The Ethics of the Uncanny: An Anthology of Great Ghost Stories

Q&A

Q: Why did you edit this book?

A: I wanted to see how much work was involved in editing an anthology, doing everything by myself. The answer: more than you’d expect. Pahreah Press (of which I am the lead editor, graphics specialist, business manager and chief bottle washer) had already put out one book, so I had a background in basic layout and so on. However, this is my first book in which there were illustrations within the book.

Q: Tell us a little more about the illustrations?

A: I’m proud of those. Every story starts with a wonderful illustration. Often these were actual illustrations from early publications of the story. Sometimes they were works of art that captured the mood of the story. Most anthologies of ghost stories do not have illustrations.

Q: Why did you specifically edit a book of ghost stories?

A: I’m always liked ghost stories, and I read them for the Halloween season. I could go into more detail.

Q: Frankly, there are lots of anthologies of “great” ghost stories. How does yours stand apart from them?

A: Thanks for phrasing that so gently. I know, you were really thinking, “Why add one more useless volume to the stack?”

Q: Actually, that was exactly what I was thinking.

A: Well, a good question, actually. I suppose my main title, “Ethics of the Uncanny,” answers that question. I’ve always been interested in ethics in fiction, art, religion, politics, life, and so this anthology allowed me to analyze some great ghost stories in detail. I have an introduction about ethics and ghosts, and I write an afterword to every story in which I look at its underlying code of ethics. I don’t know of any anthologies of ghost stories that actually interpret their stories this thoroughly, and I don’t know of any anthologies of ghost stories that focus on ethics. So I think this anthology is unique. Unique in a good way, I hope.

Q: When I read a ghost story, I want to be entertained and scared. I couldn’t care less about ethical interpretation.

A: Gosh, please tell me what you really think. No need to beat around the bush.

Q2: Yeah, ethical analysis sounds pedantic and moralistic.

Q3: Like fiction is preachy and propagandistic.

[the questioners crowd around the editor in a menacing way]

A: Tough crowd tonight! Well, my idea is that these are good stories because the authors are good storytellers. However, in any good storytelling you have interesting characters who have come to life somehow, a story with remarkable events, in which the characters interact or come into conflict, and behind it all, often invisible, is an ethical linchpin to which everything is connected.

Q: In a ghost story?

A: Even in really popular ghost stories. For example, the story of the Golden Arm, a very widespread, popular story, which none other than Sam Clemens retells in my book. In this story, an old couple lives in a house far away from town, near a graveyard. The old lady has lost an arm and, for reasons not specified, has a golden arm as a replacement. Eventually she gets very ill and as she faces death, she makes her husband promise to bury her golden arm with her in her grave. After her death, he does so, like a dutiful husband. But then he starts to think about how much that golden arm would be worth, how much he could sell it for. And he can’t resist the temptation. One night he goes down to the graveyard, digs up his wife’s coffin, and steals that golden arm. On the way back home, however, he hears his wife’s voice in the wind, “Who has my golden arm?” He runs back home, hides in his bed under the covers with that golden arm, but that voice continues to call out in the wind, getting closer and closer . . . Ok, it’s a great story. Sam Clemens would tell it in his lectures, in Negro dialect, and in one of his books he told the story and gave instructions on the right way to tell the story for greatest effect. My point is, it’s not preachy propaganda. However, the old man commits two or three major offenses: one, he lies to his wife on her deathbed, telling her she will be buried (permanently) with her golden arm. Next, greed causes him to break that promise. Finally, he desecrates a grave to do this.

Q: Yes, but those ethical failings aren’t what we like in the story. We like the ghost. To state the obvious, we read ghost stories for the ghosts.

A: Yes, but the ethics is connected to the ghost. Take the old man’s greed and faithlessness out of the story, and you have no ghost and no story. The ghost responds to the greed and faithlessness. Justice must be served. And actually, I think as human beings, we have this passion for people doing right and wrong. A hero does right, and a villain does wrong. Audiences love heroes and villains.

Q: That story is a popular folk tale, that’s actually kind of melodramatic. What about ghost stories by more sophisticated writers?

A: Well, it’s kind of surprising, but you have a lot of the same patterns in ghost stories by sophisticated writers. Take “Afterward,” by Edith Wharton, another story in my anthology. Wharton pioneered a style some critics call “business gothic”—you have ghosts, but they come to visit businessmen who have committed serious offenses—just like the old man in “The Golden Arm.” And these businessmen must pay a price.

