“On Writing the Ghost Story”—An Essay by Jack Cady



On Writing the Ghost Story

Jack Cady

Approach the Cathedral from the south and walk around it three times. On the third time, stop before the second gargoyle from the southwest corner. Spin around seven times very slowly while repeating ‘aroint ye, aroint ye, aroint ye,’ and your warts will disappear.

And, wouldn’t you know, that ancient man followed instructions and his warts dried up. The happy results might have caused him to figure that time and expense going into cathedral construction was money well spent. He probably said as much to his neighbors. Word probably got back to the local priest, and the priest had to deal with it; just as we do, today.

The priest would have said, “Miracle,” or at least, “Blessing.” He would be quick to point out that it was Faith, or the presence of the cathedral that caused disappearing warts. It was not the gargoyle. Or, maybe he would have said something else. After all, it was a long time ago.

Today, we might say “coincidence,” or “the placebo effect.” We might say, “Quaint story, and isn’t it wonderful how even the ancients could spread a certain amount of bull.”

Having said that, we could dismiss the story and turn away. We could, in fact, make the same mistake that many have made since the rise of science and rationality in the 18th century. The mistake is best termed “denial of evidence.” In its way, it is quite as serious as previous mistakes that denied all rationality and/or science. The universe, I fear, is rather more complicated than we might wish.

For that reason (complication) and because unseen matters sometimes compel me, I wish to spend a few moments giving a definition, and making distinctions. There are reasons to write what I call The Fantastic, and they have nothing to do with notoriety, fame, or money.

Definition: The Fantastic deals in those elements of human experience unexplainable by logic or reason. Such elements may exist within the human mind, or they may exist beyond it.

As we approach distinctions, let us first acknowledge that just because we name something doesn’t mean we understand it. We generally understand bull, but not always, because it’s an easy excuse for not thinking. We feel that we almost understand coincidence, but coincidence sometimes gets stretched to the breaking point. It gets just too blamed coincidental. If miracles occur, we understand either “faith” or “gee-whiz,” and that’s about it.

We haven’t the foggiest notion about the placebo effect. Physicians know it exists, and physicians use it as standard medical doctrine, but they can’t explain it. Nor can they define or explain death, although they can generally tell when it happens. They cannot define life, though science struggles mightily to create it; and, when successful, still won’t be able to explain it: only how they made it come to pass. We give names to things, partly, it seems, so we can live comfortably beside matters beyond understanding.

At the same time, it would be the height of stupidity to deny the values of science and rationality. Science helps our understanding. Rationality helps. Logic helps. I stand amazed, sometimes, at the complexities that science reveals about the natural world, and about genetics, physics, astronomy. The trick is to understand that science and rationality are not geared to deal with every problem.

There’s a problem of matters that exist “beyond all understanding,” a religious phrase describing religious peace. If the phrase didn’t go beyond religion, we could categorize it and feel comfortable. To our discomfort, though, “matters beyond all understanding” do not reduce to a single category. Some people have proclaimed this for a long time.

For example, back in the 19th century a social philosopher named Herbert Spencer claimed that we live with The Known, The Unknown, and the Unknowable. Spencer was often a pain-in-the-intellect. He was conceited beyond belief 1 but at least he acknowledged something that the 20th century, and now the 21st, seem to deny. Some things are unknowable, and we live with a little less comfort when we accept that notion.

On the other hand, I here aver that too much comfort is dangerous, anyway, and that is one reason why I explore and write The Fantastic. My other reason has to do with history, a subject to turn to, later.

I first propose my discomfort. I do not know why a secondary power station in San Jose holds, for me, a sense of evil and dread. It’s not the invisible strength that comes from the transfer of electricity, because no other power station causes such sensations. I do not know why I feel surrounded by peace and enormous power when entering a Tlingit cemetery in Sitka. I do not know why the late night roads through mountains or beside rivers offer sights more slippery than hallucinations; because hallucinations are positive things. I don’t know why the voice of a father or brother suddenly sounds from the inner part of my mind, and saves me from being hit by a drunken driver. And, intuition remains a mystery, though I use it successfully in writing and in other forms of living.

