of the theory boxes, the essays do offer foundational interpretations such as the “ghosting” of the marginalized and, like “Ghosts on Screen and Stage,” provide a survey of and point of departure to much larger areas of inquiry. A standout here is Pamela K. Gilbert’s “How Ghosts Became Disgusting,” exploring the potential corporality of ghosts and ectoplasmic residue with respect to the affective resonance of “disgust.” Fun fact: the idea of ectoplasm originates in the nineteenth century, Gilbert notes, conceived as a fluid emitted from bodily orifices that allows mediums to manifest beings from the spirit world. Her treatment of the 1984 film classic Ghostbusters further underscores the volume’s implicit linking of the ghost story’s 19th-century heyday with 20th- and 21st-century popular culture.

Nevertheless, the Handbook is heavy on the British Victorian period; although this is arguably the era in which the current, Western, ghostly tropes assumed the forms that persist in the genre, the volume could have devoted more space to non-white, non-European studies. But the Handbook to the Ghost Story is not solely of use to nineteenth-centuryists: its interpretive variety—its rootedness in Britain notwithstanding—makes it an excellent introduction and overview of critical approaches to a genre often as odd as its spectral denizens. These essays demonstrate that the ubiquity of the ghost story is, in part, what makes the genre compelling, almost a riddle: ghosts are everywhere and nowhere.

-2 April 2019