Ghost Stories

No, I’m not going to tell you how to write a story with ghosts in it. What interests me are the ghostly ideas that drift, unexamined or even unnoticed, across the pages of even the most realistic fiction. I don’t know whether it’s possible for a story or novel not to be haunted, plagued, possessed by ghosts. Maybe my offhand observations about how that works will give you a fresh way to look at a story you’re writing, or a story you’d like to write.

In his book Sapiens, Noah Harari makes a case for the idea that much of what we humans think of as real and important is, in fact, fantasy. There’s no such thing as money. There are no such things as laws. If we didn’t have, as a species, an overwhelming capacity to agree with our fellow humans that such things are real, society would collapse overnight.

Not all of our agreed-upon cultural fantasies are as stubborn as money and the rule of law. Some fantasies change from century to century. Consider, for instance, the concept of honor. Honor was once a vital part of European culture. Duels were fought over it. Men died defending their honor, and if you were dishonored, your life would change in drastic and unpleasant ways. Everyone around you would treat you differently because you had been dishonored.

Today we still call a judge “Your Honor,” but in daily life few of us place a high value on honor. The desire to be respected still exists, and we can still get angry if we sense that we’re being disrespected, but only in a few isolated subcultures are you likely to fall victim to violence if someone feels you’ve disrespected them. If anything, defending your honor has come to seem childish. If you’re insulted, laughing it off or just ignoring it is felt by many of us to be the mature thing to do.

Nonetheless, our culture is still awash with fantasies about what’s important, true, or unquestionable. The fantasies are different than they once were, but they’re just as powerful. Today, for instance, many people place a high value on individual freedom. If I tell you that your freedom is largely a fantasy, you may even be upset that I dare question it.

These shared fantasies — call them myths if you like — are what give shape to our fiction. Sometimes we write novels to try to debunk a cultural myth that we feel is misguided or dangerous. Sometimes we write novels to try to support and promote a myth that we feel, consciously or subconsciously, is on shaky legs. And sometimes a novel is permeated with a myth that the author simply accepts as true.

And then the wheel turns, and the book may not be relevant to a new generation of readers.

This happened to Horatio Alger. In the late 19th century his books were very popular. Today they’re all but unreadable. Alger’s theme, which he promoted in one book after another, was that a young man who was honest and virtuous would ultimately be rewarded. The world, in the person of a rich older man, would eventually see the young man’s inner worth and would reward it.

I’ve never studied or even read Alger, but it seems to me he was defending a cultural value that he felt was under attack. He must have observed that people didn’t always see much point in being virtuous, because virtue so often went unrewarded. So he set out to prove to the world, or at least to young men, that the right thing to do was to be honest, virtuous, and trustworthy, even if there seemed to be no immediate advantage in it, because in the end their fine qualities would bring them the reward they deserved.

Today we’re much too cynical to take that notion seriously. We’re more inclined to say, “Virtue is its own reward.” Meaning, you may never gain any external advantage by being virtuous. All you’ll get is the inner knowledge that you’re a good person. And that’s supposed to be enough. That’s the new myth.

And then there’s my favorite bad author, Erle Stanley Gardner. His Perry Mason mysteries sold like hotcakes in the 1930s and ’40s, but today most of them are out of print — and not just because Gardner’s prose was wooden and his plots preposterous. His books are redolent with a myth that was, I’m sure, quite believable at the time, but we can no longer buy into it.

In Gardner’s imaginary world the courts could be relied on to mete out justice. Once the murderer was identified (by Perry Mason’s clever tactics), the justice system could absolutely be relied on to slam the culprit in prison and probably send him to the gas chamber or the electric chair. But by the 1970s that myth was no longer believable. We began to see mystery novels in which the knight in tarnished armor had to enact swift retribution by killing the bad guy himself. Taking the bad guy away in handcuffs was no longer seen as a reliable way to rid the world of evil-doers.

Gardner’s respect for the judicial system shows itself in a second way. The prosecutors and police in his novels are almost always wrong, because that gives Perry Mason or Donald Lam the scope to fight for justice. But while Gardner’s cops are overzealous and sometimes dumb, they are never corrupt. Gardner was a lawyer, so he had a basic belief in the machinery of justice. When it failed, as it often did (even in the real world in which he lived — Gardner devoted considerable resources to helping people who had been wrongly convicted), the failure was an individual failure on the part of a prosecutor or a cop. It was never a failure of the system.

The idea that the justice system could generally be relied on to work was a myth, but it was in Gardner’s blood. He never questioned it.

If you’re a writer, I invite you to consider this. What myths and fantasies about the world have permeated your fiction because you never questioned them? What cultural beliefs are you trying to reinforce because you sense that they’re under attack?

Love conquers all? (It doesn’t.) Individual freedom is a supreme value? (It isn’t.)

How about, “Money is the root of all evil”? A lot of people think that. Some authors, including one of my favorites, Donald Westlake, tend to portray rich people as immoral, self-absorbed, and basically contemptible. But I’m fond of a quote that I’ve seen attributed to blues singer Bessie Smith: “Honey, I been rich and I been poor. Rich is better.” Smith had been dirt-poor as a young woman, and she knew what she was talking about. Westlake was probably aware that the view he was peddling was one-sided, but it’s an enduring myth, and the plots of his Dortmunder novels rely on it.

One of the reasons I’m having trouble generating any enthusiasm for writing another novel is that I no longer take any of the myths of my culture seriously. If you don’t have a fixed and passionate idea about what makes for a worthwhile human life and an idea about how such a life can perhaps be achieved, what are you going to write about?

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