I do know that intuition can be trained. In other days when I drove truck long distance, my intuition rose to the task as thousands and thousands of miles piled up. There came a time when, while pulling up the back side of a hill, I knew that trouble lay ahead: a wreck, a cop car, a washed bridge, a tree in the road… and I didn’t “think” it or “feel” it. I knew it. This, despite the absence of clues. There were no lights in the sky, no sounds, and nothing unusual about the road.

I also know of an invisible world that some folks try to explain. The explainers speak of parallel universes, or past lives, or spirits. Perhaps one or more of their notions is correct. Perhaps all three are a crock, because plenty of flummery surrounds these notions. Phony mystics sell cheap tricks to the gullible: séances, mysterious rappings on tables, or flying saucer rings in hayfields. There’s no end to the clap-trap.

And yet… there is evidence, centuries of it. Things Unknowable go on in the universe, but they also go on in the human mind. When rationality is applied to that Something, rationality generally ends up sounding silly.

For example, some who have had a near-death experience report seeing a tunnel of light. The rational explanation for this is offered as: “Your endorphins were kicking in. No wonder you felt wonderful.”

It’s a questionable analysis, and probably silly. When a person is dying, there’s no evolutionary survival-reason for endorphins. That is especially true if one is dying without pain. As explanation, the use of endorphins seems an assertion of faith about biological fact. It is no better than tripe purveyed by the average faith healer.

There are at least four fields of evidence that rise among humans: religious, observational, luck, and creativity. Perhaps one or more are connected, perhaps not.

The first body of evidence concerns the religious and miraculous: the appearance of apparitions, or guidance by an unseen hand. The centuries are filled with reports of healings (Lourdes a modern example), visions, Joan of Arc, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy; and among contemporaries, the reported appearance of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje. Such appearances are generally accompanied by revelations.

Guidance by an unseen hand has been reported so often in the history of America, that is practically a rib in our body politic. Many, perhaps most, substantial reports come from Puritans and Quakers in the 17th century. We have records of ships blown so far off course that death from starvation was inevitable; yet a sign in the heavens, and a correcting wind saved them.

One must approach such evidence with skepticism, but also with an open mind. After all, we have records of such evidence (in the western world) for over two thousand years. The odds on all of it being meaningless are impossibly long. There’s just too much of it. We can’t explain it. Perhaps we can’t understand it, but it is the height of folly to deny that it exists.

Further, it is just plain impotent to say that if evidence cannot be duplicated, and thus subject to scientific method, it does not constitute evidence. There’s no scientific way to explain sources of religious revelation. Yet, religious revelation happens over and over in history.

The second body of evidence is generally dismissed as illusory, or coincidental, or fabrications by unsettled minds. It includes ghostly sightings, flying saucers, possession by the Devil (or something equally nasty) and communications from the dead.

The standard responses to such evidence is generally, “It’s a damnable lie,” or, “Oh, lordy, I believe.” Very few responses say, “I wonder?” or, “Let’s examine the evidence.”

If we do, we find that it is almost always intensely personal. While the first body of evidence is sometimes communal, this second sort is singular. Groups of people hardly ever see ghosts. Flying saucers, or lights in the sky, may be seen by large groups; but encounters with flying saucers are almost exclusively reported by individuals or couples. Possession by evil is generally one-on-one (although when we arrive at a discussion of creativity we’ll see it happen to groups), and messages from the dead are exclusively reported by individuals. (Group séances may well be unrepresentative because of a long record of charlatanism.)

This second body of evidence can be subject to both psychological and physical examination. Some people are amazingly neurotic. Some are insane. Some are physically unbalanced. And for some, there seems no help. It is as if some genetic flaw, some “bad seed” compels them. Physicians can measure brain waves and chemical imbalances. Psychiatrists can exert their skills. Between medicine and psychiatry many are helped and some are healed.

If we set aside all evidence given by those who are emotionally or physically injured, we are still confronted by countless reports from people who are as sensible as salt. They are not famous liars. Some of them are beyond reproof or reproach. They are not lying, and have no record of hallucinations. For them, at least, something happened. They can’t prove it. Yet, because of who they are, and because of their great numbers through the ages, their testimony constitutes valid evidence. I would, for example, no more argue with the mystical knowledge of some American Indians, than I would argue with the sun.