Q: Not everyone in life is an obvious hero or villain.  Does this mean that ghost stories will always have simplistic characterization?

A: No, there are all kinds of ghost stories, written by all kinds of authors.  Back in Victorian times, many great writers, masters of characterization, wrote ghost stories. Like Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James. More recently, poet Walter de la Mare and Edith Wharton. I think the subtlest story in my book – at least from an ethical perspective – is Rudyard Kipling’s “‘They’”. It turns a lot of the conventions of the ghost story on their head. It asks the question, is it right to associate with people who have returned from the dead, even loved ones? Kipling’s sister was a spiritualist medium, so that might have caused him to ponder the issue. Exercising my will power to the utmost, I will resist talking about the story and its ending, to avoid spoilers, but read it and then read my afterword.

Q: So that afterword was hard for you to write?

A: It was a challenge, but I’m glad I wrote it, because I understand the story a lot better than I used to. In fact, I missed some key plot elements of the story before I wrote that afterword.

Q: Were then any other afterwords that were hard to write?

A: I suppose the next most challenging might be Algernon Blackwood’s “Wendigo.” Blackwood has this central mystical preoccupation – his love of nature almost approaches pantheism. So his central interest is not people, in theory. However, if this were true, he would be an unskillful storyteller, since all stories are based on characters. So he kind of defines his characters in relation to their sensitivity to nature and pantheism, or their rejection of nature.

Q: So to create this anthology, did you pick out stories that had interesting ethical questions?

A: Actually, not at all. I selected stories that have been acclaimed as the greatest ghost stories, then added the afterwords. For example, Stephen King’s favorite short story, at one time, was “Casting the Runes” by M. R. James. Due to my interests in Latin American literature, I found out that when Gabriel Garcia Marquez was learning the craft of fiction, he took as his highest model W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” a technical tour de force. So it wasn’t just his favorite ghost story –  it was the short story he felt was the greatest short story in the history of literature. And Jorges Luis Borges felt that the greatest supernatural story ever written was Kipling’s “‘They’”. I never would have selected “‘They’” as a story for ethical analysis. But because it was so acclaimed, I felt I had to include it. It’s also one of the favorite short stories of the great living fantasist, Gene Wolfe.

Q: Why didn’t you include more recent stories? Say by Robert Aickman, Stephen King or Ramsey Campbell?

A: That was a purely economic decision. Pahreah Press is run on a shoestring budget, so we can’t afford to actually pay for any stories. Therefore, everything in this anthology is in the public domain (except my introductions and afterwards). I would enjoy doing another anthology with some more modern stories someday. I’m a big Aickman fan. His stories are hilarious, at the same time that they’re enigmatic and scary. It would be fascinating to do some ethical analysis of his stories. However, he is not in my good graces currently, because he said some strong things against the ethical component of ghost stories.

Q: What?

A: Well, strangely enough, he was discussing Edith Wharton’s “Afterward,” which is one of the great moral ghost stories. I think because it is so obviously moral, he felt he had to go out of his way to deny that ethics were important in the story at all! So I have to disagree with one of my heroes on that point. I discuss this in my introduction. However, not to leave the ghost of Aickman too upset, I allow him to select the last story in my anthology, which happens to be Blackwood’s “Wendigo.”

Q: Are there any other writers who have discussed the ethics of ghost stories?

A: Yes, many of them. There has been work on ecological weird fiction, feminist weird fiction. Stephen King is actually very big on the ethical background of supernatural fiction, if you read Danse Macabre carefully. He compared modern weird fiction to medieval morality plays. M. R. James, in one of his laws for effective ghost stories, says that the ghost has to be evil, malevolent. So the ghost story writer has to define his evil character somehow, often by back story. James’s “Count Magnus” is a good example of a ghost defined by the evil things he did, personally, religiously and politically, when he was alive.

Q: Can you guarantee that these stories are all “great,” as you state in your title?

A: No. As you know if you’ve dipped into my canon paper, “Infinite Canons,” there is no absolute consensus on the value of any specific work of art. For example, in his “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft barely mentioned Sheridan Le Fanu. But M. R. James, another famous writer of weird tales, felt that Le Fanu was the greatest writer of supernatural fiction who ever lived. So all the stories in my book have been acclaimed by important writers or critics in the ghost story tradition, but there is no consensus on any of them.