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‘Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History’ review: On a ghostly trail

Ghosts unsettle what we know, observes Catherine Belsey in Tales of the Troubled Dead, a fine reading of ghost stories in the western cultural context. But are ghosts still relevant, in the time of science? Belsey explores the contexts of ghost stories, their evolution in the English-speaking world and textual narratives. She delves on the manner in which ghosts and spectres are portrayed, and the environment in which they thrive, and explains why ghosts keep re-merging in several formats in history.

Fireside tradition

Her starting point of inquiry is Shakespeare’s portrayal of the King’s ghost in Hamlet. Shakespeare drew on the fireside tradition for his ghost, while gothic narratives drew on Shakespeare, but the link with the fireside was never lost, as she argues. Was it possible to have too much rationality as the Enlightenment thought delivered radical challenge to credulity and superstition? Apparently there was. Despite the claim that humans are essentially thinking beings and the powerful grip of science and reason, the dim phantoms of the unconscious continued to thrive.

When the Royal Society was founded in 1660 to promote the value of empirical science, Joseph Glanvill and his colleagues were dedicating themselves to assembling ghost stories in defence of the supernatural. Narrating the supernatural, as the author argues, is “a recognition of the lure of the unknown.”

In search of phantoms

Theoretically, all writing is haunted. To quote Belsey: “(W)hile so many authors are ghostwriters, all writing is haunted by earlier written works, the textual past returning in the present.”

Loaded with perceptive insights and sharp wit, the 10 chapters are prefaced with a prelude and closed with a coda. Keeping our doors of perception open in search of the phantoms that exist only in the mind she lets us rediscover the unresolved tensions of belief and orthodoxy that range across centuries. Apparitions in the western narratives have had several apparels, and their expressions and speech several manifestations over the centuries. Nevertheless there have been many common threads for their appearances; revenge and sexual intrigues are among those.

However, as Belsey argues, communication and the struggle to reach out have been the major factors that motivate ghosts to surface.

In debates, Belsey notes the use of ghost metaphors despite the growth and influence of rational science. Returning to Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, Belsey observes, that past ideas, hovering uncertainly between life and death, return to exert an influence on the present. “They are always there, spectres even if they do not exist — there to be questioned, learned from, challenged as well as called into account.”

The dead are entitled to tell their stories, but it can be just as crucial to create a different future in the light of the information they bring. When the King’s ghost appears in Hamlet initially it slinks away without uttering a word. Eventually when challenged and asked the right question it expresses unsavoury truths. Either way the point is to engage with our own fears and fancies whether in the light of day or night. It might not bring a revelation but it could afford a space for reckoning.

Belsey’s book is a delightful read and the insights it affords the inquisitive reader are bound to be unlimited. The entire book is an instance of haunted writing.

Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History; Catherine Belsey, Edinburgh University Press, ₹1,660.

The reviewer is an academic and writer.

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