Good luck constitutes a third body of evidence. It sometimes happens beyond all statistical probability. It is with luck of gamblers that we see evidence of something “going on” that cannot be rationally explained. It is probably statistically impossible to make seventeen or eighteen successful passes with dice, yet it occasionally happens. I have seen three royal flushes in a night of poker. The winning hands were held by different people. No one in the game had sufficient skill to cheat, and the cards were not marked. And, we were playing for pennies, thus with no great motive to cheat. Three such hands in one night (with no wild cards) are statistically impossible. Gamblers speak of “lucky streaks,” and “hot dice.” One branch of psychology speaks of “extra sensory perception.”2

Bad luck is practically impossible to demonstrate, but scarcely anyone over age twenty-five has not experienced a year in which a series of major bad things happened. I’m sure we’ve all heard someone speak to the effect, “I wouldn’t live 1988 (or some other year) over again for all the money in the world.”

A fourth body of evidence is creativity, and of all mysterious evidence, creativity is the kind most studied by thinkers and psychologists. The creative process has been examined and documented. It is so commonly demonstrated that it appears in college freshman textbooks. It is described almost perfectly, and not a soul who describes the process understands it.

Nor do artists, writers, theoreticians, physicists, architects, musicians, dancers, or actors. In general, the solitary artist; i.e. the writer or painter or sculptor, will report that “There are times when it’s all coming together, like somebody or something runs the show.” The writer will say, “Thus, I’m not writing, I’m typing. Later, I clean up the language, but when the story is coming, it comes from somewhere else.” Painters tell us that their hand knows what to do, even when they don’t. Sculptors the same. I doubt if there is a single worker in the solitary arts who will not make such a report.

Group creativity is something else. The creativity of groups has received small interest from thinkers and psychologists. They speak of “mob psychology,” but rarely go beyond the mob. And yet, the idea has been around for a hundred and fifty years.

Back in the 19th century the French social thinker, August Compte, postulated the notion of The Group Mind. He tried to apply it to small groups and to nations. His ideas did not fly. He could not get his fellow thinkers, including Herbert Spencer, to buy into the idea. It would be wonderful if Compte were alive today, because his thought might now be valued.

I doubt if there is a theater group, a dance troupe, or a jazz band anywhere in this country that will not attest that at some point in a play or a performance, the group takes over. There isn’t a symphonic musician anywhere, who will not tell you that at some point the entire symphony pulls into a single mind and expresses the statement of the composer, and the symphony.

With the positive creation of art and music, I have little to think about. It operates so commonly in my life, and in the lives of my friends, that it gets taken for granted. It is negative creation by groups that I find worth examination.

I first stumbled on this when reading depositions of the Salem Witch Trials. I did not come unprepared to the reading. The 17th century was so fascinating that I’d studied somewhat of its writing, society, and culture. I was not an able historian, but was an able student.

Revelations abounded. It became evident that through circumstances (some beyond its control) Salem had gotten itself tied in a Gordian knot it could not slice. It was surrounded by other religionists (mostly Quakers) who held ideas that Salem considered evil. It had Indian problems. It had a tax rate as high as any in American history. It was isolated by weather for at least five months a year. Social control was held by the preacher. The educational level was nowhere near as high as in Boston. The town was filled with bickerings, some petty, some substantial. Any deviation from the accepted way of “doing things” constituted a terrible threat. As I have written elsewhere, Salem, when it self-destructed, did not explode. It imploded.

In consequence, Salem created hell, and the Devil walked the streets of Salem. One preacher couldn’t have done it, although through history plenty of preachers have tried. One politician couldn’t have done it, nor could one farmer; or one of anybody else. It took the mind of the entire town to create hell, because in the creation, dissent was at first, silent. It was not mob psychology in any sense that we understand. It was genuine creation.

Once the proposition of group creation is accepted, it’s easy to find all through history. The Nazis, for example, could not have gone so far, and so fast, had not Hitler been of the maniac quality that would build the group mind. An American historical example can be drawn from the witch hunts of Senator Joe McCarthy during the 1950s. A mob mentality did develop. Beyond that mentality, though, was a creative quality that produced a spirit of evil. We, who are old enough to have experienced it, will attest that something awful overran the mind of the nation. National insanity only faltered after McCarthy became so extreme that he became ridiculous.

The four bodies of evidence are simply that: evidence. They are not proof. Such evidence causes discomfort, and a certain amount of discomfort makes some people want to think things through. A lot of those people are writers.

Having accepted the fact of an invisible world, the writer may rightly ask: Is it my cup of tea? What can I do with it? Is it worth my time? How do I get a handle on it? Isn’t reality difficult enough, without messing around in surreality? Is there something constructive about fantastical writing? Is it a valid part of the human experience, or is it only amusement?

Writers always find individual answers, because the task is individual. Some answer questions by saying: “It’s amusement, and easy to sell.” Others answer, “There’s something going on and I need to examine it, because it needs come to the reader’s attention.” Such writers are usually worrywarts, or at least have some kind of mental warts. Writers who deal with the Unknowable, and with the power of the Unknowable — be it in the universe or in the human mind — tend to swing between practicality and downright mysticism. It takes immense courage, or immense stupidity, to mess with metaphoric gargoyles.

Writers choose fantasy, or magic realism, or science fiction. Others deal in horror, or allegory (as for example, Watership Down with its lovely thinking rabbits). For my own part, I am more than a little fond of ghosts.


One of the finest ghost stories I have read in many years is Peter Beagle’s Tamsin. It contains everything that lies within the realm of a ghost story: character, situation, suspense, evil vs. good, innocence, heroism, and history.

The beauty of a ghost story is that it’s almost impossible to write one without resorting to history. After all, if you’ve got a ghost, that ghost has ordinarily come from time past. (There are ghosts of the future, as in A Christmas Carol.)
As a fiction writer I think of myself as a historian. My history is not the pulling-together of a massive number of details, and the objective reporting and analysis of facts. I don’t have that kind of ability, though capable historians are among the people whom I most admire.

A story is a different kind of history. It gives a feel of time(s), place(s), and event(s). The skilled writer can take us into a world we would never, otherwise, know. While there are many places I cannot take you, I can take you to a small ship on the North Atlantic, to a mist-ridden hollow in Kentucky or North Carolina, and to the Washington rain forest. I can take you along empty roads, or to the top of tall trees, or to the bays and snows of southeast Alaska; and I can tell you how things look and feel. What is more, in the process of taking you there, I discover feelings and sights and whole landscapes that even I did not consciously know existed.

Thus, when events in the story happen, they happen in the context of what I know and report, but also of what I discover. If I were indifferent, and reported a context I did not know (for example, flying a sail plane) the context would be no good. With a sour context, events in the story would have no meaning in the life of characters; and thus the story would have no meaning.

But, if I stick with what I know and one of my characters is a ghost, I can give the reader the feeling of what is, and what used to be; and I can do it at the same time.

I, and you, when you think about it, can tell whether the writer of a ghost story actually believes in ghosts. Most don’t, and that is one reason why there are so many lousy ghost stories. If a writer doesn’t believe in ghosts, then he or she will have a terrible time suspending disbelief. The story becomes an exercise in special effects, only.

Knowledge of ghosts is not something one acquires through simple faith. Or, if one does acquire it that way, then one is intellectually stuck before a campfire warming his frontside, while getting chilled along his spine by spooky stories. Simple faith, without reason for owning it, seems pretty adolescent.

Knowledge generally arrives through experience, reading, and observation. By observation, I mean more than simply looking at events or the world. Observation requires thought.

Here is a simple example: I used to teach at a small university that boasts a magnificent campus. Old and new buildings are surrounded by huge fir trees that tower over rooftops. It is easy to walk across campus and say things like, “Wow!” The trees offer greater meaning, though, if one knows that the university was a hundred years old in 1990.

The university is in Tacoma, Washington, and Tacoma was once a lumber town. During the 19th century forests were chopped like grass before a lawnmower. There was no clear-cutting, though, because there were no chainsaws. Unmarketable trees were left standing. These would have been trees younger than thirty years.

When land was cleared to build a college, marketable trees went. The young trees remained. After one hundred years, it was a fair guess that the giant trees on campus were, give-or-take, a hundred thirty years old.

I could look out my classroom windows and feel the presence of those old lumbermen. I could see their tools: the steam donkey (a yarder for moving logs), their two-man crosscut saws, their axes, their teams of horses or mules hauling logs to mills, or to a steam railway that ran to the harbor. I could imagine them working through summer heat or winter rain in this wet northwest.

I could do all this because reading combined with experience. As a student of history, my reading about the northwest prepared me for a one-hundred-year old scene. My work experience had once been in trees when I worked for a tree company in Arlington Massachusetts. (There was time when I claimed a Harvard education on the grounds that I had climbed every tree on the Harvard campus. It was a bit of a stretch. There are a zillion trees on the Harvard campus.)

With that background there was no problem understanding ghosts. In my mind those old lumbermen busied themselves around that campus every day, and students walked among them. Just because no one could see them didn’t mean they weren’t there.

“Lordy,” you say, “I’m reading the words of a maniac.

It’s a possibility. On the other hand, we may be onto something. Suppose that our usual ways of looking at time and history are flawed. We think that Monday comes ahead of Tuesday, and when Monday is over we won’t see another Monday until next week. That seems a real limit on consciousness.

If we admit, though, that the past operates with great force in our Monday lives, as well as Tuesday, and the rest, maybe we can step beyond the limits. In some ways, at least, we may live a series of Mondays. At least we live according to ways that are laid down by the past, and not by a succession of days.

Virtually everything we know and do steps toward us from the past. Let us look at only a very few examples:

Family. We may, through thought and experience, eventually create original forms. No one starts that way. Almost everything we accept or reject about human relationships began as learning in some kind of family group, even if that group was an orphan’s home.

We are raised by people (usually parents) who were raised by parents who were raised by parents, etc. If one’s grandfather was a farmer, then his son will know things about farming even if the son lives in a city. He’ll know them because his dad tells tales, and the family sometimes visits grandpa.

Let’s say the city-son hates farms. The grandson will also have an attitude toward farms. He’s either going to embrace cows in order to offend his dad, or else he’ll think ill of milking-time because “that’s what pop told me.

Law: Our entire system of laws derive from English law and philosophy that reach far back beyond the Magna Carta. And, the Magna Carta has roots all the way back to the Code of Hammarabi. Six thousand years, give or take.

Society: We boast a diverse society made up of many people with different customs. Virtually all of those customs step right out of the past. A few, such as watching too much television, are fairly recent.

Religion: People who take it seriously, be they Christian or Jew or Muslim, have to take the historical Moses seriously. People who do not give a snip for religion still live in a world that does, so even an atheist has roots in the doings of Moses.

Even superficial matters like dress have already been decided. Contemporary men and women generally own pants, not caftans. Styles come and go, but only a very small percentage of us own kilts. This has been so in the western world since the peasant frock, and the Roman toga, hit the rag pile some centuries back. In a very real way, the past is right here with us, hanging off of our suspenders.

Briefly put, at least ninety percent of the way we live our lives comes directly from the past. To me it follows, then, that just because I can’t see things invisible, does not mean they aren’t there. The creative eye learns to see them because the creative eye trains itself to look.

The challenge for the creative writer, and the creative reader, is the same as the challenge for painter and sculptor and musician. In order to dwell with ghosts, we need learn how to feel the joy and pain of the past. Otherwise, no spirit rises from the pages, or canvas, or stone. Compassion is wanting.

As this essay is being written, I’m reading The Tide At Sunrise, a history of the Russo/Japanese war at the beginning of the 20th century. If I had not read a lot, and been around quite a bit, the history would seem fairly objective and cold. Not a single ghost would be present.

But, I have read, and I have been around. I remember Pearl Harbor. I have read Shogun and Sayonara and Fires on the Plain. The overwhelming devotion of the Japanese to their emperor during the Russo/Japanese war does not surprise me, and I expect to find it where I do find it; in the joy of soldiers marching to certain death. I mourn those soldiers, but I also understand something of their joy.

And, I have read Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto. I have read a history, The Fall of the Great Powers which, among other matters, tells of the arrogance and violence of Czars Nicholas I and Nicholas II. I have read the humorless Solzenitzen and the gentle Abram Tertz, both of whom did time in Soviet prison camps. I know the state of the Russian people as the 20th century opened. Thus, do I understand the dogged determination of Russian soldiers and sailors even though their situations were doomed. I can feel their fear, and how they longed for a home they knew they would never see again.

Spirits rise from the pages. I’m not dealing with dry fact, but with human hopes and fears and dreams. Does it seem strange to mourn Japanese soldiers now dead these hundred years? Or, does it seem strange to mourn the same for Russians who were so badly led, and so heartily defeated? If it did seem strange, I would have no right to be a writer, and no right at all to tell ghost stories.

But, if the writer and reader do understand that men marched to their deaths en masse, but died individually, then writer and reader are ready to understand the presence of ghosts.

Ghosts are, first of all, a metaphor for history. The metaphor becomes strong as the ghost becomes strong. When the ghost is an actual character, as in Tamsin, the past rises and mixes with the present. The reason so many good ghost stories cause uneasiness is not because they scare the reader (although some do), but because they take the reader into two dimensions at the same time.

It is this dual quality that causes a ghost story to succeed. For that reason, one can write a ghostly tale and not scare anyone. If a ghost is a metaphor, in addition to being a character, then the ghost is in the happy position of being able to help the living. We have a friendly ghost, and I don’t mean Casper.

Let’s look at it this way: The ghost is someone (or, as we’ll soon see, something) manifesting a spectral life after death. The ghost became dead for any number of reasons, including its own screw-ups. If, for example, it died while trying to drive a fifty-mile-an-hour curve at eighty, and if it appears five hundred yards before that curve on late Saturday nights, there’s not a message of threat, but one of salvation.

Equally, ghosts bearing messages need not be people. They need not even be animals. They can be mountains and cars and ships and trees. Creatures or objects of the past gain fantastic reality when they become ghosts in a ghost story.

I am absolutely sure, for example, that if one has lived in the American Southeast, and not seen ghostly soldiers and horses moving silent through mist, than one has not been paying attention. I am positive that if one climbs a one-hundred-foot tree, and while resting, does not feel a presence; danger increases. It increases because the climber does not have enough respect for who he’s with.

If climbing tall trees is too scary, try walking through an auto graveyard where wrecks have been sitting for so long that weeds grow through floorboards. Be there sun or mist, watch what’s happening.

Thus can we understand that ghosts of people, and sometimes ghosts of machines, are there to help the living. If, for example, generals of WWI had turned back to study the Russo-Japanese war, and acknowledged the hundreds of thousands of men who died, those generals would not have then destroyed an entire generation of English and European men.

The generals may have read the casualty figures of the Russo-Japanese war. They may have nodded their heads with pretended wisdom when they thought of assault against mountainous or dug-in positions, or defense of those positions. They may have read the record.

What they didn’t read were the spirits who rose from the record, and those spirits were twofold:

The combatants on both sides were going through the first war with truly modern weapons. Their ghosts would have explained that nothing anyone ever knew about war applied. Something different was happening. Something awful.

The other ghostly, and ghastly spirit would have been a weapon, a machine gun. Had it rattled its voice in the ears of WWI generals as they marched their troops to war, a half a million men might not have died. But, then, generals do not believe in ghosts. They did not learn from a ghost that a single weapon had changed war forever.

Thus, are ghosts among us bringing messages. I have discovered that they exist, more often than not, to offer aid instead of fear. I have grown fond of them because they have so much to teach.^

1 In his old age he practiced what he called “Cerebral Hygiene” which meant that he read no books except the ones he had written.
2 As a young man during the ’50s I recall resistance to the whole business of extra sensory perception. A favorite story of the time, and one that was probably true, said that the President of the American Psychological Association was on record: “If there was a tenth this much evidence to prove something else, I would believe it. If there was ten times the evidence to prove this, I still wouldn’t believe it.”

(from Ghosts of Yesterday, Stories of Jack Cady, Nightshade Books)

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